Prodigious

I am long past the age when I am likely to be considered a prodigy in any field, though I suppose hope never entirely dies while breath remains.  I am now of an age where I find that the people who claim to be in charge and seem to be engaged in a project to drive the country off a cliff of (still) unknown height, through some combination of dogma, hoped-for personal gain and a failure to learn much (if anything) from GCSE History, are younger than I am.

Yesterday, for some reason now forgotten, I happened to encounter a photograph of the leader of Southampton City Council and, frankly, couldn’t help wondering how he was managing to cope with such a senior position while revising for his A Levels.  I suspect the only reason that High Court Judges haven’t begun to look surprisingly youthful is that I haven’t knowingly seen one in many years, well that and their tendency to wear wigs when on the clock.

To compensate for my impending dotage and rather pedestrian skills and their even more commonplace process of the acquisition (which, in many cases, still represents active projects), I seem to be filling my life with much more talented, much younger people.  While this has largely happened by accident (and time does make it increasingly easy to be surrounded by younger folk), I am still counting it as one of my better ‘plans’.

Given this background, I felt I was reasonably insulated against astonishment at the abilities of those born close to the turning of the millenium: as so often, I was wrong…

Last night I cycled through copious surface water to Turner Sims to see, among others, a young jazz guitarist and composer by the name of Rob Luft.  The chap had been highly recommended to me by a number of friends but even this had not fully prepared me for his extraordinary performance.  As far as I could see (and I was in the front row), he was possessed of only the usual human complement of five fingers per hand, each with the traditional number of joints.  I’ll admit that they were somewhat younger and more slender than my own rather agricultural digits (at least I’ve inherited something from the great tranche of my ancestry who laboured on the land) but were otherwise nothing apparently out of the ordinary.  However, their ability to dance across the neck and body of his Gibson and fiddle with the many dials on his well-stocked pedal board was nothing short of miraculous.  What an incredible performance and one which seemed to go down very well with the whole audience (not just the author), a surprising number of whom were yet to draw their pensions!

He also gave a good impression of being a very modest young chap who was slightly surprised to be allowed to do this and that anyone had come to watch and, as a result, was having an absolute ball.  He did let slip that the Ford Fusion which had brought him and at least some of the band to the gig (I don’t think it could have fitted the whole band, let alone their equipment) was in need of some modest investment to make it fully roadworthy.  I was struck by the gulf between on the one hand the level of skill evinced by many musicians, the effort needed to acquire that skill and the joy they can bring to a room (yes, it does need to be quite a big hand) and on the other (smaller hand) the level of remuneration that the vast majority receive.  A tiny few, not wholly correlated with their talent, make huge sums but for many life is a struggle – and one suspects is growing harder.  The substitution of the streaming of music for its purchase must have a negative impact on the income of most musicians and this is coupled with the number of venues to perform live being in decline.  I do my best to attend gigs and buy music but these efforts can feel like a very small drop in all too large an ocean.  Perhaps I should attempt, on my modest salary, to maintain an in-house musician – as Prince Esterházy did with Haydn, though we can hope that I would provide less oppressive working conditions (I’m not looking for 106 symphonies any time soon, for a start).  Young Luft was a chap of modest build and in no way excessive height, so I could probably find a berth from him somewhere.  I do worry that I would also have to house a substantial collection of guitars, amps, pedals and other paraphernalia which may be more of an issue, given the far from ample proportions of my garret.  To sweeten the deal, I could the offer use of an entirely roadworthy Fiesta, at least most of the time…

Perhaps the house musician idea needs more work and/or a larger house.  In the interim, I should perhaps work on a more practical support mechanism to support live music – or push forward with my illegal cloning experiments.  My current attempt to ‘clone’ bread is going alarmingly well, though at its current rate of growth it may force me out of the house before the end of the month.  Surely, as a fairly simple chap, I can’t be too much harder than some sourdough?  Wheat (and probably rye) definitely has a lot more genes…

