Hawai’i

It’s been a long time coming and the build up has been almost unbearable, but the waiting is finally over!

Yes, it’s National Public Sleeping Day!  At last, we can all indulge our long supressed desire for a nap on a park bench, pew or bus.  Though, if any of my UK-based readers fancy the first option I suggest they wrap up warmly: today’s title does not refer to the ambient temperature outside Fish Towers.

OK, I’ll stop toying with you.  As the title makes clear, my forties are now consigned to history and I have made it to the age of fifty (50).  This feat of derring-do (or don’t) would have been more impressive if achieved further back in history (if only because of the temporal engineering on my part that would imply).  It would also have had a lower probability had I spent those years living in other parts of the planet, those regions oft referred to as the ‘global south’ (which, in terms of life expectancy, seems to include parts of Glasgow).  If Jeremy Hunt continues on his current path, turning the UK into an improbable exporter of doctors whilst offering succour to big sucrose (and not only in the form of magic pills), my half century may once again come to seem worthy of note: still, his commitment to defusing the pensions time-bomb is undeniable.

Given my long history of insomnia, I do feel it rather tactless of the powers-that-be to designate my natal day as a celebration of sleeping of any form, let alone in public.  Then again, given that I largely ignore the personal significance of the day myself, perhaps they felt I’d left the field open for them.  My only concession to the day so far has been to open my birthday cards: so many had poured through my letter-box that I had to move to a second hand to count them all!  I suspect this is another sign of my antiquity, I’m sure the younger generation would just exchange photos of portions of their anatomy via Snapchat or write on each other’s Facebook walls to mark the arrival of a culturally significant milestone.

Otherwise, so far today, I’ve done the laundry and visited the gym and supermarket.  Errands still need doing, even if the earth has returned, after some fifty round trips of the sun, to roughly the same relative position it held when I burst forth (to the sound of trumpets – or so I fondly like to imagine) from the temporary accommodation kindly provided by my mother.  However, I am not a total curmudgeon, and will be going out later today as there is something I want to see taking place in a cavern buried deep beneath Waterloo Station – the fact that this happens to coincide with my birthday is (I assume) a happy accident.

Whilst I am now so old that I can remember the days when caramel was unsalted (a state of affairs which younger readers will find hard to believe), I comfort myself with the knowledge that I remain much younger than my brother-in-law (and most of the hills).

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Clinging on to youth

I find myself in the final week of what is conventionally (without the aid of a face-saving switch of base) considered to be my forties.  My roaring days are almost over but, on the plus side, I believe there is an end to rationing in sight.

I am trying to resist some of what I imagine are the mental changes which overtake people as they age.  Primarily, I am trying to dodge the lurch to the right, the decrying of all things young and new and the retreat into what is known and thus, presumably, comforting.  Resisting the call of the right (or for that matter the left) is made all too easy by its use of third-rate pantomime villains peddling their transparent falsehoods and the bitter bile of hate.  Avoiding descending into mental cliché is more of a challenge, but I am spurred on by the hope that there is more to life than re-runs (and re-makes) of what has gone before.  So it is that, in addition to consuming the blood of innocents, I attempt to fill my life with new (and relatively low risk, as measured in millimorts) experiences.  Of course, this could all be a post-hoc rationalisation (always better indulged in after a glass of Rhenish white) of recent activities or a feeble attempt to link a few disparate ideas together in the hope of forming a post.  Still, I think we can safely discount those more outlandish theories and return to the main thread of today’s symposium.

This headlong pursuit of novelty has found me, not once but twice, attending an event at the London International Mime Festival.  What have I become?  As so often, many a younger me would be appalled.  In 2016-me’s defence, I must say that neither event was what I would have called mime.  No white-face make-up, no Breton shirt and absolutely no walking into the wind whilst trapped in a  box.  Either mime has moved on, or my stereotype was dreadfully wide of the mark.  This blog has already covered Circa – more circus-cum-classical-recital than mine – so I shall merely mention my second ‘mime’ event: Celui qui tombe.  This was unlike anything I’d even imagined, let alone seen, and is almost indescribable.  There were elements of circus, dance, grandmother’s footsteps and some surprisingly competent choral singing all set on, under or dangerously near a large wooden platform which hung, dropped, teetered, spun and swung above the stage.  There is so much more in heaven and earth (and the Barbican theatre) then is dreamt of in my philosophy.  I eagerly await next year’s LIMF and have acquired a Breton-style shirt in preparation.

