Living ridiculously

I sometimes worry that my approach to life lacks a certain seriousness – and, more recently, that I may be passing this deep inner frivolousness onto others.  This blog is clearly one vehicle for such transmission but I fear that the contagion hazard is far higher if one is directly, physically exposed to the author on a regular basis.  At the time of writing, there is no known vaccine to protect against such exposure – but I like to hope that in a laboratory (somewhere) scientists are developing weaker versions of the author that can be used to inoculate those at particularly high risk.  In the remainder of this post, I will use yesterday to illustrate the potential scale of the problem to act as a spur to funding agencies and government to take the issue seriously…

The day started seriously enough with an update on my mother’s condition: which is unclear but does not seem at all good.  I suppose this event might give some explanatory context to the rest of the day: though, I’m not aware of it having any direct bearing on my foolishness.

In the morning, I (or, more accurately, my robotic assistant) prepared the dough to make a batch of bread rolls.  These needed to be left to prove around lunch-time and I used this opportunity – and my desire to impose meaningless thematic unity on my life – to go and see an actual Rolls.  This rather fine, if impractically large, motor from the early 90s was delivering a version of the Queen to NST City as part of the build-up to their staging of The Audience which starts later this week.  This was a gloriously surreal experience as the actor playing the Queen arrived in fine style to be greeted by a class of primary school children and staff from NST waving Union Jacks accompanied by a few bemused passers-by.  The Rolls itself is was somewhat famous having had a starring role delivering other ersatz Queens on both our cinema and TV screens.  On this occasion, “Her Majesty” was accompanied not just by a chauffeur, an equerry and a footman but also by a stuffed, plush corgi: this final arrival, if I’m honest, rather upstaged its human companions.  She also came equipped with a rather modest sceptre, which I believe was sourced from Ann Summers: who, as yet, lack a Royal Warrant of Appointment – I assume the royals must be looking elsewhere for their expertise in sexual innovation…

The afternoon was spent relatively sensibly, though on bumping into a friend while enjoying the sunshine on the Common I did somehow become embroiled on a conversation on Fleming’s Left (or Right) Hand Grip Rule.  As a result, I did feel compelled to remind myself of the details: something I had last covered in the early eighties.

The early evening was spend at a Pint of Science event, among other things having my first experience of virtual reality in a fabricated Alpine landscape designed to create a safe space for cancer patients where they can improve their abilities at self-compassion.  After this, I wandered over to the Guide Dog to continue with the pint theme, but transition from science to music.  This is where matters started to spiral out of control and draw in, relatively, innocent bystanders.

The musical gathering I was attending is known as the Southampton Swing Steady Session: a reference to the swing-style of music being played.  In attempting to post about the fun on Facebook, I attempted to “check-in” to the event and in doing so entered the character stream “southampton swing”.  At this point, I did not find the desired event but did find the Southampton Swingers Association.  This, of itself, was enough to make me giggle (look, I did grow up – if at all – in the seventies) but Facebook provided further information which transmuted my titters into guffaws.  The SSA has not been the rip-roaring success that its founders might have hoped, as Facebook reported that only two people had ever checked-in.  I can’t help feeling that this is not enough for a successful night of swinging: you may throw your keys into a bowl but you will still find yourself driving home with the person you came with.  I was sorely tempted to check-in, just to give the other two members hope – but then decided that this was just too cruel…  Trying to put a more positive spin on matters, perhaps the SSA’s members are so busy swinging that they are just too sweaty, or lack the time or free hand(s), to update their social media presence with all their gene-flow high jinx.

It was not long after the swinging incident, during a break in the music, that a friend – and member of the musical throng – announced a plan to leverage his possession of an Instagram account to eschew traditional, pensionable employ in favour of becoming an influencer.  So far, so 2019 (or at least 2017) you may think.  However, his choice of the domain on which he was going to bring his influence to bear came as something of a surprise: cockles.  Far be it from me to malign the economic analysis of another, but I am far from convinced that ‘big cockle’ has the financial mussel (sorry, muscle), or marketing budget, to support an influencer in the manner to which he might wish to become accustomed.  Cockles themselves certainly have no head for business: or indeed for anything else.

His choice has the advantage that competition on Instagram will be limited (though more than 10,000 posts do somewhat give the lie to my theory): so the mantle of the world’s premier cockle influence is very much his oyster!  However, as a regular visitor to Dublin, I am all too aware that reliance on big cockle (even with additional support from big mussel) for your income does not always end happily: just ask poor Molly Malone.  She may have been immortalised in busty bronze (known to the locals as ‘The Tart with the Cart’) but neither her embrace of the seafood business nor her sweetness were enough to save her from an untimely death.

