Trouble with the fourth dimension

I have reason to believe that I may have been affected by illicit experiments in temporal mechanics.  I seem to be living in two distinct months at the same time.  All the official sources of information as to the current date insist that I am living through the dying days of July 2015.  However, other evidence suggests quite strongly that it is already Autumn.

Following recent heavy rains, there has been a decidedly autumnal feel to the air and our early mornings are now graced by the characteristic chill of the season of mellow fruitfulness.  Still, I will admit that these, merely climatic, signals could easily be blamed on climate change: or just the natural – if growing – variation in our weather around its drifting mean.  I could perhaps also categorise the recent pruning of the rose garden in East Park as seasonal “drift” – in this case, from February 2016 (or was it delayed form February 2015?).  At this rate, we will be able to wear fresh, local poppies on Remembrance Sunday!

Last night was, for me, the clincher.  As I arrived back at Southampton Central, the platforms were overrun by aficionados of association football in their traditional red-and-white stripped garb (looking not unlike an unwound barber’s pole) – accompanied, of course, by the more drably caparisoned members of the local constabulary to prevent any lekking displays from getting out of hand.  Their mating “plumage” was emblazoned – as is so often the case – with the name of a company of unknown industry: who or what are Veho?  (A Vietnamese poet of easy virtue?)  They were clearly fresh (ish) from what I believe is known as a “match” and strongly indicate that the football season is upon us once more.  I know the scope of the association’s works has been expanding across the year, but I was still under the impression that the season began in the autumn.  Has money changed hands and Chronos been inveigled upon to interfere with the normal flow of time?  FIFA does seem to have paid off almost everyone else and offering a backhander to Time may be their best hope for human-viable ball games in the Qatari summer.  A risky strategy as I don’t think his other half would approve and even the gods don’t fight against Ananke (then again, Sepp Blatter has never put up much of a fight against his overwhelming hubris).

So, I seem to be stuck in both July and Autumn: simultaneously.  It is terribly vexing.  I’ve had no joy with either the police – despite the long association between one of their boxes and the fixing of matters temporal – or the myriad firms of ambulance-chasing lawyers which clutter the daytime television schedules with their appeals for the blameless infirm.  Does anyone have the number for the Celestial Intervention Agency?


Plus c’est la même chose

When I was nobbut a lad, my reading habits were not entirely as they are today.  I did make my way through some of the children’s classics (e.g. The House at Pooh Corner) and key works of the day (e.g. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) but also started my life with science fiction after borrowing Galactic Patrol by E E ‘Doc’ Smith from my dad’s bookshelves at the age of seven.  I don’t recall there being encyclopaedias in the house, but as a child I was obsessed by facts and the acquisition of knowledge (at least in some fields) and so my parents provided a number of works to feed this desire (and, I presume, in an attempt to shut me up).  I recall 365 Things to Know and another work with a title involving 3 or 4 of the key question words (i.e. how, why, what, where, when, who) and a conjunction – but I’m fairly sure there were others.

Not only do I remember the books, but I also remember hauling myself to the headmaster’s office on several occasions to show him my latest tome of fabulous facts.  He seemed quite good at evincing mild interest, which I feel may have been a mistake on his part.  I am starting to suspect that I might have been quite an annoying child (which I’m sure readers deduced several hundred posts ago).  However, despite my unpaid marketing efforts on behalf of the fact-based publishing industry, I did eventually rise to the primary school equivalent of head boy.  This may stand as my greatest achievement to-date.

Yes, even at primary school, I was preparing myself for pub quiz participation when I finally came of age.  Well, it was either that or I was training to be a QI elf several decades before John Lloyd came up with the idea for QI: which makes my continued lack of elf-hood all the more galling.  To return briefly to quizzing, I do not approve of people learning facts purely because they will be useful in a quiz environment: all my facts have been learned either for the sheer joy they brought or they arrived by chance and I have subsequently been unable to discard them.  I feel this is the true Corinthian spirit of quiz participation – anything else smacks of professionalisation and the grubby intrusion of market values.

As so often arises at around this stage in a post, the audience is left wondering why the fool is sharing his largely irrelevant history – though, I should probably make clear that this blog may one day form the basis for my best-selling memoirs (the diary is so last millennium).  Well, if you are all sitting comfortably, I shall continue.

The availability of new non-fiction works in my personal library has recently fallen to a very low level (not having gainful employ does mean I hit the bookshelves rather hard): though following an unseasonal visit to October Books yesterday, the position has briefly improved.  As a result, my current and previous reading has reverted to a rather similar style to that which I used to share with my old headmaster – and, as in those far off days, both were bought for me by my parents.  Question Everything from New Scientist could have been written with the nine-year-old author in mind and did not disappoint his four-decades-later successor: it was full of interesting answers to some jolly fine questions (all I lacked was a headmaster to share it with – so you, dear readers, have been drafted in).