I have recently discovered that Southampton University stages free lunchtime concerts, an analogue to those I used to attend in Cambridge, on (some) Mondays and Fridays in term-time.  As with so much local culture,  this discovery did not come easy and even now I usually only know one is happening by attending its immediate predecessor.   These concerts have introduced me to the piano music of the rather interesting Brazilian composer Almeida Prado – who I suspect would otherwise never entered my life, to its detriment.  As well as classical fare, there is often a performance by a jazz-influenced student group.  Via this route I experienced the delights of a saxophone quartet: boasting the full range from soprano to baritone.  The former, to my eyes, looks like a blinged-up clarinet whereas the later is a hefty beast and could, in time of thick fog, be used to keep ships off the rocks.  As well as the amusement engendered by the instruments, I also enjoyed the  works of Alfed Desenclos and Joe Cutler.

In fact, in 2016 I have been tipping my toes a little more seriously into jazz-infested waters and have actually paid to see it performed.  There seems to be a lot more to the world of jazz than the traditional form I heard in New Orleans or the totally unlistenable version I occasionally catch on Radio 3 as I race across the room in search of the off switch.  By far my favourite, so far, was this last Saturday night and came from Norway (probably in the hope of a little warmth and sunlight).  The Daniel Herskedal Trio were wonderful – and supported by a 15-person string ensemble drawn from the university – producing music that I am going to describe using the phrase ‘restless serenity’.  It was also the first concert I’ve attended where the tuba took centre-stage as soloist.  It is a much more versatile beast than I had imagined – it can offer so much more than a basso-profundo ‘oom-pah’ – and I’m convinced that young Mr Herskedal was producing polyphony from it (though I have no idea how).  I think he should also be credited as the first person I’ve seen on stage at Turner Sims to wear leather trousers: a look which I feel he pulled off with some aplomb.

This concert also confirmed my escape plan, if ever life in these isles is made untenable by the meddling of our political classes.  Yes, folks, I shall be emigrating to Norway – though I may have to overcome my aversion to wearing jumpers first (a vest can only take a chap so far).  Still, BBC4 has been doing its best to prepare me for life in Scandinavia: so I think I should cope.  In the pre-concert interview, it became clear that their musical culture is rather impressive.  Ayolf, the excellent jazz pianist with the trio, had just finished a couple of weeks going around the primary(!) schools of Oslo introducing them to improvisational music.  Even in the better funded school music of my youth, I only had Mrs Spicer and a recorder or two to launch my musical education.  Today, when the heirs of Thomas Gradgrind have taken over education policy, I fear jazz may be a rarity in the UK’s primary schools: we can’t afford any distractions from the training the little darlings up to serve the business needs of yesteryear.

So folks, enjoy me while you can!  Before long,the temptation to seek more enlightened policies to the Arts (and much more besides) may grow too strrong and I’ll set sail across the German Bight and up towards Fisher and the Utsires.  Payback for the Vikings, at last!

Going boldly

Despite applying the same broad strategy, viz playing hard-to-get, to the search for work as the one which has so successfully kept me clear of romantic entanglements for well nigh 50 years, I have been found in the clammy embrace of gainful employ since last October.  To consummate if not this new relationship then at least this laboured metaphor, I find myself viewing the Irish Sea from a height of several thousand feet on an all too regular basis.  Well, I assume I’m viewing it but since my crossings generally take place during the hours of darkness and I have (for now) eschewed boarding my flight wearing night-vision goggles, its presence to date has been largely inferred.

The majority of my sojourns in Hibernia have been to Belfast, but I have also taken in Dundalk, Dublin and Tallaght (or the Croydon of Dublin as it was described to me – which I think may manage to insult both places simultaneously).  All of my urban destinations are surrounded by some rather lovely, if only occasional glimpsed, countryside which I must make an effort to visit when (and if) the weather grows a little more clement as 2016 progresses.

Belfast has a number of charms, not least that it seems to have been slightly less consistently cloned from the corporate mould (in at least two sense of that word) which is overtaking other UK cities: though this may just be down to a sprinkling of Irish institutions.  It can boast some rather fine architecture – I don’t reckon you’ll find a more stunning Primark – but also a rather higher density of flags than feels entirely comfortable (and they are, in theory, copies of ‘my’ flag).  The lampposts of the Republic are also bedecked with somewhat political messages in the run up to the Irish election.  These seem rather more numerous than in the mainland UK and all sport large photographs of the candidates: which I would have thought a risky proposition given the general disaffection with politics and our putative representatives.

