The name isn’t Bond

Nor is it James.  Frankly, even with the help of the anagrammer’s art I am still missing most of the key consonants.  My only licence permits me to drive a surprisingly wide range of vehicles – though in some cases, not for profit – which is frankly worrying.  Letting me drive a minibus with a trailer is skirting very close to a licence to kill – though is unlikely to form the basis of a spy-thriller film franchise any time soon.

The recent lull in output from GofaDM could be explained by the traditional post-Edinburgh blues: I woke up this morning, and no Fringe flyers did I see, etc.  However, it has more to do with the return to the real world and the backlog of work for “the man” that had built up while I was off enjoying myself.  Most of the creative-writing energies that I possess had to be diverted into the production of a PowerPoint presentation to be delivered to my “other” public in the week to come.  Other time was consumed by the thrilling “admin” which working for a large corporation seems to inevitably spawn (and, yes, I did deliberately split that infinitive – it seemed appropriate for the verb in question, a form of grammatical meiosis as it were).

Part of this “admin” was further on-line training mandated by my employers.  This training never yields a useful life skill, I have yet to learn how to lay linoleum or fillet a haddock (to name but two examples).  Usually, they have been attempts to drill ethics into the workforce – but the level has been so basic that even prokaryotic life would struggle to fail the terminal “exam”.  However, in an exciting development the recent training has moved onto data security – mostly of the on-line variety.  For a paranoid cynic, like myself, this was again all very basic stuff – though clearly written by people with a very limited grasp of the role of the apostrophe and some aversion to clarity of expression (perhaps on the principle that “loose lips sink ships”).  As always, the content is accompanied by appallingly badly acted video inserts to drive home the point – the hackers were particularly funny and I’m not sure why they didn’t go just a smidge further and have them laughing “Mwahahaha!” and stroking their drooping moustaches after they had successfully gulled yet another hapless rube.

Whilst the exams were, as before, trivially easy – though you were permitted a mere 6 attempts to achieve a score of 75% using multiple choice (with some choices between only two items) – if all the measures were implemented by the workforce, I would once again find myself looking for a job as my employers were rapidly driven to bankruptcy.  Nothing suggested was particularly unreasonable, merely wholly impractical in the real world if you expect any work to be done while employees are out of the office.  Still, who needs sales!  

My favourite “tip” was the importance of sitting with your back to the wall whenever using your laptop, tablet or smartphone whilst out of the office.  This is to prevent the modern evil of “shoulder surfing”, but can be hard to do in today’s increasingly open-plan world.  I think a more practical option could be borrowed from the Victorian photographer, whereby the employee’s head, hands and laptop (or other device) are covered by a large black cloth whenever no convenient wall is available.  Corporate branded cloths could be issued to all travelling staff to ensure that data security is maintained at all times.  If the cloth could be made sound-proof, it would also allow the mobile phone to be used in public without fear of being overheard (another hazard for the security-conscious employee) – otherwise, the mobile element of its nature is of greatly restricted utility unless you happen to be in the middle of Rannoch Moor or the Namib Desert (though under those circumstances, lack of a signal may become an issue).

Please be assured that I am typing this with my back to the wall.  I have also checked out all the available exits and have my escape route planned.  I look forward to future security training teaching me how to disable an enemy operative using only a biro (though, having seen Grosse Point Blank, I believe I already understand the fundamentals), how to shake a tail and how to hot-wire a car.  I have never felt more like Jason Bourne!

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A new banking crisis?

It is, of course, well known that bankers are unpopular with very many people.  This is based on their misdeeds over much of the last decade – misdeeds which I suspect continue little hindered by contrition or conscience – where they gambled with enormous sums of other people’s money and (largely) lost.  I think the fact that many were paid huge bonuses to lose their employers vast sums of money (as it rather soon transpired) which may be more galling to the general public.  Away from banking (and a few other privileged sectors of the economy), large bonuses are not forthcoming however much of your employer’s money you try (or even manage) to lose (unless one considers a P45 a bonus).