On the plus side, our proto-influencer did recognise that not everyone is ready to accept cockles into their lives (and more importantly mouths and digestive tracts) for reasons of health, religion or morality and so was also willing to act as a mouthpiece for the cockle’s more vegetative counterpart/stunt double: the chickpea.  However, I fear that the chickpea already possesses a range of cheerleaders celebrating its many merits across social media and the message about its use as a cockle-substitute may be lost.  Perhaps if each chickpea were given a pair of artificial ‘shells’ – ribbed (and possibly branded) for your viewing pleasure – it would allow it to stand out from the hordes of naked chickpeas not being touted as a cockle-ternative?  (BTW: I am claiming the intellectual property rights on the neologism cockle-ternative:  I suspect it may have applications beyond seafood.)

The evening’s final foolishness was the elaboration of a marketing plan for (N)YTMG originally developed on Saturday thanks to the ministrations of the Steam Town and Red Cat breweries (though remembered by only one of its parents, viz me).  In addition to the red rotating light, tea tray and guerrilla film crew (or at least camera operator) originally envisaged, this project now also requires a substantial cast of extras and at least one (preferably two) brass bands.  If we manage to pull this ambitious – and completely ridiculous – project off, I have hopes that it could go pandemically viral and eclipse any level of influence big cockle could hope for in its most fevered of dreams.  I like to think it could put Southampton and its music scene on the map (or at least a map and/or watch-list).

I think we can now all agree that the concerns expressed in the opening paragraph are totally overblown and it is entirely safe to associate with the author: both through this blog and in person…

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Ship-shape

It may appear to the casual reader that I rarely stray more than a score of miles from my home, unless forced by the exigencies of work and the need to earn a crust: or even, the sweet, soft centre of the loaf!  There is a certain degree (or π/180 radians) of truth to this view, though I should point out that I do occasionally visit friends in Sussex, Edinburgh and Cambridge.

However, on occasion, I break with tradition and over the May bank holiday weekend I finally heeded the advice of the Pet Shop Boys and went west.  Even more out-of-character, I went with a friend and I did the driving: I even prepared a playlist for the journey should the art of conversation desert us at any stage.  Given that the car had last been used on Boxing Day, this did require a little help from the AA to give the kiss of life to the battery (no actual osculation was performed, even in its depleted state I could not recommend making lip-on-terminal contact with a car battery) but otherwise the drive to Bristol on the Friday was a breeze.

Thanks to my skills at the wheel, and the navigational advice of an app called ‘Here’ (a name that might not immediately inspire confidence when one is trying to reach ‘there’), we made it to Clifton, the rather upmarket suburb of Bristol, well within two hours and failed to get lost at any stage (though one choice of lane at a junction was sub-optimal).  At no stage did my companion have obvious recourse to a nerve tonic, or stronger medication, to cope with the rigours of the journey: so I think I still qualify as a somewhat competent driver.

We had travelled to Bristol primarily to enjoy its Folk Festival, but one of the many advantages of city-based festivals – over and above the ease with which can avoid relying on canvas to provide a roof over your head – is that when you fancy something different a whole city is at your disposal.  The Bristol Folk Festival was an absolute joy: spread across two venue and a pub on Friday and Saturday and switching to a third on Sunday, it was a wonderfully welcoming event of just the right scale.  There wasn’t so much going on to be overwhelming and its scale didn’t dominate the city.  It has had a slightly stop-start history in recent years, but I do hope it continues as I’d love to go again.

We saw a lovely range of folk musicians and picking one musical highlight from each day, I’d go with the following:

On Friday evening, we saw Spiro, who came highly recommended by more than one Southampton friend: they mixed some classical influences into their folk music and made wonderful musical close to our first day in Bristol.

On Saturday afternoon, we saw Sid Goldsmith and Jimmy Aldridge in St Stephen’s Church and really enjoyed them.  So, we completely changed our plans for the rest of the evening and pursued them to a packed Three Tuns for a glorious singaround session.  Sometimes spontaneous decisions are the best – and one of the many advantages to bringing a decision maker, other than idiot I live with, on an excursion!  My companion was also the reason we followed the singing with a fiery, late dinner of Sri Lankan street food at the Coconut Tree.  I think I may need to add some Sri Lankan dishes to spice up my own cooking…

