From the castle east

Where, (un)naturally, I have sited my laboratory, my experiments on the very stuff of life continue.  Given that I have no current desire to restore a semblance of life to the flesh of the dead – either to sate my o’erweening ego or to furnish myself with an obedient minion to do my bidding (a desire which in both cases could probably be better provided by the living – and would you trust one of the undead with the complexities of Acol and Blackwood?) – my experiments remain confined to the culinary sphere (for the time being).  As a result, dear readers, you can leave your pitchforks and brands (unlit) in the shed where they belong.

Today, inspired by a recent trip to 10 Greek Street, I have turned to my retorts and alembics and the wise words of Hermes Trismegistus to transmute base cornmeal into polenta.  Actually, my raw material was organic maize flour – which is a slightly more ground state of cornmeal which I figured would react more rapidly.  Maize, of course, we owe to the hard work of generations of ancient Mexicans taming the wild teosinte at great personal risk.  Given their lack of imperial presence in the new world, the Italians do seem to have adopted much of its plant produce in their cuisine (OK then, at least two examples spring to mind: maize and tomatoes) – still, I suppose Columbus was Italian by birth so maybe he smuggled a few dainties back to his homeland.

The educational remit of this post fulfilled, I shall now return to the nonsense.  The advice from the followers of Paracelsus suggested that I should add my flour slowly to a boiling admixture of milk and water, whisking all the while.  I should then continuously stir the resultant suspension (colloid?) widdershins for 35-45 minutes – which I did (providing you are willing to assume time is substantially more granular than is currently in vogue among serious scientists).  As if by magic, this process did indeed produce a substance which looks, quacks and, indeed, tastes very much like polenta – and so I think I am going to call the experiment a success.

I wanted to be able to slice my polenta for later frying or grilling and was expecting the default product of my labours to be rather runny (not unlike semolina to which it is related – just a different grass seed).  To help combat this situation, I once again visited the haberdashery department of John Lewis and returned with half-a-metre of muslin.  As it has transpired this was unnecessary, even during production the proto-polenta was pretty viscous and its stirring provided a surprisingly decent workout for my right arm.  Upon cooling it quickly achieved a state of apparent solidity: it may, like pitch, flow if given enough time – but the set was more than sufficient for my purposes.   As a result I have learned an important lesson: I should decant the fully-formed polenta into a vessel from which slices can easily be obtained whilst its viscosity (μ) still permits pouring – so probably immediately.

Despite this minor hiccough, the polenta when placed atop some freshly baked asparagus, grilled with a decent lump of burrata and sprinkled with fried mushrooms and black pepper made a very satisfactory lunch.  Todd (of 10GS) probably doesn’t need to fear for his position just yet (at least partly because the career of professional chef holds rather limited appeal for me), but I think with my second attempt I should be approaching a condign mastery of polenta manufacture.  Maybe it is time to prepare my slab, sewing kit and electrodes – all I need is a passing thunderstorm and a suitable “volunteer”!

Clap Fear

I should reassure residents of Cambridge (and environs) that this post is in no way related to the activities of Clinic 1A.  No, GofaDM remains family-friendly – though, if pressed, I would be hard pushed to identify the family: Addams, perhaps?

Today I shall be tackling the vexed question of audience participation and my associated anxieties.  Audience participation is nothing new of course: when I was a lad during the time of the old king (Elvis, I believe he was called) one of the few musical events we went to en famille was to see The Spinners.  For those unfamiliar with their oeuvre (not that I can imagine this is a large group) they were an a cappella folk group from Liverpool who were rather more famous in the 1970s than I had realised.  Anyway, for at least one song they would always divide the audience in two and have them join in with different vocal lines – something which didn’t engender particular fear in the much younger me.

Skipping forward forty years, on Good Friday I had the good fortune to see the Brighton Festival Chorus’ semi-staged version of Bach’s St John Passion.  This was as different as possible from the Dunedin Consort performance I saw the previous year, but also amazing.  We – the audience – were allowed to join in with four of the Chorales: but fortunately, a free day’s training session was laid on by the BFC a fortnight before the concert.  This was a wonderful day: largely down to the excellent Joe Cullen (who I still believe is called Nick – I suspect some raw work done at the baptismal font) who led the day: if anyone is looking for a speaker, may I heartily recommend him!   This day – in conjunction with nearly two weeks of practise at home – meant that I could join-in with relative equanimity on the day (despite Mr B’s worrying tendency to wander from the home key – he’s not wrong to do so, but it does make the bass part rather trickier for the neophyte singer).