I have now moved on to 50 Moments that Rocked the Classical Music World, brought to us by Classic FM.  Its roots do show through in places, and its definition of ‘moment’ is rather flexible (at times smacking more of geology than music), but it still contains plenty to fascinate the late-forties fact-fan.  It is particular fun when read in conjunction with Spotify as I can listen to most of the pieces mentioned (some were never recorded) as I go.  In consequence, I have been streaming quite the range of classical music over the last few days.  From early polyphony with Tallis and Palestrina to a refresher on the Rite of Spring: indeed, even as I type budget-busting Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique accompanies me in commemoration of the first use of truly substantial orchestral forces.  However, the most fun was my introduction to Erik Satie – how can you not love the chap who composed Flabby Preludes for a Dog and the Bureaucratic Sonatina?  For some idiotic reason, I’d never imagined French classical composers having quite such an impish sense of fun.

What this recent reading makes all too clear, and which my parents had obviously realised, is that I have not changed very much from the boy who went to Lansdown CP School in the dark days of the 1970s (well, it was during the 3-day week).  Truly, the boy is father (and also nearer than expected) to the man.


In the olden days, a brand name had some sort of link to the product, its maker, manufacturer or inventor.  Today, highly paid “creatives” bolt together a few random phonemes which might suggest something vaguely cognate to the product (or not) or just choose a random word or two: hence we now have TV channels called Dave and Spike (but none that I could find with a girl’s name: yet another example of sexism?).  A limited grasp of the orthography of the English language also seems to be a boon when it comes to naming your brand.  As well as the name, you do need to choose a font, a colour scheme and some sort of symbol: what arcane arts are used here I know not, though I’m pretty sure that any official explanation given later will be a hastily cobbled-together, post-hoc justification.

As I recall, the purpose of a brand is (or was back in the day) to offer the promise of a consistent and reliable product to the customer.  Early brands were established to spare consumers from the rampant adulteration of foodstuffs that was then rife, though recent, regular public health stories suggest this aim has now rather been discarded in the name of profit or expediency.  However, I believe there is still the intention that the customer should feel some loyalty towards the brand: even if this loyalty is unrequited.

Given this background, I find myself puzzled by the regular re-branding of products that occurs in this modern world, a process which seems to run counter to the whole point of having a brand in the first place.  I strongly suspect that this is the marketing or branding department desperately trying to justify its existence – but as a strategy, it strikes me as expensive and lan effective route to a diminished customer base.  FMCG (fast-moving consumer good) companies seem the most prone to this re-branding activity. For instance, the re-naming of much loved products to match the name used elsewhere in the world: at a stroke reminding us that the item is produced by a soulless multinational corporation and weakening the bonds of nostalgic attachment for all but the youngest of consumers.  I would guess (based on my traditional sample of one) that this must negatively impact sales, which only recover as we older users are called to our internal reward and are replaced by those innocents who suffer from post-auricular moistness and never knew Opal Fruits (or the like).  Even rather more niche products, like the Somerset-grown pearled spelt I use, seem to re-brand with startling frequency: the whole design of the packaging and its colour scheme seem to be changed every couple of years.  I am quite keen on pearled spelt (part of my Cnut-lie attempt to support British agriculture and minimise food miles) and so go to the trouble of seeking out the new-look pack, but I suspect many less committed users just purchase some much-easier-to-find arborio rice instead.

Recently the gym which I use has taken the re-branding route.  The only benefit to its users that I can see is the repainting of the walls – but the costs to the shareholders must have been substantial: all new signage, uniforms, stationery and marketing materials across 100 gymnasia to name only the most obvious items of expenditure.  I can’t even guess what benefits the change of font, colour scheme and symbol are supposed to deliver, nor how these might be measured, but I’m sceptical that they will match the costs.  One likes to imagine that a modern commercial corporation would not re-brand without a very real expectation of a net gain, but I rather fear they are as subject to magical thinking as the rest of us.  Perhaps the sacrifice of the old brand is supposed to propitiate the gods of the market?  However, my classical reading suggests that Hermes would probably prefer honey, cake or livestock: perhaps the modern marketing professional looks to a different Pantheon for its theistic underpinnings?

All of which musing probably indicates that I am not cut out for a career in marketing – or could it be that I’m right and so exactly what the world of marketing needs?


In the dark days of my relative youth, a viewer might see a vaguely familiar face (usually attached to an associated body) acting in some screen-based entertainment and wonder where it had been seen before.  Was it ‘im off (or ‘er off) Bergerac (or some other treat from the idiot box of yesteryear)?  Sometimes reference to the cast list in the Radio Times or the end credits might bring enlightenment, but often you would be left unfulfilled with a continuing age sense of familiarity.  If the viewing had taken place in company, fruitful scope for discussion or argument might ensue – but, once again, with no guarantee of a satisfactory conclusion being reached.

Today, the power of the internet – and in particular, IMDB and Wikipedia – can usually resolve any such question as to where a face had been seen before.  Well, it can as long as the current and previous viewings both took place on either the big screen or the haunted goldfish bowl (and engrammatic storage has not degraded beyond a certain, critical point).  They are of much less help if either viewing occurred live with the actor in question strutting their stuff atop a stage.  For those in the business (of show, in this case) there is source of answers, Spotlight, but this does not give up its secrets to the mere punter (not unless he – or she – also happens to be a skilled hacker).

