A Musical Chain

Before we start, it seems worth noting that this far-from-august organ has been in existence for five years.  Who, back in 2010, would have thought it?  What pointless commitment to a rather foolish idea this demonstrates: if only I could generate the same long-term dedication to something more useful.  So, that little bit of admin over, let us proceed with post 675!

I should start by making clear that I have no intention of impinging on the copyright of Messrs Radcliffe and Maconie: rather than linking tracks, I shall be linking gigs through the interstitial medium of my own life.  Southampton has a surprisingly vibrant cultural scene, but does work quite hard to conceal this fact from the casual (or merely mildly determined) viewer.  I am becoming better connected, largely by using social media to stalk any individual, group or organisation that, by lucky chance, I discover – but this is a slow old process.  It would seem that most use social media to share images of themselves, their food or children and to shore-up their political beliefs and share videos of cats: I seem to mis-use it terribly by sharing bad jokes and attempting to find interesting gigs – but I don’t seem to be breaking any rules, so I shall continue with my slightly outré take on the virtual world.

Still, the last ten days have been pretty fruitful when it comes to finding live music.  It started, as so much does, at the Arthouse Cafe with my first visit to a Three Monkeys gig.  This involves three, unrelated guitarists who each play a song.  This is repeated three times, followed by an interval and then another 3×3 set of songs.  This is a very entertaining format and occurs every month – so I’ve only missed 24 or so.  At the end, I discovered that an Oxjam gig was taking place the following day in a vault beneath Southampton High Street – not much notice, but better than the negative notice which often accompanies my discovery of local culture (which is less than helpful given that my best wormhole, to date, has only allowed a worm to move a short distance within space).

The Oxjam gig involved a series of ‘acts’ playing a ~30 minute set across the afternoon and evening.  A broad range of music was covered, though mostly involving stringed instruments and remaining within sight (albeit sometimes aided by binoculars) of the folk genre.  A lot of fun, if a lot of standing up, and a chance to see half-a-dozen acts before I was forced to retire (a wise decision as my walk home just managed to beat the start of the monsoon which has been such a major characteristic of the end of August 2015).  Most significantly, the gig introduced me to a local singer-songwriter called Jack Dale and another two CDs were added to my collection.  I also discovered that another charitable gig involving a line-up of local, musical talent was taking place the following Sunday (or ‘yesterday’ as I now like to call it – but only for another twelve hours or so) at a pub just a short walk from Fish Towers.

I rather enjoyed spending the afternoon in a dank vault as the last of the summer’s sun beat down on those foolish enough to be outside.  No need to worry about UV protection for me!  However, I can’t help feeling that Oxfam would have done a little better financially had the gig been more widely publicised: it was rather sparsely attended and I only found out about it by chance (and would like to view myself as fairly core, potential audience).

Yesterday (see above), the Big Gig at The Shooting Star – a pub with a bar billiards table (among other delights), a rare sight in these debased times – was huge fun (and, I was even able to spend much of it sitting down).  The three bands on the bill, included two fronted by soloists seen the previous week at Oxjam.  The Horse – fronted by the aforementioned Jack Dale – were particularly entertaining and meant that I ended the night with a smile on my face (and once again, a lucky return home just before the heavens opened: I feel I’m going to pay for this continuing good fortune at some stage).    Another two CDs also managed to sneak their way into my flat: this burgeoning habit might start becoming a storage issue if I’m not careful.

The chain of musical events will continue on 3 October, which I now know to be Music in the City: where live music fills all manner of odd spaces across Southampton (and of which I’ve only missed two through complete ignorance of their existence).  I can only hope that this in turn reveals more musical events which have so far been hidden from my insufficiently curious gaze…

I have a dream

Well, if I’m being more honest, “I had a dream”.  This did not involve the aspiration that people would cease being vile to each other on the trivial grounds of how recently (and, indeed, willingly) their ancestors left Africa: I fear humanity is rather too attached to its mutual hatred to give it up during my limited span upon this Earth.  In consequence, I seriously doubt that even a single US state will create a public holiday as a result of this post – though, if any are interested, please feel free to go ahead!  No, my dream relates to my attempts to sojourn in the arms of Morpheus this night just gone.

I am fully aware that other people’s dreams are, if possible, of even less general interest than their baby photos and holiday snaps (though Facebook and its ilk are a brave attempt to fly in the face of this particular, undeniable truth), so I shall try and move swiftly through the dream-world and onto the conclusion (I deliberate avoid the world “punchline”).