No, my fears lie in the not uncommon request by a band for the audience to clap along with a fixed rhythm.  Obviously, this does not play well with my tempo-related deficiencies – I find it all too easy to provide some entirely unnecessary syncopation – which makes it stressful, particularly as non-participation tends to be frowned upon.  The other issue is that whilst the band are always very clear when the audience should being to participate, they are usually entirely silent as to when to cease.  I really feel some visual signal needs to be developed so that an audience knows when to stop clapping (a flashcard perhaps?) – otherwise, the audience rhythm-section can be represented by a normal distribution with an ever growing standard deviation.  The longer the clapping goes on, the more twitchy I become – especially if the band seem to have abandoned the rhythm we the audience are still trying to maintain.

This issue has arisen twice this week alone.  The first occasion was with Frigg (who also had us joining in with the Finnish version of Happy Birthday!) and where I am convinced we continued clapping for far too long, or certainly the time signature of the piece seemed to change quite substantially for the band but not for the rest of us.  The second occasion was last night at the Art House Cafe with The 150 Friends Club – though here (I must admit) the clapping seemed to work rather better and band and audience (probably) stayed on the same page rhythm-wise (why would you expect me to know, for Pete’s sake?).  Despite the nerve-wracking clapping incident, last night was enormous fun but rather poorly attended (at one stage I was slightly worried that I would be the audience).  I find it impossible to pigeonhole David Goo (what an excellent name, short and easy to spell but memorable) and the band into one (or even several genres) – my best idea is for you to imagine a cross between Vampire Weekend and Bo Burnham, then completely forget that and close your eyes really tight and the after-image on you eyelids might give you some idea.  Suffice to say, I returned home once again with some very reasonably priced CDs of a fairly obscure band’s work to enjoy at home.  I am always strangely pleased when I am listening to something on Spotify (because I am too lazy to work the CD player) where less than 2000 ears (assuming the standard complement per listener) have been before.  I do recognise this is less ideal for the musicians affected – but I am doing my best to make GofaDM into the NME de nos jours (though I’ll admit Tom Robinson probably has more impact, for now).

Habit forming

When under a lot of stress I have sometimes – both in this blog and elsewhere – threatened to hie me to a nunnery.  I have yet to make good on this threat, mostly due to concerns about my ability to pass the physical.  Then again, if I use Sister Josephine by Jake Thackeray as my source (and this is my go-to document for convent-life), this may be less of an obstacle than it may at first appear.  On the plus side, I am already pretty darned chaste and have been known to hang around an art gallery!

Recently the news suggested that I may not be the only person with a hankering to wear a wimple given the reported trebling of the number of new nuns over the last five years.  This is a much less impressive statistic when you realise the total number of new nuns in 2014 was only 45.  One has to worry that this isn’t even keeping up with natural wastage as a result of nuns either shuffling off this mortal coil (and I do think of nuns as having a similar age profile to the classical music audience) or losing their vocation.

Do we need to be protecting our nuns as an endangered species and setting up special reserves for them?  Normally, I might suggest importing nuns from overseas to augment the declining UK population (which is, of course, not a breeding population – or at least shouldn’t be) but as I learned on a recent edition of More-Or-Less this is prevented by immigration legislation.  Apparently, we are concerned about foreign nuns damaging employment prospects or the salaries of British nuns.  Despite my O-level in Religious Studies, I am no theologian (though probably good enough for the CofE) but I’m pretty sure that neither employment prospects nor salary should be of interest to a nun: poverty being along with chastity one of the key qualifications for the role.

You might wonder why I am so concerned about this loss of the convent-bound from these shores.  Well, I have for several years now being playing a highly competitive game of Nun! – well as James Sherwood, the UK’s greatest living practitioner of the game, has said, “You are always playing Nun!“.  Without the key raw material for the game player being available, I fear new players will not choose to learn the game but will be attracted by all the radio money now pouring into Yellow Car.

I think this may be my most niche and BBC Radio 4-centric post yet – and that is really saying something (to paraphrase the unholy trinity of Bananarama).

