When you’re lying awake…

As this blog has mentioned before, I am pretty good at resisting the charms of Hypnos and so spend a lot of time lying awake: though almost never with a dismal headache (well, hardly ever).  Let me reassure any ladies or gents still carrying a torch for the author, my insomnia is not caused by love – neither unrequited nor hopeless – and it does not lie, nightmare-like, heavy on my chest.

Usually, there is no obvious physical cause for my sleeplessness, so I have always assumed it must be something mental.  I used to blame work and “the man”, but my ability to sleep did not improve (or grow worse) during my recent sabbatical: so this accusation is starting to ring rather hollow.

This week just gone, sleep has been rather elusive once again – but, on two occasions there was a clear physical cause.

In the early hours of Friday morning, I was awoken in my bed at the Premier Inn in Belfast (normally my best hope for a good night’s rest: far more reliable than home) by rain being hurled into my bedroom window at 50mph (and the rest) as Northern Ireland was lashed by Gertrude (a phrase more commonly associated with a Tory minister).  Fortunately, as I had travelled without a coat, the rain had ceased before I had to walk from my lodgings to my place of employment: the wind had retained much of its vigour but I am not so easily rendered airborne.

The previous night my speedy approach to unconsciousness was also delayed by noise.  Not as you might imagine a thoughtless, partying neighbour nor the plangent cry of a car alarm being ignored (thus bringing the whole reason for its existence into question).  No, nothing so mundane for yours truly.  I was prevented from sleeping by the racket from amorous owls!  Tawny owls to be specific: to-wit and to-wooing each other at considerable volume in close proximity to my city-centre boudoir.  Given that we had 2wit and 2woo, both sexes were clearly implicated and with spring just around the corner (I hope) I am assuming that the cacophony was the prelude to some sweet, sweet lovin’.  I assume that owls can indulge in a gene flow event in a number of physical configurations while still maintaining eye contact with the object of their affection.  This must make for some interesting content in an owl jazz mag.

I would have to say that if I lived in splendid rural isolation, this owl courtship would have been easier to understand.  People have grown used to urban foxes, but urban owls?    I do recall TV series Futurama suggesting that owls in the 31st century were urban pests, in much the same way as rats and feral pigeons were in the 20th.  I’m starting to wonder if Matt Groening and David X Cohen knew rather more about the future than I had previously assumed.

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Sobering thoughts

Fear not, I shall not be boring you with tales of my seasonal flirtation with temperance.  Like the weather, I have eschewed the concept of a ‘dry January’, though I haven’t been quite so contrary.  As I cycled to PlayDate on Wednesday evening, I couldn’t help but think that a kayak or punt might have been a more practical transport choice.

No, I shall instead be boring you with thoughts around the terrifying proximity of death.  Fear not, I’m not expecting to be visited by a slender chap with a scythe any time soon – for a start, I’m really not famous enough for my number to be up during the current month.  Cancer does seem to be cutting a rather broad swathe through the famous who have accompanied me through my life to date.  Some had major roles and others were more minor players, but their departure from the stage of life has left me at least somewhat bereft.  I suppose at my age I probably need to come to terms with an increase in players leaving stage left, even those not pursued by a bear.  Perhaps it is a part of human nature (or maybe just mine) but there is more emotion associated with the unpicking of one of the threads from the tapestry of our lives, than there is when a new thread is added.  I keep finding myself reminded of a couple of lines from Lord Foul’s Bane:

Death reaps the beauty of the world–
bundles old crops to hasten new.

by Stephen Donaldson: never more so than this morning, as a TOG of many years standing.

In a mere four weeks, I attain what is considered to be a significant age: with the same score, in a different field, I would raise my bat aloft to a smattering of applause from the pavilion.  However, before we go any further, I should make clear that I don’t feel my age – or what I presume my age is supposed to feel like.  I may not be quite as smooth-skinned as was once the case, my hair increasingly refuses to have any truck with melanin and the accommodation in my eyes has reached the stage where even Foxton’s would be embarrassed to describe it as a one bed apartment, but I am fitter than I have ever been and am suffering from no obvious loss of functionality (and would claim some gains).  I continue to act as I always have done – but now with added hanging upside down.

