Stepping in the same river

It’s always nice to start with a classical allusion, it sets a level of intellectual rigour that the rest of the post will entirely fail to sustain.  Today’s title is “borrowed” from Heraclitus though I don’t think he was specifically referencing the River Cam…

My allusion is very much to the river that flows through Cambridge and provides the root of its name as, for this past weekend, I returned to my old stomping ground for 36 hours of fun.  I feel that I either do leisure really well or very badly: depending on how you view leisure.  As this post will go on to demonstrate – at tedious length – I fitted a frankly ridiculous number of activities into my brief sojourn.  This meant I had a great time but did leave me a tad drained on Monday and my weekend could not really be classed as relaxing: not for me lying insensate by pool or shore for a week or two under a blazing sun.  If I have travelled, then I will attempt to maximise the “benefit” obtained from the cost of my journeying and night(s) away from home by doing as much as physically possible (and sometimes more).

It has been rather more than a year since I was last in Cambridge and I had been searching for a weekend when I was not otherwise committed to activities in Southampton.  As a bonus, this last weekend also played host to the city’s Jazz and Literary Festivals – which may have acted as something of a metaphorical china shop to my cultural bull.

The journey north seemed rather long.  A rail strike for the segment to London meant my train was attempting (and failing) to carry the passengers of three normal services – but with no additional coaches.  I then discovered that since leaving Cambridge the rail service from Kings Cross has effectively halved in frequency, so there is now only one fast train an hour (and the two slow trains are cunningly timed to be entirely useless).  So, a fair wait for a train and once again passengers were standing all the way.  It was like living in the north, albeit with much newer rolling stock!  As the train drew into Cambridge, I noted that Addenbrooke’s has continued to grow since my last visit and the fields I used to cycle across – home to buntings, yellowhammers and stoats – have almost completely vanished under new buildings.  Around the station itself, the city is unrecognisable – swamped in new “development” – but once you escape its immediate vicinity, and nostalgia for the relative beauty of the old Focus DIY store, more familiar sights return.

My first stop, it being lunchtime, was at Dulcedo: a new Patisserie which had been recommended to me.  A dangerous first stop in many ways and I was only saved from blowing the whole year’s patisserie budget by my limited carrying capacity.  They provide one of the finest sandwiches I have ever consumed – the toasted sourdough bread was particularly heavenly – and a very fine hot chocolate (in addition to more traditional patisserie).  Thus fortified, I snuck round the Backs to avoid the city centre en route to check out the refurbished Kettle’s Yard Gallery.  This housed an interesting exhibition of very varied works by Richard Poussette-Dart and was a lovely calming interlude in the helter-skelter of my day.

However, soon I needed to nip the short distance to my digs for the weekend.  In an unexpected development, I was spending the night with (and indeed at) Jesus: and what an excellent host he was!  I was staying at the newly revamped West Court of Jesus College which was, by a country mile, the finest student accommodation it has ever been my pleasure to stay in.  I could quite happily move in and just stay, though sadly while it was an economic option for staying in Cambridge for the night my budget would not permit more permanent residency.

Sadly, there wasn’t time to linger as I had a gig looming on the horizon.  Jesus is much more handily positioned than I had expected and I made it to my gig in plenty of time, despite an unplanned excursion on the way.  Taking a back route (the joys of local knowledge) I spotted an unexpected dome through a narrow window.  Investigating a little further, I found this was the ceiling of the banking hall of the city centre Lloyd’s Bank.  I must have walked and cycled past this building hundreds of times but had never noticed what a stunning interior it has (and the outside isn’t too shabby): inherited from its earlier life as Fosters Bank.  It is the work of the same architects who created the Natural History Museum in London and while on a smaller scale is very much the equal of its bigger brother.

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After gawping at this temple of mammon, I was back to matters more sacred with a pair of jazz gigs in St Andrew’s Baptist Church: one of the few city centre churches in which I had never previously seen live music.  Two very good and different jazz acts in the form of the Daphna Sadeh Quartet and Bahla meant the rest of my afternoon flew by in fine style: the one common theme being a vague hint of the middle-east.  By the time the music finished, I had less than an hour to get across time to my next gig and try and fit in some dinner.  Pre-visit research had thrown up Calverley’s Brewery as an option that was – more-or-less – on my way.  It is not the easiest place to find even when you know the street it is on really well and have very good directions – but it was well worth it.  An excellent pint of home brewed beer consumed in the brewery and a truly excellent pizza from the Pizza Mondo van parked nearby (the providers of the food van do rotate from week-to-week).  I’m not sure if it was the location or the occasion but despite being slightly hurried it was one of my best ever suppers. I am a man of simple tastes in many ways and a fairly cheap date: should any reader wish to chance their arm.