Hoary youth

I can’t remember ever having woken up and being so glad not to be young, though even I might not be old enough and might need to reduce my economic dependence on the UK plc.  This enjoyably topical (neé political) introduction does lead me very nicely into a couple of my recent cultural outings (though frankly, I feel culture was one of the first out of the closet).  I reckon with this ability to twist absolutely anything to make a seamless segue into the stories I wanted to tell anyway, I’d make a successful politician or chat-show guest.

Tuesday night, for the first time, I cycled to Turner Sims to see neither classical music, nor a physicist or geographer.  No, I went to see a bunch of Finnish fiddlers (well, who can resist alliteration) called Frigg (and who can resist a substitute swearword).  In fact, they weren’t all Finnish – there was one Norwegian – and only 4/7 of them were fiddlers, they also boasted a guitar, a double bass and a chap who alternated between a mandolin and what looked like a tiny guitar (though probably had 8 strings: like a guitar and a mandolin had a baby, which would probably be sterile).  The concert was enormous toe-tapping fun based (loosely) on traditional folk tunes and could boast a significantly younger (on average), if smaller, audience than is normal for more classical fare.  I was sitting next to what I assume was a member of the clergy and chatting learned the benefits of the cassock as an item of workwear.  Apparently, you can wear anything (or nothing) underneath enabling the wearer to remain warm in winter and cool in summer and comfy in both – which might also explain the appeal of the burqa.  Though I feel both items of clothing would have their issues in the gales that characterised the night in question – perhaps lead weights could be sewn into the lining?

When I arrived home after the concert, I fell prey to a very strong temptation (which I did little to resist) to speak English with the cadence of the Finn or Norwegian.  I think (for a brief period) I could actually “do” the accent!  This may come in handy as my back-up plan, should the economic balloon go up or the lights go out (which given my recent economic reading and likely forthcoming UK economic policy seems likely), is to move to Norway and acquire a taste for pickled herring.

On Wednesday, I once again dragged my ashes to London (I left my sackcloth at home) though kept my feet substantially closer to the ground than last time.  Finding myself in Aldgate and in need of shelter from the unsettled weather I had my first look around the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  Some quite interesting stuff on show, including a very fine photo of a chicken – though I wouldn’t recommend their wall-paperer (unless this was part of an installation).  The highlight was Still Life with Flowers and Fish by Natalia Goncherova – a haunting dream-like work with hints of Marc Chagall (to my eye at least).  Sadly, I’m not its only admirer and a quick internet search suggests it could cost me a good $0.5 million to make it mine (even were it for sale).  I may stick with Natural Hessian emulsion for the time being.

In the evening, I went to the Young Vic to see Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill (written before he opened his chain of Irish-themed pubs).  The play was a lot of fun and the main theatre space at the Young Vic is great for the audience – really good sight-lines and surprisingly comfy bench seats and for yours truly (who knows a thing-or-two when it comes to seat selection) near infinite leg room.  I have previously seen Strange Interlude by the same author, which I don’t recall being a barrel of laughs but Ah, Wilderness!, written in 1933, is billed as being his only comedy.  The billing was not fibbing, it was an absolute joy!  A charming coming of age story for young Richard set over two days at and around a beach house.  It remains funny – though I suspect reading Oscar Wilde, GBS or Swinburne is less shocking to mothers now than in the early 30s – and the principal characters, while flawed, are all sympathetic.  Richard is, in almost all respects, a perfectly modern (rather geeky) teenager – fifty years before Harry Enfield brought us Kevin or Hugh Laurie was handed Burwale the Avenger.  All the tropes of the modern teenager were present – the oscillation between boy and man, the surliness and the feeling that no-one understands him.  I’d always assumed these tropes could at best be traced back to the sixties (or at best the fifties) – but clearly they go back at least to the early thirties.  As so often, far less of the modern world is original than we like to imagine.   Given the date and Richard’s assumed age, he is contemporary with (or slightly older than) my grandparents – who I’m now starting to consider in a very different light!