As I lay in my hypnogogic state, it would seem that I was on a train journey – but one which was delayed by an unspecified, or now forgotten, incident.  In an attempt to avoid the incident, my train reversed for some distance and then took to the sea to bypass the problem.  Obviously, it remained close to shore – a modern EMU rake is not designed for operation in the open ocean (even a dream must maintain some contact with reality).  High above the sea flew winged men (but no women – this may say something very deep about my subconscious views on female flight-worthiness or be an attempt to retain a PG rating for my slumber as all the flying folk were bare-chested). Their wings had more of the condor about them than the angelic, replacing their arms, and they flew in a manner appropriate to their feathery appendages – no doubt riding thermals from the nearby cliffs.  As well as these flying men, their were also swans which dove – gannet-like – into the briny.  They emerged from the sea in a manner more reminiscent of an ICBM than a bird – it was really quite a remarkable thing to behold.

Even now, I can remember what I thought as I dreamt – still believing, as dreamers often do, that the matters described above were real – that this fascinating behaviour, by a hitherto unknown member of genus Cygnus, would make for a great blog post.  It would seem that even when dreaming, part of my brain is working on content for GofaDM – perhaps there is even another, parallel blog which exists only in the dream world?  Sadly, of course, none of this was real and so I was left with no new material from which to form a post – and so the hunt for fresh inspiration must continue…

Narrative commitment

Many years ago, I was accused by a colleague of trying to turn everything into a narrative – well, man is the story-telling ape (among other less complimentary epithets). Some of this urge is now sublimated through this very blog, but the urge remains strong.  I was recently reminded of one of the longest running of my personal narratives and have decided to regale you, poor reader, with the story.

I have not drunk milk since I was roughly eleven years old and, until fairly recently, as an adult only had it in the house if I was expecting visitors (and had remembered that most people expect milk to be available).  This can be traced back to an incident which occurred on my first French exchange trip to Boulogne.  The word ‘exchange’ is used in an unusual way here as my own body and that of a French youth of similar age were never actually swapped – at the time of all the exchanges (between three and four), our two bodies shared a residence: either his parents’ house or mine.

I was ‘exchanged’ at an abnormally young age as I was relatively good at French (compared to my fellow secondary modern students) and my French teacher (actually English) lacked issue of his own.  His counterpart, an English teacher (actually French) in France had a son my age and so he found himself in need of a suitable ‘swap’ – and I was apparently the best available option.  So, armed with a few verbs, limited vocabulary and whatever I had gleaned from Longman’s Audio-Visual French (and the doings of Marie-France, Jean-Paul and Claudette), I found myself as a guest of a French family in exotic Boulogne (well, it was exotic to me – but then I’d never left the mainland UK before).

Veiled as it is by the mists of time, I seem to recall that this whole Fish-out-of-water scenario went reasonably well and I managed to resist the urge to bring a flick-knife back into the UK (the very pinnacle of criminality back in 1978).  I do remember that my one-and-only attempt to play golf occurred on one of these trips – but clearly it was not successful enough for me to ever repeat it.  I also recall that the French students of English were obsessed by the relative merits of the words ‘shall’ and ‘will’ in sentence construction and I fear I could offer little in the way of enlightenment.

However, the relevance to today’s tale comes at meal-times.  At this stage, I had little experience of foreign food (though given this was 1970s Britain, you might think that anything would be an improvement on my local cuisine) but mostly handled the French offerings somewhat successfully.  My only major issue was with the mashed potatoes, which were not at all to my liking – and some measure of my disgust must have become apparent to my hosts.  Madame revealed that their creation involved milk, and so latching onto a convenient excuse ‘revealed’ that I didn’t like milk.  This was not, at the time, a true statement – but I felt it offered a polite route to a mashed potato-free diet without causing offence.

To maintain this fiction, I had to ensure I was never caught actually consuming milk while staying in Boulogne or when my French counterpart was staying with me in Kent.  Such is my level of commitment to this particular lie that from that day to this (almost forty years later), I have never drunk milk: well, you never know who might be watching and could carry word back to the staff of the Lycée Mariette.

Over time, the lie became true and I soon found milk to be nauseating – especially when warmed.  I consumed my breakfast cereal ‘moistened’ with the aid of yoghurt – which, in a cost-saving measure, my mother made at home.  This would often go a little fizzy, but I would still be expected to use it (in some ways, I came to prefer it): I have now come to realise that I may have been putting kefir on my cereal and so was probably slightly inebriated for a portion of my secondary school life.  After leaving home for university, I stopped drinking tea to further expunge milk from my diet.  Later, I realised that tea could be consumed black and so have returned to enjoying an infusion of the dried leaves of Camilla sinensis.  Today, I am even able to tolerate milk in my porridge and cocoa – but tend to go for a heavily-skimmed version which is, frankly, more water than milk.  At no stage did my invented antipathy towards milk spread to other dairy products – i.e. cheese, cream and yoghurt – which I have always loved and consumed in quantity.

I think what this story tells us is that ‘Yes, I will lie to you’ but that I will really commit to that falsehood.  You have been warned!