This morning, after breakfast, I diligently went about my piano practice and then my guitar practice: refusing to be phased by the unachievable exemplars I had witnessed the previous night.  I have even started a little jazz work on the guitar, having discovered that just because a guitar has six strings you don’t have to use all of them (or even an adjacent set of them) to form a chord.  The novelty of 3 or 4 voice chords – some of which can, chameleon-like, represent multiple real world chords – has just entered my repertoire (albeit currently very slowly) as have the arcane mysteries of 1-6-2-5.  I did diligently try and listen out for this progression at last night’s gig but didn’t spot it: it is early days yet for my ‘jazz ear’ (and it may not have occurred)…

To better enjoy last night’s CD acquisition while preparing lunch (and in the future while out and about) , I spent a few minutes both reducing the audio quality and increasing the convenience of my consumption of Riser.  As I like to retain the album artwork for CDs that have been thus transformed, and am too lazy to use my scanner, I resorted to an internet search.  As well as finding the visuals I sought, I also discovered that the lad is a mere 23 years old.  I’ll admit that my thoughts did stray in the direction of the infant Mozart (or Gauss, well I am a lapsed mathematician) and my own rather limited achievements at 23 (or, indeed today, knocking on the door of 53 – and running away).  I have literally spent this afternoon walking around the New Forest in boots older than Rob Luft!  I would note that in addition to the broader cognitive dissonance this fact has brought about, my feet are none too happy about this either.  I think they may have changed shape somewhat since I bought the boots in the mid 90s: a shift that the boots have failed to mirror.

Replacing my boots with something more comfy seems an achievable objective; providing brilliant musicians with a viable career and a decent salary feels like a bigger project but I’ll stick it on my notional to-do list….

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The Palimpsest Self

I was becoming concerned that GofaDM was at risk of becoming insufficiently pretentious: a risk I believe that today’s title should lay firmly to rest in its grave with a mistletoe stake driven through its heart.

Where an ancient city has continued on the same site over the centuries (or millenia), each new version of the city is constructed on, or from, the bones of its ancestors.  Sometimes, a city’s ossified past intrudes into the modern world but more often the past lies concealed beneath the thin veneer of the present day.  When the modern world requires the city to be excavated for some new project, the lost past is re-discovered: transfigured by its long interment.  Pieces of the past are lost, disarticulated or found transformed beyond recognition.  Each new disturbance further alters the hidden past, while those incursions above ground, and that find themselves incorporated into the modern city, are themselves more consciously changed to serve new narratives.

As I grow older, I increasingly feel that my very self is a palimpsest of a whole sequence of past selves.  Each new self effaces its immediate predecessor but each erasure is only partial and revenants continue to live a quasi-life as part of the current self or buried just below his all-too-shallow surface.  While the older the revenant, the less of a role it has in what passes for my current personality and sense of identity, it is clear that some elements of past selves were scored very deeply into my neuronal parchment and can still be read, albeit imperfectly, through all the later over-writing.  Sometimes you have only to shine a metaphorical light with the right combination of wavelength and angle at the self to find that long buried – and assumed lost – aspects can be returned to life.  However, as with the excavations in the city, each such delve forever changes the item recovered: exposed to the daylight of conscious scrutiny it cannot help but become the subject of new links that could never have been part of its original existence.  Living is a continuous process of data corruption: a process from which only the most trivial of ‘facts’ can hope to remain unaltered in their essentials.

I feel that modern life has rather accelerated this process of corruption.  Recordings of the past, available since the arrival of the camera and gramophone and growing ever more ubiquitous, provide a recollection that is so much richer in content than anything that my brain, at least, can manage and so they tend to supplant my ‘actual’ memories.  The new memories tend to lack the affect of the original – or at least are associated with a very different context – and I do wonder if they further corrode the, already unreliable, hard drive between my ears.