However, much as I enjoyed the play – a near perfect evening out – I did feel sorry for the cast.  Given the setting, most of the stage is covered in sand – quite deep sand.  Whilst this mostly stays away from the audience, the entire cast spend nearly two hours in it every night – they must constantly be finding sand everywhere.  Towards the end, significant water is also added to the mix.  Just thinking about the possible chafing makes me wince – and for the poor cast there must be no escape from sand even when they are away from the stage.  I suspect the actors playing Richard and Uncle Sid, in particular, will be finding sand where they don’t want it for months to come.  The more I see acting, the more convinced I am that it is not an easy option career-wise – and, for the vast majority, it isn’t even that financially rewarding.  I think I shall reserve my pretensions in that direction for the (hopefully sand-free) amateur arena.

Brooding

Whilst discussing matters philosophical at the Salon, the implications of the phrase “to hatch a plan” struck me rather forcibly.  OK, I admit it, it was while I was talking nonsense in a pub – but that is purely down to the shortage of Salons in the modern world.

Given that plans are hatched, this suggests that they are not mammals (unless a monotreme – the duck-billed planypus?) and so are presumably birds or reptiles.  I’m not sure why plans are unable to give birth to live young, but knowing they emerge from an egg may explain many things.  I like to imagine the plan parents gathering materials to form a nest into which the plan egg is laid: most nests are made of hundreds (or even thousands) of sheets of A4 paper.  The parents would then take turns brooding the egg until the plan chick emerges.  As anyone who has been involved in a plan will know, it can take many weeks (months or even years) being fed with money and resources before a young plan is ready to fledge and leave the nest.

Many plans are still-born and the egg never hatches.  Predation of the eggs and young plans also takes a very heavy toll and many young plans fail to adapt to changing circumstances, and so many plans fail to reach fruition.  When some plans fledge, they look nothing at all like their parents: the work of the plan cuckoo.  This all explains why so few plans actually achieve their original objectives.

It is often said that based on our understanding of the universe that God must love stars and beetles.  This rather misses my own guess as to her actual favourites: the bacteria.  However, given the huge number of species of plan and the number of individual plans I think she may also have a soft-spot for the plan: if only to have a jolly good laugh at the overweening hubris of the plan parents.

Plumping

So, having done my best to ignore weeks of TV debates and the issue-of-the-day news stories (as we are far too thick to handle more than one issue at once).  Weeks spent turning a blind eye to the ever more strident front pages whereby newspaper owners try to convince themselves they are still relevant and that the largest issue facing the nation is a man eating a bacon sandwich (though, frankly, I’d be alarmed about anyone who does look good while eating – it would suggest weeks of practise in front of a mirror and a worrying degree of vanity) have finally come to an end (who says I’m not an optimist).

So, off I toddled to my Polling Station to place the 24th letter of the alphabet against my best guess as to the least idiotic candidate to make some vague pretence of representing my interests (or better yet, my views) on the political stage.  Not an easy choice, given that all of the parties appear to have been trying to prove themselves the most idiotic on an hourly basis.  Oddly, the non-news output of BBC Radio 4 has probably been the most helpful in making my choice: More or Less, The Vote Now Show and Hugo Rifkind on Campaign Sidebar.

In a case of (presumed) nominative determinism, my Polling Station lies on the corner of Asylum Road.  I lie within the constituency named Southampton Test – which makes me wonder if my vote is really going to count at all, presumably those in Southampton Live or Southampton Production will be making the real decision.  Still, its nice to know that there is some testing of this whole democracy malarkey going on (if only the same could be said for policies) and I’m glad to do my bit.  The station was empty, but I suppose that the hardworking families (which this election has all been about) will be busy working, so only we unwanted, lethargic singletons were available to exercise our franchise.

The list of candidates was surprisingly modest, unlike last time when I could have mummified myself in the voting slip – so extensive was it.  The LibDem candidate seemed less than confident as he appeared on both the national and local election lists – and I assume he wouldn’t be able to do both (or perhaps I’m wrong?).  As I have lived here for less than two years, I was surprised to be voting for a second time in local elections – were the Chartists more successful than I was taught in O-level History and we now have annual elections?

Given that no-one is willing to form an alliance with the Scots – maybe they should have a word with François Hollande, he could probably do with the help and the Auld Alliance has some historical precedent – I assume we’ll have to go through all of this again before the year is out.  I lived through the last example in 1974, and I wasn’t a happy bunny.  In those days, children’s television was suspended in the event of a General Election (presumably to get the under 10s out and voting) – so we lost two whole days worth and the first one was on my birthday!  I think we may be able to trace my disengagement with politics back to that day: think on E4, think on!

s ∈ LME

I have, for some time, had to face the realisation that I would be considered by many to be a member of the much-maligned liberal metropolitan elite.