Spoken Word

GofaDM lies, almost exclusively, tied to the written medium in which it was created.  Despite this handicap, readers should not feel embarrassed to read it out loud – nor even to arrange soirées at which treasured extracts are read aloud and shared with an audience of right-minded folk (obviously, if money changes hands at such events, I shall expect to receive a cut).  Perhaps I should consider preparing an audiobook version of this blog?  This could attract those with fading (or faded) eyesight, that class of folk unwilling to commit to the effort of reading themselves and drivers others.

But that is, very much, by the by.  This post will instead form my final dispatch from the Edinburgh Fringe (you do know that I can hear you cheering, even at the back).  The Fringe brochure does have a very modest section entitled Spoken Word – but has much larger sections entitled Comedy and Theatre.  In my experience, both comedy and theatre do involve the verb “to speak” being applied rather directly and repeatedly to the the noun “word”.  For the avoidance of doubt, I shall be applying the title to cover theatre and poetry and the strange shadowlands that lie between.

One of the joys of the Fringe is the huge range of spoken word (my definition) on offer, usually (for budgetary reasons) with a cast of two or fewer.  One can see in a week a bigger range than is usually possible in a year: the challenge is always in the selection and the regret about the ones that “got away”: either from a failure of discovery or excess discovery by others (i.e. sold out weeks in advance).  Below are my recommendations from this year’s Fringe:

  • The Solid Life of Sugar Water: a two-handed play by Jack Thorne.  Given the bleakness of the material, it is about a couple dealing with the death of a child, this play has a lot of laughs – and I coped rather better emotionally than many fellow attendees.  I like to believe that it ended with a slight hint of hope for the future – but this may just be part of my own coping mechanism.  The staging is very clever and the two actors were both disabled: she was deaf (as required by the script) and he was largely missing one forearm (not mentioned in the play, so far as I noticed).  This made me realise how rare this is to see – especially where the disability isn’t a primary focus of the ‘action’.  In the real world, people with such ‘minor’ disabilities are far more common than you could guess from stage or screen – much like women and ethnic minorities and with as little excuse (though even less pushback).  Something to bear in mind in my own future theatre-going.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family by Ben Norris.  I can’t remember how I discovered Ben Norris (I don’t think he’s been on The Verb, so it must have been via Twitter) but this was my first chance to see him live.  The piece fuses theatre and poetry (and slide-show) very cleverly and was really enjoyable.  In a normal year, it would have been my poetry highlight, but this year was eclipsed by…
  • What I learned from Johnny Bevan by Luke Wright.  I’ve seen Luke’s poetry sets before, but this turned poetry into theatre and was at a whole new level.  Luke is a surprisingly decent actor (and can carry-off a top-knot with surprising élan) and the play is incredibly powerful, despite the very simple staging (and perhaps enhanced by the amazing venue at Summerhall – one time veterinary college).  This has rightly obtained very good reviews, though tickets were still surprisingly easy to obtain last week.
  • Stay at Home Dandy by Luke Wright.  After WILFJB, both Luke and I (separately) high-tailed it across Edinburgh to the Underbelly for his other show (the boy does like a challenge!).  This was a more traditional poetry set about his life on the school run, but is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.
  • This Will End Badly by Rob Hayes.  Once actor plays three characters, switching between them apparently at random (I suspect there may be more pattern than this, but I’d have to watch it more times to be sure) each in problematic situations.  The three characters have different accents and mannerisms which helps the audience to keep up, but you do need to concentrate.  Another powerful piece and a veritable torrent of words.  I saw it directly before Luke Wright’s two shows and by the end of this spoken word ‘trilogy’ and the level of concentration needed, I think my brain was starting to ooze out through my ears.

I find it even harder to select spoken word shows than stand-up (there is less chance to catch  works via YouTube, TV or radio – or I don’t know where to look) and I am more dependent on reviews or following writers or theatre companies whose work I have enjoyed in the past.  I guess 80% of this year’s highlights were from writers whose work I somewhat knew and the other came via a review – otherwise, the range on offer is just too great.  Still, this feels like an area of cultural life in which I should try and do better  and expand my horizons (it’s usually inexpensive, so no excuse there) – and not just at Edinburgh!

Self-medicating

It has often been said, mostly by those with no medical training, that laughter is the best medicine.  While I was up in Edinburgh, I developed a cold (OK, as this did not involve a lab and a team of rogue geneticists perhaps I should say a caught one) and I am unconvinced that any over-the-counter ‘medicines’ have any positive impact on the progress of the virus (except – if I’m lucky – for acting as a brief palliative).  However, my location and the time of year did mean that I did extensively self-medicate with comedy.  The cold proved very mild and the worst of the symptoms swiftly passed – could this be down to my frequent laughter?  Or was this purely coincidental?  As I am unwilling to be infected with multiple cold viruses and then ‘treated’ with varying degrees and styles of comedy we will probably never know – sorry folks, my commitment to the advancement of scientific knowledge only stretches so far.