I made it to the Mumford Theatre for my next gig with almost 4 minutes in hand, though a part of me can’t help feeling that I could gave fitted something else into those wasted minutes…  This was to see Phronesis who had provided the spur to visit Cambridge last weekend after I spotted their name in the Jazz Festival Programme.  I have seen them before as part of Marius Neset’s band but never on their own.  They are an odd looking trio: Ivo (piano) always seems to be wearing a very fine shirt but rendering it dishevelled, Jesper (bass) could easily find a part (probably as a killer) in any Scandi-Noir drama and has the look of an etiolated Willem Dafoe while Anton (drums) had the look of a psychotic mid-ranking SS Officer which his extraordinary facial expressions while playing and chosen wardrobe did little to dispel (bar his rather exciting socks).  Despite appearances they are all lovely, and I can speak personally to the charm of Anton as, at the Mumford, the talent are forced to queue up with the audience and pay if they want an interval drink – the queue took pity on the chap and bought him a beer.  Clearly being a musician is not all huge riders, blue M&Ms and baskets of fresh kittens!  Phronesis were everything I might have hoped for musically, including a lovely line in dry wit from Jesper.  I’m looking forward to seeing them again next spring when they visit Turner Sims with the Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra.

I fancied a pint as part of my comedown from such an exciting day and so stopped off at the St Radegund on my way back to my room.  This is technically a sports bar, but the sport is rowing and it has never had the vibe of a sports bar when I’ve visited.  For the first time in many years (many many years, many many many years), I was able to enjoy a pint of local cask ale in a decent pub for the princely sum of £2.

After a splendid night’s sleep in my double-bed (a first in student digs), Jesus offered me a truly first rate breakfast (loaves were on offer but no fishes) to prepare myself from the day ahead.  As a resident, I was able to wander the grounds of the college and found myself loitering for quite a while outside the chapel listening to the choir practising for the service to come: this is a very fine way to ease into a Sunday, though quite hard to replicate at home…

I had a proper wander along the Cam, catching it just before the punts start to convey convoys of Chinese in their ongoing attempt to film Cambridge from every conceivable angle and at every possible time of day and year.  I think they may be building a replica at home: though surely they must have the footage to support such a project by now.  I then made my way to Fitzbillies for the obligatory Chelsea bun and to meet a friend to catch up on gossip from the local music scene.  We then wandered to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see an exhibition of works inspired (some quite loosely I would suggest) by the work of Virginia Woolf as well as to catch up with some old favourites.  It was then a matter of nipping over the road to the Old Library at Pembroke College to catch a little Shostakovich and Beethoven thanks to the university’s instrumental award holders.  The library may not have the visual amenity on offer in Gallery 3 of the Museum, where these gigs are normally held, but the seating is so much more comfortable: I didn’t leave crippled!

It was then a quick stroll up Downing Street to my one visit to the Literary Festival to see Dan Snow talk about history: both his own and that in his new book.  This was in the Babbage Lecture theatre – which I remember as a rather shabby affair in quite the shabbiest quad in Cambridge.  Things had changed since my last visit: the quad is now much tidier and home to the new David Attenborough Building and the new Zoology Museum – including glass pavilion housing a whale skeleton – and the lecture theatre is really rather swanky.

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Only a flying visit, but I had a whale of a time!

It was then but a short stroll back to the river to visit The Mill, a pub I never visited while a local, to meet up with a friend from Southampton who has moved to Cambridge to take up the noble profession of an artisanal baker (perhaps other friends could consider career changes that would benefit me: does anyone fancy becoming a cheesemaker, brewer or patissier(e)?).  While baker is a fine career choice – the previous days’ sourdough toast came from his bakery (if not hands) – it does involve rather early mornings which I fear would put me off.  He brought a gift of a freshly baked loaf, made with 50% khorasan flour (so hints of the classical world), which I can report is delicious both fresh and toasted.  I now feel I need to be more adventurous with my own baking (and toasting) …

It was such a joy catching up with a friend over a number of good pints and, after a while, we repaired next door for my final jazz gig of the weekend at the University Centre Wine Bar.  This venue was much nicer than I’d imagined and the beer continued to flow: the Sam Smith’s Apricot Ale proved particularly moreish.  Music was provided the the Lydian Collective who were very good indeed – and like all the very diverse range of acts I’d seen at the Jazz Festival, basically new to me.   All the gigs were good value, but this final two hour gig for only £5 was perhaps the highlight of the weekend (against a very strong field).  I had wondered why I’d never made it to the Jazz Festival when I lived locally, but discovered at the Phronesis gig that it had only been going four years: they literally waited for me to leave town before launching.

