The Uncarved Block

I know little about either Zen or motorcycle maintenance.  Though, if push came to shove, you’d probably prefer me to strip down your Harley than guide you on your way to enlightenment.  To me, Zen will always be the Liberator’s master computer voiced by the late Peter Tuddenham.  This probably indicates my spiritual poverty and certainly does explain why I still sometimes say “Confirmed” in a somewhat emotionless way.

So little do I know of Zen (the spiritual one) that I shall wilfully confusing it with Taoist philosophy in this post.  This will set it apart from the traditional western confusion of these concepts in that I shall be doing it in a state of decreased ignorance and with malice aforethought.  The one small fig leaf of intellectual integrity that I can offer for my approach is that Taoist philosophy provides some of the key underpinning for Zen Buddhism: well, that and the fact that this blog freely admits that it indulges in juxtaposition.

Taoists have the concept of the “uncarved” block as an idealised state for the mind, uncomplicated by experience.  My mind, on the other hand, has been subject to the attentions of obsessive whittlers for so long that I fear little remains but a pile of sawdust.  But, that’s entropy man!

Despite barely having placed my first step on the eight-fold path (does a right-angle count?), I have nevertheless been a living illustration of at least one Zen koan for the last few weeks.  Since injuring my wrist, it has been impossible to provide applause in the traditional way (for the hearing community, at least).  Striking my hands together to generate the sound of two hands clapping has been too painful to contemplate and so I have been forced to find my own solution to the Oriental riddle.  My answer to the sound of one hand clapping has been to press my right leg into service as a sound board and resonator: when struck by my right (undamaged) hand it simulates the concept of applause with a reasonable degree of fidelity.  I fear my solution to the age-old question would not pass muster and would illustrate once again the long journey ahead of me before I achieve Nirvana.  However, as it offered an effective, sonic alternative to more traditional applause, I stuck with it.

Yesterday, during an enjoyable afternoon of music at Dolfest (named for its location, the nearby Dolphin Inn) I briefly forgot my pain and applauded in the classic way (consumption of a few pints of  Spitfire Gold may have been implicated in this small act of forgetting).  There was no pain!  Even without the cushioning numbness of ethanol, I can now applaud pain-free!  My recovery is clearly proceeding apace, but those seeking self-awakening will have to look elsewhere for future inspiration.  Meanwhile, I shall return to whittling the sawdust of my mind into ever smaller particles.



Capital ambivalence

fear not, i shall not be continuing in the style of e e cummins or of archy (cockroach friend of mehitabel, the moth): i have no real objection to capitalisation of text.  THOUGH I PREFER TO AVOID SHOUTING!

This post will instead explore my ambivalence about visiting (or indeed residing) in the capital city of these diminished isles.


Neither to scale nor an actual vista

Readers may wonder why I have included an extremely dodgy image of the London skyline, which at best bears a passing topological similarity to the actual city and suggests an entirely unrealistic calm and clarity to the River Thames.  Well, I am now using a WordPress feature whereby these posts automatically appear on my Facebook feed and have discovered that unless a post includes an image, my Facebook massive are exposed to a giant image of my crumbling visage: and nobody wants that…

On Easter Monday – a concept which Biblical scholars, theologians and those from outside the British Isles may find hard to understand – I went up to London after lunch for an afternoon and evening of “fun”.  This reminded me of both what I love and find really irritating about visiting the big smoke.

The inbound journey is generally fine as one is filled with hope and excitement for the activities to come.  This feeling survived reasonably well until I reached the British Museum.  New security arrangements mean a long queue to enter that august repository of stolen goods.  Once through the security cordon, the museum was heaving with other people – which makes me wonder just how good the security can have been.  I love the concept of other people, but the reality of them en masse and dawdling around does rather test this love.  I was at the BM to see the American Dream exhibition of 20th century prints.  This had much to enjoy and a fair chunk of works which struck me as a waste of materials: my taste in the visual arts definitely has limits, even if I’d be entirely unable to describe where they are.  I also strongly suspect that my taste in more modern art is an expanding (or at least morphing) envelope: today’s waste of wall space may be tomorrow’s masterpiece.  I think I’d feel cheated if I went to an exhibition and loved everything, there would be something important missing.