Despite my obviously overweening self-regard, I do realise that the vast majority of the readership of this blog will not be visiting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  However, this is also true for significantly more august organs with a much wider readership and the fact doesn’t stop them – and so it won’t stop me.  Plus, I do have an actual reader request for my comedy highlights!  And, you never know, these funny folk may visit a venue near you one day…

So, in no particular order (though I have not properly randomised the list) are my favourite ‘acts’ from those I saw over the last week.

  • Kieran Hodgson (FF): this is the third year I’ve seen Kieran’s one man show, in which he tells a story playing all of the characters.  The bad news (for me) is that his genius has now been recognised by others, including a 5* review in The Guardian, which may make him rather harder to see in future (or it may involve arriving very early to be sure of a seat).
  • John Robins: probably my 5th or 6th visit to his Edinburgh shows.  He really is a very funny performer, mining two-and-half relatively minor incidents for a full hour of laughs.
  • Brett Goldstein: my first time, inspired by seeing SuperBob earlier in the year.  He was a lot of fun, and surprisingly soft-spoken given that when he is invariable cast as a thug when you see him acting.
  • George Egg: almost a speciality act with jokes.  George cooked a full, three course meal using only the equipment you find in a typical hotel room. e.g. iron, kettle, trouser price etc.  At a time when many struggle to microwave an instant meal, the man should be an inspiration to us all – and perhaps placed on the National Curriculum.  His poached sea bass was glorious and you will never look at a wire coat-hanger in quite the same way again.
  • Max and Ivan: incredibly funny, apocalyptic story-telling.
  • Alfie Brown: inspired to see him following his interview on ComComPod.  Very funny and the finest Derby accent you will ever hear (including in Derby!).
  • Stuart Goldsmith (FF): I’ve seen and loved all of his Edinburgh shows.  This was his first time on the Free Fringe and he seemed much more relaxed and the show was excellent.  Arrive early as it tends to fill-up.
  • Nick Doody (FF): effortlessly funny, intelligent comedy.  I think we can all see why I’m not paid as a critic – this is nearly as bad as writing “satisfactory progress” in a school report, but Nick was brilliant and criminally under-attended last Tuesday.

It was great to see some old ‘friends’ doing well, some newer discoveries and some acts entirely new to me this year.  None of the people I saw are massively famous (as far as I know – be aware, this does not preclude massive fame) and it is hard to see the character comedy, in particular, working as well on radio or TV.  As I grow ever more ancient, I become increasingly convinced that comedy works best seen live and preferably in a small, sweaty venue – somehow it loses something important on the television and in larger spaces and even, sometimes, on radio (which is the medium that introduced me to comedy).  In so many parts of the country, it seems so hard to see a broad range of comedy – and, particularly, the full hour scale shows which can be important for more narrative acts.  I usually have to travel to London or Edinburgh to see old friends or expand my comedy horizons – a situation not helped by the fact that the ‘industry’ seems to believe that comedy should start late in the evening with little thought for those who have to catch the last train home (and the rail industry’s view that this last train should be well before 10pm unless it departs from London).

I always suspect that live comedy is missing a substantial, albeit latent, audience who are put off by the difficulty of seeing so many acts and the late nights and/or additional hotel costs which even the keen must endure.  Then again, I am broadly recognised as slightly odd and so generalising from my own experience may be fiscally irresponsible.   Nevertheless, if I had a larger parlour (and owned a few more chairs), I would be tempted to book acts myself and then attempt to defray the costs across an audience of 20 or so friends or acquaintances (or total strangers with cash – though this may cause issues with my lease): I suspect a couple of hundred quid (plus standard-class rail travel) would be enough to tempt many to indulge in a mid-week visit to the south coast.  I suppose I could rent a space – but this increases the costs and so would require improved marketing to boost the audience and keep my costs down.  Then again, how much can a church hall or pub room cost?  I think I shall investigate: if things go well, I could have a whole new career as a live comedy promoter!

Bread and circuses

Before we proceed with the main agenda of today’s post, I felt it was time to inject a little, much-needed structure into the madcap anarchy that usually typifies GofaDM.  So, let’s start with Matters Arising from the last post.

Having boasted of my skill and perspicacity in organising a rather successful trip to the Athens of the North, I feel I should perhaps give a little credit to mother nature (you really don’t want to end up on the wrong side of Gaia).  The weather in Edinburgh was unusually clement – so much so that I began to regret my failure to pack sunscreen (or a parasol).  According to the natives, this was not typical of summer 2015 as a whole and, in my brief visit, I estimate that I experienced more than 40% of the actual summer.  The sun is not always a friend to the Fringe-goer as the venues have a tendency to become rather toasty (and, indeed, sweaty) if the mercury rises by even a modest degree.  Here again, years of practice came to my aid and I chose to spend my whole Festival in shorts, thus gifting the general public with 360° views of my all-too-rarely exposed calves and shins (despite the potential provocation, swooning was, fortunately, kept to a minimum).  This additional exposed flesh seemed to work wonders for my body’s temperature regulation – well, either that or the Fringe have become better at venue cooling.  And now, that little piece of business out of the way, we can return to the main agenda.

