Cake walk

Southampton is not, perhaps, known for its beauty: though this is probably by folk unaware of its splendid green spaces, the Georgian glories missed by both the Luftwaffe and subsequent town planners and the historic charms of the old town.  Less in doubt are the delights of the surrounding area with both coastline and countryside – which includes both the New Forest and the start of the South Downs way (to name but two nearby, and widely recognised, areas with tourist appeal).  It might, therefore, be considered disappointing, not to say remiss, that after nearly five years living in the city I had been out into its surrounding areas of natural beauty a grand total of once: a cycle trip into the New Forest immortalised in this very blog.

This year – and now, once again, the possessor of a motor car – I resolved to do better.  I trust it will not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that I succeeded in doing better – while still managing a frankly poor performance, especially given the many weeks of unbroken sunshine which we were graced with this summer.  If I’m honest, as someone who dislikes heat, the good weather rather reduced my honouring of Gaia’s more proximate delights.

In an early burst of enthusiasm, I managed two trips into the New Forest in a single week in the late Spring.  I had a glorious walk around Brockenhurst only slight marred by finding an early puddle much deeper than anticipated and drowning my right boot, sock and foot in muddy water.  A nearby New Forest pony looked on askance as I rested on a bench and attempted to wring the worst of the water from my sock.  Undeterred, later that week I walked from Beaulieu down to Buckler’s Hard – which proved to be an early naval base and not, as I had imagined, some sort of bondage emporium.  This second walk had the benefit of my socks remaining dry throughout despite the more fugitive nature of the sunshine.  It also gained from the presence of a fine cake shop in Beaulieu to greet the weary yomper after his bout of low-intensity exercise.

As we hit the summer proper, I did manage to take the car down to the beach at Lepe to take in the salt tang of the air and marvel at the proximity in space (if not in time) of the Isle of Wight to the mainland.  I also made uncommon use of my membership of the National Trust to visit Mottisfont and the fragrant glories of its rose garden at its apogee.  This trip I made by train, which requires a walk through a wheat field and along a lane to reach the house from the neatest station: I fear I may rather have stymied my chances of leading this country by leaving the wheat entirely unmolested.

Other than these two excursions, the rest of the summer mostly consisted of me hiding from the heat of the sun – and not just at midday.  Had I been in charge, the British Empire would have been a much more modest – and northerly – affair and a great deal of suffering (and some joy) would have been avoided.  I’m not convinced Amazon Video will leap at the opportunity to make a drama based on this particular counterfactual take on history: perhaps if I changed my surname to a slang term for a gentleman’s agreement?  I do, after all, already have K as a middle initial so literary success must lie within my grasp…

A couple of weeks ago, Radio 3 went “Into the Forest” – which I seem to recall they did once before and not that long ago.  This allowed the playing of some music with generally tenuous links to forest and woodland and some thematically relevant spoken word material.  The Essay offered five short talks about various mythical or fictional forests.  I was fine with these until the last, which covered the Hundred Acre Wood and which quoted the following lines from The House at Pooh Corner:

Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

As well as demonstrating, once again, the ability of the words of A A Milne to reduce me to tears [Ed: at this point preparation of the post had to pause while the writer had a quiet weep] it created an immediate desire to go into a forest and find a high place to enjoy with my bear.  This would require the acquisition of a bear but it did occur to me that I live close to a forest and the weather forecast for the then current weekend was encouraging.  I decided that on Sunday I would go out into nature to reclaim my lost youth and provide a late boost to my poor nature-visiting performance in 2018 – though probably minus bear in the first instance.  Any bear would have to measure up to the Platonic ideal established by E H Shephard and I thought locating such a bear, in the face of the horrifying Disneyfication of Pooh since my youth, would be a major project.

Whilst I was tempted by the New Forest, I had been planning to scale St Catherine’s Hill in Winchester since the start of the year and decided it was time to tackle this important project.  This would also introduce the start of the South Downs Way and – most critically in the decision-making process – would allow me to visit The Cabinet Rooms, post-ascent, for some reviving cake.

