The tyranny of English

I talk, of course, of the language and not the breakfast.  I should also make clear that I love English for the ridiculous quantity of words it contains and the truly vast amount of content those far more (and far less) talented than I have created using those words.  Perhaps, most of all, I love it for the scope it gives for word-games and humour – though readers of this blog will have to take this last assertion on trust.

However, as an English speaker in the home of English, the language, its tones and cadences can come to dominate one’s aural landscape.  I do treasure an accent (and have acquired small bits of ones not my own) and, as I may have mentioned before, I’m a sucker for almost any accent from Scotland.

I don’t watch Borgen – I watched the first episode at which point everything was going swimmingly, and I couldn’t bear to see it all, inevitably, fall apart.  As a result, I had been missing any dose of Danish – or other Scandinavian tongue – until I visited Foyles over the weekend.  Foyles does seem to be magnet for those of Viking heritage and I spent a pleasant few minutes eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t understand (lacking subtitles) but just enjoying the sound of it all.  I feel I want to join in, but fortunately have so far resisted the urge.  In a similar vein, I can usually resist the urge to listen in to conversations held in English, but hang on any word of an overhead conversation held in Spanish.

A few weeks ago I watched several French films in a relatively short span of days.  Across Heartbreaker, Populaire and In the House I fell in love with the sound of French – a language I understand a little (just enough to criticise the accuracy, and clear US-centricity, of the subtitles).  In the House, as well as being a splendid film, has the most beautiful French speaking in it – I feel it would be my first choice as a pronunciation guide if I were ever to dust off my all-too-rusty French.

Montalbano, and especially Young Montalbano, made me want to speak Italian – or better Sicilian.  I don’t speak much Italian, but can sing some thanks to Nicola Vaccai and his Metodo Practico (where I am currently tackling the mordant: please insert your own joke about dyeing/dying here).  Young Montalbano has, like Endeavour, managed that most unlikely of things: a prequel that is the equal, if not superior, of the original.  It is also a joy to see so many ancient, character actors in one show – why is this so uncommon in the UK, where both witnesses and suspects are so relatively young?

Sadly, my own language skills have declined over time.  Google Translate is very handy for a chap (or chapess) in a hurry, but means I no longer put the effort in to understand websites in the original language.  I also rarely have the chance to practise my spoken language skills as so many business meetings are conducted in English – even if it is the mother tongue of only one (or, occasionally none) of the participants but just the only one shared by all.  Even if everyone else shares the same language, meetings are often held in English so that they can practise – and I lose out as the minority wanting to speak in the local tongue.

Maybe it’s time to learn Mandarin – the tyranny of the future? – if nothing else, there should be plenty of speakers available.  However, I fear to do it justice I should have started more than 40 years ago when my brain was more plastic than it is today.  Perhaps I should just accept my linguistic limitations, and enjoy the odd foreign language movie or series when I can – supplemented with a little surreptitious eavesdropping…

Ill-prepared for wealth

Listening to the radio earlier in the week, I chanced on reports of gift giving from Angelina Jolie to her husband, Brad Pitt.  They are both rather rich, and frankly could buy anything they might need – or even want – themselves, but I suppose the exchanging of gifts is an important piece of human social bonding.  I would have thought a small token would suffice, but apparently not.

For his 50th, apparently Mr Pitt is to receive (or perhaps already has) a heart-shaped island from his wife.  All I could think was that this would be a nightmare to wrap and then a pain to maintain going forward.  Apparently, for his 48th his partner bought him a waterfall so that he could build a home above it which would constantly resound to the noise of rushing water: I presume wrapping this was entirely impossible.  I can only hope that the house has plenty of bathrooms as the sound of constant rushing water is no friend to the bladder.  My 48th is not far away, and I would like to make clear now that I will not welcome the gift of any significant geographical or geomorphological features – despite my love of geomorphology.