When I stay in Belfast, I subsist (as expense claim forms would have it) overnight in a Premier Inn.  I have to say that this is my first experience of this chain of hotels and that it has been a very positive one.  They may lack both bells and whistles, but frankly I rarely have recourse to such relatively primitive music-making when away and am grateful that it is not an easy option for my fellow guests either.  The inns provide everything I need from a hotel: facilities catering to my ablutions, some basic storage, some workspace (with just enough free wifi thrown in) and a comfy bed.  The beds are unreasonably comfy – I sleep better in Belfast than at home – and the rooms are not excessively heated (a rarity in the hotel trade).  I have no idea if this assembly of virtues is unique to Alfred Street in Belfast, on indicative of the chain in general, but I find myself disappointed if I am forced to stay in ostensibly better hotels when I work drags me away from Belfast.

Food-wise, I tend to take my breakfast at Allotment – conveniently sited on the short stroll twixt hotel and office – who provide my morning porridge.  Traditionally, I have eaten dinner at Home: not mine, I hasten to add (that would be ridiculous), but a restaurant of that name which offers a decent menu for the (mostly) vegetarian diner.

But when is he going to come to the title, I hear you muttering.  Fear not!  Your passive-aggressive mumbles are my command!

The title does not refer to my new turboprop-set lifestyle (I’m afraid those of us flying from Southampton do not warrant a jet).  No, it refers to my journey last week from Dublin up to Belfast – a journey I undertook by train pulled (or perhaps pushed) by a Class 201 diesel locomotive.  This service is called Enterprise for some reason , though neither the locomotive nor the train were numbered 1701.  The rolling stock has been very recently refurbished and I suspect could be very comfortable if (a) it were less over-crowded and (b) I had been 4′ 11″: at one stage I feared my right leg would require amputation on arrival in Belfast, but fortunately the train emptied a little at Dundalk and I was able to restore some feeling to it.  The service claims to offer wifi, but this did not seem to be working.  However, it did run on time which was a plus – though I should warn you it doesn’t make the journey north with any particularly strong sense of urgency (though still a very long way from a five year mission).  By far the best part of the service – until the night engulfed us – was the view from the window.  The train runs close to the coast and is often surrounded by water, and the scenery was stunning, illumined by the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun which accompanied us for the first half-hour of the journey.  So, for any shorter readers, I would thoroughly recommend a voyage on the Enterprise (you must make your own decision on the advisability of wearing a red shirt) – especially in the right light.  Still, I’d advise you to the 16:50 on a weekday evening unless you have a particular fondness for sardines (the game rather than this fish).

I think we can all agree, after that last paragraph, that I could be the new Michael Portillo, albeit one with a better dress sense.  Given that availability of the vacancy may require the incumbent to meet with the Reaper, there may be somewhat of a wait (he is only 62): but I can be patient (and with those jackets he should be an easy target for an assassin).

Engineering Hope

As a (lapsed) mathematician, I quite naturally look down on engineers (and everyone else not ‘fortunate’ enough to be a mathematician).  Nevertheless, I have spent quite a lot of time, over the years, hanging-out with engineers and I swear that, at times, you could believe they understand almost every word you say.  I do realise that people say the same thing about their cats and so I may be guilty of a similar misconception: but I challenge you to look into an engineer’s eyes and not start to imagine that some basic level of intelligence lies concealed beneath.

Despite the authorial conceit behind the opening paragraph, I constantly find myself impressed by the amazing devices those cunning artificers – the engineers – have brought into existence: whether at the bleeding edge of current technology or the extraordinary contrivances made by our ancestors.  While amazing things can be done by manipulation of quantum effects (which I like to think I vaguely understand), somehow I find modern consumer electronics less impressive than those examples of mechanical engineering where I can engage my senses with some visible moving parts. I have not infrequently found myself buying things just for their incredible engineering – which leads us nicely on to today’s little tale.

As this blog might (just) have mentioned, I perform much of my local travel astride a bicycle.  Whilst I am relatively light (a smidge under 13 stone, if you must know) for a man of my age, height and socio-economic status, bearing even my weight over the dodgy road surfaces of Southampton does take its toll on my steeds.  Earlier this week, I found the steering on my titanium bike made odd noises of protest when I attempted to change direction.  In a feat of technical analysis which continues to amaze me, I diagnosed the problem as a worn-out headset.  The headset being the mechanism that sits on top of the front forks and translates movement of the handlebars into a change in direction for the bike (and its surprisingly svelte passenger).

So, I took the bike off to the Hub Cycleworks who confirmed my diagnosis but who, unlike me, were (a) willing to get their hands dirty and (b) knew how to replace a headset.  As so often in our consumer-driving society, a range of replacements were available: from the cheap, nasty and disposable to the really quite expensive but much longer-lasting and offering replaceable innards.  I went for the latter option from a company encouragingly named Hope.  Largely this decision was driven by how beautifully the headset was engineered as the guys at Hub had let me feel one in its undressed (or naked) state.  Once you’ve run your finger round its ring, there’s no going back (and don’t get me started on its crown race and its cups).  For my money, bike porn is the only porn worth viewing.