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The Lydian Collective in a surprisingly good venue for jazz

With a bit of a wait for my train back to London, there was time to fit in a final Cambridge pint at the Flying Pig.  However, this was not to be my final pint of the evening as I discovered some friends playing a folk session at a pub right next to Waterloo station (thank you social media, sometimes you help a chap be properly social) which helped fill the wait for my very slow train home (but who wouldn’t want to visit Staines in the dark).

I had as much fun as I believe any middle-aged man could possibly have in a weekend (and without breaking any laws!) while re-acquainting myself with the city which was my home for several years.  I was reminded why I love Cambridge and am determined to return more regularly in future: the Jazz Festival is definitely going in my calendar for 2019.  However, it did take a day or two to recover from quite so many activities and then to commit the weekend to quite so much print to bore the wider public, so I may need to ration my visits a little…

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Harried

Last week, I attended a sort of interview which I have to admit I rather enjoyed.  This was partly down to the very fine (and free!) glass of Portuguese red wine on offer – a Brigando – but mostly down to meeting and interacting with my fellow interviewees.  Whatever the outcome of the process and my uncertain desires related thereto, I am already a winner.

One of the only three formal questions I was asked was “What community(ies) did I belong to?”.  I am always puzzled when people are introduced – generally in the current affairs output of the media – as a representative of a particular community.  I barely (and usually poorly) represent the community of one that is myself, let alone any wider grouping of humanity.  Today’s world seems, so often, to actively work to prevent the formation of communities other than the weird caricatures that find the darkest and most extreme elements of their participants and amplify them, like a Gerald Scarfe cartoon of the psyche. You will never – well, hardly ever – find such attempts to appeal to the baser side of human nature on GofaDM given that it rarely interacts directly with normal human experience at all but merely indulges its author’s rampant egomania.

It struck me that, given that I knew no-one in the city when I moved here a little more than five years ago, the communities to which I belong are those I have met when I left the comparatively safe space of my flat and with the exception of work (which lies on the far side of the Irish Sea) and the general errands of life, these have all been broadly cultural in nature.  My communities are the musical, theatrical and related scenes in the city – plus a decent pub or two (and if a decent pub isn’t culture and worth preserving, I don’t know what is!).

This post will use the title (interpreted very broadly) to draw together two musical offerings from very different vertices of whichever highly irregular polygon (or polyhedron) forms the current envelope of my Aoidean¹ life and which I have had the good fortune to enjoy in the last few days.

Generally, I don’t think of myself as a fan of musical theatre – though, as established above, I am not a good representative of my own views or tastes.  So, it was with a degree of trepidation that I went to see Six on Friday – still, it was very well reviewed and at only 75 minutes long my suffering would be mercifully brief.  My worries were entirely unfounded as it provided some of the best and most entertaining minutes I have ever spent in a theatre.  It was a veritable explosion of light, song, dance and music and some actual history: trying to unearth something of the real woman entombed beneath the ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ rhyme. It was wildly entertaining and was incredibly cleverly constructed: each wife partly fashioned through her voice, dance moves and musical style as well as her story.  And the lyrics, oh the lyrics!  There was some truly glorious use (and abuse) of the English language in their construction: phrases and rhymes I wish I had come up with (or had even the slightest chance of coming up with).  I was struck, watching the action, that old Harry 8 did seem to have something for girls called Kate (as you can see, little hope for me as a lyricist).

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The Standing O was never in real doubt!

It was also a joy to see an all female production, with a live band, and where – at least in this fictional setting – real women were able to show they had a life which was not just as adjunct to their common husband and even allowed them to reclaim some sisterhood.   Given the huge part of our historical education (both formal and otherwise), in the space not consumed by the Nazis, that is taken by the Tudors it is sad how little I knew about any of the six after Anne Boleyn: and I have an interest in history.  So, my evening of fun was even educational!  I wonder if there are wider lessons for the teaching of history: out with David Starkey and in with empowered women singing and dancing their way through the 16th century…

If you thought the previous night out was somewhat tangentially linked to the title, buckle up for my tales of Wednesday night! This had been programmed into my diary the instant I found out about it, as the Out-take Ensemble are one of the best things about living in Southampton (even if several of them now commute from Bristol – and beyond – and one of them seems to have “gone native”).  They have introduced me to whole new and strange wings to the palace of music that I had never previously imagined might exist.  They bear a heavy weight of responsibility for my heading to Leith during this year’s Edinburgh Festival to see something from the proper (adult) festival’s contemporary music strand – the first time in my 15ish years of going to the festival that this has happened.  I had a ball watching and listening to Anna Meredith’s Varmints in the Leith Theatre.  It is always a good night when the composer is on stage dressed in a silver cape (though there could be public health issues were J S Bach were to attempt it: I’ve seen his work re-composed but decomposed might be step too far) and the orchestra joined her in unusual metallically-garbed splendour: such a pleasant change from the usual monochrome formality of an orchestra.  Perhaps the wider classical music world should try it?  I will admit that the rather strong aroma of canine excrement that pervaded the streets of Leith as I waited for my bus home was not what the Proclaimers had led me to expect, but was only a very tiny fly and the vast ocean of ointment that was my evening out.