Despite the title, I should prepare any lovers of the baker’s art for disappointment now.  Loaf-lovers will find little succour for their obsession here as I shall be concentrating on the expanse of title lying to the right of its conjunction.  At this year’s Fringe, I took in twenty-five shows over my six-and-a-half day visit – but this included four that might be considered to fall within the genre of circus.  This might not seem that many to you, but it exceeds in number all the circus-based entertainment I had attended in my adult life prior to that point.

When I say circus, you can keep your jugglers, fire-eaters, clowns and any animals whose participation remains morally viable: I’m really just interested in the gymnastic and/or acrobatic elements of the modern circus, basically, I’m looking for inspiration or tips.  The four shows were all very different, with a wide range of feats performed and a variety of approaches taken to link the physical feats together (and give the performers a brief opportunity to rest).  I could thoroughly recommend them all.

Something – a curious name for a show (does one go to the box office and ask for an hour of something?) – was the most approachable of the four shows, i.e. a few of the feats I can almost do and rather more I can imagine one day attempting.  It used the floor, tables and a ring or chain suspended from above.  The more physical elements were linked by slapstick and comedy and there were lots of costume changes – it definitely provided the most laughs of the four shows.

La Meute – used a lot of props, and in particular a lethal looking all-metal swing (constructed of something akin to scaffold poles).  This involved the cast being flung scarily into the air before summersaulting back down to a landing pad.  It also included some comedy (albeit of a slightly curious, French nature) and the male cast performed the whole show wearing only towels (which miraculously did not fall off – I can’t even keep a towel on whilst shaving).  I will not be attempting any of this in the near – or even distant – future: far too much need for split-second timing and risk of being smacked with extreme force somewhere painful (or worse) by a scaffold pole.  Irritatingly, most of the cast demonstrated that they could also sing or play a range of musical instruments as well as perform such extraordinary acts of physical derring-do.  I had thought that I was unique in trying to learn to sing and be a gymnast at the same time.

You – another oddly named show – had a single performer, ex of the Cirque du Soleil (which I know only via an episode of The Simpsons).  He used more limited equipment – a Swiss ball, some books and a frame with some long straps hanging down.  He maintained quite an odd monologue through most of the show – which given that I can barely speak having performed much more basic activities was rather impressive (even if the content revealed some substantial gaps in his understanding of nuclear physics and genetics).  He did do a few things which I might aim towards (and many far more impressive ones which may have to await my reincarnation into a more flexible form) – but he will not be invited to use my library given his treatment of his own books.  The show was good, but rather strange with a finale involving a lot of pudding rice and the audience being invited to throw it around on stage.

Limbo – was the last, and most expensive, of the shows I saw.  It also had the largest cast and set and included sword swallowing and fire-eating – which I will admit is quite impressive (and very hot) when you are seeing it from the second row.  It covered almost all the physical feats I have seen in previous circus acts, but generally added at least one little extra twist.  There was an extraordinary section where five of the cast were atop flexible poles swinging together and out into the audience which I have never seen before (and won’t be trying at home).  However, by far the most impressive element of the show was the most flexible man I have ever seen in my life.  I can only assume he must live a dairy-free life (an existence I am not willing to copy) and has no bones at all.  Not only flexible but incredibly strong in what seem impossible and unstable positions.  His acrobatics manoeuvres were the most impressive to me as they started without momentum – and I don’t feel the audience gave him the credit he deserved (showier colleagues gained the greater plaudits).

I rather fear that I am becoming obsessed by the circus: so many new feats to try (one day) or at least at which to take (very distant) aim.  If nothing else, I will be rather more diligent at working on my flexibility and stretching in the weeks to come.  I also found that the circus shows made an excellent counterpoint to the wordier fare which made up my other Fringe-going (and this very blog).  Should I be adding a more physical element to GofaDM, do you think?

Fringe mastery

I believe this may be my tenth year of coming up to Edinburgh in August to see the Fringe and, sometimes, a little of the Festival to which it forms a rather overgrown adjunct.  However, as I type this racing south by train, I feel this is the first year that I have truly mastered the experience (obviously, mistressy remains an even higher standard, but one which will ever lie beyond my reach).

This hard-worn mastery has a number of components which, as the more prescient or fatalistic reader will have realised, I am going to reveal to you (whilst studiously avoiding use of the phrase ‘life hack’ – except just then).