Given my recent habits, I find it increasingly common that I will know an actor largely (or wholly) from their work on the stage.  This has been a primary driver behind my tendency to purchase a programme when visiting the theatre: to check whether I should recognise anyone on the stage and, if so, from where.  This is far from foolproof, but does beat hanging around the stage door and asking some poor unfortunate, as they emerge, where I might know them from?  Where the programme approach either fails is or unavailable, I am forced to rely on my internet search skills, fading memory and luck to find a rationale behind any nagging sense of familiarity.  This process is complicated by my rather good memory for faces, but rather poorer ability to retain the link between the visage and its associated context (including a name).  Still further issues ensue given my tendency not to store the various elements of a face together and then lose the important linking information them – so I may easily “recognise” a face based on the nose of face A, the mouth from B and the eyes belonging to C (for A≠B≠C): very much a false positive).

Still, despite these obstacles I am sometimes fortunate and do manage to achieve a positive ID – and this happened last Friday: though this same process of successful identification also (probably) illustrated complete loss of other facial memories.  Let me explain…

On the evening in question, I braved the torrential rain and made my way to Clapham Junction.  By some miracle, Southwest Trains did manage to deliver me to my destination (which Southern Railways could not, having cancelled all services between Southampton and “the Junction” – though this may not have been rain related as these services seem to be cancelled very frequently, so often that I think they have stopped even waiting for someone to drop an item of millinery).  There was a nervous moment about 200 yards from our destination when the entire train had to be re-booted, but after a relatively modest delay, we were able to make it to Clapham.  CLJ (as we regular users of the National Rail website know it), is not really in Clapham at all, but in Battersea – which suited me as I was off to visit what remained of the Battersea Arts Centre.  This, as some may recall, was spectacularly ablaze not so long ago – though, during my visit the risk of unwanted combustion was pretty low (and evidence for the previous inferno was far from apparent to this viewer).   Indeed, after its previous assault by the forces of fire, on Friday evening it was suffering from a degree of flood: I assume earth and air are queueing impatiently to do their worst against the fabric of the building in the not too distant future.  Someone at the BAC must really have offered the Classical Gods.

My visit was for a pair of Edinburgh Previews by The Pin and Liam Williams – two apparently unrelated acts.  I have seen Mr Williams (NRTK) several times before, but this was my first experience of The Pin – who are a sketch double act – though they had been on my “to see” list for a while.  I can thoroughly recommend The Pin – they were quite brilliant (and alarmingly clever) performing what might best be described (by me at least) as meta-sketch.  I think they may have supplanted Sheeps (of which Liam W is one-third) as my favourite current sketch act.  Mr W was also good, though I suspect has a little more work to do over the next couple of weeks.  Given his stage persona is somewhat dour, it was also rather enjoyable seeing him laughing in a unrestrained manner at the antics of The Pin.

So far so good, but how do they two strands in this post come together?  Well, half of The Pin – one Ben Ashenden – seemed terribly familiar, but my unaided brain came back with no hint as to why.  He has not spent a lot of time on screen, so that also proved a dead end.  However, he does have a relatively uncommon name and the profile on his agent’s website provided the key to unlock his familiarity.  He was, fairly recently, in the Cambridge Footlights – and I had seen him perform in the ADC theatre when I was resident in South Cambs.  Whilst I clearly do remember him, his past writing left few clues on the fleshy tables of my memory as to his current genius.

The same internet search revealed that his partner – Alex Owen – was also in the Footlights at the same time.  The poor lad had clearly left no trace in my grey (or white) matter.  Worse, Liam Williams was also one of the same happy band (as were some of the rest of Sheeps) – and despite repeated exposure has sparked not even a hint of recall.  Mr A is not especially unique looking – there is no second nose or third eye (visible) – or sounding, so I have no idea why he alone should have been committed to my memory.  Perhaps just random chance?  Maybe the others have just aged more in the last four or five years? He does wear glasses – whereas none of the others do – so as a fellow wearer he may have been granted preferential access to long-term storage. This could be a top-tip for others seeking stardom – though, as I have absolutely no power to affect the career of the aspiring actor or comic, is probably a red herring.  Well, unless there is a much stronger link between glasses and prosopagnosia than the current scientific literature suggests – could this be the basis of my long-awaited PhD?

Overall, a very enjoyable – if extremely damp – evening, but one that left me with the nagging suspicion that my mental decay is progressing even faster than I’d realised.

Strange fruit

Gird up your loins, folks, this is going to be a long one!  That dread admixture of too many ‘ideas’ and the lack of a decent (or, indeed, any) editor.  Those who print out my words to provide a permanent record (and who wouldn’t?  It allows them to be enjoyed even when denied power or internet access) may wish to check their ink levels and refill the paper tray.

In an earlier series of The Infinite Monkey Cage, there was some discussion as to whether a strawberry (the fruit, rather than the plant) was alive or dead.  Some might think that this debate highlights fundamental difficulties in our definition of life.  I prefer to take it as concrete proof that strawberries (and by extension other fruit and nuts et al) are members of the undead.  They are generally too solid to be ghosts and too colourful to be vampiric.  No, being slow moving and with a tendency to rot, fruit are clearly zombies.  Can it be a coincidence that nature has placed so many fruit and nuts in the high branches of trees?  From this vantage, they are able to fall on any passing human and – with a little good fortune – crack open a skull and feast on the sweet, sweet brains that lie within.  Sir Isaac Newton may have thought he discovered gravity ‘neath that famous apple tree, but in fact he failed to discover his true peril and had a lucky escape as the apple tried to satisfy its craving for his cranial contents.  I, for one, do not plan to be caught napping in an orchard!