Nevertheless, my cultural activities of a couple of weekends ago did give me pause for thought (though I shall resist creating a tenuous link to religion, for once).  In the afternoon, I went to see Nuffield Youth Theatre‘s brilliant production of Girls Like That: defying the notion that audiences only want to see people like themselves on stage or screen.  This may come as a shock (so steady yourselves), but I am not now, nor have ever been, a teenage girl – the demographic making up the entire, twenty-strong cast – and nor do I expect my future to hold the promise of teenage-girlhood.  Neverthless, the production was wonderful and those in charge of our television schedule might be interested to know that you can have twenty people on stage (and not so much as a hint of a Y-chromosome) without the end of the days being announced by the final trump (I believe that particular event is taking place on the other side of the Atlantic) and an equestrian quartet.

Before the play started, I was supporting the arts by partaking of a bottle of beer (it’s not that I want to you understand, I see it as my duty in these times of austerity) and, as is so often the case, chatting with the youthful barman.   In my head, I clearly think that I am roughly the same age as your typical undergraduate – just with a more detailed and personal knowledge of the 1970s. – and I have, of course, been a barman.

In the evening, I went to see the glorious Alessandro Taverna (Alex Pub, in English) perform at the pianoforte.  I saw him several years ago in Cambridge (before he was famous, assuming that he now is) and he was just as brilliant as I remembered.  As so often at classical music, a significant portion of the audience were eighty, if they were a day.  As I was musing about finding myself in the lowest quartile (decile even) of ages once again, a terrible thought struck me.

I am closer in age to most of the pensioners in that audience than I was to young James who’d served my (nearly) pint earlier in the day.  Arghhh!

Some mistake, surely?  I suspect the reason this seemed so improbable to me is that my mental age is becoming an ever diminishing fraction of my chronological one.  I think the former may have become ‘stuck’ at some time in my teens.  I made it through 2015 without petrol, let’s see if I can make it through the remainder of this life untroubled by adulthood…

Infernal nonsense

I rather fear that if you did not recognise the allusion in the title, the rest of this post may not be for you.  As a result, I shall not be explaining it – though I believe a range of internet search engines are available.

The only “going-out” culture I can remember from my childhood, excluding events arranged via school, was an occasional visit to see a Gilbert and Sullivan production in my local town.  A seem to recall that such was our keenness, that we once arrived a week early for a performance – but that may be the memory playing tricks on me.  As a result of this early indoctrination, I retain a fondness for the operettas of Messrs G & S: though find it wise not to listen too closely to some of the lyrics in our more liberal age.  Some of the plots also sit a little uncomfortably with the 21st century audience member: but would probably go down a storm in some of the more scarily fundamentalist portions of the US.

So it was that this past Saturday, I found myself partaking of a double bill of G&S: and observed a few of today’s kids being indoctrinated by the elders as I had been forty years previous.  In the afternoon, I saw the Southampton Operatic Society‘s production of The Mikado which was really rather good.  The odd stumble here-and-there perhaps, but some excellent and, to me, original business ensured a smile stayed plastered across my face throughout.  I think that The Mikado may be the greatest of the partnership’s work and the SOS did it proud: it ran Jonathan Miller’s production at the ENO a very respectable second!  I may be biased about The Mikado as it has several splendid roles for the bass soloist: and I did find myself sitting in the audience thinking “I could do that!”.

The world (and I) did not have long to wait for an unequivocal demonstration that my self-belief may exceed my ability.  In the evening, I went over to Salisbury to see a performance of HMS Pinafore in which we, the audience, were to play the role of the chorus: i.e. sailors, sisters, cousins (reckoned up by dozens) and aunts.  A friend had suggested I might like to accompany her and, on the basis that one should try everything once except incest and country dancing, I agreed.  Actually, if I’m honest, that boat sailed long ago: while I was still at primary school.  I should perhaps make clear at this stage that it was country dancing I tried (was forced into) and not incest (it may have been the seventies, but things weren’t that bad): my Circassian Circle and Cumberland Reel were a joy to behold.