Wednesday night’s wide range of experimental offerings did not disappoint. The evening started with Carolyn Chen’s Adagio – where the audience do not get to hear any music at all, though the performers can hear excerpt(s) from Bruckner’s 7th.  The emotional heft of this is delivered through the facial expressions of the three players who somehow managed to do this without corpsing (a feat not achieved by many in the audience).  Oh to have been a fly-on-the-wall during rehearsals!  This piece must count as performance art as much as (or more than) music and I highly recommend image-searching the “score” (as I just have).

Appropriately, the second piece was Alex Glyde-BatesTropography which begins as a multi-sensory diptych between spliced-together close-ups of an actress playing Jean d’Arc in a silent movie (and who I feel could have done good work with Adagio) and a virtuoso violin player.  Later the piece becomes a triptych as human non-verbal vocalisations are played in: ranging from a singe baby to a whole crowd, perhaps at a sporting event.  The emotion from Jean, the violin and the vocalisations sometimes came together in synaesthetic harmony and at other times their conflict produced feelings of full or partial disc(h)ord.  I find myself wondering if a third sense could have been brought into play but recognise this would be tricky: perhaps a sequence of timed snacks (there was a large tin of Quality Street available) or a cunningly constructed multi-flavoured gob-stopper?

Ben Oliver’s BmB – I will reveal that the ‘m’ stands for ‘means’ and the two B’s refer to the same neologism, one with which I will not sully this blog (there should remain at least one refuge) – would count as a more conventional piece (but only relatively speaking) scored for the whole ensemble and electronics.  It was written in response to the work of Thomas Tallis and, in particular, his 21 year monopoly on the publishing of polyphonic music in England by Harry 8’s daughter, Liz (1).

Embarrassingly, I have forgotten both the name and composer of the next piece for tuba and electronics.  I recall that it was an unusually long, effectively-solo piece for the tuba and involved a lot of aspiration and some notes of startling depth: certainly any risk of shipping striking the venue were significantly reduced though any passing cetaceans might have been tempted to join the audience.

Harry Matthewsactively listening to me brought out – not for the first time in experimental music I’ve seen – the element of “play” in the word “player”.  While there is a score, the players working/competing in pairs can take the piece in many possible directions.  I’m assuming that no two performances will ever be the same but that each is always a conversation between each instrument pairing.  I love that music can bring this element of play into performance but in such a different way to jazz improvisation.  I’ll admit that I’m not sure who the “winner” was in each pair and we did not get to see the final itself (or perhaps they play both home and away legs?).

As a contrarian, I’ve chosen images where the only Harry is on the score…

The final piece was commissioned by the Ensemble from a female Australian composer (once again the name of both the composer and piece – which was something like fade to hum – is lost beyond ready recall in the grey mush between my ears) and scored for keyboard, electric guitar, rocks – so I guess it counts as rock music – and voice: both humming and, briefly, speaking.  The unfolding of the piece clearly depended on the players’ heart rates at times and at others felt conversational.  I wonder if the spoken word elements – which provided added appeal for both dog-lovers and plumbers – were part of the score or were brought by the players from their own lives.

As always with the Out-take Ensemble, the barrage of ideas for what music can or could be just fills the brain with exciting possibilities and ways to think: while, as it transpires, entirely erasing important details about what was actually performed!  I may need to take notes, in at least one more sense than was the case.  I want to hear/see it all again as I now have a feel for the whole shape of each piece, I will experience the elements and details of each piece differently.  This is the annoying thing about so much new and experimental music: there tend to be few (if any) recordings available to indulge my inner Teletubby, “Again! Again!”.  I have found that YouTube is sometimes our friend (if we have managed to retain a few key facts about the piece) though the small screen of my laptop is not the ideal medium from which to digest such big ideas.

For those of you lucky enough to be in London on Tuesday night, rather than languishing, like the author, in the cultural desert of Terminal 1 of Dublin Airport, there is a chance to catch many of the pieces – and some others – at the Harrison near Kings Cross.  This is going to be a rather intimate space in which to fit the ensemble, their instruments, varied electronica and an audience – so it should be worth going just to see if they can manage it!