This morning I wandered over to collect the bike with its gorgeous new silver headset and it is a thing of beauty and handles like a charm.  I think the ride may also have benefitted from some unplanned adjustment to the saddle which means it is no longer rather too high for me (as it had been for several years).

When I arrived home, I looked into the fine folk of Hope and their headsets on the internet and was in for a very pleasant surprise.  They manufacture in the UK, in the splendidly named town of Barnoldswick in Lancashire.  (Having now researched Barnoldswick, it looks like it might also make an excellent base for a holiday).  My headset was even milled on a CNC machine – which may not mean much to you, but one of my first ever jobs was working out how to schedule jobs on a Makino MC-series CNC milling machine.  Patriotism, nostalgia and my love of engineering satisfied in a single purchase: what more could a chap ask for?

Overflow

Sadly, GofaDM is not making a brave new move into solving your plumbing issues, though, I do like to think of myself as a rather good theoretical plumber: I just draw the line at getting my hands dirty and actually engaging with the mundane reality of pipes, olives and washers.

I have a tendency to either try and fit far too much into my life or to while away many an hour without any apparent achievement.  Sometimes, I seem to manage to do both at once: which is simultaneously impressive, logically impossible and somewhat frustrating.

Last Saturday was definitely one of the ‘stuff-it-all-in’ kinds of day.  By the end of it, I was surprised that what remains of my grey matter wasn’t oozing out of my ears given the rather excessive amount of stimulation and input I had forced into it.

I first headed into town, as Southwest Trains were once again offering a £15 return to the capital, and Saturday was one of the very few days this quarter when journeying by train to London would not be viewed as rather a palaver by a polar explorer.  Network Rail seem determined to keep those of us lying south-west of Basingstoke away from the City: unless we are willing to devote many hours to the voyage, enjoy bus travel and don’t want to stay out late (or are willing to stay out until the following morning).  My primary objective was to visit a circus (so no great surprise there), but as it was a rare opportunity to access the heady delights of London I managed to crowbar in a couple of gallery visits first.

My first was looking at Painting the Modern Garden at The Royal Academy.  This was very good, if rather busy, but had almost too many paintings for my poor brain to take in.  I did discover that there seems to have been some degree of fashion in blooms – or at least the painting thereof – and that I much prefer the Impressionists’ take on the dahlia than I do that offered by modern gardeners.  Several of the gardens I would like to decamp to right now, but I think my favourite work was a painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots.  I remain ever the contrarian!

My second gallery was at the Barbican looking at the work of Charles and Ray Eames.  As you might imagine, there were a fair few chairs on offer – but their oeuvre was much wider than I’d realised.  The exhibition included a splendid film – of the type one used to see through the arched window in the Play School of my youth – showing the making of a fibreglass chair.   However, my favourite take-away was not the film, nor even the chair but one of the three colours in which it was first offered.  How have we forgotten greige?  Surely, the finest name for a colour ever created!  I want my flat repainted and carpeted in greige (which I am pronouncing to rhyme with beige) when next this is needed.  I am determined to restore it to the mainstream!  I want all GofaDM readers to start using it: force it into conversation, email or tweet if you must.

I was ostensibly at the Barbican to see the Australian circus company, Circa (the Eames were just an amuse bouche).  Their current work is called Il Ritorno and was of indescribable (by me at least) brilliance.  The physical work was, in many ways, of a nature and unshowy difficulty I’d never seen before and whilst not narrative delivered a very strong emotional heft.  Not only that, but they have comprehensively outdone me when it comes to juxtaposition.  The amazing and moving physical feats shared the stage with a harpsichord.  Not just a harpsichord, but a harp, cello and violin and their players further augmented by a tenor and a mezzo.  I literally did not know where to look much of the time: almost all my cultural interests on stage at once with circus, theatre and music seamlessly melded.  I fear I left rather shell-shocked and with the need to up my game on all fronts!

Even at that stage, the day was not yet empty of delights.  I returned to Southampton and spent the evening with three stunning guitarists at the Art House café.  I even learnt a little guitar technique from Clive Carroll: though by the time I’m ready to put it into use I fear the lesson may have been lost.

It was a great day, but frankly far more experience than my ageing brain can safely absorb in a twelve hour period.  Were I a computer, I think some sort of overflow error would have been in order.  Luckily, as a biological computer, at no stage did I need to dump my stack and so avoided embarrassment (well, any more than is usually occasioned by my excursions into the wider world).