This identification of many of the products of the plant kingdom as being clear precursors to the zombie apocalypse came about during one of my wide-ranging massage discussions (so much more fun as a background than pan-pipes or whale ‘music’).  This started with the extraordinary ability of plants to crack concrete.  How can a tiny seed, with only very limited energy stores available until it can put forth leaves, manage to cast asunder man’s apparently solid works?  Surely, we mused, this ability should be of use to the military?  Rather than dropping massive bombs to disrupt enemy infrastructure with the substantial cost in innocent bloodshed that so often entails, could we not just drop suitable seeds and wait?  No bunker or runway would be safe.

This use of seeds in warfare made me wonder about the soi-disant ‘war on drugs’, aka our government’s attempts to ensure that the drugs trade stays both profitable and a public menace.  I believe fire and herbicides have been used in the attempt to destroy fields of drug-producing plants – but this approach will only take out the current crop.  How about dropping seeds of Japanese knot weed or some other suitably invasive species?  This could destroy the crop for years to come.  I can only assume that the MoD and military boast very few gardeners or the possibilities would have been seen years ago.

With my plans for plant-based warfare, we will be able to say goodbye and good riddance to BAE systems and mass civilian casualties and hello to a huge boost in funding for the good folk at Kew.  In the future, boys (and girls – though I suspect they still remain a minority in this area) will no longer play with guns but with seed tray and dibber.  War will no longer rely on speed of deployment, but on patient propagation: the green of camouflage will be replaced by that of thumbs and fingers.

But why stop with the plants that nature has provided?  With GM technology, the plant kingdom can make a much bigger contribution to our lives.  Current GM seems to be concentrated on rather boring and prosaic attempts to add immunity to herbicides or to repel insects from a few key food crops.  This has failed to capture the public imagination, but has rather created entrenched resistance and derogatory terms like ‘Frankenfood’.  If Mary Shelley’s professor had stuck with such tedious advances, his monster would not still be lending its creator’s name to concepts in the twenty-first century.  I posit that GM needs to embrace its inner mad scientist, recruit more lab technicians called Igor and make far better use of the convectional storms that climate change promises.  Harness some lightning and give the public what they are crying out for: a little excitement!  How can wheat that is slightly distasteful to a lab-bound greenfly ever hope to compete with the LHC or holiday snaps from Pluto?

During my massage (and subsequently), a number of ideas for more exciting plant-based GM projects came to mind and I offer these free-of-charge to any UK lab brave enough to take them on.  My massage therapist seemed very keen on giant fruit and veg (though he further emphasised the importance of the size by adjectival use of a vulgar term for a gene flow event, e.g. giant GFEing avocados) for reasons that are not entirely clear (possibly some hitherto unrevealed northern, working-class heritage?).  Scotch eggs – or other meat-based products – that grew on trees were also proposed, which would really confuse the vegetarians and vegans among us.  In a similar thematic area, I quite like the idea of allowing root vegetables to scream when they are pulled from the ground (as myth would insist the mandrake does, though without the associated deaths) – if only to save vegans from being suffocated by their own smugness.  What about a pasty bush?  Think how easily the public could hit their five-a-day with such a botanic marvel.  I also fancy the idea of splicing the genes from a poet into Citrus x sinensis to produce an orange that rhymes.  How about an anti-banana that causes any fruit with which it shares a vessel to grow less ripe?  Such an ethyne sink could also be a boon to the home welder.  Failing that, how about a pear that is ripe and edible for more than 40 minutes?  Let’s have a real-life version of Ms Rowling’s Whomping Willow which rather than attacking trainee wizards instead purges biting insects from its vicinity?  The Scots are crying out for such an arboreal exterminator.  Why not replace street lighting with trees that glow in the dark?  (They’ve done it with mice – why not leaves or needles?  How beautiful our boulevards and thoroughfares would be.)  The possibilities are endless!

Botanists have been resting on their laurels (and many another plant) for far too long!  No lay person is ever going to be that excited by arabidopsis – but a cabbage that eats white fly would be the talk of Gardeners’ Question Time for years to come.  Let the CRISPR see the salad and let’s build the public some exciting vegetables, some freaky fruit!  It’s time to make Victor proud and have some real Frankenfoods: people will be taking to the streets demanding more GM in no time (well, assuming our new vegetable masters allow us the time off).

Embracing protocol

I am not the most tactile of people.  As I have probably mentioned before, I don’t like to get my hands dirty in a quite literal sense – I’m fine with personal indulgence in moral turpitude, just as long as my actual hands remain clean.  I have never really felt the urge to reach out and touch people: for a start, I don’t know where they’ve been nor to what standards of personal hygiene they subscribe.

For much of my adult life, the social requirement to make physical contact with others has been relatively limited.  The need to shake the odd hand (and some are very odd, and surprisingly often wet) in formal situations and to kiss (or be kissed) by the occasional female relative has been sufficient to lubricate the wheels of social intercourse and avoid me being identified as a “wrong ‘un” (obviously, there may be other clues which are less easily masked and I fear this blog will be used in evidence when I do go on my inevitable rampage).  However, in recent years there has been increasing pressure on a chap to hug other people – and not just those joined to us by links sanguineous.  I don’t think we can blame all of this upswing in clasping on either Guy Garvey or the McNamara brothers: there must be broader social forces at play.