Let’s start, as some actors do, with the feet.  Enjoying the Fringe does involve a lot of walking around: most of it up hill and much of it over cobbled ground.  This can – and, in the past, did – play havoc with a chap’s feet and ankles.  This year, in one of those flashes of insight which is such a rare visitor to my intra-auricular void, I travelled north with the perfect footwear solution.  What are these wonder-shoes?  They are a pair of New Balance 1060s, bought several years ago as urban walking shoes: but rarely used.  They entered my life just as I started cycling everywhere and they make for a poor cycling shoe.  As a result, they have lain forgotten at the back of the wardrobe for several years – just waiting their chance to shine.  Shine they most certainly did – taking hills and cobbles in my stride.  Never have I left Auld Reekie with such undamaged feet.  I’ll admit that they lack style – and whilst gloriously breathable (a boon in the hot and sweaty venues that characterise the Fringe) are not the ideal companions in heavy rain or deep water – but they have more than repaid my faith in them.  No longer will they be mocked by more obviously popular footwear in my wardrobe: they have (finally) found their niche.

Next, I shall turn my attention to the duration of the visit.  I started at a mere couple of nights and have gone as far as a fortnight.  This year I went with a week – and I feel that is the perfect length.  Enough time to indulge thoroughly in the delights on offer, but not so much time that the physical and mental toll on the visitor becomes excessive.  To avoid missing out on too much on offer, in the weeks prior to Edinburgh I caught a number of acts previewing their shows – which is also quite a thrifty option (special thanks must go to ARGCOMfest and the BAC).

This year, I also decided that you may have a very fine show – but if it starts after 22:00 it will not be graced(clumsied?) by my presence.  I now miss the last bus home for no man (or woman) – and so can generally have my head in contact with pillow by midnight.

It is generally best to avoid buying beer in most of the paid Fringe venues – the choice for the connoisseur is limited and prices are higher (£4.00-£4.50 per pint!).  The Free Fringe or Fringe-free venues are a better bet with prices falling to £3.90 (that I have lived to see the day when £3.90 seems a relatively reasonable price for a pint) and a much better range of session ales on offer.  This year, I acquired a cold mid-way through my visit – though my immune system has already (almost) sent it packing – so on health grounds, during the day, I switched from beer to black tea for my liquid refreshment requirements.  This was a much cheaper option and must shoulder much of the blame for my current abnormally healthful state.

This year my events formed a rather pleasing balance between comedy, spoken word and circus (of which, more in later posts).  In the past, I think I have tended to over-emphasise comedy and it can all become a something of a blur – but adding circus made for a much more balanced(!) mix.  I also spread myself across a wide range of venues and between the Free and paid Fringe – though, in general, I pay as much (or more) for the Free Fringe – so the latter is rarely the cheaper option.

The final element is my growing knowledge of where to find some decent food or a refreshing session ale when one is called for.   This year’s discovery was Malone’s – an unexpectedly spacious and architecturally-interesting Irish bar which is handily close to several Fringe venues.  Here, standing on the gallery, I took in the second half of the England-France rugby match and indie music from the Free Fringe.  Not a combination which would generally be wise, but it was time-saving and did make for an enjoyable end to an evening out.

ECML

For those unfamiliar with this not-quite-an-acronym, it stands for the East Coast Mainline – the railway that links London to Edinburgh and, some might say, goes on to Aberdeen.  For my money – and as they don’t allow me to ride it for free, it is my money – this is one of the world’s great railway journeys.  It may lack vistas of majestic wildebeest or snow-capped mountain ranges but the traveller gazing out of the window is still offered a smorgasbord of visual treats, albeit of a more understated nature.

Some may feel that the eastern side of the country is boring and flat – and while the latter descriptor may have some truth (a truth probably rather less apparent to the cyclist on the ground) it is far from boring.  For the power station buff, almost the full range of UK generation options is visible – from examples of coal, gas and nuclear powered stations to solar farms (a poor choice of word, as the sun isn’t grown there, merely harvested) and a veritable plethora of windmills.  As the train heads north, the sights (perhaps) grow more obviously dramatic.  As you leave York, there is often a chance to see a steam train in action round the back of the National Railway Museum.  Inspirational views then come thick-and-fast:

  • Durham opens the bidding with the stunning double-header of castle and minster,
  • Newcastle responds with the Tyne and its bridges
  • Alnmouth, a more distant view, raises the stakes and is just one of the most beautiful places on earth (I like to think on a parallel earth, another me is living there)
  • Berwick offers the Tweed followed by a spectacular cliff-top ride before…
  • The final stretch into Edinburgh closes the bidding with rising hills and views of the Firth of Forth.