On arrival, the audience were separated by vocal range so that ladies were on the left and gents the right, with the smattering of self-confessed tenors placed near the front.  The first half (prior to the interval) was given over to a rehearsal of our parts and, importantly, the cues.  I was surprised to discover that not only were we expected to reproduce some approximation to both the words and tune (the full G and S) but were also expected to perform various actions, e.g. marching, saluting, handle polishing etc.  Given that my ability in this field starts and ends with YMCA, and even then I can give the impression of one suffering from dyslexia, this was quite the challenge.  I suppose one might describe the performance as semi-staged, if one were very generous.

After the interval (an opportunity for a stiff drink or, in my case, ice cream) we then ran through both acts of HMS Pinafore with six professionals playing the leads.  Fortunately, the operetta was somewhat abridged, or I’d probably still be there now.  I have to say that the evening was enormous fun.  To add to the general air of bonhomie, we were all issued with (plastic) Union Flags to wave at suitable moments in the action.  What larks!  All that flag-waving did give the slightly uncomfortable impression of a UKIP (or worse) rally – surely we leave that sort of uncouth nationalism to the Americans?  I do worry that were some charismatic, nationalist demagogue to arise in these sceptred Isles, she might find it all too easy to use a G&S sing-a-long for ends nefarious.

All that flag waving and lyrical stress on the importance of being an Englishman did remind me that we are supposed to be picking a national song for England.  I’m not quite sure why, as we seem to have survived without one for a millennium or so.  Despite sterling work by Michael Flanders debunking it as an option, people do seem oddly keen on Jerusalem.  I think we can pretty sure that, no, it was not “builded” here.  I feel Flanders and Swann’s own output offers an option far more in keeping with government policy in The English Are Best.  A strong alternative contender, sure to go down well with Eurosceptics everywhere, would be Mitch Benn’s Song for Europe: though I will admit that this would only be usable after the watershed.  Thinking of a Song for Europe, I really don’t think we should let the general public anywhere near the selection of a national song given the dross they’ve chosen to represent us at the Eurovision Song Contest.  Equaly, if we turn our gaze to the hit parade (as I believe the young folk call it), the musical standards on offer are nothing to boast about.  Does the Queen not have a Master of Her Music who might be expected to ‘knock something out’?  I’m sure Judith Weir must have a few spare moments in her busy schedule…

 

The End of the Euro?

Fear not, I am not going to wheel out some reasoned, economic treatise on why the conjoined currencies of continental Europe are doomed to impending divorce.  Though I will note that I am far from convinced that a currency organised for the City of London is appropriate for Southampton, let alone Anglesey, and so have my doubts that the ‘one size’ which fits Frankfurt would also fit Olymbiada.  No, as per usual, GofaDM will take the road less travelled by in its predictions on the future of the Euro zone.

I have spent a chunk of this last week in Dundalk, in that portion of Hibernia where the Euro and kilometre hold sway.  Unusually for a business trip, I did see a little of Dundalk itself: partly by dint of getting lost and partly by dining in town one evening.  Should you find yourself hungry in Dundalk, I can recommend Eno’s with readily available parking just outside the cathedral.  If you are going, I should warn you that Tuesday night is Date Night!  As I went on Tuesday with two male colleagues, this fact generated much innocent amusement.  You should also beware that, despite what you may have heard from Ken Bruce, Friday night is Ladies’ Night (though I suppose music may also be involved).

Anyway, prior to this trip o’er the Irish Sea, I felt it prudent to acquire some of the local currency: rather than relying on barter or my hench physique to see me through.  As a practical chap, I thought I’d visit the local branch of my bank to meet my needs.  For those lacking the two ‘O’ levels in Geography which have stood me in such good stead throughout my life, I should point out that Southampton is a major port and lies closer – as the herring gull flaps – to continental Europe than it does to London.  So, it came as something of a shock when my bank told me that they did not keep Euros in stock.  Apparently, you have to order them in advance: well, it is a terribly obscure currency – they must struggle to clear any surplus stock.  As I operate my life in accordance with the principles of kanban (or just-in-time), this didn’t work for me.  I was forced to use the Post Office: a mile further from the Euro zone, but still able to muster some faith in the continued existence of its currency.