From the BM, I headed over to Islington to the Bill Murray (from one BM to another!  I don’t just through my time together you know): a pub which is now (mostly) a comedy venue.  It is still a small pub and offered a very potable pint of Marston’s 61 Deep – albeit at a price I would associate with drinking in Scandinavia (but that’s London for you).  I had not journeyed just to enjoy over-priced pale ale, but to see the comic stylings of young Ivo Graham.  Don’t tell the lad this, lest he lose the run of himself, but he was the “hook” on which the cultural coat of my day was hung.   He was very funny, even if I did form rather more of the act than I’d expected or than he had intended: I provided rather more filler to his work-in-progress hour than necessary.  I even had a brief chance to chat to him after the gig – before he had to race to Hatfield (not to the world-famous poly but to watch a netball match).  I am pleased to report he is as charming a chap in person as I had imagined having seen and heard him (from a distance – and in his professional capacity, I am not stalking the young lad) over the last 3.5 years.  As a further bonus, he provided an opportunity for me to use the phrase “vespine foe” in a tweeted reply later that evening as I sat on a bus passing St Paul’s: for which I remain in his debt.

I too had to leave the BM(2) reasonably promptly to head over to Dalston, for a quick bite of supper and a play at the Arcola.  I supped at Café Route which offered a splendid selection of vegetarian (and even vegan) friendly salads and small plates coupled with a huge range of cakes.  Reader, I rather over-indulged as not only were things very reasonably priced but the slices of cakes were pleasingly generous: consuming two might have been verging on gluttony.

Suitably stuffed, I then waddled the short distance to the Arcola Theatre to see The Plague, based on Albert Camus‘ 1947 novel.  Well, I do like to mix light and shade on an evening out.  The play was very well done and only mildly harrowing.  I’ve been meaning to read some Camus for years, and this was probably a good substitute and takes some of the pressure off me for a while.

The bus ride back to Waterloo was fun, traversing parts of London I’ve never visited and offering an excellent view of St Paul’s.  I always find that it is the journey home which is the key downside of going out in London.  If I go out in Southampton – which I do no more than five times in a typical week – when the fun comes to an end, it is a mere 10-15 minutes before I’m home enjoying a herbal tea before being tucked up in my trundle bed.  If I go out in London, there is 2-3 hours of post-fun time-wasting before I am reunited with my straw palliasse.  This is too long at my advanced age and it somehow takes some of the gilding off the earlier fun.  I think this is why I find myself going to London less and less often – though there is also the sheer number of reasons to stay in Southampton for my culture and the desire to support the local product.  Still, I fear unless there is significant progress on the transmat in the near future, my visits to the capital may remain a rare “treat”.


Where does it come from?  Why is it almost, but not quite, always navy blue?

I fear this post may fall short in both the answer and originality departments (which continue to resist their long overdue, cost-saving merger), but there is a genuine puzzle at its heart.

My modestly-sized flat (or hutch, as one friend insists on describing it) has very pale beige carpets.  I would have chosen something a few shades darker, but when you’re buying second hand you have to take what you’re given.  What I have come to realise is that a large proportion of the workload on my vacuum cleaner is gathering up little pieces of generally dark blue fluff.  They appear (or breed) at an alarming rate, but where can they be coming from?

I am pretty sure that the human body (even mine) lacks the DNA to produce and shed its own fluff.  So either it is spontaneous generated – as folk once believed mice were – or it is being generated from the environment.  The primary fluff locus appears to be in my boudoir where I robe – and, even more excitingly (or maybe not) – dis-robe.  This would tend to implicate my vestments and the fact that many (though by no means all) are at the blue-black end of the colour spectrum might add some much needed corroboration.  Still, I will admit that my evidence is somewhat circumstantial and may not stand up in court.

Given the sheer quantity of fluff produced, I am forced to wonder if I am abnormally abrasive – in terms of my skin rather than personality (the latter may be true, but it seems unlikely to be causal in respect of my fluff mountain).  Some might blame my navel as a well-known repository for fluff (I mean in general, rather than my navel in particular), but this only yields an occasional harvest which I dispose of at the time (rather than casting to the floor in a fit of pique).