For those carrying a Y-chromosome there may be a generational aspect to this need to embrace.  My father would not thank me were I to attempt to take him in a clinch, whereas with my brother-in-law it is de rigeur (despite the fact that he is much older than me).  However, it is those possessing a Roman score, chromosonally-speaking, that seem most keen to share a hug with the author – and I am not talking about youthful floozies here, these are ladies d’un certain âge and, one might hope, a commensurate maturity.  Why are they drawn into the ambit of my reluctant arms?  I have developed a number of theories which might explain the lure.

  • I, somehow, unconsciously exude the aura of a man uniquely skilled in the art of the embrace.  To be held, in my needlessly elongated arms, is to achieve some sort of nirvana of solace and be offered the very apogee of comfort.  I find this hypothesis unlikely – though have not formally polled even a modest sample of potential embracees.  I’ve tried hugging myself and it does very little for me – mostly it makes me acutely aware of how bony my arms are.  I suppose my arm length could be an attraction for the more generously-fleshed woman who wishes to be completely encircled, but this can only be true for a modest subset of those targetting me.
  • Could it be that the ladies just want to get up close and personal with my firm, gymnastics-sculpted body and that the hug is a social acceptable route to a little low level frottage?  Am I falling prey to a form of relatively innocent sexual harassment?  Has my dream of objectification finally come true?  Again, I have my doubts about this explanation – though entertaining it is doing wonders for my fragile ego.
  • Maybe I just look so bereft of love and affection that people are overcome by an urge to mother me?  I like to imagine that I ooze happy-go-lucky charm into the world, but perhaps some can see through this thin facade to perceive my inner torment.  Are all these hugs an attempt to offer a little consolation to yours truly?  Is this just the start of a more serious intervention?

None of these explanations seems entirely satisfactory, so perhaps the answer is ‘all of the above’?  However, recently many hugs have taken a more sinister turn with the object of my embrace seeking to introduce an osculatory element into the process.  So far, the target of foreign lips has been limited to my upper cheeks – but could this escalate further, if left unchecked?  Am I supposed to reciprocate and endure the rather unpleasant taste of foundation?  I may have to consider wearing a mask and claiming that I have been hideously disfigured (not too much of a stretch) in some sort of freak smooching accident.  Then again, would this just increase the desire to hold me tight?    I am seriously out of my depth here, people.  HELP!

… and release

In my younger days, I showed very little promise when it came to physical prowess.  When sports teams were picked at school, I could reliably expect to be chosen second (or, on a good day, third) from last: yes, I didn’t even reign supreme when it came to sporting uselessness.  In consequence, my rather tardy choice to attempt gymnastics, when few would be foolish enough to hazard such a course of action, delivers a regular stream of surprises and minor epiphanies.

When hard at work hanging from the rings or the bar, I often find that I don’t recognise my own body – it seems weirdly swollen, deformed or corded by the effort expended.  On the plus side, I do give very good “vein” which is much appreciated by the National Blood Service, but seems to have few other practical applications.  Over time, the once impossible becomes merely very difficult and ultimately can even feel quite restful (compared to the new impossible now being attempted).  There seem to be a number of components to making progress as a geriatric gymnast – though these only become apparent in retrospect.  A chap (or at least this chap) needs the following:

  • To develop a certain amount of strength and stamina – often in the most unlikely of places – before an action can be attempted.  Once the attempt is possible, the necessary anatomy does then start to adapt more rapidly to the demands placed upon it.
  • To gain sufficient confidence that a manoeuvre will not result in sustaining a terrible injury – which often comes down to working out how to safely exit an unwanted position in a hurry.
  • To work out how to lock parts of my body together (and to work out what they are doing when out of eyeshot) as most gymnasts seem to go for clean body lines and a minimum of flail.
  • The final element is to work out how to release the parts of my body which shouldn’t be locked.  This is usually the last part of any given progression to be mastered – it can take a long time to work out how to unlock just the muscles I want (and indeed to work out which ones these are).

As each activity is mastered, another harder one becomes available to try – and I have the impression that there is likely to be no end to this process.  As I achieve each new summit, a whole range of much higher peaks suddenly becomes visible.  Whilst this could be off-putting, I find it rather encouraging and pleasingly the continuing ascent requires very little equipment (though does benefit from high ceilings and a minimum of breakables within a nine foot radius). I don’t need to keep find heavier weights, just moving the dead-weight provided by my body slightly differently offers all the challenge I could ever need.