Flying may be faster, and often cheaper – assuming you have minimal luggage (always my own, personal aim) and little need for liquids or blades (and I always feel naked north of the border without at least a Claymore at my hip) – but it cannot compete in the viewing stakes.  The country seen from the air has a certain novelty value (and is something few of my ancestors could have experienced), but I like the chance to be up-close and personal with a view.  In most flights, at some stage the Captain (or his First Officer) will come over the intercom and hope that we are enjoying the flight.  I always feel ‘enduring’ would be a better word as I’m strapped into a cramped, uncomfortable seat in a metal tube many feet above the ground.  On short flights, there is no entertainment laid on – except for the safety demonstration – and the food is generally unimpressive and expensive.  Any fun that exists will be of my own making – and could have been arranged and enjoyed more readily at home.

The train is (at its best) a very different story: more space to sit and move around with an ever-rolling vista to enjoy out of the window.  You can carry bags full of knives and carry your own bowser and nobody bats an eyelid.  Travelling first class (as is my tendency for longer distances), I enjoy plenty of legroom and (by booking in advance) can easily eat and drink the modest difference in cost over ‘standard’ accommodation.  I think the railways – away from commuter routes – have managed to maintain a little more of their historic romance than the airlines: though a lot has still fallen by the wayside over the years and was probably only available to the rich, even in the past.  I do worry that the economic inequality of today is not generating the same level of romance as its counterpart from yesteryear (or perhaps it just needs the passage of time to work its magic – but I have my doubts).

I have ridden the ECML a lot over the years: for a while I commuted weekly between Newcastle and London and more recently have visited Edinburgh several times each year.  The glory days were under GNER – when, by talking to the staff, I learned how to walk safely along a moving train and discovered that serving food and drink to passengers in First Class was a decent job (it may still be, but I’ve not had such detailed conversations with the “on-train team” in recent years).  Sadly, those days are long gone, poor old GNER was finished off by issues in its parent company: this remains one of life’s little tragedies and a useful reminder that privatised rail companies don’t have to be dreadful.  I fear I may be viewing GNER through the same rose-tinted glasses as an earlier generation views LNER: so if anyone knows that it was actually a dreadful corporation, please take pity on an old codger and keep this knowledge to yourself.  Anyway, I must accept that those days have gone – and I must say that VTEC (the current franchisee) laid on a very fine journey north last Wednesday.

As a result of my somewhat regular transits, the ECML route is very familiar to me and arriving into London, Newcastle and Edinburgh all have the feel of a home-coming of sorts.  In fact, I have come to realise that, for me, many journeys have a feeling of home about them – perhaps more than the static locations in which I have actually resided.  As well as rail journeys, cycling into Sawston, the bus route from Edinburgh to my friend’s house and walking certain streets in Crouch End, Cambridge or Southampton all bring a feeling of belonging.  Is it normal, I wonder, for the domestic realm to be extended out to take in a certain portion of ‘journey’s end’?  For me, I think, this extended demesne forms an essential part of the feeling of ‘home’ – without it, the whole concept becomes too isolated and solipsistic.  Or is this all just part of my continuing (and doomed) attempts to escape from myself?

Dark side fame

Today’s premise will require a degree of set-up and I can virtually guarantee that the pay-off will not be worth it.  However, they do say that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive: so why don’t we all strap-in and try and enjoy the journey despite our foreknowledge of its disappointing conclusion.  In many ways, this post will be an allegory for life – sometimes, I wonder if this blog is too clever for its own good…

So, let’s start with the dark side.  I refer not to the Force – fear may lead to suffering via anger and hate, but this need not trouble us here – but rather to the moon.  The dark side of the moon is not, to the best of my knowledge, exposed to any less sunlight than its obverse: the name is just another aspect of our species’ tendency to anthropocentric thinking.  As tidal locking means that our satellite constantly shows the same face to us, earth-bound humans, we have decided that the side we could not (historically) see must be “dark” (never having been illuminated by our hubristic regard, I presume).

My head is shaped not wholly unlike the moon and, as a result of limitations in my cervical vertebrae, use of a single reflective surface reveals only a single face (mine) to my gaze (were I an owl, it may be a rather different story – but I’d probably struggle to blog in quite the same style or quantity).  As a result, the back of my head is somewhat analogous to the dark side of the moon – though has yet to be celebrated in album-form by Pink Floyd (or any other popular beat combo of the last half-century, for that matter).    When my hair is cut, I am usually asked how I would like the dark side of my noggin to be coiffured.  I have tended to allow my interrogator relatively free-rein on the basis that I will never see their work (except on the single occasion when the haircut is complete and a second reflective surface is deployed that I might admire their efforts) – however, I am starting to think that this may be a mistake.

Earlier today, I came to the realisation that the dark-side of my head has achieved a considerably greater degree of fame than the side where my features are located and on which I lavish the vast majority of my, admittedly limited, cosmetic attentions to tart up what nature has provided (and subsequently decayed).  For the purposes of my current thesis, I am defining fame in terms of appearances on the internet: either as a still or in a moving image.  How, you might ask, has this come to be?