Two nights out, less than 48 hours apart, both involving a Harry (one physically present and with, I presume, a less problematic romantic history) showing that even after all the long millenia of human music making there is still new and fun territory to explore: long may it continue!

¹  It is possible that I have invented this word, but it follows all the rules of the language in which I am operating and I’m leaving it in!

Two by Two

Despite recent rainfall, this post will have nothing to do with my role as the new Noah (I am still far too young – but just 448 years to go!) or any construction project involving gopher wood.  Referring to my trusty King James edition, it seems that the original Project Initiation Document for anything surviving the flood was rather poorly drafted and variously requests two of each animal, or two pairs or seven pairs of each animal to be included in the ark.  I think this rather poor QA and the weak compliance with the principles of PRINCE 2 may go some way to explaining the mess the world now finds itself in.  I feel the roles of Project Manager and Team Leader are largely implicit in Genesis but it is less than clear on the user representative and establishment of a steering committee: and frankly I suspect a better defined project would have seen a lot of push back from the users long before the implementation phase.  I like to imagine that the later formation of the Trinity was a response to criticisms in the End Project Report.

However, I did promise myself after the last gargantuan outing of GofaDM that I would try and rein myself in and wax less prolix (at least once).  So, here goes my brave attempt to try something new…

It should be well known that my primary form of transport for journeys of non-trivial length (and those that will not involve an inconsistent level of alcohol consumption) is the bicycle. This has been the case for more than a decade now and throughout that period I have journeyed on several variation on the theme of the hybrid bicycle.  Some have had more of the road bike about them than others – though I have never managed to get on with drop handle bars – and others have been more tuned for bad weather.  I have had bikes made of aluminium, steel and titanium – but all have had the basic geometry and comfort characteristics of a hybrid.

Over the period of serious cycling as a practical mode of transport, and particularly after the move to Southampton, the quality of the road surfaces on offer has made the process of moving around ever more painful to a chap’s undercarriage.  A situation that may have been exacerbated by my general lack of padding: both downstairs and up.  I remember many years ago riding a horse through Monument Valley using a cavalry saddle, which went by the discouraging nickname of “ballbuster” (I think down to the shape of its “prow” and the likely effect of the steed stopping more rapidly than its rider and the ensuing conjunction of a genetleman’s agreement with said prow).  However, this provided a level of comfort that a legume-sensitive princess would find more than acceptable when compared to cycling on the roads of my chosen city: I fear any chance of siring offspring was lost years ago (for which the world is no doubt grateful).

After my recent excursion to Eastleigh to further my aerial circus ambitions, I decided that enough was enough and that I needed a more comfortable conveyance to coddle my nethers into their twilight years.  I could live with a little loss of efficiency in the transfer of energy from my body into its forward motion in return for less impact damage to my buttocks and that which lies between.

After some research into the options, I have acquired a new mountain bike – despite the lack of proximate relief which could claim the status of anything more than a foothill (if we exclude accessing the General Hospital) – which has rather different geometry, massive wheels and thick tyres (it’s a 29er – but I can assure readers has neither been baked nor treated with vinegar to achieve this status) and some solid suspension for the front forks.

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My pristine new mount: laughing in the face of rain…

Despite its rugged looks – and I’m hoping performance – it is still surprisingly light and quick on its wheels.  A little slower out of the blocks perhaps (that’s inertia for you), but otherwise I have not noticed any major loss in performance.  It does offer me a rather commanding position on the road and I can now laugh in the face of all but the largest of potholes.  Indeed, as a small child with new Wellingtons is irresistibly drawn to puddles, so I am drawn to imperfections in the road to see how little they affect my smooth progress along the Queen’s highway.  I finally understand the smug sense of superiority evinced by four-by-four drivers as I too now have this feeling of broad invincibility as I cycle around town – though sadly without the protection offered by hundreds of kilos of steel, a crumple zone, roll cage and multiple air bags: so I continue to operate on the principle that everyone else (including ginger cats) is out to kill me.

I like to imagine this new purchase will encourage some more excursions into the New Forest, but on my current performance of one such excursion in more than five years hopes should remain damp (or even soggy).  For now, like a true 4×4 driver, I will be using my new toy resolutely within the only mildly rugged terrain offered by urban Southampton.

Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock

Do not concern yourselves, dear readers, I do not (yet) live in a fear of an axe-wielding madman – even one with a cheap and chippy chopper – pursuing me through the streets of Southampton.  This risk may be real but I am already entertaining a range of other fears at my maximum capability and cannot spare the neurons needed to worry about a potential rendezvous with a big black block.  If I’m being honest, I generally believe that I share my flat with my killer: though whether he will finish me off directly with malice aforethought, kill me slowly with (apparently) benign neglect or take me out in an act of terminal clumsiness, I am less sure.