Still, I am not here to convince you to transfer your money from the bank to your mattress – particularly if you happen to be a princess: that way lies chronic insomnia.  Though, having said that, if one were to place one’s trust in the Slumberland Savings Bank then you could only ever lose the money entrusted to their care – whether that loss be as a result of fire, theft or third party (the third party does seem to be so much more dangerous than the second or fourth – if only there were some way to bypass it altogether).  This contrasts with the financial services sector which, by the miracle of derivatives trading, can lose many times the amount of money which would otherwise languish beneath one’s sleeping form.  So, perhaps my mattress idea is not quite as foolish as it might have first appeared – and the beleaguered Spanish economy could well benefit from wealthy old lags retiring to enjoy its coastal sunshine.

Which, circuitous route, brings me to my actual point.  Whilst it is well known that much of humanity despises bankers, I begin to think this might have spread to the super-natural realm.  I fear Mother Nature (Gaia, if you will) or perhaps All Mighty Zeus has been offended by their antics and is (quite literally) raining down ineffective retribution upon them.

In recent years, it has become widely believed that bad weather inevitably accompanies a bank holiday – those official days off which the State so generously grants to some of us.  I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to check whether this is actually the case, or merely the result of biased human perception and memory.  Today, I found myself wondering whether this was also the case in the days when such holidays were still more closely linked to a formal religious occasion.

As the day began, I left Scotland – where it was (and still is) a normal working day – and the sun beamed down on my upturned apple cheeks.  However, as I headed south through the country I entered England – where today is a bank holiday – and the sun vanished to be replaced by continuous rain.  The evidence of the previous couple of weeks suggests that Scotland does not generally have such a favoured-nation status with those numinous forces which control our weather – so I conclude that there was something special about today.  I may be seeing causation where only correlation exists, but I posit that the supernatural world has sent rain to England to dampen the spirits of bankers on their day-off.  Sadly, this no doubt well-intentioned attempt to deliver a little divine retribution has generated rather a lot of collateral damage to the plans and happiness of the majority (non-banker) population of England (ironically, much like the banking crisis itself).  Is it wrong to yearn for those ancient days when angry gods were much more focused in their choice of delivery mechanism, viz the thunderbolt?  Is it time to rename our State holidays after some less offensive profession?  Nurse or Fireman holidays, perhaps?  Just an idea, but surely worth a try…

Final Fringe favourites

This morning I find myself leaving Edinburgh bathed in glorious sunshine – and, if the weather forecast is to be believed, will return to Southampton to be bathed again, this time in torrential rain.  Still, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive (or so I’m told in a metaphor for life) and the scenery from the train window as we head toward Berwick has rarely looked finer.

I have had a wonderful time in Auld Reekie, not just enjoying the various festivals but also catching up with a load of friends.  Nevertheless, I am quite grateful to be returning to “real” life as I need the rest!  Too much stimulation and too many late nights makes Jack a very tired boy (or middle-aged man, as the case may be).  My head, well those small parts not devoted to empty space, is overflowing with culture – high, low and all points between – which is slowly stewing together to make some sort of cultural casserole between my ears.  I have yet to tot up how many events I attended this year, but I am quietly confident that it will be a new personal best – perhaps around 60.  This seems a lot to me, but a couple of days ago I encountered someone who had attended 283 (and he was no spring chicken).  That’s more than 10 a day!  Surely this must be a lethal dose? It makes me question my own commitment to the Arts  – but I am not planning to compete any time soon, I just don’t have the stamina.

I do realise the essential futility of recommending Fringe shows as the festival has, essentially, ended – but, if I was put off be the pointlessness of my actions this blog would be a great deal shorter than is, in fact, the case.  Plus, it is always possible that these shows may tour to a village hall or cosy drawing room near you and then you’ll thank me! (Well, a chap can hope.)  So, here goes nothing…

Signal Failure: a two-handed play, which would probably be described as a rom-com, was very good, though in a move which may disappoint at least one regular reader, railway signalling took no part in the action whatsoever – not so much as a cheeky permissive block reference.  This does mean the market is still waiting for a line-side signal-based romance.

Donald Robertson is not a stand-up comedian: was also very good, if initially slightly confusing as it was a play about a stand-up comedian (all very meta after all my recent exposure to stand-up).  Very nicely constructed story-telling with (to me at least) an unexpected twist at the end.