In general, I find that I am very poor with the recall of visual memories and when I attempt to do so, the scene collapses even while it is being reconstructed.  This does not prevent me from recognising places, people and things with ease (mostly) – but does mean that if I wish to draw (or paint) something I do need to be looking either at it or an image of it.  It also means I am rubbish at any meditation that requires me to visualise something: however simple.  I am much better with words and numbers as they are, at some level, a much less rich data stream to both store and retrieve.  This, finally, brings me to within a gnat’s crochet of the inspiration for this post, having allowed myself to be carried in a rather unexpected direction by the gravitational force of the weight of my own pretension.

As a younger (and actually young) person, I watched a lot of television (subject to its more limited availability in those distant days), listened to a lot of radio (mostly comedy of one form or another) and read a lot.  The whole ‘going out and doing stuff’ life that I now live has accreted slowly over time and only recently has reached a level where I find myself expecting friends to stage an intervention at any moment.  What remains of this earlier, more home-bound, life and self seems to be most readily accessed (and degraded) through the words and voices that I heard back then.

On Saturday, I headed off to Chichester and its Festival Theatre to see Wireless Wise: an exercise in nostalgia for Radio 4 listeners of roughly my age and social class.  It was lovely to see Charlotte Green and the Reverend Richard Coles in the flesh for the first time and to see Alistair McGowan for the first time since the early nineties: when I saw him playing a pot plant in the Nick Revell Radio Show at the now long gone Paris Studios in Lower Regent Street.  However, the nostalgic highlight was to see Richard Stilgoe for the first time in very many years – probably since the 1980s.  He reprised a few songs and a poem from Stilgoe’s Around and his earlier Traffic Jam – dating from my time at secondary school.  I’m not aware of any of these shows being repeated since soon after first broadcast but, despite the passage of time, I could still recall an alarming quantity of the words.  In at least one case, a stock “meme” in my brain was finally pinned down to his paean to the rather ersatz schwarzwälde kirschtorte available in the UK in those dark days.  Why my brain had chosen to store, and not over-write, so many of his lyrics for so long – whilst having largely disposed of any ready route to access this knowledge – must remain a mystery for the neuroscientists among you to solve.  My brain seems to have dumped huge amounts of knowledge of my own existence while carefully preserving the lyrics to someone else’s comic songs for almost 40 years.  I’m not saying it has made the wrong choice, merely an unexpected one: evolution is certainly a rum old cove.

Richard also still performs his party piece of collecting random words – and now notes – from the audience and creating an astoundingly witty and musical song in a matter of minutes.  Not bad for a man of 75, particularly given the rather unpromising material he was provided: would that I could boast a fraction of his utility at 52!

It was a lovely afternoon, shared with friends, but I do try not to spend too much of my life wallowing in the soothing, half-remembered joys of the past.  There will be plenty of time for that when I am finally captured by the ‘men in white coats’ and incarcerated in an institution considered sufficient to the long term care of my oddly functioning brain: closeted away from sharp objects and the general public, lest I further infect them with my foolishness (the public rather than the sharp objects, though the latter could become an interesting project as the internet-of-things expands).  So, I had intended to swiftly return to my obsession with the live and the new – but the past does not release the middle-aged chap from its clutches quite so easily.

I have been ambushed, once again, by Radio 4 which this week has run a series of short essays under the title James Burke’s Web of Knowledge.  James Burke’s TV series of the late 70s and early 80s were an important part of my young life – fostering my interest in science and history – and his voice can still drill deep into the sedimentary layers of my earlier selves.  Way back in 1978, I spent a significant portion of my meagre pocket money on the book to accompany his TV series Connections.  Embarrassingly, I have yet to get round to reading it: still, it’s only been 40 years and one mustn’t rush into these things…

I can’t help but wonder much more random junk and how many more fragments of past selves, most of whom seem quite inexplicable to my current self, my brain is hoarding?  Like Ratatoskr hiding nuts ready for the Fimbulwinter, does my brain believe that these will be of some value in some future where new memories are hard to come by?  Francis Fukuyama was probably neither the first, nor will be the last, to forecast the end of history but I’m not aware of anyone predicting the memory apocalypse (amemorygeddon?).  In a world short of new memories, this blog will become a goldmine and I may finally be able to monetise it: enjoy it now, while it remains free!