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the wonderful venue that is St George’s: it really does so much right as a venue, including offering really good and well chosen food in the extension to the side.  We were there for my second chance to see The Drystones on their recent tour – and it was through this tour that I had discovered the existence of the Bristol Folk Festival in the first place.  I know the boys are my friends, but they have massively stepped it up for their new album (Apparitions) and to bring that experience to the tour: I frankly lost count of the number of instruments, pedals and mics they played/used between them.  At one point, Ford is forced to sit down so that he can simultaneously use both feet and both hands to play/control different instruments and effects.  I can see why the tour took so much rehearsal and they travel with their own sound engineer (and someone’s mother’s best tablecloth) to set the whole thing up.  It is clearly an incredible feat of concentration as well as musicianship to bring it altogether for the live show: they must be exhausted afterwards.  It is folk music, but so much more besides: as but one example, Oscar’s Ghost is just so hauntingly atmospheric that it sends shivers up my spine whenever I hear it.  I’m not sure where they are planning to go next: I’m expecting full pyrotechnics and a laser show which still somehow only exists only to serve the music…

As well as the music, we also had a chance to enjoy the Georgian architectural splendours of Clifton, no doubt funded by some of the more unsavoury practices of our mercantile past, and a lot of (probably) less morally compromised wisteria.  I think this was also my first visit to the engineering glory of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  I suppose I may have been as a child, though I have no recollection – then again, I had no memory of just how hilly Bristol was either and I’m pretty sure it does not boast sufficient geological activity for the hills to have appeared since my childhood (despite my antiquity).  My calves were extremely taut (you could bounce a marble off them) by Saturday evening from going down hill (my body was fine with the ascents) and I feel I gained a small insight into the suffering high heels must cause their users.

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I had a lovely few days in Bristol (see a brief highlights reel above) and will return , if only because I have barely made a start on its museums and galleries: let alone its music scene.  However, after the end of the Drystones set, I had a mere 135 minutes to return to my car, drive back to Southampton and drop off my friend and make it to Turner Sims to attend a gig I had booked long before I even knew about the Bristol Folk Festival.  Somehow, I managed to do this with almost 60 seconds to spare and the laws of the land unbroken. SYJO and Phronesis were well worth the slightly unrealistic combination of gigs that I had chosen for myself and did illustrate that possession of a car does, sometimes, allow the achievement of goals that would be entirely impossible relying on public transport.

As I am insane (though I remain undiagnosed and so am free to wander wheree’er I will), I had also arranged to visit the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on the Monday.  This excursion, I did by train but could still recognise the irony of changing at Bristol Temple Meads a mere 17 hours after last leaving its vicinity.  I did feel very Plebian, not to say non-U, in the genteel surroundings of Cheltenham – but it was well-worth the excursion to see the Lydian Collective for the second time and this time I was sober and they had the nyckelharpa that had been mentioned in Cambridge back in November.  I found the signage at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival rather puzzling, especially the sign pointing to the “Jazz Puddle”.  I am a brave soul, not easily frightened, so I walked in the direction indicated but failed to discover its mysterious object.  Can any readers advise as to the nature of a jazz puddle?  Should I be glad that I never encountered it?

I also managed to stumble upon an excellent pub which was holding a beer festival.  I can thoroughly recommend the Beehive in Montepellier (which appears to be a part of Cheltenham, as well as more famously a city in the Pays d’Oc) which very much felt like my Cheltenham home.  I feel it is important that I should know a decent pub and a decent source of cake in every town and city in the UK: a project that very much remains live…

I feel I should organise more excursions away from home, even ones involving use of my car, to sample the beer, cake and culture of further cities.  It’s just so hard to tear myself away from all that Southampton offers: still, I must face the fact that until my clones are fully up and, if not running, at least shuffling, I cannot do everything…

Glib and a contradiction in terms

My life might appear a predictable round of gig going, interspersed with trips to experience diverse other art forms. I suppose there is also my continuing need to work to fund these outings and my various, increasingly improbable range of, what I shall call, hobbies – and you might call grounds for future interventions. However, every so often I either surprise myself or am myself surprised by what my life delivers.

Only this past week, I was shown photographic evidence that a quote from this very blog will appear in a PhD thesis. I never expected this nonsense to appear in an academic work, well not outside of a psychiatric case study. I trust its inclusion will not adversely affect the granting of a doctorate or otherwise bring to a premature close a potentially glowing career in the tenured echelons of one of our most prestigious halls of learning.

The regular reader will have noticed that the topic of sport is rarely covered in these pages. I have, at times, in my life been able to maintain periods of interest in a few sports (usually serially, rather than in parallel): but, generally the tendency of everything to be reset annually (or every four years in some cases) has allowed my interest to wane after a couple of seasons. I seem to have a similar issue with most TV series and fear both may be a sign of the ever diminishing nature of my (a) attention span and (b) time on earth.