Do the seers of the Co-operative Bank know something about the Euro not vouchsafed to the rest of us (or indeed the Post Office)?  Am I taking a terrible financial risk keeping some £50 of my hard-earned cash in Euros?  There are vague mutterings of a new market crash, should we be taking my experience as a warning?

** KLAXON **

Panic buy mattresses, now!

GofaDM is not regulated by the Financial Services Authority.  The value of this blog can go down as well as further down.

Human warmth

I have been living in Southampton for two-and-a-half years now, but have never had cause to use the heating in my flat.  I can usually get by living parasitically off the heat of my neighbours (one of the advantages of flat living: just ask Edwin Abbott) and waste heat from my culinary adventures.

There is now a hint of traditional winter in the air: a nip, if you will.   I’m also finding that visitors to my demesne are starting to arrive wearing ALL of their clothing in a desperate attempt to stay warm.  Offers to share my rather limited body heat have generally been re-buffed as (a) inadequate and (b) wholly inappropriate.  People also seem to take little comfort when informed that shivering is an excellent route to weight loss, though no-one has (yet) tried to deck me.

So, on returning from my last sojourn across the Irish Sea, I resolved to at least test the heating system to ensure that I knew how it worked and could (if suitably motivated) dispel any frost forming within the flat.  In this way, I may narrowly avoid becoming some sort of social pariah in the winter months.  I can move away from being considered ‘cold and unfeeling’ to merely ‘unfeeling’.

My flat does not have central heating but, in a throwback to my childhood, is equipped with night storage heaters: though unlike in the 1970s I believe these can be encouraged to produce heat without 24 hours written notice (if you are willing to eat the cost of the peak electricity consumed).  Yesterday evening, and more importantly last night with its promise of frost, was the time scheduled for the first heating test.

In theory, storage heaters have pretty basic controls: you choose how much heat to store during the night on a scale from 1 to 6 (with no link to a more widely known unit of energy) and the rate at which you would like it released on an apparently similar (but probably rather different) scale from 1 to 6.  However, puzzlingly, my flat has a rather flash looking controller with up to four programmes for when to turn on and off some sort of heating device.  How could this fit into the heating system?  The documentation that came with the flat gave no clues and the device itself gave nothing away, save its manufacturer.  As a result, I was forced to use an internet image search to discover what purpose the controller served.  I now know it to be an RF07T Towel Rail Controller.  Yes, my flat is possessed of a radio-controlled heated towel rail with a more sophisticated control system than the central heating for anywhere I have ever lived.  What the internet is unable to explain is why I need such an exquisitely controllable towel rail.  I would also have to say that in my tests last night, the towel rail seemed to be on regardless of what I did to its controller.  I think I shall have to download the instructions if I wish my towel rail to follow bow to my will: to- date, I have merely hung my bath towel over it while it was entirely quiescent and relied on ambient heat to dry my towels (after they had, in turn, dried me).

Having identified the RF07T as a red herring, my attention turned to the storage heaters themselves and I can confirm that my tests were a success.  When I awoke this morning, the flat was unnaturally warm despite only choosing 4 for storage and 3 for recall.  Unlike my childhood, the first use of the storage heaters for the winter (or in this case last three winters) was not accompanied by the dreadful smell of burning dust: so perhaps the technology has moved on.  Future visitors need only give 24 hours notice of their arrival and I have the option (but not the obligation) to ensure that they are toasty warm throughout their visit (or until the storage bricks run cold).

I think we can all now agree that I am a splendid human being and an excellent host.  The possibility of a warm welcome awaits all who visit and suggestions that I spend my spare time farming cold comfort can now be put to rest.

Last Christmas

Fear not, gentle reader, this will not be an ill-judged attempt at a Wham! tribute post.  Who would have imagined, in their eighties pomp, that Wham! would go on to put the children of so many panel-beaters (and allied trades) through school and beyond?

It struck me that GofaDM has never described the Festive habits of its author.  Whilst you probably don’t care, it is an unmined seam of content and so I am heading down there with my metaphorical pick and some dynamite.  As the title suggests, I shall be relying on the most recent midwinter festival as my primary source in what follows.