As the most discerning of regular readers might (perhaps) have realised (but don’t feel bad if the fact had passed you by), I am mildly obsessed by my trek through the foothills of gymnastics.  I have started looking for opportunities to see more advanced students in action – though I’m looking more for something impressive (that I might one day be able to try) than anything which would score 6.0 points in a formal setting.  In pursuit of this interest, I stopped off on the Southbank on my way home from Cambridge to visit the interior of a giant, inverted purple cow.  I was slightly disappointed to find the interior of the cow was even less anatomically accurate than its exterior, but still like to think of myself as being seated in the rumen (which is more roomy(rumy?) than the reticulum, omasum or abomasum).  This visit was not just to critique the veterinary research carried out by the Udderbelly Festival, but to see a show called Bromance.  This involved three young chaps of the sort of varying heights which that most famous of house-breakers, Goldilocks, would have found familiar (I think she would have plumped for Beren as the baby-bear analogue: I feel the dead hand of JRR Tolkein at his naming).  The piece involved the confluence of physical theatre, dance and circus-style gymnastics and was very entertaining (and daunting, if inspiring, for me).  I strongly suspect the theatre and dance elements existed (at least in part) to allow the cast to recuperate for/from the gymnastic elements – especially, as on the day I saw them they were onto their second performance by 18:00).  On the plus side, none of the lads seemed vastly more hench than me (and I could check as by the end they were down to their boxers – always handy for the audience member looking for training tips) which offers some hope – though all did seem more generously buttocked than I (something for me to work on, perhaps).  I also noticed that two of them sported bandaged knees, and one had some sort of shoulder support – so their mastery (and performative frequency) had not come without cost.  In addition to their far greater mastery of the art, I particularly noticed their skill with dynamic activities – whereas my strengths (such as they are) lie with the hold (it is more than enough challenge to achieve a hold, little resource remains to move around).  My own increased dynamism will have to await an increase in confidence: at the moment I have little faith that my body in motion will perform as desired (and the spatial volume which may be affected by failures will also increase significantly).

Anyway, I had not really expected all this mid-life idiocy to have any positive benefits to the rest of my life – well, except, perhaps, from keeping me from the ever weakening grip of the NHS for a little longer.  It turns out that I was wrong, as I learned at my singing lesson last Thursday.  One of my many major challenges with my plan to become a singer is my very poor breathing skills: I’m not at any obvious risk of turning blue, but singing does require a chap to breathe beyond the level of mere subsistence.  I have always tended to breathe from my chest, and even towards the sunlit uplands thereof, which is far from ideal: I should be breathing from rather lower down.  Well, on Thursday, I suddenly found I was breathing from the correct portion of my body (a portion I could feel complaining at the work thanks to that morning’s training session) – finally I was able to release the relevant muscles to breathe properly.  I’m not sure my singing has ever been better – despite the challenges of the roulade (which is not just a tasty desert).  I owe it all to gymnastics!  Or so I think (though I’ll admit that there may be easier to routes to improved breath control).

In Cygnus and in Health

I am so sorry, but it can’t all be quotes from nineteenth century French poets and, as I think we have established by now, I have rather poor impulse control.  As the title suggests to any taxonomists in the audience, I shall be writing about swans and injury (rather than illness, per se).

As firm hands pressed into my slightly yielding flesh last Friday, I found myself discussing whether the much vaunted statement that a “swan can break a man’s arm with its wing” could possibly be true.  The Mute Swan is large for a bird and can be pretty aggressive (I myself have been attacked whilst water-borne), but it is still pretty small compared to a man.  While it does have very strong shoulder (wing) muscles, it also has very light-weight, hollow bones and I fear would be a poor match for the human ulna or radius (and hasn’t a ghost of a chance against the sturdier humerus – which, sadly, is not the funny bone, though is quite close).  There is also likely to be a height issue as I don’t believe the attacking swan would be able to bring sufficient force to bear against the defensive arm if it were also flying.  So, as a starting point either the victim would have to bend-down or the swan would need to be standing on a box (I don’t think swans can perch – they’ve not got the feet for it).  Even with this (frankly improbable in any real world wing-on-arm engagement) assistance, I strongly suspect that the arm would emerge the victor.

In an attempt to over-turn the apparently inevitable defeat of the swan, I considered modifications to either of the combatants which might lead to a feathery triumph.  I did wonder if the arm was possessed by an elderly lady, and if she had been denied access to calcium-rich sustenance for some months before the trial, whether this would give the beaked challenger a shot at the prize.  I am concerned that the ethics committee, not to mention AgeUK, will probably have issues with me ever being allowed to test this theory.  We may just have to hope that random chance brings an osteoporosis sufferer into conflict with Cygnus olor and see what happens.

The alternative is to tackle the swan side of the equation.  I rejected bionic or exoskeletal enhancement as being (a) too expensive and (b) lying in the realms of science fiction.  The swan is not very elegant during take-off or landing and its flying style is designed for range rather than speed.  If we could accelerate the once ugly duckling to a greater velocity than it can achieve unaided, then this, combined with its not insubstantial mass, could provide the kinetic energy necessary to break a chap’s forearm.  Clearly, the swan would have to manoeuvre – or be lashed – so that it struck the target wing-first.  I originally considered a trebuchet or mangonel, but fear these may lack both the muzzle velocity or accuracy for our needs.  I think we must look to a mortar or heavy artillery piece as our launch mechanism – and I think we will have to insist that the swan is trussed-up pretty tightly to ensure that it doesn’t move in “flight” and interfere with the targetting.  A decent alternative would be to use a frozen swan – this would avoid in-transit flapping and increase the hardness of the bird (which will be a boon on impact).  I think, under these circumstances, I can guarantee victory for the swan – though given that it is unlikely to survive the experience it will be a rather pyrrhic one.  Given the fact that the Queen has nabbed all the swans on these isles (though presumably only the residents, surely she can’t claim migrants like the Bewick or Whooper?), any testing of this theory will have to take place at an off-shore black site – but there do seem to be plenty of these around (if it helps, I can try and source an orange jumpsuit for the swan).