I am probably quite liberal – though also somewhat practical and so object to wishy-washy “thinking” – and am a firm believer that a working, if implicit, social contract is a very hard thing to create but really quite easy to damage or destroy.  As a result, in enlightened self-interest, if nothing else (and I like to believe there is “something else”), I feel that a society which mis-treats its weak, its disadvantaged and its outsiders is one storing up trouble for the future (as well as being a rather disagreeable place to live).

For the vast majority of my adult life, I have lived in or near to major centres of population – which does rather mark me as metropolitan (even without a purple line and immortalisation by Betjeman).  I’m very fond of the country, just not as a place to live.

For me the elite epithet is the hardest to claim.  Obviously, given my age and other proclivities, I did enjoy playing the space trading game on the BBC Micro back in the eighties – but that’s about as close to Elite as I feel I can realistically boast.  However, I suppose my hobbies (or how I fritter away my slack hours as I call them) which tend to revolve around the arts, science and culture might be considered to be of the elite by some.

However, I think my activities of yesterday evening may have put the tin-lid on my LME status for many.  As is not entirely uncommon, it was spent watching BBC4 – but the programming was unusual even for BBC4.  We started with a glorious hour of birdsong taken from the dawn chorus in three locations in southwest England – no voice-over, no background music just the sounds of nature (plus the occasional plane and a little traffic).  The odd caption assisted with the identification of which bird was singing – and to share a few other salient facts.  One of these other facts was that dawn singing (for the male bird) is a way of showing his fitness – an activity, were I to indulge in at this time of year, would illustrate both my insomnia (all to frequently real) and a complete disregard for my neighbours (something I try and avoid).  I would use an entirely different method to show my fitness – and would probably refrain even from doing that at dawn (well, the middle-aged body can be a trifle stiff at that time of the morning).  However, bird song was only the starter – the main course was even more nourishing.

We were fed with two half hour programmes each showing a skilled craftsman at work – again, without music or commentary.  First, a glass blower at work: showing the near miraculous creation of a jug from a chunk of glass broken off a larger rod in what seemed to be real-time.  The process was quite fascinating – and, for me at least, made glass seem even more magical.  The extraordinary plasticity of almost-molten glass coupled with its amazing cohesive properties does far more to make me believe in a creator god than the intricacies of the human eye (though does still fall a ways short).  However, I do still wonder how they get the glass to stick to the end of the metal blowing rod – I may have to re-watch the show to see if I blinked at this point.

The second showed a chap making what looked like a 9″ cook’s knife from a sheet of metal and a block of wood.  This was not in real-time as the process took 16 hours – and this was using power tools and a modern forge.  However, the time was well spent as the final product was a thing of true beauty – the blade and its patterning, in particular, was incredible.  I very much want one!

It made me realise that all craft, once it reaches a certain level, is Art.  All that labour and heat (and for the knife, violence) applied to such unprepossessing raw materials – what an astonishingly cunning species we can be!  I was also struck that without factory production of our kitchenware, it would a lot more expensive – though its cheapness and impersonal back-story might also help to explain our throw-away culture.  I start to think that I should only allow new things into the flat if they are well-made (though I’m not going the full Morris or Ruskin) – if nothing else, it would help to alleviate the storage issues created by my modest floor space as I suspect I could afford very few such things.

Most importantly, this was television which did not condescend to the viewer and could not have been done better on the radio or with a book.  None of the programmes felt like n minutes of content had been stretched to fill mn (for m≥2) minutes of schedule time.  All three programmes would have been weakened by being interrupted by messages from our sponsors.  I suspect that despite the vast cast of people who worked on the programmes, as revealed by the closing credits, this was even relatively cheap content to produce.  You wouldn’t want to spend every night this way, but perhaps more than once in 49 years could be an achievable objective for the future.

Sepulchral over-tread

This post will be relatively light on jokes (aren’t they all?) but may provide some entirely unwanted insight in to the author.