Luckily this is unlikely, as my family operates a system for both birthdays and Christmas where the potential recipient is required to provide a list of presents that might meet with some degree of approbation if received.  Obtaining these lists is usually difficult and for the upcoming festive season I may yet have to resort to thumbscrews.  Basically, with the honourable exception of my nephew (who has youth on his side), we don’t really want anything.

I am reasonably well-paid, though nowhere near the level of a half-decent footballer, banker or Hollywood star, and have for some time failed to spend my salary during the year.  Whilst there are many things which I can’t afford to do, none of them are a terribly high priority in my life.  Perhaps if the human lifespan were much greater I’d get around to owning a yacht, buying a pointlessly fast car or flying first class round the world (to pluck but three examples from the air) – but I find there are plenty of much cheaper sources of fun and/or enlightenment which remain unattempted to try first.  I’m also trying not to acquire new stuff that needs to be stored – though my recent house move indicated that I am not quite as good at this as I liked to imagine.  Supporting the arts and eating out both work well as I only have to store the memories.  However, I only have the energy to do so much – so I’m now trying to increase the range of charities I support as well, particularly as successive governments seem to be leaving more and more things I think of as important to the vagaries of charitable donation for their continued existence.

It is often said that the best things in life are free, which is probably not entirely true and almost certainly requires you to ignore some element of sunk cost.  However, many pleasures can be very cheap at the time of experience.  This past Sunday, I decided to attempt a whole new (to me, not the world) piece of music via the medium of song.  My chosen piece was “Arm, Arm, ye brave!” from Mr Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus.  Despite my stumbling (née bumbling) attempts to sing the notes while accompanying myself with only the melody line on the old Joanna this was a glorious experience (though anyone who overheard it would probably have taken a very different view).  This was free (well, I already had the music, piano and voice) and way better than any number of luxury yachts.  Plus, to paraphrase D:Ream, its performance can only get better!

In summary, I shall continue to eschew the national lottery – this both saves me money on a weekly basis and significantly reduces the risk that extreme wealth will ever be thrust upon me.

Wintry wardrobe

Despite many Southampton trees clinging on to some of their anthocyanin-dyed leaves, it is hard to deny that winter has laid its wintery cloak upon us.

I have yet to turn on the heating in the flat, but I have stopped flouncing around with my torso clad only in a t-shirt – I have moved to longer sleeves or added a cardigan – so it is definitely growing colder.  Soon, I may have to stop journeying to the gym wearing shorts – though seeing lasses wearing even less in the way of leg-covering at the end of last week has sparked the last gasp of my manhood into continued resistance to the lure of long trousers.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, whilst the fairer sex tend to have colder flesh and a greater desire to run the heating when indoors, when outside they seem much better able to resist the cold than we members of the weaker sex.

I, of course, have a long history of wearing shorts all year round.  As a young lad, I tended to fall over quite a lot (some would say that little has changed) and this tended to destroy the knees of my trousers.  Given that trousers do not grow on trees (surely a project there for the genetic engineers among us), for much of my primary school career I was dispatched in shorts right through the depths of the Kentish winters of the 1970s – and in those days, we had proper winters!  For, as my mother quite rightly said, “Your knees will mend the trousers won’t”.

As I approach middle-age – apparently they’ve moved the goalposts and I have yet to arrive (I assume this is linked to the receding retirement age) – I find myself far less reluctant to wear a vest than I did when younger.  I still hate to wear a jumper – I’d rather be cold – so I use the layers approach and I’ve realised the vest can play a useful role as layer no. 1.  As a result of my recent vest-wearing, I have noticed that I seem to have a rather abrasive navel given its ability to erode the inside my vest and deposit the results within’t.  Should I be moisturising more thoroughly?