Heat another pan quickly…

I have a feeling this blog has previously referred to my traditional celebration of the end of the year, largely (assuming it has indeed occurred) as an excuse to shoe-horn in a reference to a Dorset Knob.  There was never a plan to start a new tradition, it grew out of the older – date independent – practice of the Fish Supper where I (as Fish – see a very old blog post for an explanation) would prepare a dinner for some friends.  One year, which must be at least a decade ago, a Fish Supper for a couple of friends coincided with New Year’s Eve and inadvertently a new tradition was kindled with the Flame Imperishable. From that day, we have alternated the hosting of New Year’s Eve and offering a 6(ish) course menu of food with appropriate wine (and other alcoholic beverages as appropriate) starting at 6(ish – GofaDM loves a theme) with a vague aim of finishing around midnight.  These have definitely represented the best endings to years of my life – and the driving of a mistletoe stake through the heart of 2018 was one of the very finest.

Last night, it was my turn to host and I like to use these occasions to experiment with new recipes or at least add a new twist to an old favourite: it feels appropriate to celebrate the ending of one year and birthing of the next with something new (well, that or a killing).  In consequence, ever since returning home on Boxing Day, some portion of my brain and body have been devoted to planning and preparing the bill of fare for yestere’en and this morning’s fast breaking.  For me, these modest pains were repaid handsomely with as convivial an evening and morning as a chap could ask for – the food even came out pretty well!  I am definitely getting better at not massively over-catering the evening and, I think as we age, we are growing better at moderating our alcoholic indulgence.  I shall now attempt to make the menu entertaining (but am prepared for abject failure), lest any readers wish to recreate the experience of seeing in the New Year with their favourite author and, that option being unavailable, willing to accept me as an exceeding inferior substitute…

We started with a salad of comice pear, two types of cress (“water” and “mustard and” but no “ip”), chopped nuts and fried halloumi cuboids.  This was rather a fine combination of flavours and textures (though I shall be finding strands of cress of days!) and may have to become part of my quotidien, guest-free dining life (though it does make a bit of a mass of the frying pan).  There is also something about the smell of mustard-and-cress which takes me back to my childhood (unlike Marcel Proust, madeleines formed no part of my youth and have only rarely appeared in my soi-disant adult life).  The salad was tossed, and the halloumi glazed, in a rather fine dressing which caused me to purchase a new – and rather beautiful – bottle of sherry vinegar which I like to think William Morris would approve as being both beautiful and useful.

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A certain Moorish influence?

I then prepared “open” spinach and ricotta ravioli – made by cutting a sheet of lasagna in half and propping one half rather vaguely atop the “filling”-covered base.  I feel this aspect needs some work presentationally as the cooked half  sheets of lasagna had very firm ideas about how they would perch that did not coincide with my own.  I also feel that adding the ricotta cold to the creation didn’t quite work with the other warm ingredients, though I have yet to come up with a plan to pre-warm it.  This recipe gives us our title as while the “chef” was busy preparing several other components of the dish, he is suddenly commanded to “quickly heat another pan”.  Whilst I followed this direction, I can’t help feeling that an earlier request to start slowly heating the pan in readiness for later deployment would have been a solid basis for a less stressful algorithm.

We then moved to halibut with an orange and courgette salad.  This had no issues, though it is worth noting that the author of the recipe that formed the basis for this course rather over-estimated the appeal of its courgette element.  On the plus side, it did provide an opportunity to showcase my legendary courgette slicing skills (achieved without the use of a mandolin and while retaining my full complement of fingers).