As I started to make my lunch, I also started the podcast version of The Verb (several mentions of which on GofaDM have so far failed to produce lucrative sponsorship from either BBC Radio 3 or Ian McMillan) as I find it usually makes an excellent accompaniment to meal preparation – somehow both the hands and mind are busy, but not in conflict.  Virtually at the opening, the Mexican poet Pedro Serrano read a few lines of his work in his (and its) native tongue.  Immediately, all the hairs on my arms stood to attention, followed by a manly tear (or two) gracing my cheeks (well, two of them at any rate) and my legs being reduced to jelly.  I had to hold on to the work surface for support and ultimately had to abandon lunch for a little while and have a sit-down.  I can’t really explain why it had such a powerful effect on me: my Spanish – once described as “lower operational” – is really very rusty and I’ve never tried it up against poetry (mostly up against electricity market regulations, which are as far from poetry as one is likely to find – but were at least in Castilian Spanish).  Perhaps it was the combination of his voice and the sonic shape of the words?  Poems later in the programme had a similar impact, though only when read in Spanish – which was sadly faded out for the English translation.  I suppose that Mexican poetry fans are not a core demographic for Radio 3, but given its rather modest listenership it really can’t afford to alienate them.  I think I need to acquire some of Pedro’s work in Spanish and reclaim my two-volume Spanish dictionary (en tapas blandas) from storage and see if I can recreate the experience at home.  I would certainly pay good money to hear him reading his own work – but not in translation, it needs to be the original.

Having already felt that someone had walked over my grave, I was then knocked further from my axis by hearing Suzanne Andrade reading from her play Golem – what incredible and unsettling words.  A play it would seem I shall now have to take in – or at least acquire the play script (assuming it exists).  The show ended in emotionally safer – but no less fascinating – territory, with airline pilot Mark Vanoenacker and the story of waypoints and their sometimes surprising names.

For those of you worrying, I did (in due course) resume creation and then moved on to the demolition of my lunch – so my blood sugar levels are fine.  You needn’t rush out to bring my a snack – though, I wouldn’t say no.

Oddly, this feeds into a realisation I had yesterday sitting in the baseball court-like performance space of the Winchester Discovery Centre – well, it has the same flooring and even folding “bleachers” like a US high school sports hall – whilst enjoying a little chamber music.  It struck me that if we remove physical fuelling of the self, and the basics required for maintenance of the aforementioned self and his modest home, almost all of my economic activity is linked to the Arts (well, if we ignore the costs associated with my foolish plan to become a gymnast dreadfully late in life).  Most of my travel and eating (and drinking) out are because I’m off to see a play, some music, a little comedy or the like.  Even my trips to visit friends have as an ulterior (or at least bonus) motive of their being a chance to take in something (or preferably several somethings) cultural.  Frankly, I would be at a complete dead-loss without the Arts: I’d have to manufacture an interest in sport or cars or girls (or boys); and nobody wants to see that.

Dispatches from the heart of Wessex

This will be much less portentous than the title might suggest, frankly I’ve just been to Winchester again.  This time I went by bus – well, there wan’t much choice it was either the bus or a rail-replacement bus.  I went with the always-a-bus, which whilst slightly more expensive does offer an almost door-to-door service – in addition to its greater authenticity.  The real bus offers a more scenic route (past the vast houses and estates of the über-rich) and provides free wifi and charging sockets for your gadgets – something which only the first class passenger lucky enough to catch a Class 444 unit could hope to experience on Southwest Trains.  In fact, bus companies generally seem to have stolen a march on their rail-based counterparts with much better facilities for the yoof market (of which I am obviously an outlying part) – and often more comfy seats and better legroom.

As you may have guessed, my return was to enjoy the final concert of the Winchester Chamber Music Festival.  The festival is organised around the London Bridge Trio and friends (and some very fine friends they were).  I know London likes to imagine itself as the cat’s pyjamas (or the dog’s nightie – well, this is a family blog and I like to imagine parents and children huddled around it squealing with delight) and a step above we mere provincials, but even in the capital I think playing Bridge with only three people is going to be a challenge.