However, the biggest joy brought by the return of winter is the ability to wear a scarf without appearing overly affected or victimised by that fickle jade, fashion.  I nurture the illusion that I look rather good, raffish even, wearing a scarf.  Readers should feel free to help me to maintain this illusion despite all the evidence.  I suspect early exposure to Tom Baker’s Doctor might have something to do with this, though my own scarves are very modest in both length and colour-scheme compared to his.  The scarf doesn’t really work on the bike, so I’ve had rather more chance to wear it now that I live within walking distance of the city-centre: which is a definitely plus to my new life on the south-coast.

Bit’ a Schubert. [The] guy was a dude.

It is a little more than two years ago that I started going to the theatre regularly, some might say obsessively.  Over time, I have moved from classics and comedies and, indeed, the intersection of the two (I’ll leave readers to construct their own Venn diagram), into darker territory.  I do begin to wonder if I may (unbeknownst to myself) be a comic book hero, as they all seem to be heading in the same direction – with Batman very much in the vanguard.

The first theatrical experience I can remember was a somewhat terrifying pantomime in Canterbury – this wasn’t (so far as I can recall) a bunch of current pop hints linked together by someone off of Emmerdale as tends to be the current vogue – with a very angry (and frightening) Christmas pudding as the villain (or so I remember, but this may not be 100% accurate as it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger).  Despite this trauma, I have not developed any sort of phobia about plum duff in later life (though I suppose there is still time).

My first “adult” experiences of theatre were visiting the Oxford Playhouse when at university.   I can still remember a rather young Helena Bonham-Carter playing a somewhat unconvincing Ariel in a student version of the Tempest, a very funny melodrama entitled Black Eyed Susan and an amazing performance of Oklahoma! by the local operatic society (for the avoidance of doubt, caused by the limits of English punctuation, HB-C as Ariel appeared in only one of these performances).  On one of my visits back to my alma mater over the summer, I revisited the Playhouse to see Dunsinane – a sort of “what happened next?” for Macbeth.  The play was excellent, but the Playhouse interior was entirely unrecognisable from my student days (down, I think, to refurbishment rather than amnesia).

But, enough of the nostalgia already, yesterday I took the train up to London for an afternoon and evening of quite dark theatre (though not without its laughs), with both plays owing something to the topic of child abuse.  My first was in the West End: a place I usually avoid as a result of the high prices, poor sightlines and poor quality ice cream offerings.  However, Mojo was very well reviewed, boasted a stellar cast (half of which I had previously seen on stage) and a famous auteur.  The play was excellent, very funny at times and at others pitch black.  The cast were brilliant – and must be exhausted playing eight shows a week as it is fairly physical play and has a lot of words, often spoken very quickly and at volume (my voice wouldn’t survive a single performance in at least 4 of the 6 roles).  Daniel Mays, in particular, must have had quite the vocal training to survive his performance.  I am still amazed when I see actors that I have seen before – whether on stage or screen – how unlike their previous roles they are (well, except Sean Connery – but I’ve never seen him on the stage).  I realise this is a fairly critical part of the job, but it remains somehow magical to me.

As seems fairly common with my theatrical “picks”, we do see quite a lot of the cast and so I can say that stage acting does seem to keep the weight off quite effectively (at least for those in their 20s).  I wonder if Sport England or the Department for Health should be promoting Amateur Dramatics more assiduously to tackle the obesity crisis?

The play also provided a celebrity spotting moment, as at half-time I discovered the elderly head which very occasionally blocked my view of part of the stage, belonged to Peter Bowles.

After pit stops at Foyles and 10 Greek Street, I headed to the Finborough Theatre.  This is a place I’ve been planning to visit for ages, but somehow never managed to do until yesterday.  Their website warns you to allow plenty of time for your journey as latecomers are not admitted (and I could see why, as to reach my seat I had to cross the “stage”) and they were right – the Piccadilly line was jiggered and I had to find an alternative route to Earls Court (hiking at speed to Westminster followed by the District Line).  The Finborough is on the top (I think – I didn’t count the stairs and compare against the height of the building – pure laziness I’ll freely admit) floor of what was once a pub, but is now a wine bar, and is a very intimate venue – which I much prefer.  The whole theatre – stage and “auditorium” was little (if any) larger than my lounge – so you are definitely close to the action.