Given the volume, I could only blame moths if my wardrobe were playing host to Mothra (and her extended family).  However, despite the apparent high level of erosion my clothes remain pleasingly free of unintended holes.

None of these explanations explain why my non-navy cloth-based cladding seems immune from the effect and leaves no fluff-based trace on my floors.

It is all very perplexing…

Compressed music

I should make clear that I am not one of those people who bemoans the loss of vinyl, I’m more one of those astonished by its return.  To me, vinyl is like flared trousers, I am old enough to remember how dreadful it was the first time round and have no desire to relive that particular element of the past.  I willingly embraced the CD – though am less keen on the plastic cases they tend to come in.  Luckily, a fair proportion of my more recent CD acquisitions come in a much nicer cardboard alternative: it takes up less space, is much comfier in the hand and is probably better for the plant (or at least the main raw material for cardboard can be replenished more rapidly than it can for its plastic counterpart).  As a dweller in a small flat, I have also welcomed the digital download and its even more modest demands on my available physical storage space.  To the horror of musical purists, I then route my MP3 music via Bluetooth and a DAC to my hifi.  What an impoverished soundscape I must be supplying to my poor benighted ears.  I fear I can’t tell the difference: though I do revel in the absence of hiss and the immunity to scratches.  However, perhaps it is the losses occasioned by all this data compression that continues to drive my love for, and frequent attendance at, live music.

And so, as if by magical, we are delivered to the main topic of today’s thesis.  I have of late (well the last 6 months) attended a number of live performances in spaces that frankly struggled to contain the musical forces at play.  A number of these have taken place in the rather fine crop of craft ale bars that the Southampton area can boast in re-purposed commercial premises.  The Overdraft in Shirley – which as its name suggests is in an old bank – has wisely stuck to the single performer, usually wielding nothing larger than a guitar.  It is a lovely space and has an aesthetic that brings to mind how I imagine a similar venue would appear in the trendiest corner of Brooklyn.

The Butcher’s Hook, just over the Irwell in Bitterne, is somewhat smaller and sited in an old butchers – complete with much of its beautiful original tiling.  It was here that I went to the last Playlist gig.  This boasted Olivia Jaguers on a full-size concert harp, which I sat in very close proximity to.  Ambitious enough you might have thought, but the next act on was the local Gypsy jazz band the Manusa Project (very local, one third of the band lives directly above me and gave me lift home).  They include a full-sized double bass (and player) plus two guitarists – quite the squeeze with the harp and an audience.

I’m not sure what the Olaf’s Tun in Woolston used to be as its interior betrays fewer clues as to its past life.  It is a small space, but bravely invited the 6-piece folk and ceilidh band Monkey See, Monkey Do to perform (with smaller than usual toy monkey).  This was the tightest squeeze yet, with the bassist and one of the violinists having to move each time a member of the audience (or just bar patron) wished to micturate (or more).

I must admit I do love music in a tiny space: it does make the whole experience very personal and direct.  MSMD have also promised to bring some Welsh folk to their next gig as it was the only one of the home nations neglected at the Olaf’s Tun.

Gigs pushing the available space to the limit are not always in small craft ale bars.  As part of the fund-raising for Comic Relief, the Turner Sims concert hall staged an Orchestral Decathlon.  This was made up of ten well-known favourites from the orchestral canon – including five symphonies and two piano concerti – performed by the same orchestra in a single day.  As audience, we arrived a little before 2pm and escaped just before 10pm.  The day was divided into three “concerts” each with a normal 20 minute interval and a 45 minute gap between them.  The wise concert-goer bought a packed tea and other snacks: I am a wise concert-goer (in this respect, and probably very few others!).

Turner Sims seats around 400 people, I’d estimate, but doesn’t normal host anything larger than a chamber orchestra.  For the Decathlon they must have had an orchestra of around ninety which left the stage area pretty full.  For the piano concerti the stage was very full!  For Shostakovich’s second, I was sat in the middle of row B (row A being under the Steinway) and effectively listened to the piece from inside the piano which was quite an experience.  For Rachmaninov’s second, I was still in row B but a little further across – so could readily have helped out playing any high notes.  I could also see, though not entirely focus, on the music.  There were an awful lot of notes, but I did discover that I could have accurately page-turned the piece a good 75% of the time – probably more with my glasses.