Will Adamsdale: mostly sedentary stand-up which was both funny and oddly uplifting.

Mark Watson: as excellent as ever and a chap who can make a larger venue (Pleasance One – there is no Two) feel intimate.

John-Luke Roberts: the man is barking, but very funny – and likely to be scurvy-free for some time to come.  Luckily I was not required for the extensive audience participation this year, though I did have the good fortune to sit next to Thom Tuck who must have the filthiest laugh on the Fringe.

Mat Ewins: this was even more stupid than J-LR and I am slightly worried we may have been laughing at, rather than with, Mat.  We may have been witnessing a man having a breakdown (though I’m used to this as a listener to the Shaun Keaveny Breakfast Show) and you would have to be in the right frame of mind for the show, but if the stars align(or you are as silly as I am) you will laugh a lot.

I saw many other shows that were a lot of fun, but it’s always best to leave the audience wanting more (says the man typing post 512 – or thereabouts).  I think the moral here is to give the Arts a chance – often it does’t have to be wildly expensive (very few shows cost as much as three pints of bitter) – and they can provide fun for all the family (and beyond), though feel free to spread your fun out over a slightly longer period of time than I have!

I, Culture

If I had a more flexible view of English grammar than is, in fact, the case, today’s title could be a description of my life in Edinburgh (or indeed, a first person description of being a member of Homo sapiens).  So much culture am I taking in, that I am struggling to find time to sleep – though have still managed to find time to keep up my gymnastics training and for a quick game of hide-and-seek.

Not only culture, but the past few days have also provided an excellent chance to catch up with old friends and fellow best men.  Still, it is to culture that we must return (yes, we must!), please stop that sobbing now.

For those relying on GofaDM to plan their visit to the Festivals, I can add some further comedy recommendations to my last post (in Bb or Eb depending on your regiment).

Kieran Hodgson: following last year’s show in which I had a starring role, this year he plays all of the parts (obviously I was not quite the success on stage I had imagined) for a very funny tale of a teenage French exchange trip.

Rhys James: very entertaining comedy and spoken word from a chap who was pale, but determined – having been throwing-up off-stage less than 5 minutes before his set began.

Ivo Graham: well, I do love a show with jokes in Latin and an historically accurate reference to the Duke of Anjou.

Jonny and the Baptists: very funny singing and drinking, but probably not the place to take your UKIP-voting maiden aunt.

I’ve also moved onto fringe theatre, and enjoyed (though didn’t entirely understand) a production of Pinter’s A Slight Ache.  I also returned to see Wingman – a play by Richard Marsh I had seen in an early form deep beneath Waterloo Station last winter. It was good then (if slightly musty – down to the venue rather than the writing), but the final version was even better – I could really see how taking the time to refine the story-telling and the language paid off.  A lesson there for GofaDM!  (A lesson I fully expect to ignore).  Having seen an earlier version of the play, I was somewhat protected against excess lachrymosity (like a cultural vaccination), but it did still affect me (though less than some of my fellow audience members).  Even better, at the end I could buy a copy of the play (including his earlier play Skittles) and shake the great man by the hand – surely every stalker’s dream.  I recall a recently-quoted statistic that the average writer’s income is £11,000 p.a. – which does make you wonder how anything is ever written except as an act of defiance.  I’ve seen Richard perform his works on five occasions to date, and I swear he has worn the same pair of jeans and striped top for every one – either this is an indication of the poor financial lot of the writer or a real commitment to clothing continuity.  I am reminded once again of the need to support our playwrights and producing theatres.

Talking, as I was, of celebrity encounters – and my slightly twisted take thereon – wandering the streets of Edinburgh at this time of year, one can see many a “celeb”.  These don’t impress me much, but I did have a more exciting encounter on the edge of St Andrew’s Square – I passed an 84 year old professor of zoology, Aubrey Manning.  Now he is a real celebrity, a man who through a long-gone BBC2 series taught me most of the more advanced geology that I retain to this day.