The play Unscorched was about a man who starts a job requiring him to view on-line child pornography as part of the effort to shut-down the websites, rescue the children and prosecute those involved.  It follows how this affects him over a three month period.  This sounds awful, but the play was incredible – funny at times, moving, thought-provoking and one of those that will stick with me.  The two main actors Ronan Raftery and John Hodgkinson were both excellent and there was great support from the rest of the cast.  I think it might be the best play I have seen yet – and I have seen quite a few, all good and many really excellent.  It was also less than one third of the price of Mojo: I really don’t know how they get the economics to work (and I do worry about such things).  The staging was also very clever which may have helped, requiring little more than some carpentry, some carpet tiles and a little ironmongery (hinges et al).  I caught the final performance, and I’m pretty sure held the door open on the way downstairs for the playwright – Luke Owen (who was irritatingly youthful).  It won a prize (judged I’m sure by those far more qualified than I) – the Papa Tango prize.  This is a fairly new prize for new writers and its first winner was Dominic Mitchell, who later wrote In the Flesh which has already been praised on this very blog.  I shall have to keep a very careful eye out for the winner in 2014 as the Papa Tango panel and I seem have some serious commonality in taste.

Choosing new, or newish, plays with edgier content but that are either well-reviewed or have potentially interesting content really seems to be paying off for me.  This is not something the me of even three years ago would ever have expected to say (or even type) – I’d always assumed that new plays were a form of penance for the audience (and perhaps some are and I’ve been lucky to miss them).

The day held only two disappointments: (i) Southwest Trains – of which more another time and (ii) the shortage of women – two plays, eleven actors and only one who could boast a pair of X chromosomes.

Oh, the title you ask: that is a direct quite from Unscorched and is almost the last line of the play.  Rarely has a truer phrase been spoken on stage!

We ask the questions…

that others fear to ask.  Or, alternatively, need an excuse to cover random thoughts that have occurred to me during the past day.

When I went out this morning, I saw a dog urinating against a lamp-post – nothing unusual there.  However, uric acid is a component of urine – whether human or canine – and as an, albeit weak, organic acid will presumably eat away at the base of any street furniture used as a convenient territory marker over time.  Does street furniture in popular dog walking areas erode faster than elsewhere?  It will also be increasing the eutrophication of our urban spaces.  Surely, dogs should be charged council tax to cover the damage?  Or perhaps they could be fitted with collection equipment?  Not so long ago, urine was a valuable industrial feedstock…

More recently, I saw a television programme trailed as being “adrenaline fuelled”.  Ignoring the failure to use either the proper IUPAC name or the now preferred “epinephrine”, I found myself wondering how effective adrenaline would be as a fuel.  It is an organic molecule and so would burn, though I have been unable to ascertain its calorific value via a web search.  I would guess it has a similar CV to glucose or protein – so perfectly respectable, but hardly a go-to choice for fuel and it would probably make unleaded look quite cheap.  I suppose if it could be extracted from the stressed – perhaps harvested from a rollercoaster or at horror movies – it might be considered a renewable or low-carbon option – but, frankly, there must be better ways to tackle climate change.

Lining your own clouds

I believe silver is the popular choice, despite the difficulties of hallmarking and the danger to aviation.

Many readers may feel that my life is pretty cloud-free – and most of the minor clouds that do occasionally occlude the azure perfection of my vista are of my own making or relate to worrying about things I cannot affect or problems (sorry, opportunities) I  am unable to solve (apparently in common with my seven billion closest friends).  I do occasionally ponder moving to a marginal constituency so that my vote might actually have an impact on the outcome of an election and so that the political parties might feel they have to woo (or indeed bribe) me – but it is quite an expensive and personally disruptive route to political enfranchisement.  Anyway, this post is not intended to represent a serious attempt at satire, but merely to introduce some diary material in a slightly oblique (maybe even interesting) way.