Appearances, on the web, by the business-side of my head (as we might call it) are relatively rare.  I have added few myself (I feel this blog is suffering enough for one man to inflict on the general public) and have generally managed to avoid having pieces of my soul captured in the photographs that have then been placed “on-line”.  If you (or at least I) image search my name, you will see more pictures of John Finnemore and nearly as many of both my blog brother and Saint Rita of Cascia as you do of me.  Only a single video of my visage seems to exist, created by the author for Metablog 6.

The back of my head, by contrast, is a regular star of both video and stills: three of each from last night alone.  This arises through my regular attendance at music gigs in the Art House Café, here in Southampton.  To enjoy greater legroom and obviate the need to use my glasses to correct my myopia, I tend to sit in the front row: audience participation is rarely required (though this has happened, but luckily I am a shameless show-off).  For what I presume to be marketing purposes, fragments of these events are often captured on the digital equivalent of film and then released into the wild via the café’s Facebook page.  Satisfactory visual capture of an event seems to benefit from a little distance from the action (unlike my ageing eyes) and so the back of the front row (and often more) of the audience is captured.  After last night’s very enjoyable time spent with the musical stylings of Cat Eliza T and then Daisy Chapman, I happened to check Facebook to discover the back of my head appears in more of the uploaded content than either of the “talent”.  Should I, perhaps, be selling advertising space on the dark side of my bonce?  Does it need an agent?

Those with the desire to follow our every move (along with reading our every email et al) have invested significant money in facial recognition software.  This is in line with our own human obsession with the business-side of the head – but why should we inflict this preoccupation on our software children?  My own experience suggests that the dark-side of the head may be a far more valuable target for intelligence gathering.  I await the call from MIn (for suitable n)…

Throwing in the towel

Once again we must start by voyaging back through time to the author’s boyhood – still, the temporal transition does provide gainful employ for this country’s hard-pressed harpists.  Back in that bygone era, my grandparents kept a dog: a golden labrador called William.  He loved most of the things which might be considered typical of his kind: eating, going for a W-A-L-K and sleeping.  I find myself in full agreement when it comes to all of these passions – though I have rather different tastes in food: or at least a broader range of opportunities, as I recall William was quite willing to take anything edible he was offered (even when the offering was – at best – implicit).  He would also rarely turn down the opportunity to enter a body of water – however filthy it might be – an urge which I have little trouble in resisting (assuming it afflicts me at all).

The subject of this post will be another canine habit – and one perhaps especially strong in a gun-dog like William – the desire to fetch.  Back in those primitive times, the items to be violently discarded and then restored by a very willing companion were limited to sticks (usually available “as found”) and balls (normally carried with a game of ‘fetch’ very much in mind).  Taking a mild digression, I find the relationship between many (perhaps even most) dogs and the tennis ball a fascinating one.  Our best friends™ clearly love tennis balls and will go to significant trouble to obtain or regain one – however, this love seems to be expressed at its purest in the toothy destruction of its object.  I cannot help but wonder how our millennia of breeding experiments on the wolf have led to this savage bond twixt their descendants and the humble tennis ball.  Is it perhaps our development of the modern tennis ball which has cemented our role as ‘master’ in the collective canine consciousness?

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so this fool returneth to the plot (such as it is).  In those halcyon days, I would cast the stick or ball out into the world using just the power of my strong (OK, fairly weedy) right arm.  This seemed to generate more than enough separation between myself and the projectile to satisfy William and his desire for the chase.  Scroll forward through four decades (or just hit SHIFT-END) and I find very few of today’s dog-owners (or companions) seem willing to launch a projectile, for their dog to fetch, unaided.  All now seem to favour a plastic stick some 18 inches in length, which, like a modern-day atlatl, boosts the throwing force which can be brought to bear.  These modern atlatls seem to be used only for throwing balls, I’ve not seem one used on a stick – I suppose the lack of standardisation in the world of the brown and sticky has precluded mass production of a similar throwing aid.

Have we, as a species, become so physically degraded that we can no longer hurl a tennis ball far enough to satisfy our pooches’ fetching needs?  Is the happiness of our pets now dependant on access to augmenting throwing technology?  That the victors of Agincourt have sunk so low.  Why is this not a source of national shame?  The more reactionary elements of the political class are always bemoaning the loss of ‘British values’ – whatever they may be – so could it be time to restore the longbow to the National Curriculum?  A fitter nation with improved upper body strength has to be a positive outcome – and we’ll be able to satisfy our four-legged friends without the need to import plastic tat from China (improving our balance of trade).  As a bonus, the link to Agincourt would probably annoy the French: surely this must make for an almost perfect piece of public policy in this land of physically-enfeebled, dog-loving Euro-sceptics?