Anyway, to explain the title we must return to music.  I had huge fun with Ute Lemper singing cabaret songs from Weimar Germany and post-war France – I feel my life could do with a little more cabaret in it, if only it didn’t tend to start so late at night.  My mind was well and truly blown by the Arditti Quartet (plus counter-tenor son and composer wife), introducing me to modern classical music of a type I’d never even imagined might exist.  I’m not yet sure if I love or hate it, but it definitely opened my ears to a much larger sonic world – I literally wandered dazed around Edinburgh for a good fifteen minutes after the concert finished.

However, my musical highlight came on Sunday night with a performance by the I, Culture orchestra – formed in 2011 by the Poles but taking in performers from Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova.  As with most of today’s comedy choices, they were annoyingly young and (on the whole) easy on the eyes – and what musicians!  (Not at all what the Eurovision Song Contest might have led us to expect).  I also loved the occasional divergence from the dress code – one clarinet in a jacket the wrong shade of black, a horn in brown shoes; more established orchestras can be just too uniform for my taste.  A seriously anti-war programme began with Panufnik’s Symphonia Elegiaca – which was new to me, but beautiful.  After the interval, one of my favourite pieces of all time, Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony – which did bring several tears to my eye (and music almost never makes me cry, though almost anything else can and does).  Despite the very limited leg-room in the upper circle of the Hall of the house of Usher (the price you pay for late-booking, cheaper seats and better acoustics), I was too involved in the music to feel any discomfort – that’s how great this concert was! Radio 3 were recording it, so I do have the opportunity to re-live my experience without suffering permanent knee damage – though it will lack the visual spectacle of 120+ musicians (I lost count) in action.

Yet another reason to thank the Poles (so important to the defence of this nation 70-or-so years ago and such a boon to the joke-writer today), and – in line with the very clear message from Jonny and the Baptists – show UKIP the door!

Navigating the Fringe

According to the Guardian, the broadsheets have largely abandoned reviewing productions on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and folk are having to turn to other less traditional sources for information (though I don’t think they were directly suggesting GofaDM).  This came as news to me (which I guess fulfils their remit as a soi disant newspaper) given the tendency of these same broadsheets to give very good reviews to things I want to see, thus making them either very crowded or sell-out in advance of my intended visit.  Or perhaps this is just further evidence of my deep connection with the current zeitgeist and I should soon expect a lucrative writing gig with one of the aforementioned broadsheets.

I am far too lazy, and frankly lack the skill, to offer readers detailed and star-based reviews of the shows I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.  Instead, I shall offer you my recommendations of the best shows I have seen to-date.  Why is he inflecting his irrelevant opinions on us again, mummy?  Well, at least one person asked for it (though not, I will admit in blog form) and so now you will all suffer!  So, please blame him or her: as so often it is always one person who spoils it for the rest.

Before I proceed, I should remind everyone that comedy (as so much in life) is a rather subjective experience and so just because I enjoyed something, there is no guarantee that anyone else will (though I would note that other people were at least laughing and giving the appearance of having fun at all of the gigs I am about to mention – however, this may have been the result of peer-pressure or the use of mind-altering substances, like cheese).

In roughly the chronological order in which I saw the shows, the following receive the GofaDM imprimatur of quality.

Nick Dowdy: never has going to a hardware shop in Crouch End been so much fun (or so disturbing).

Josh Howie: some have said he under-sells his punchlines, but this was great fun for those who remember the 80s.  I also learnt how useful a pregnant woman can be, as I sat near one and she (and by extension, yours truly) was cooled by the only fan at the gig.  Could the gravid hire themselves out to over-heated Fringe-goers as a way of defraying the high costs of bringing up a child?

Nish Kumar: how could I resist a fellow insomniac with a “statement” nose.  Sadly, I had tried even his most outré aid to sleep – and, for me at least – it doesn’t really work (though I had never tried mixing the two elements).

John Robins: even better than last year’s show (which was a tough act to follow) and somehow quintessential Robins.  Incidentally, I would thoroughly recommend his show on XFM with his radio wife – Elis James.  I listen via the podcast as it neatly avoids the adverts which otherwise make commercial radio anathema to me.

Stuart Goldsmith: a show for which I had seen an early preview – which was itself very good.  The final show had changed enormously and was even better – and for those that listen to comcompod covered all the key elements of “Goldsmith”.