So, after an early lunch I boarded a train to Winchester and set off past the Cathedral and out along the clear waters of the Itchen past the extensive playing fields of Winchester College (I believe I have lived in smaller counties) to the Hospital of St Cross before swinging round and climbing the steep steps to the summit of St Catherine’s Hill.  As a purist, I made the ascent without oxygen and eschewed the pitching of a base camp.  The weather was glorious offering a last, bittersweet taste of summer and the views from the peak were stunning – only slightly spoiled by the M27 snaking its way through the glories of the Hampshire countryside.  I came back down the other side and along another branch of the river, where it raced over weirs, before claiming my prize: an excellent slice of lemon drizzle cake.

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Over the dark, dank, less walking-friendly months of winter I have determined to acquire a suitable ursine companion for my peregrinations and to make striding out into the ‘tames’ (I fear the true wilds were irrevocably changed by humans centuries ago) on a regular basis in 2019.  I know one can find books which offer strolls centred on country pubs but are there equivalent works based around cafes offering excellent cake?  If not, I may be announcing my intention to fill this gap…  So, it would seem that the less than subtle sub-test of this post is to stake out my territory: a very long take on the KEEP OUT sign to protect my future intellectual (ha ha!) property!


Losing our Heads

Humans are a sentimental lot, easily acquiring attachments to places and things which the objects of our sentiments cannot return: short of a greater belief in animism than I can usually muster.  Such feelings can become twisted  to generate dark emotions and worse actions, though mostly just lead to a slight resistance to change and life marinated in a vague brine of nostalgia.

I am as prone to these sentiments as any, though do try to remember that if carried too far would mean our distant ancestors never having left the savannah or cave: a bit of change is probably more healthy than the stagnant alternatives.  Much that is considered beautiful or beloved was once an eye-sore (or worse).  Places that don’t change can feel rather eerie: I remember wandering around the largely unchanged streets of Oxford a few years back being haunted by the ghost of my much younger self walking those same streets.

Some places smuggle themselves deep into our hearts surprisingly swiftly.  I think these delvers, swift and deep, are able to do so thanks to associations that accrete in nacreous layers around the raw grit of the place to create a treasured pearl.  In my experience, these associations are always linked to the realm of the living and are, perhaps, strongest when they involve other people: though nature more broadly creates powerful ties.

As the proceeding directions which set my stage suggest, I am going to talk about a particular place – now forever lost in one of the trickier to navigate dimensions – which only existed for a brief span of a human life but became very important to me.  Those for whom prolonged exposure to this blog has provided some unwanted insight into the way my brain “works”, may have guessed from the title that this post is about The Talking Heads of fond memory.

For those who do not know it, the Talking Heads – hereinafter “The Heads” – was an independent music venue in Southampton.  The Heads has existed for several years, but while I visited its Portswood home on a few occasions it was only once it moved to the Polygon that it unexpectedly became such an integral part of my life.  Initially, it was not any particular virtue of the venue that took me to its doors but rather its proximity to my home.  Being only half-a-mile away, I had to expend very little effort to go there and see what was on.  It also gained from staging a number of gigs that were free entry (often with the opportunity to donate to support the musicians) or pretty low cost.  It also had two rooms, generally with contrasting gigs, and hosted it least one event (often two) every night of the week.  This heady cocktail of convenience meant it was always an easy option if I fancied doing something of an evening on which I had nothing planned: there would usually be something on that would at least tickle my fancy enough to take a look.  It also meant that if another event finished early, it would usually be worth checking The Heads on the walking home to catch a second gig there.

Once I started visiting more regularly, my mysterious (to me) memorability meant that I came to know the people that worked at The Heads and many of its regulars.  This added an additional incentive to go out, as I would probably bump into a friend – or at least a proto-friend – which would make the short walk all the more worthwhile.  It was the The Heads which started my continuing project to try and go to at least one cultural event in Southampton every night – the place made it easy: if ever there was a gap in my diary, I could generally rely on The Heads to fill it for me.  Going out became almost addictive – things happen when you go out that never do when you sit at home in front of the idiot box or laptop (however much “content” is thrown at us)  – and has led to a situation where I have far more friends now that at any previous point in my life and have stronger connections to Southampton than to any other place I have ever lived.  In more ways than one, The Heads was a key progenitor of this process and acted as a place to meet people.  Since it’s gone, I less reliably bump into friends on a regular basis: I need to establish a new “club house”, albeit for a club that no-one knew they were joining – maybe “common room” is a better metaphor.