So, in conclusion, I think a swan can break a man’s arm – but it will need help and, in my most promising scenario, would need to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.  Still, my avian friends, just think of the glory!

Après le Déluge

It has been a little quiet on here of late, and this is not entirely my fault.  As you will later see, I am placing some of the blame firmly with higher powers (or perhaps with a malicious butterfly).  Some portion of the causative liability does lie closer to home, and with the chronic insomnia that has afflicted the author, intermittently, for the last couple of decades.  My recent, prolonged estrangement from the restorative embrace of Morpheus has left me parted from my muse (or at least the get-up-and-go to translate limited inspiration to textual iron pyrites).  Some days, I do wonder if the bone-deep enervation, combined with such news as I fail to avoid, is nature’s way of telling me that I have passed my natural span and I should exit, stage left: it probably has been too long since last I visited the Swiss.  Still, last night I managed to achieve nearly eight hours of uninterrupted slumber for the first time in weeks and so will probably stick around for a little longer.  Annoyingly, when I did awake this morning, it interrupted a dream in which I was being effortlessly witty in front of an audience – something I rarely manage when awake (perhaps the jarring unreality of the hypnogogic state was what brought me back to reality?).

The last few days I have been lying awake in historic Cambridge: seeing friends and indulging in pursuits both cultural and physical.  It had been six months since my last visit, but the orgy of demolition and construction seems to have continued unabated (or even intensified).  Like London, it would seem that Cambridge is pricing out the claustrophobic young – but still offers reasonable value for any sardines seeking a flat share.  Do young sardines get given the key to the tin when they turn the fishy-equivalent of 21?  Or does that musing date me horribly?

In the wee, small hours of Friday morning, Cambridge was hit by a storm the likes of which I have never seen.  We had continuous thunder for several hours and a prolonged period over which the city was struck by 200+ bolts of lightning per minute.  I had a decent excuse for my sleeplessness, rather than the usual “cause unknown” (though having been between jobs for a little while, I think I must exonerate “the man”).  In the morning sunshine, the city looked rather beautiful with all the building and plants washed clean by the night’s precipitative excitement.    Sadly, this was not the only effect of the storm – with significant flooding across the city, including the basement parlour where my massage therapist plies his trade.  Luckily, the waters had been conquered by the modern day Knut by the time I had my massage later that afternoon and the (as always, odd) conversation with my therapist should generate several posts in the days to come.  The storm also took out the city council’s offices and had a rather serious impact on Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was staying in Sidney Sussex College – wisely on the first floor and so above any rising waters.  My room was perfectly comfortable – though with oddly few, badly-positioned power sockets, which must be an issue for the modern student – and the shared shower could offer a force of water to match the previous night’s storm.  The college is wonderfully central and offers a very generous breakfast – and, to-date, has always offered extremely stimulating breakfast conversation.  This time, with an american chap involved in the drafting of NAFTA, covering the Euro crisis and the different models of university on the two sides of the Atlantic.  I have never had a conversation in a proper hotel which can match those I’ve had in a Cambridge college refectory: it is almost worth paying for a night’s stay just for the breakfast.

The biggest impact the storm had on me (and, lest we forget, I am the important one here) was the damage to Cambridge University’s computing systems which meant that I was without internet access for most of Friday.  Even when it returned, it was generally slow and would not load the WordPress website at all (though was quite happy to serve any other site I attempted).  Is there some sort of long-term feud between WordPress and Cambridge University?  Have they published something slanderous about the VC?  Whatever the reason, I was actually unable to blog until I returned home: an enforced period of cold turkey (which I seem to have survived without obvious symptoms, so this is not an addiction – it must be a life-style choice).

It was lovely being back in Cambridge and I remember why I loved living there.  I also remembered some of the frustrations too: Saturday combined graduation with an enormous quantity of foreign language students and the usual shoppers making the city centre hideously busy.  I hid in a variety of bookshops, the Divinity School (aka The “Div” School – which gives a very different impression of its role) and a church before fleeing back towards the relative peace-and-quiet of London’s Southbank and thence home.  I think I could live in Cambridge again – if life were to take me that way – but there is now a lot about Southampton and it environs that I would miss.  My new city has quietly wormed its way into my affections and become home.

The title for this return to the blog, continues the occasional (and largely ignored) conceit of using foreign titles: on this occasion turning to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (never played by Sly Stallone, so far as I know) and his thematically rather apt work of the same name.

The Boar’s Head

Please read the title carefully and so understand that this will not be a post about the fountainhead of GofaDM.  No, I shall be musing about different approaches to the concept of hospitality in our debased, market-obsessed age.  I shall be illustrating these musings – using words rather than a slideshow or an ill-advised excursion into the visual arts – by reference to some of my activities over the last weekend (and probably some other entirely gratuitous material which takes my fancy).

From humble beginnings, hospitality is now often described – including by its corporate practitioners – in unhappy conjunction with the word ‘industry’.  While the word has a fairly broad definition, I still feel that the phrase ‘industrial hospitality’ is not one liable to induce warm feelings in those exposed to its activities.  The head of a boar was, of course, considered a symbol of hospitality from its more halcyon days – today, the head of an accountant might be more appropriate.