Wittank: by some distance the silliest show I have seen this year and also uproariously funny.  I do feel that anyone who doesn’t laugh at this must be at least somewhat dead inside.

Tim Key: I can never explain why he is funny, but even in the cavernous surroundings of the Pleasance Grand he still made me laugh.

More recommendations may follow, as an unusual proportion of my first week was spent at the “proper” Festival, pretending to be a serious adult, and so attendance at more comedy gigs will be scheduled in the week ahead.  You have been warned!

All of the other shows I’ve seen have been perfectly decent with many a laugh, but didn’t achieve the consistently high standards of those listed above, so I’d thoroughly recommend taking a punt on a show on the basis of an even sketchier recommendation than mine.  This is especially true on the Free Fringe which seems to improve in standard every year and where you can also, in a very modest way, feel like you are sticking it to “the man”.  It also one of the few times when you can feel a moral obligation to partake in a pint of beer.  When I bring my middle-aged, gymnast comedy show to the Fringe to mark my fiftieth sidereal year on this rocky outcrop, I’m wondering if I can stage it in a fromagerie  – with the venue costs being covered by purchases of cheese by my audience.  I will, of course, need to find a cheese shop with nice, high ceilings – but, frankly, that is the least of the issues involved in preparing my “show” as the comedy stylings of this blog will have made clear to regular readers.  I may be presenting the first Fringe show which requires its own York Notes or (alternatively) to insist that the audience pre-qualify (perhaps by means of an NVQ) for attendance to ensure that they will at least understand my faltering attempts at humour.  Twenty-three months and counting to EdFringe 2016, so given my usual rate of progress I better get my skates on (and invent a time machine).

In need of a hive?

These past few days, Bs have been playing a rather significant part in my life.  For those of you reading this post in person, I am clearly referring to the letter B, rather than to the social insect – however, I assume that most serious readers will have hired a decent Shakespearean actor to read the blog aloud to them, perhaps with their breakfast kedgeree (well, it offers that additional gravitas that GofaDM, if not deserves then certainly needs).  Effectively, in a nod to Sesame Street, today’s post is brought to you by the letter B.

With the second letter of the Roman alphabet uppermost in my mind, the little grey cells started a-whirring.  If Spears were to produce a version of their best-selling board game tailored for the ventriloquist community, presumably the letter B would be worth significantly more points than in the standard English version of Scrabble (whilst G would be lucky to score a single point).  Gut, I gigress…

The last few days I have been enjoying many of the musical offerings of the “main” Festival – and there have been a lot of Bs involved.  Bach, Bartok, Beethoven and Britten have all been performed for my listening pleasure – and have all been excellent.  The standard of classical music I’ve seen from the EIF over the years has been consistently very high – either down to their standards or my skilled selection (you decide).  As is so common with B (especially in this blog), S has also been in close attendance – a pair of Schus – “bert” and “mann” – plus Symanowski.  There was also some Mozart and Tippett – but they are harder to fit into my selected paradigm.

I have once again been reminded of what a stunning pianist Piotr Anderszewski is – apparently, according to another concert-goer, he is a bit of a dish too!  I’ve also had my first exposure to Britten’s War Requiem – rather appropriate in this centenary year – which is a very powerful piece.  As a result, I learned that I do not give good “interview” having been harrowed both emotionally and physically (the upper circle of the Hall of the House of Usher – as I insist on calling it – has the best acoustics but minimal legroom) for 90 minutes – so I hope my incoherent response to the piece is safely languishing on the cutting-room floor by now.  I presume I was picked out as I am so relatively youthful compared to most of the audience at such events – in fact, whenever I see empty seats at an otherwise sold-out event, I do worry that the seat holder has passed beyond the veil between booking and attendance.