I have, since being brought forth upon this earth nearly half a century ago, spent Christmas en famille.  I have, at times, thought that perhaps I should do something more exciting and more in keeping with my (imagined) role as a dangerous maverick and setter of fashions.   These tentative plans have always foundered on two rocks: (i) the amazing power of apathy (especially mine in the depths of winter) and (ii) the awkward conversation that would be required with those who share my blood were I to suddenly replace them with the fishy denizens of a reef off the Maldives (for example).  Over the years, the festive line-up has been augmented by a range of guest stars (some appearing for a single season, others with a more recurring role) but it has always centred around the traditional, nuclear family: augmented in recent years by the arrival of my nephew.

I tend to drive back to the family estate(s) on Christmas morning to take advantage of the quiet roads and almost total lack of lorries.  Despite this return to the road experience of a gentler age, I find I am already bored with the whole idea of driving within about 15 minutes of departure from home.  How people become petrol-heads I have no idea: they must have a much higher tolerance for tedium than I.  Whilst in charge of a vehicle, you can’t even read a book, have a nap or enjoy a fruity glass of red (well, not safely or legally): what can the appeal be?  I rather fear that I look down on frequent drivers much as I do on those with strong allegiance to a sporting  or religious team: i.e. with a combination of pity and grudging admiration for their single-minded commitment to something so soul-destroying.

Having now offended 99.9% of the human population of the planet, perhaps it is time to actually tackle Christmas.  I think my Christmas contains most of the key elements: family, presents, crackers and too much food and drink of a broadly traditional form.  I may offend some of the 0.1% still with me when I say that I eschew the Brussel sprout: despite the maturing of my palate over the years, I still believe these are a terrible waste of good agricultural land that could better be used to produce cavolo nero (to offer but a single example from the same family).

This year’s special Christmas guest was a giant rabbit – and no he was not a product of my excessive seasonal drinking or called Harvey – who, between enjoying some serious shut-eye, could occasionally be found wandering around the festive throng, munching on unattended presents or wrapping paper.

In an attempt to burn off a few of the seasonal calories, my sister and I played a popular video game entitled Just Dance 2016 after Christmas lunch.  This involves replicating the dance moves of a dancer on screen to win points (and no prizes).  In fact, the player only has to reproduce the choreography of the right-hand as the games console only monitors this one extremity.  The music on offer was clearly not aimed at the listener to BBC Radio 3 and 6Music in his late forties: so I had heard of almost none of the available dance tracks (except a couple of dodgy remakes of classic hits of yesteryear).  Despite my lack of familiarity with the soi-disant music on offer, and well-documented lack of skill on the dance floor, I feel I put in a pretty decent performance and was neck-and-neck with my sister throughout (which may only indicate that she can’t dance either).  Despite some wildly faliling limbs, there was no need for a festive visit to A&E: which I count as a Terpsichorean triumph!

In days of yore, Boxing Day would be the occasion for a restorative walk, perhaps taking in a supergrid point (or other site of interest) on the way.  However, the weather was not conducive to such an excursion and so I used up a few more festive calories helping my father break-up two decidedly hefty UIX workstations and start them on their journey from my parent’s loft to the amenity tip.  In the olden days (or the 1990s as I like to call them), workstations were built to last (and, probably, survive all but a direct hit from an ICBM): I think we liberated enough steel to make a decent start on the Royal Navy’s newest destroyer.  I fear this is a seasonal pleasure that will be denied to future generations: yet another element lost from the real meaning of Christmas.

On the evening of Boxing Day, after the driving hoards had grown bored of purchasing cheap three piece suites and left the roads, I girded my loins and drove home again (entertained on my way by the foolishness of Count Arthur Strong on the radio).  I made it home without a need to buy petrol, meaning I bought no petrol at all in 2015.  I really may need to review this whole possession of a car scenario…

For next Christmas, I am planning to bring out my own range of Christmas cards which reflect today’s modern Christmas and its climate.  No, not of a family smashing up some old UNIX boxes: though given the strength of the geek market that could be a possibility…  No, I’m thinking of Santa Claus, clad in red-and-white waterproofs, riding a submarine pulled by a team of eight dolphins (perhaps one could retain the red “nose”) over a host of sodden daffodils.  I feel this far better captures the 21st century British Christmas than all this nonsense about snow and reindeer.