Despite this, yesterday I found myself on a bus heading into a previously unvisited eastern portion of the city (or I may have strayed into Eastleigh) to see the cricket (or at least a cricket). It is scarcely twenty-five years since I last went to a cricket match and people may ponder as to the cause of such an urgent return to the game. More astonishingly still, for the first time in my life I actually paid real money to attend! I can only blame peer pressure, curiosity and, perhaps, an eye to some fresh content. Whatever the cause, I found myself seated mid-wicket to see England and Pakistan battle it out in a One Day International at the aptly named Ageas Bowl (I never found the Ageas Bat nor Ageas Field).

The view from the cheap seats!

In an attempt to fit into a cricketing crowd – of some 25,000 people! – I decided to wear white trousers: and let me say, such a choice does add considerable excitement, jeopardy even, to any day (or it does if you wish them to remain white and not be sentenced to an immediate return to the laundry). I quickly learned that cricketers no longer wear white: England were in in shades of blue and Pakistan in a rather natty green, so my hopes of a last minute call-up were dashed (my complete lack of ability at any aspect of the game might also have counted against me, I suppose). Initially, my memory of the rules of cricket was decidedly rusty: though I found – as at music events – if you only applaud when a decent number of the rest of the audience are doing the same, you rarely come unstuck. However, over time, I discovered that I did retain a surprising amount of basic cricketing knowledge from the last millennium: the fielding restrictions rather grandly referred to as ‘power play’ had clearly been added more recently.

I am forced to admit that I rather enjoyed my time in the sun, watching other people work. There were a decent number of boundaries (one Jos Buttler seemed to connect his bat rather solidly with the ball and produced a rich harvest of sixes), a smattering of wickets and only a very brief stop for rain. The game was competitive and went to the wire – though I did have to leave before the end to make it to a later engagement. The seating was more comfy than it appeared, though I was a little disappointed by the selection of beer and food on offer: I was expecting something more upmarket somehow. Still, I did discover an unexpected ability to carry three pints in very flimsy plastic vessels through a crowd and down a flight of stairs without spillage: big hands have their uses!

I may return to a sporting arena, in a purely observational capacity, before another quarter of a century elapses: than again, I’ve made that sort of rash promise before…

However, the week’s most unexpected occurrence took place on Thursday evening. I’d been invited to NST City to a rather undefined event linked to the fact that they will shortly be staging The Audience by Peter Morgan. I had previously been lucky enough to go tothe first read-through: which, if I’m honest, suggested they didn’t have much more to do. The play was already very funny, well acted and left me weeping: not something I had ever expected to be caused by a fictional portrayal of Harold Wilson. I strongly suspect it is going to be very good on stage and will take the risk of recommending it before seeing it properly made flesh.

I think I was expecting to see the model box and perhaps a little talk about their plans for the staging and to be out in half-an-hour. I did indeed see the model box, but the evening was (mostly) about the process of directing the play, the extensive background research, decisions on design and staging and the like: this was all very interesting. Towards the end of the presentation, there was a need for two ‘volunteers’ to act out a scene and be directed, to further help the audience to understand the process. As someone well-known to the staff at NST (and in many other places), I had been primed to ‘volunteer’ if the rest of the audience were proving a little reticent (FGF rather than FHB). As a result, I found myself on the main stage of NST City playing the role of Margaret Thatcher to a small, but all too attentive, audience. My fellow ‘volunteer’ played the part of the Queen. I think this must rank as the strangest thing I have done in my 53+ years on this planet.

We were provided with the script and not expected to perform in costume, but after the first read-through were given some direction before a second run through. I would have to admit that I enjoyed myself immoderately, but then I believe it is always more fun to play the villain and I managed to channel considerable venom into my performance. As we returned to our seats, my co-star noted that our ‘ordeal’ had gone rather well: though observed that it helped that I was a professional. While, there are some am-dram genes in my ancestry (a polygenic trait, if ever there was one), the only acting I have ever done is in the creation and delivery of what I like to call my personality in a range of social settings: I could hardly claim that any of these many performances could be classed as professional. Still, my experience of public speaking probably did help (as did the print size of the script as I had not brought my reading glasses!).

In the bar after the performance, people were very kind about my stage debut – and did not (so far as I could tell) resort to any of the cunning, double-edged phrases used by actors to apparently compliment the terrible performance of a friend. I fear I have acquired a certain fame in Southampton for my portrayal of our first female PM: while I don’t think there is any video evidence out there, there are some photos….