Whilst the afternoon provided a further gem from the diadem of Antonín Leopold Dvořák, my primary reason for going was to see the last (in my personal timeline) of Schubert’s three great song cycles: Die schöne Müllerin.  This was an incredible piece of music and unusually, at least at the start, not swamped by sadness. However, I did have an ulterior motive in going which was to pick up tips for my own singing career – which could feature Die schöne Müllerin in the (very distant) future given that it is pitched at the baritone performer.  As a result, I was studying Ivan Ludlow like a hawk – mostly to improve my breathing, though as a bonus I also learned some more about German pronunciation (despite this, I fear I shall never be able to reproduce the language with the relaxed speed Ivan managed in a couple of the songs).  Ivan was wearing rather a loose suit jacket (for the avoidance of doubt, he was also wearing the trousers), so much of his breathing took place behind closed doors (as it were) – nevertheless, I could spot a major difference between his approach to breathing and mine.  In the run-up to a long phrase or a bunch of high notes, my chest heaves not unlike that of the youthful Barbara Windsor just before the explosive shedding of her brassière while that of Mr Ludlow hardly moves.  I am forced to deduce that he is breathing from his diaphragm (and below) as I have been taught, but largely fail to achieve.  When I rule the world (and it can’t be long now, I reckon in the chaos following Thursday’s election there could well be a golden opportunity for me to seize the reins of power), all singers will be required to wear clothing which is skin-tight from nipples to navel that I might study their technique.

As I took my unreserved seat at the concert (in the front row which offers harder seats, but  much better legroom), I noticed the seat next to mine was reserved in the name of “Mr and Mrs Woodd”.  Initially, I was disappointed and felt the name should have launched with a pair of Ws, but then I realised the name already worked perfectly: double-U, double-O, double-D.  How pleasing!  Knocks my own name’s feeble attempts with a doubled letter into a cocked hat.

The concert ran a little longer than expected so I had a 40 minute wait for the bus home.  As a result I was forced (forced, I tell you!) to seek succour in the Old Vine.  My succour took the form of a pint of Saxon Bronze from the local Alfred’s brewery (he seems to have abandoned the baking after a well-publicised failure).  You may think that bronze should be smelted or cast, but trust me the brewed version is much better (positively ambrosiac) – if this brew had been the eponym behind the Bronze Age, I don’t think the human race would have bothered with iron.

More bare buttocks than expected

Last night I had opted for a Bohemian evening and so naturally took myself by train to Winchester.  I would not like to give the impression that Winchester is a hot-bed of the counter-culture and awash with those of an artistic temperament espousing free love and voluntary poverty – though it may be for all I know (but somehow I doubt it) – as I went there for a night of music from a region roughly cognate with today’s Czech Republic.

The Winchester Chamber Music Festival did not disappoint – Martinů and Janáček were good, but the highlight was Dvořák’s rarely played String Quintet in G: a piece that deserves to be performed a lot more frequently.  Before the gig, we had a talk from four of the musicians on the question “What is chamber music?”.  This question proved difficult, but entertaining to fail to convincingly answer.  The concert took place in the Winchester Discovery Centre – which is basically the slightly augmented Winchester Library – which does have its own performance space: with seriously uncomfortable seating for the long of leg and muscular of buttock.  However, it is not my glutes – or even those of my fellow audience members or musicians that this post is about.  Whilst I didn’t check in detail, all of these appeared to be modestly covered for the whole evening.

As part of its augmentation, Winchester Library also has a small gallery space and this was playing host to the woodblock prints that make up Utagawa Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō Road.  Despite the name, Hiroshima produced 55 prints of scenes from the road, most including landscape but also human figures.  These were produced in the middle of the 19th century, towards the end of the Tokugawa shogunate.  Now, I will readily admit that my knowledge of Japan is a tad limited – informed by modest exposure to its art, samurai movies, karaoke and Lost in Translation – and so these prints came as a wonderful surprise.  The landscapes were as beautiful, perhaps more so, than I had been expecting with some inspired representations of the weather but it was the human figures which were the revelation.  I would assume that in at least some of the prints were intended to be comic – or certainly they had that impact on me.  Whilst the higher status figures were dressed somewhat as expected, the porters and other “workers” wore very little – even in deep snow they had bare legs and arms.  It would seem that the typical 19th century Japanese porter would put the hardiness of the modern Tyneside youth to shame. Away from the snow, your typical porter wore nothing but a thong (and, sometimes a flat, conical hat) – a little more substantial than some modern underwear of the same name but much less so that that used by the Sumo practitioner – and as a result there were a surprisingly large (if even) number of bare buttocks on show.  In one print, a pair is facing directly at the viewer – and I swear they follow you around the room!  As so often, a half-formed stereotype proves to be misleading with Japanese art lying substantially closer to a McGill postcard than I ever dreamt.