Later this week, I shall be visiting Cambridge for the first time in almost six months and so have booked some accommodation: despite the milder temperatures July affords, I decided against sleeping rough.  When I travel – whether for business or pleasure – my hotel (or equivalent) needs to provide a bed (preferably comfy), a small amount of hanging space, some basic ablutional facilities and free wifi (or, at least a decent 4G signal from Three).  Anything beyond these basics is a bonus, but has little economic value to me: I have not travelled to visit the hotel, I’m there to “do” something(s) in the locale and need a place to rest my weary, activity-tousled head at the end of the day.  In Cambridge, during term-time my needs are satisfied by one of the local Travelodges which offer en-suite ablutions and a desk, chair and television above requirements (but do charge for wifi, so I use my mobile phone as a hot-spot).  When the students are away, I stay in one of the colleges which offer varying facilities but easily meet my minimum requirements and provide a substantial breakfast in the refectory (plus a chance to wallow in nostalgia for my bright college days).  This rarely sets me back more than £50 per night – but even within Cambridge, I could pay as much as £600 for a hotel room.  What can they possibly be offering that would be worth an extra £550 every night?  How much extra furniture, floor space or additional, fluffier towels can one man use in 20 hours (or so)?  I suppose they might have a gym, but one can readily acquire a DayPass at a much better-equipped local gym for less than a tenner.  In fact, I struggle to think of any combination of additional equipment or services that such an expensive hotel could offer that I couldn’t acquire vastly more cheaply from an alternative local supplier.

On Saturday, I took afternoon tea at a rather posh hotel a short cycle ride from New Milton station (just across the New Forest from my home).  If I wanted a room for the same dates as I shall be staying in Cambridge, I would need to find £800 per night – though this would be in a ‘treehouse suite’ (more a wood and glass structure, raised above ground level on one side, than my idea of a treehouse).  This does provide a forest view and terrace (with hot tub), among other features – but given that I could take a decent holiday to almost any European forest for the cost of a single night’s stay, this is not making for a compelling commercial proposition.  The hotel does have some rather pleasant grounds and not one but two helipads(!), but could not offer a single decent Sheffield stand for the visitor to secure his bike (only the very inferior and insecure style where your front wheel is held in a ‘V’ of thin metal, open to the elements).  Luckily, my expression of dismay when faced with the poor cycle security was noticed by one of the porters who offered to valet park my bike somewhere more secure (and under cover).

Afternoon tea was perfectly pleasant – and did allow me to enjoy the grounds, and particularly the kitchen garden (I am turning into my parents) at a very reasonable rate – but did seem to have been designed to a budget.  The rather odd combination of an attempt at luxury and the fact that every sandwich soldier, mini scone and cake had clearly been counted and the jam and cream portions precisely measured.  In fact, as a table of six we had to share three teapots (one for each type of the three teas selected) but only two strainers and only a single small saucer of jam.  Their attempt to mix the feeling of extravagance with this accountant-led, thrift was oddly jarring.  Still, I didn’t really go for the tea or the hotel but rather for the sparkling company (not provided by the hotel) who made it a very enjoyable afternoon.

I fled this slightly ersatz luxury by bike and rail for, in theory, much more basic surroundings at the Courthouse in Eastleigh.  This is, among other things, a performance space for music and provides studios for a number of artists.  It is sited in the old magistrate’s court and is a tad tricky to find (not helped by my expectations of a white neo-Pallandian edifice – rather than the squat, modern grey-brick building I eventually encountered via the miracle of GPS).  The Courthouse makes no pretensions towards luxury, but for my money made a much better stab at hospitality than its temporal predecessor.  It too lacked bike stands, but my bicycle was quickly stowed in a corridor out of the way.  The staff were very welcoming – as was the foyer’s greyhound who certainly made me feel wanted (I have yet to meet a greyhound both without the sweetest of natures or more than two brain cells to rub together).  The Courthouse doesn’t have a licence (for £2 you can bring as much liquor from home as you like) but does offer a range of snacks and supplied me with a bottle of water to slake my post-cycle ride thirst for only 50p (which may be the cheapest soft drink I have bought in many years).  The furniture in the foyer – and the two courtrooms used as venues – may not shout luxury hotel (but might be able to say boutique hotel in a stage whisper) and certainly didn’t all match but it was very comfy.  There is even a small art gallery to visit while you wait for the gig to start.  The whole place has a wonderfully friendly and informal feel.

The gig itself was a line-up of three talented guitarists with a range of styles which I enjoyed from one of the most comfortable seats upon which I have ever had the pleasure to rest my buttocks (it must be in the top three): I even had heaps of legroom!  The venue is literally a courtroom and you can still see the raised platform on which the judge and other court officials used to sit, though disappointingly no sign of the dock.  It was a very convivial evening, though apparently in the winter visitors might be advised to bring a coat and gloves.

Given the choice between the high-cost, industrial hospitality of an upmarket hotel and the low-cost, ‘craft’ hospitality of an arts centre, I’ll take the latter every time (future dates should considered themselves warned!).  It seems to me that the rich (or at least some of them) really do have more money than sense!