This lady’s not for turning!

I have always assumed that the only role I could even slightly convincingly play on stage would be myself and it would be tricky to turn this into a career, despite the precedent set by Sean Connery. I am now wondering if I have greater range than previously imagined and am expecting my Equity card to arrive in the post any day now. I’m sure the offers from auteurs of film and stage can’t be far behind…

Staying Agile

Obviously important for all of us, and especially those of us navigating the unwanted stiffening than can come with middle age (this is quite different to the unwanted stiffening that I seem to recall was a feature of my teenage years). However, my top tips for flexibility into your sixth decade will have to wait for another post: this is all about my new baby: (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide – or (N)YTMG for short (which I think we have decided will be pronounced “nutmeg”).

Apologies to those of you who lack the good fortune to be resident in (or near) Southampton but, if we’re honest, a lot of content on GofaDM was already very me-centric and so somewhat focused on those places that I am most often found (which does tend to be the former Hamwic and principle gem in southern England’s diadem). And, there is always the possibility of moving to Southampton: property is more sensibly priced than in many places…

(N)YTMG is not a destination but a journey: for you, it should be the start of many journeys to see live music, poetry, theatre dance and more; for me and the coding demon that is gawpertron, it is a journey to make it ever more useful and useable (I promise to stop using the word ‘journey’ now, I’m not a contestant on ‘Strictly Come Great Britain’s Got X Factor on Ice Off’ and nor do I wish to be one). As (N)YTMG develops, I’m using its proud parent (GofaDM) as one way to announce the new features: yes, you are correct, he is just boasting about his other website. These will all be tagged (N)YTMG to make them (a) easy to find and (b) easy to avoid.

We have been using Agile development to build and enhance (N)YTMG and, in a marked contrast to any other experiences of that phrase in my working life, it has more than lived up to its name: it has proven more nimble than low calorie bread! The vast majority (for which read, all) of the credit for this must rest with gawpertron: I merely try and explain how I think people will use the site (I’m in charge of stories), attempt to answer any questions in a broadly sensible manner (while also being as childish as you would expect) and (sometimes) provide clear priorities.

We were keen that (N)TYMG should be accessible to as wide a range of users as possible. The design was chosen to make this a reality, but as both gawpertron and I possess relatively functional eyes (if we ignore my exciting combination of myopia, astigmatism and presbyopia) I wanted to get some feedback from a blind user. Many thanks to the excellent Jim O’Sullivan (a regular gig-goer himself) for reviewing the site and providing some suggestions for improving its navigability. These have now been implemented: a fact, which in a delicious reversal of the normal state of affairs, will be largely invisible to sighted users but will be “seen” by the blind and partially sighted.

We’ve also introduced alternative “themes” to change the look of the site. Classic retains the original look which is based on the GofaDM we all know and love (or are forced to tolerate), but we have added Night for those who prefer a more restful vibe (or are vampires). We have also added a High Contrast theme aimed at those who are colour-blind or who have other difficulties differentiating colours when navigating websites: as a bonus, it also works well if your screen is filthy or you are yomping across the Sahara desert!

Night has fallen!

Following user feedback, the date now also shows the day of the week: useful for those with a regular appointment that prevents them from going out (no more missed appointments with your Probation Officer!). We have also improved the interaction of the Search function and accented characters: a vowel (and even a consonant) will now find any of its brethren, even if they are wearing a hat or spurs!

Finally, I have the ability to add (invisible) tags to events which will add extra discrimination to the search function, e.g. I could tag a Music gig as ‘Jazz’ or ‘Opera’. I think there may be a period of experimentation here, as I try and find tags that are useful rather than merely annoying…

For now, GofaDM and its (N)YTMG posts will probably act as the main conduit for any feedback on the site. I am loath to put contact details on the website as I do not wish to see my (or the site’s) Inbox flooded with get-rich quick schemes from minor West African royalty and offers to improve my effectiveness in potential future gene transfer events. All feedback will be considered, though my opinion is final (if subject to arbitrary change without notice), however wrong it may be.

I’m really chuffed with how (N)YTMG has turned out: it has exceeded my wildest dreams by a country mile! I actually use it myself, as it is generally the quickest way to buy tickets for an event without wading through venue websites with their heavy graphic load and multiple clicks between a desire and its satisfaction. Trying to find things to do in Cambridge later in the month, I found myself frustrated that it lacked an equivalent tool (though the author will be there, which might count). One day, maybe the gradual geographical creep which has already begun will see me reunite Wessex and Anglia under a single ruler…