Secrets from Mexico

Way back in the Autumn, as the leaves fell (or were untimely ripp’d from their trees) there was rather a lull in the production of blog posts.  During this hiatus, we here in Southampton enjoyed Mexico Week!  (Please insert your own andales and arribas, as you see fit and your conscience allows.)

I think Mexico week may well have been more widely observed across these Isles and certainly 2015 was a big year for Anglo-Mexican cooperation: no I hadn’t notice either, but apparently it was.

I made it to two main events during the week – which was focused around El Día de los Muertos – both of which yielded unexpected secrets (OK, spoiler alert: one of the secrets was not that unexpected)Winding backwards through time, the second event was a concert of Mexican-composed guitar music given by Morgan Szymanski: with added artworks inspired by each piece.  This was an excellent concert and the CD purchased therefrom is now my preferred choice of lullaby music, when played at low volume as I attempt to breach the high walls Morpheus has placed around his citadel.

Prior to the gig, there was a free workshop in danzón, which whilst Cuban in origin is actively pursued in Mexico.  There was also a chance to attempt some mambo.  The event was graced by a very good live band, comprised (I think) of students from the university.   It was at this workshop, and despite the best efforts of the teachers and my fellow learner dancers (several of whom were from Latin America and all of whom risked physical injury), that the final nails were hammered into the coffin of my hopes to be a dancer.  I have no natural rhythm, I can merely count and then mechanically attempt to reproduce the four, very simple steps involved in danzón.  I’m pretty sure that the Japanese have built robots that could out-dance me – and look more human while doing so.  On the plus side, the dread level of concentration required to produce even this dismal performance left my a sweaty and exhausted wreck: so this my offer an alternative method to encourage sleep.  Not for me the counting of sheep, but the imaginary attempt to reproduce a simple dance.

I pin my remaining (undead) hopes on freer forms of dance: I’m rather tempted by break-dance at the moment.  I think my gymnastic skills could be used to conceal (or at least, distract from) issues in other departments.

The first event was a lecture on Art and Power in Mexico by Dr Jago Cooper: who in addition to his sterling work on BBC4 documentaries is also in charge of the Americas at the British Museum.  Whilst his talk on Mexico was very interesting, the highlights (and secrets) came from the insight into how BBC4 documentaries come to be.  We learned that on BBC4 the academics are allowed to use more and longer words than when aiming at the thickies who watch BBC2 and are even permitted the use of subtitled interviews!  Even so, the word count is surprisingly low: at about the level of an undergraduate essay.  The History department is also rather restrictive on the subjects about which documentaries can be made: apparently, no-one is interested in the Americas (please don’t tell the Yanks or the special relationship will become an even more ironic appellation than is already the case).  If you want to make history documentaries, you better pray your subject area is on the National Curriculum!  (This make explain the TV obsession with the Tudors and National Socialism).  As a result, all of Jago’s work has fallen under the purview of the Art department.

I was reminded of this fact when watching the closing credits for one of the episodes of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s excellent recent BBC4 series on Spain (yes, it did include long words and subtitles).  These revealed that the series was made by the Religious Affairs department: though I suppose he may of had a few pence out of the History department as he did mention the Armada.  This has now become a new project for me: try and guess which unexpected BBC department has been convinced to make any History series I’ve been watching.

My belief that BBC2 history shows will have been seriously dumbed down to avoid alienating its apparently brain-dead audience might explain a degree of inattention when I was (nominally) watching Joann Fletcher’s new series on Immortal Egypt.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that she stated, quite categorically, that Hathor was (among other responsibilities) the goddess of Lovejoy (and I can assure you that I have no trouble at all with the Barnsley accent).  I assume that Hathor’s TV-based brief runs wider than just Lovejoy: but does she extend to other antiques-based programming or lovable wide boys from eighties TV comedy-drama.  I.e., does she offered divine protection to Bargain Hunt or Minder?  Could Hathor have been the never seen, but always feared, ‘Er Indoors?

Now, how many of you can honestly say that you saw that conclusion coming?