As well as the friends I first met at The Heads, or the friendships that deepened there, the place is also full of memories for events I saw.  It provided most of my education in modern jazz and experimental music and hugely broadened my musical taste in many other areas: it just made the “how bad can it be?” attitude to going out so viable.  It played host to so many of my best nights out over the last couple of years.  So many neurons are devoted to time spent there.

As well as the associations, the physical venue had a lot in its favour.  It was the only music venue in Southampton with two spaces for gigs – and each room had a very different vibe.  The main space was perhaps a more traditional venue but was much wider than it was deep which I find works well: it helps to bring the audience closer to the music and each other and improves sight-lines.  It had a decent dance floor – for those so inclined – and always had somewhere to sit down – which is lovely for my ageing and often tired lower limbs.  So many venues have little or no room to sit down which is great for the young with a desire to mosh, perhaps, and does create a specific feel but I think puts some potential audience off: it can have an impact on my own decision-making if I’m feeling particularly enervated or foot-sore.  It also leaves one with little incentive to arrive early or stick around after a gig – which must have an impact on drink sales and so venue economics.

The Maple Leaf Lounge was a thing of unique and eccentric beauty.  The owner has a serious penchant for an auction and an antique or several and so the front bar was adorned with an eclectic mix of antiques, pictures and some truly strange objects and graced with a mix of elderly, often wobbly (but interesting ) furniture.  The range on offer and their positioning would also slowly mutate over time.  No hipster theme bar would ever have chosen the medley of “stuff” that decorated that lounge: in a world often rendered increasingly bland with reproductions of the currently (or recently) hip everywhere – even in banks – it had a real personality and sense of place.  Despite its oddly positioned pillars and slight dilapidation, for so much music – especially acoustic and jazz – I think it will always be the standard against which I measure any music venue.

It always had friendly staff – many of which I now count as friends – who cared about the venue, the quality of its sound and its survival but, alas, it was not to be.  It was the only dedicated music venue to have a range of decent and well-kept cask ales (for most of its life – we don’t mention the Palmers, while recognising that it probably helped fund the venue) – which is a sine qua non for the middle-aged beer snob and a terrible loss given that the venues that survive it tend to focus on children’s drinks (lager, cocktails and the like).

Despite its many virtues, and just a few very modest vices which need not detain us here, The Heads closed its doors for the last time at the end of September.  A victim of costs – particularly business rates and rents – which the volume of people willing to go out to enjoy live music did not cover (and I definitely tried as my liver can – no doubt – attest).  Sadly, other venues in the city still struggle to square that particular circle and I am forced to wonder how setting business rates at a level which eliminates business can possible be economically rational behaviour.  I have deliberately not walked passed the building since it closed but my suspicion is that it will be replaced by student flats, as this seems to be the fate of all vacant buildings these days.  I’m always slightly worried when I leave the flat for more than a couple of hours, in case I return to find it replaced with shoddily built accommodation with super-fast wifi to tempt the young to part with some of their student loan.

Other places have had to fill the hole in my life, and the expanded programme at NST City has certainly helped to ensure I have very few evenings stuck at home with my own thoughts for company, but hole there is and will remain for some time yet.  Remember to love and support your local music venues, if not they will continue to disappear – whereas your couch TV and streaming service are going nowhere.  Without local venues there will be nowhere for fresh talent to get a start and we’ll all have to travel to a small number of big cities to see live music – and that’s both expensive and inconvenient.  Listen local!

Before the closing Haiku, I though I’d share images from four of my favourite gigs from the final month, including the final day.


Silence fills music’s sphere

Recent grief renders heads dumb

A maple leaf falls