Even the casual viewer of the inanities that I attempt to pass-off as insight through this platform will be aware that I go out to see live culture “quite a bit”.  This has an impact on how I view live culture, as what passes for my brain habituates to the normal range of such experience.  This effect seems more marked for soi-disant high culture for reasons which I am unable to explain.  These days, when in the concert hall I find I want more than a nice Mozart Concert, Haydn Quartet or Beethoven Sonata: I’m looking for more challenging content to adorn the programme.  I will enjoy the more classic repertoire but to pick the “gig” and devote two hours of my evening to attending, I want to be taking a bit of a risk!  I’ve particularly noticed this effect in my theatre-going where I seem to be looking for an every more extreme experience.

When I started my proper, adult theatre-going a few years back, I was more than happy to devote significant time and money to going to see the classics performed in the flesh.  Slowly, I sprinkled in a range of new writing and often found myself enjoying this more and new writing came to largely supplant more familiar work in my choices when picking a play.  Over the last few years, I have seem some really amazing writing but the plays that stick in my mind were those that did something out of the ordinary: that spoke to me of different experiences or which expanded my idea of what could be done with theatre.  However, over the years these have become more difficult to find.  I also have the feeling that, as I age, my attention span is shortening: I see good review for a play that looks interesting and then see that it has a three hour run-time and find myself thinking (a) “No” and (b) “Couldn’t they afford an editor?”.  I also find myself more reluctant to travel to London for theatre, and endure the extra cost and later night, particularly when the NST here in Southampton offers such a varied programme: some nights they have three pieces of theatre on the go at the same time (which is frankly unfair on a man who has perfected neither cloning nor how to successfully combine the separate memories of the clones back to the template, me – or me, or me…).

Over the last couple of years, I have been to see quite a few LBGTQIA+ themed plays on the basis that they are, to an extent, forced to tell stories that have not been done-to-death in the long history of the medium.  This has proved a fairly successful strategy but I fear may be running out of steam.  I was watching Homos, or Everyone In America by Jordan Seavey at the Finborough in the summer.  This was staged in a version of my personal hell, viz a cross between a sandy beach and a branch of Lush – the combined prospect of sand worming its abrasive way where I’d prefer it didn’t and too much aroma in one place.  However, that was not really my issue – and it was certainly novel – and the play was well-acted and entertaining.  My issue arose about two-thirds of the way through when it struck me that plus-or-minus a few references to specific forms of oppression the gay-theming was slightly irrelevant and the themes of middle-class relationship angst with a bit of tragedy thrown in to heighten the emotional stakes were something I’d seen too often before.

I suppose this entirely as it should be: in most respects, in the still mostly-liberal West, a gay (or LBTQIA+) relationship should be very like any other and is likely to encounter most of the same, or very similar, issues that arise when two different human beings try to create and share a life together.  There still remains very real – and currently growing – threats to any one who alone, or as part of a relationship, can be perceived in some way as not “normal”: though having just read the excellent The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke the range of normal that even a very thin slice of nature can provide suggests we humans are still barely paddling on the shoreline of what the animal kingdom encompasses as normal.  For myself, I am a firm believer in giving more power to the elbows (or any other relevant body parts) to any group of consenting adults wishing to try any form of relationship that gives all involved pleasure, without harming others.  If they are willing to try something new, rather than continue with an existing slightly-hackneyed trope, all the better!

In a related area, I am often impressed by how much effort people are willing to put into expressing their authentic selves: I haven’t even glimpsed mine from a distance and am, frankly, running out of time – perhaps I don’t have one?

Anyway, I seem not so much to have wandered but to have strode confidently off-topic.  Whilst I do find myself needing an ever more powerful “hit” from a play – like some sort of addict – it does still happen.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, there are so many stories out there and only a tiny fraction have been told – often clustered around those relating to very small range of viewpoints.  I have been lucky enough to see some really exciting theatre recently and often without having to travel far from home.  I did go up to London to see The Jungle – booked by a friend (and so overcoming my natural inertia and the fact that it was longer than I’d normally pick) – which was a really amazing experience and with more laughs than you might expect: don’t get me wrong, I left properly harrowed by the experience.  The staging, the range of faces and accents rarely seen on “stage” and the power of the story-telling all set this apart – as to an extent did the hopelessness of any practical response I felt able to provide when it was over.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Chichester to see Cock by Mark Bartlett.  This had been recommended by a friend but I will admit that I may have made an extra effort to catch it given huge volume of (just barely) double entendre potential it offered for my Facebook feed.  Let’s just say that I have never enjoyed 90 minutes of cock so much!  It is hard (OK, I will stop now) to say why I enjoyed it so much but it provided the hit that I needed – despite minimal staging, very strict limitations on the actors and a middle-class relationships-based plot.  It was also quite exciting to see some diversity in a Chichester audience and a fair wedge of young people!