I’ve also noticed that mobile phones are far more likely to go off inappropriately in a classical music concert at the Queen’s Hall than they are at a comedy gig.  Is this down to the difference in age or social class of the audience?  Or is it the terror of being picked on by a comedian?  In an episode of White Collar, Mozzie has a device which can block mobile signals over a modest area – assuming this is not fictitious, I’d have one deployed in every entertainment venue.  Actually, I’d quite like to open a cafe/cake shop where not only is there no wifi but all mobile signals are blocked as well. It would act as a welcome haven from the desperate pace of modern life and offer a brief respite from the electronic surveillance of our lives.  Can one purchase lead wallpaper, I wonder?  Or would tin foil be enough?  I feel an experiment coming on…

Looking back over this post, it does have rather too many “gags” that only work if read aloud – so, let’s have a final one.  So full of Bs has my week been, that one day I even had lunch at a restaurant named The Apiary.  Speaking of which, am I the only person who wishes that apes were kept in a beeary?

Scottish fitness

I am often (OK, never) asked how I manage to maintain myself at the very peak of physical perfection whilst both in Scotland and subjecting myself to a dizzying range of culture each August.

Those in possession of the local stereotype will be aware that the typical Scottish man is lucky to make it past his twenties and breathes deep-fried air.  How does my frail, southern constitution survive in such circumstances?

Well, I’ll admit that I am in Edinburgh (and have not checked the rest of Scotland) and the city is full of tourists, but the men-folk do not seem in visibly worse physical shape than their counterparts in Southampton – so I suspect the stereotype may be a tad exaggerated.  Nevertheless, my physical perfection does suffer a number of challenges in the Athens of the North.

My diet undergoes a major shift as I eat out an awful lot more than at home, and consume 99% of the fried breakfasts of the year whilst here.  My vegetarianism is also rendered much more “mostly” than during the rest of the year – with the humble pig being particularly hard done-by.  I am also being forced to consume carbs, to save my hosts from temptation – a food-based throwing myself onto the grenade to save my comrades.  To make matters worse, my alcohol consumption rises – partly through its ready availability where I’m staying and partly down to the increased eating out scenario.  Somehow, it also seems de rigeur to knock back a pint of Deuchars IPA at many Fringe venues – especially the Free Fringe, where drinking is part of the implicit contract with the venue (and I am not one to shirk my obligations).

Late nights are also a daily (nightly?) occurrence – a contrast to my typical hay-hitting well before the clock strikes eleven.  Trust me, I need all the beauty sleep – or beauty tossing-and-turning unable to sleep – that I can procure.

Countering these negative impacts on my fitness is the fact that every journey in the city involves a hill – and I do walk a lot further at this time of year than any other (partly down to the lack of a local bike).  Just heading to the bus stop to go into town is a vertiginous hike requiring crampons.

In previous years, this has been the full extent of my Auld Reekie-based fitness regime.  However, given my drive to become the world’s oldest gymnast I decided that this year this would not be enough.  Without some additional activity, my poor aged body would be all too likely to snap when I return to the rings in 10 days time – so I have taken action.

Thanks to the facilities at the Craiglockhart Leisure and Tennis Centre I have been able to continue much of my normal regime of fitness-based insanity.  Whilst they don’t have rings, they do have several Jungle Gyms which can fulfil much the same role for a chap wanting to flay a feline – though they are somewhat more of a challenge when it comes to avoiding unwanted swing.  With this aid, I have now started to straighten my legs whilst I think I am in roughly the right orientation for a back lever – can’t be sure this is quite the right orientation as an attempt to look in the mirror at the same time was not an unqualified success (frankly, I’m pretty lucky my head didn’t fall off).

The CL&TC also has some bar-like facilities I can use to hang from – and I do find that after 48 hours I do have withdrawal symptoms if I don’t have a bar from which to hang (yes, I do recognise this is odd).  Thanks to these bars, I have finally mastered the full front lever – well, I can sustain it for 2-3 seconds at a time and did manage to do this five times in a row.  This may only be possible from quite close together parallel bars (as this is the only platform I have available) – but I will take that as a victory for now.  I will admit there has been a modest price to pay for this progress and yesterday I was quite achy across the upper back – but this minor discomfort was a small price to pay.

If I can keep up this progress, next August I will be bring my own Fringe show to Edinburgh – combining my comedy musings with elderly gymnastics (there’s juxtaposition for you!).  So far as I can tell, I don’t think it’s been done before, so I eagerly anticipate the 5* reviews!