My most recent musical experience in a small space was at Hundred Records in Romsey: a very fine and friendly record shop.  I was there for the launch of the latest EP by A Formal Horse, a local band I “discovered” at a recent Maple Leaf Session.  This was once again a tight squeeze, so much so that the drummer could only watch from the side-lines.  It was a real enjoyable experience, boosted I feel from the critical input from the guitarist’s very young daughter who I fear may not entirely approve of daddy’s musical direction.


Two-thirds of A Formal Horse, in concert!

Others may prefer their music surrounded by mud and twenty thousand of their closest (and not recently washed) friends or professionally produced in a stadium with impressive (and expensive) staging and light show.  Given me the real up-close and personal performance, preferably slightly shambolic and in not quite enough space, every time.  If you can throw in a home-made raffle, forgotten until slightly too late (as was offered by A Formal Horse) then you will have a fan for life!


Spring is sprung!  Trees are greening and on my way to Salisbury I saw lambs!  And not plastic wrapped and divided into small pieces in a supermarket freezer as I usually glimpse them: no there was actual gambolling afoot.

Even on my way to the station, there were two sources of joy for my inner child.  First, a Southern Water employee probing the ground with the largest dipstick I have ever seen: it was at least 3 feet long.  Second, I saw a sign advertising a forthcoming operatic production, but it was partly obscured by some street furniture.  As a result, I can bring the world my new LGBTQA take on a Puccini classic: Adam Butterfly.  We may need to re-locate the action from Japan, where I suspect Adam was not a common name among the indigenes in the late nineteenth century, but such re-imaginings seem to be all the rage on the stage of today.

I nominally went to Salisbury to go to the theatre to see a play about the First World War, the end of an era and an almost love story.  I can’t handle too much sunshine without a little literary bleakness to balance it out!

As I travel by train, I reached Salisbury somewhat early as I like to leave quite a serious margin between my planned arrival time and when I actually need to be at my destination.  I never dibbed (or, indeed, dobbed) as a child but I do use trains quite a lot and it pays to “be prepared”.

My early arrival allowed me to take the short stroll from the station and across the water meadows to enjoy very fine views of the city’s cathedral.  This is a long way from the worst bit of time-killing I’ve had to indulge in over the years!

Upon my return to Salisbury station, chastened from the Harrowing of the Shire and the demise of love’s young dream, I was greeted by the Earl of Mount Edgecumbe.  Not a scion of the aristocracy looking to me for advice on achieving the common touch: though for a suitable fee, I am available to consult in this and many other areas.  It was the Castle-class GWR locomotive of that name (originally, and less confusingly called Barbery Castle) in full steam.  What a glorious and romantic sight it made with only Class 158 Sprinter Express DMUs for company.  However, I couldn’t help but think that with a station full of these – especially a well-canopied one, or worse yet Birmingham New Street – air quality would quickly become something of an issue.  Perhaps they are best left for high days and holidays…



It’s only a chuffing earl!

Hang Time

One of the many joys of my somewhat Zen existence (I can only, pain-free, produce the sound of one hand clapping) is the constant novelty which it brings.

This last Thursday, on a whim (well, I still can’t ride my bike) I went to Turner Sims to see an Austrian chap called Manu Delago.  He was described as the world’s leading Hang player: I had no idea what a Hang was, but had assumed it was probably some fiendish, ancient Oriental game (or, possibly, instrument).  In fact, it is a musical instrument but it hails from the decidedly occidental town of Bern in Switzerland.  It was only made from 2003 to 2013, so is far from ancient but has, nonetheless, been consigned to history.

The Hang looks like two woks (minus their handles) that have been glued together by their rims.  The top wok has been knocked about a bit, as it has a number of dints and depressions in its surface.  The bottom wok has a hole in the centre of its base, into which a sort of chimney was at one stage inserted  The instrument is tapped, struck and stroked to produce a wide variety of tones in a similar tonal space to a steel drum.  Apparently, it acts as a Helmholtz resonator and not just as a pair of vessels for the creation of a tasty stir-fry.