Closer to home, Medusa, the show put on by the associate artists at NST and starring the incredible Elf Lyons, was amazing – and how they did it on such a shoestring budget I cannot imagine.  I really hope this has a life beyond three nights at NST City.  I’ve also really enjoyed the shows they’ve brought to their new studio theatre: it’s been like having the Edinburgh Fringe coming to me (not that I ever begrudge a trip to Auld Reekie).  The Believers are but Brothers and Bullish stood out in a really excellent strand of programming covering a wide range of different voices and subjects.  NST just need to work out how to attract a larger audience to these shows…

Last week, I saw the latest show from 1927, The Children and Animals Took to the Streets, which was just a tour-de-force of art, animation, acting and music.  It managed to be clever and magical and enchanting and dystopian and so much more – and all with just three live actors.  It is the sort of thing you immediately want to see again to catch some of the subtle visual treats you missed the first time round.

With 500 words looming, I should probably try and bring this discursion to some sort of conclusion.  For the last few years, one of the most reliable ways to scratch my, ever harder to service, theatrical itch has been the work of the Nuffield Youth Theatre.  I’ll mention their work with a couple of plays by Evan Placey (but only because they came first to my mind) but all of their work with new writing has been so good.  Perhaps their most extraordinary achievement was a physical theatre rendering of the comic book Epileptic by David B: which is almost certainly like no comic book you may be imagining.  This may only have happened once and on a budget that probably wouldn’t have funded a single latte – but it is one of those theatrical experiences which has stuck with me.  As a result, I was really excited to discover that as part of Southampton Film Week, a series of short films produced and directed by its director, were being shown.  Each covers one of Shakespeare’s better known speeches but with a change of context to make sense within modern Southampton and starring various alumni of the NYT (the full suite can be found here).

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Introducing Price Hal…

These shorts were really good and the language stands up very well to a modern re-purposing – which I guess is the mark of a great writer.  The project also has the honour of being the first time that any production of any part of Hamlet has brought a tear to my eye ( and as the screening also offered an unexpected bonus of free tea and jaffa cakes, I think we can be reassured that this wasn’t just a response to some more basic biological need.)  I’ve seen very good performances of the play, but generally find myself wondering how the eponymous hero survives until almost the final reel – had I been in Elsinore, he would have had an unfortunate “accident” early doors to cut down on the self-obsessed moping!

Interestingly, Nuffield (the N of NST) have more current form in making old Will more palatable.  This year, another member of the team (as Curious Pheasant Theatre – no I haven’t asked him why and will admit I have been remiss in this) was involved in producing an LGBT take on Romeo and Juliet, which I saw an early version of and was among those contributing feedback.  It was then taken to Edinburgh and returned for Southampton Pride, trailing glory.  It worked really well and seemed to cover all the important plot, in a rather clever modern staging, and be done in 45 minutes: a lesson there for this blog, perhaps.  As I heard someone comment on leaving, (I shall paraphrase) “that was great and they cut out all the boring stuff”.  Certainly, a great writer does not have to be enjoyed in his (or her) full 3-4 hour authentic pomp to get a powerful message across.  As the auteur behind GofaDM is far from a great writer, I shall perhaps continue to eschew undue brevity for the time being: but it does offer a target to aim for in the future.  In pursuit of that aim, I’m back at Southampton Film Week tonight to see a series of BAFTA Shorts (which I believe are film-lets rather than kecks sponsored by a screen-related charity): let’s see if any good habits rub off on me…

Crisis, what crisis?

Before you all run screaming for the hills, let me clarify that this post is not about politics; or at least to no greater extent than the living of any life impacts the polis and is thus political.  Far be it from me to note that many democracies have more in common with 5th century BCE Athens than is entirely healthy.  Voting for a present-day Alcibiades and the modern take on a bracing expedition to Sicily seem to remain all too tempting: if only someone had documented what happened next…

No, as always, this blog focuses the blunt scalpel of its attention on the author and, in this case, his slightly eccentric response to reaching a delicate time of life – one that occurs less near the temporal centre than its name might suggest.