As I have mentioned before, de temps en temps I am required as a condition of my servitude to “the man” to visit the Surrey town of Woking.  I am sure Woking must have many fine features to commend it, but thus far it has kept them concealed from me – and I have even journeyed as far as Old Woking (which does boast a decent restaurant, but this alone is not enough to save Woking in my estimation).  To line the cloud of these excursions, I usually contrive to visit London to have some fun after the working day is done.

Last week, I headed on into Waterloo for a visit to the Southbank Centre.  It has become my custom to partake of a rapid supper at Canteen, ranged deep in the bowels of the Royal Festival Hall.  Their food is perfectly decent, not expensive by London standards and swiftly served: on previous visits they have also offered two points of bitter for the price of one.  Perhaps fortunately, this offer has now ended as it does add an element of danger for the single chap en route to a concert, even one who can boast many years of highly competitive bladder control (as I can).

My original thinking was to go see Gustavo Dudamel conduct some Mahler, but unsurprisingly it was sold out so I took a chance on Boris Giltburg at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next door.  Not that much of a risk as the young pianist (very much the unfashionable side of 30) had excellent reviews and could also boast an unusually broad range of somewhat geeky interests for a professional musician.  I think the workings of chance were my friend and I enjoyed the better concert at the SBC that night.  The piano playing was truly staggering – the lad has clearly made it a lot further through Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises than have I (then again, I’m still working on exercises 1 and 2, and on current form the human lifespan will have to be very substantially increased if I am to ever trouble exercise 60).

After a good 1.75 hours of playing some seriously difficult repertoire – his hands were literally (in the correct sense of that word) a blur – with a bare 20 minute interval for ice cream, Mr Giltburg then played three encores to a very appreciative audience.  So, not only a better concert than at the RFH but better value for money: value I further enhanced by sitting in the front row of rear stalls rather than the back row of the front stalls – saving £7 by being 6 feet further from the stage and all of those 6 feet were mine in extra legroom (so I was doubly the winner).  Concert Halls have yet to learn the value of legroom from the airlines – for which my legs and wallet are grateful.

As I’ve mentioned before, I will make someone a very good maiden aunt.  As I was watching Boris play, I couldn’t help but worry about the poor chap’s back – for much of the time it was dreadfully rounded and I fear he is storing up problems for later life.  I now worry that my own piano playing is further rounding the shoulders already suffering from years of desk work and cycling.  I (and Boris) need to find a hobby which curves the spine in the opposite direction – though I struggle to bring such a hobby to mind.  Any ideas?

Still, this blog was supposed to be about making the most of chances that life throws your way, rather than fretting about my vertebrae – it seems that I am always looking for a cloud to fill my linings.  Is it (long past) time for therapy?  Or just more marsala in my cocoa?

A new vice: Update

After cycling home in the decidedly chilly night air (at this rate, I may need to turn the heating on) from a splendid Beethoven concert by the Elias Quartet and Malin Borman, I felt the need for a warming night cap.  (BTW: Ms Broman has the most wonderful naughty schoolgirl smile when playing – it warms the cockles).  The flat remains devoid of rum, but I felt my cocoa could do with a little boost.  I remembered an earlier discovery (documented somewhere deep in this blog) that marsala is an excellent accompaniment to a chocolate dessert.  There was a small amount of marsala in the “pantry” and so I tried an experiment with a wee slug added to my cocoa at bedtime.  Oh boy does it work!  It might be even better than rum!

Perhaps not an augmentation to be used every night (then again, cocoa is not to be taken every night, most nights I make do with a mug of camomile tea), just as needed.  Given the public service remit of this blog, I should remind all readers to drink responsibly  (though occasional irresponsibility can be a lot of fun too!).