Mr Delago was joined by a couple of Austrian (I assume) chums on a wide range of percussion along with voice, violin and keyboard.  The concert moved from the hauntingly beautiful to the violently rhythmic and was accompanied by projections and much more sophisticated lighting than is usual at the Turner Sims.  It was a very enjoyable and different musical evening (I bought a CD), but mostly appeared a serious, considered affair: just the occasional hint of Manu’s more mischievous side and his love of drumming really loud.

This impression did change when it came to the encore.  I had noticed during the main concert what seemed to be a coffee mug on the stage that hadn’t been tidied away, but as it transpired this was not an example of slipshod stage management.  Oh no, the mug and its contents were a key part of the first encore.  Manu and his percussionist returned with mugs (I’d only spotted one), now revealed to contain a toothbrush and some fluid (I’m assuming water) and performed a short (funny, but still musical) piece involving brushing and tapping their teeth, “popping” their mouths using the toothbrush and unexpectedly tuneful gargling.

Racism is an insidious thing and it is now clear that I had never thought of the Austrians as being funny.  This opinion will clearly have to be revised – as will the potential fun I can have in the bathroom just before bedtime.  Get your minds out of the gutter and/or your slacks, people!  I am clearly referring to dental hygiene.  I wonder if Manu would consider making his dental piece available to parents to encourage reluctant infants to keep their gnashers in tip-top shape?

The dawning of the age of my radius

We must start with two apologies (yes, I am using the royal “we”).  Firstly, for the gloriously contrived nature of the title and secondly for banging on (yet again) about my injury.  Other stuff does happen in my life and soon (I promise) some of it will make it to the blog.

Today, I returned to the Minor Injury Unit – and this time in the afternoon.  The Unit is much busier at 15:10 than at 09:10 – at least partly because children have had time to injure themselves by mid-afternoon (or so I deduce from the contents of the waiting room).

Each time I visit the MIU, my injury receives an upgrade – which is nice, I suppose, but I would rather burn my upgrade potential on airline seating.  Talking of which, I have travelled on a lot of Bombardier Q400 Dash-8 aircraft operated by FlyBe (well into 3 figures by now) over the last eighteen months and they have all been much the same.  However, my flight last night had much comfier seats, better fold down tables and even window blinds!  On the downside, it appears to lack steps on the rear exit – but that seems a small price to pay.  It would seem that there are five of these deluxe Dash-8s in the FlyBe fleet, acquired from Republic, but those of us commuting across the Irish Sea don’t see much of them (or maybe I’ve just been unlucky?).  Forget paying extra to choose my seat, can I pay extra and choose my plane?

Anyway, back to my wrist!  Some fuzziness in my x-ray image has now been revealed as a fracture of my radius – the larger of the two bones in the forearm.  I presume the pair with much most of us are issued are referred to as a diameter?  Luckily, such fractures heal well – though the doctor did point out that my age was somewhat against me here (I didn’t have the nerve to tell him I was only 30, albeit in base 17).

I have now been issued with a set of exercises to perform each day to restore strength and mobility to my wrist and have to return to the Unit in 4 weeks: unless I am pain-free, in which case I am free to return to normality (or as closely as I can approximate that state)!  Already, the pain is much reduced and most of the exercises are a dead doddle: so I am hoping to beat the standard ten week recovery time from such a fracture.  However, I do need to acquire tennis ball (or similar) as part of my therapy – not sure the rather cubical juggling “ball” I am currently using is quite the ticket.

I have also been given a new removable cast.  This one is smaller, smells significantly less bad and is a better colour – especially as we move into Spring and the area around my wrist starts to tan (well, a chap can dream).  However, I am still riven by cast-envy: a man working in the box office at Turner Sims must have a similar injury, but his removable cast is a stylish, and in parts shiny, black.  This looks like a Borg-issue cybernetic implant and looks way cooler than either of my casts.  Is this one of the benefits of “going private”?  Or merely of assimilation into the collective?