As regular readers will be aware, I have for some time been preparing my body physically to run away to the circus – despite my advanced age, lack of any athletic ability and being in possession of a perfectly viable career (or at least job) which has very rarely required working within a marquee or much in the way of physical exertion.  Over the last couple of weeks, I have started to introduce some new threads into the rather abstract weave of my forthcoming acrobatic renaissance.

Recently, I came across the offer of a workshop on aerial circus skills at a local cultural venue which claimed to be suitable for beginners and so, in a fit of madness, booked myself a place.  Having put my affairs in order, the weekend before last I cycled off to Eastleigh to try my luck with hanging from the trapeze and silks.  The course was well attended, almost exclusively by young, female yoga teachers: so my age, height, gender and lack of flexibility did mean that I stood out somewhat from the crowd.  In fact, there were a lot more attendees than the organisers had been expecting, so my time in the air was more limited than I might have hoped and/or feared.

The writing of this post should indicate that I survived the experience (or have seriously buried the headline) and rather enjoyed myself.  Both the trapeze and silks were sited very close to the ground: at very much the right height for a female yoga teacher but not so much for me, so in inverted positions my head did have to force itself into the crash mat to make room for my torso.  I made a rather decent fist at the trapeze with my existing skills hanging upside down proving beneficial.  The only real issues were the sheer length of cord from which the trapeze was hanging, meaning that it did tend to rotate and sway rather more than I’m used to, and the more than usual height when standing atop the trapeze bar (I don’t often get to train in spaces with such high ceilings).  Still, I kept up rather well with my fellow students.

The silks were a completely unfamiliar medium but I did, eventually, manage to work out the basics of how to climb them – but sadly only as the session ended and so haven’t had a chance to consolidate this knowledge or rise more than a foot above the deck.  Most work on silks does require the player to gain some height first, so my skills will require a great deal more development in this area.  In this field, my limited ability was eclipsed by some of my fellow students who taught aerial yoga and were very familiar with using silks.  Nevertheless, the session was more than enough to whet my appetite and I rather fancy more time working on aerial circus: however, it does require somewhat specialist facilities and fairly tight supervision if I am to retain my neck in its preferred state (unbroken).

As a more widely usable alternative, the last couple of weeks have also seen me start new, more ground-based circus-related activities with the arcane art of hand balancing.  I should stress that I have not been raiding local undertakers for finger-heavy appendages no longer needed by their users for some charnel-house take on Jenga.  The only hands in use are my own and I am attempting to balance the rest of my body on them.  I’d already been doing a little of this with my attempts at the planche but I have now taken this to a whole new, and much more difficult, level.  There is quite a lot of my body to balance on my hands – of a decent size though they may be – and I often don’t know where my outskirts are or what they are doing.  The hard-won proprioception I have acquired thanks to my previous acrobatic endeavours does not always translate successfully to the world of hand balancing: apparently I can be upside-down in mutliple, confusingly different ways.

As an added element of difficulty, all my previous acrobatic work has had my body square-on to the action being attempted but I am now hazarding activities where I am side-on which creates new areas of difficulty.  It is also very exciting and yesterday I started on a movement which I have only previously seen in b-boying, capoeira and at the circus: it is going to be seriously cool when I can do it for more than a femtosecond without collapsing coated in sweat after a brief period of inept flailing.  I always felt I was meant to dance: perhaps break-dance will prove to be my Terpsichorean destiny!

The big advantage with hand balancing is that I can practice it anywhere – well, anywhere with nothing breakable within a six foot radius of my body.  It does involve a significant use of hollow body position, which I can manage in a lever but struggle to implement in other orientations.  I seem to have difficulty getting my glutes to engage: or so I thought, but given the extent to which they are bitching this morning they may have been more engaged than I realised (probably married against their will).  It is also quite hard work on the wrists: who’d have thought that as a single, middle-aged man my wrists would prove to be a weak point?

After yesterday’s session, my body was given an MOT or something analogous thereto: the inspection was limited to my body, so my horn and emissions went untested (just as well for all concerned!).  Unless you are very careful, you may find some images of this process smeared all over social media like a child’s jam-covered finger prints over a new 4K TV (not shared by me, who – as you know – largely eschews on-line sharing).  Unlike the car, my rear suspension passed with flying colours but a certainly lack of flexibility in my thoracic spine is going to need some work: it seems to need reminding that it is designed to move.  I also discovered (though should probably have suspected) that my shoulders are great in protraction (which has much less to do with measuring angles than my school maths lessons suggested) but very poor at retraction.  Overall, I seem to be in decent nick for a man of my advanced years and odd habits and there should be some mileage left in me yet.

I reckon all the minor issues identified in my MOT can be readily addressed, so I expect to soon start living life on my hands and give my poor abused feet a well-deserved rest!