Three courses in, seemed a good opportunity for a break to allow a little time for digestion.  My friends (among many who have the misfortune of being my friends on Facebook – though in my defense, the vast majority will have requested this dubious privilege and have had to pass the test of surviving a real-life conversation with me) have seen many an image of the Guide Dog and having travelled from out of town wished to see this beacon (icon, even) of beer, good company and (often) excellent music making.  So, we toddled down the hill into Bevois Valley for some well-kept beer, good company and, as luck would have it, some very fine music making from a session marking the sashaying of 2018 into the history books (probably into one of its more lurid chapters).  I believe my friends left suitably convinced both of the Guide Dog‘s credentials and that I have not been mis-representing its charms on-line.

Returning, it was time for the desserts and the cheeseboard.  Having learned the importance of cooking later courses before the chef becomes too inebriated to follow a recipe, these had been prepared the day before and only needed to be served.  For the first time, I made individual summer puddings for the first dessert.  Given my inability to source (or indeed, say) dariole moulds in Southampton on Sunday they were created in ramekins (for the avoidance of doubt, not my pet name for one – or more – male sheep).  I was a little concerned about their structural integrity lacking the buttressing bread walls of a full-scale summer pudding – however, they did not instantly collapse but retained their shape rather successfully.  The current working theory is that pectin worked its polysaccharide structural magic during the weighting and chilling phase of their creation.  I cannot speak to its utility in larger scale construction projects…

The second desert marked my first attempt at a semi freddo, which was flavoured with fragmented chocolate torrone (and added hazelnuts) and so, by chance, seasonally appropriate.  The creation of this substance made very heavy use of my available mixing bowls and whisks: it used all of my bowls (including one that is lucky to see even an annual outing normally) and really required at least one more whisk than I own.  Still, I muddled through and poured the thick, creamy liquid produced from all this beating and broader wrist-based action into a tray and thence the freezer in the hope that something at least semi-edible would emerge.  I can report that what emerged was exceedingly edible – though would probably not be considered the healthiest of dishes for everyday consumption and should not form part of a calorie-controlled diet.  Given just how fine it was, I shall probably want to make it again and may invest in another whisk (the bootless extravagance!).  It did have the unexpected side-effect of inducing significant torpor in all that consumed it – which did add a little challenge to our subsequent assault on the cheeseboard.   I am thinking of marketing my semi freddo as an alternative to Xanax for those who (like myself) regularly manage to elude the arms of Morpheus.

Troopers that we are, we did manage to make modest inroads into the 2/3π radians of Bigod Brie brought by my friends and the unexpectedly toothsome Cote Hill Lindum that was my randomly-selected contribution to the board.  The accompanying knäckebröd (less filthy than it sounds) from Peter’s Yard was also a new signing and will definitely see some more caps in 2019!

By this point, midnight was almost upon us so we listened to the obligatory scaffolding-obscured chimes of one of this country’s larger grandfather clocks and made disparaging remarks about the modern evil of “too many fireworks” (one of the many joys of being middle-aged) before turning in.  This was my first use of the new sofabed acquired during the summer and I can report that (a) I recalled sufficient of the instructions provided at the time of its delivery to erect it and (b) it provided a very comfy resting place.

For breakfast, I “prepared” a cheese loaf which kneaded, proved and baked itself while we slumbered (well, in my case except during the kneading as we were sharing the same room, my garret is pretty tiny).  When I did properly awake and cracked open my eyelids, I was presented with a glorious view of the crescent moon with bright Lucifer camped just to her left: not a bad start to the day/month/year.

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Lucifer (bottom left) welcomes a terrible human being to 2019

When the still-warm loaf was first sliced, I was slightly concerned to discover that the significant quantity of input cheese was entirely invisible in the output loaf.  Fortunately, while there was no sight of the cheddar, its flavour had suffused the bread very successfully: a thoroughly decadent way to start January.

After a constitutional around the Common, dodging the Park Runners, breakfast concluded with US-style (i.e. fluffy rather than overly keen to carry firearms) blueberry pancakes which offered a further work-out for whisk, wrist and mixing bowls.

2019 now safely begun, more normal culinary service – except for a rather modest haul of left-overs – will be resumed.