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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Expect the unexpected…

I have it on no less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the advice given in the title is (a) glib and (b) a contradiction in terms.  I fear it will be difficult to speak to (a) without risk of appearing glib myself, however, I feel on safer ground with (b).  It is quite possible – and probably wise – to expect that something unexpected will occur without needing to have any idea what this might be or when it might happen.

Being single, my life is very self-directed – if we ignore the demands of work – and yet is full of unexpected moments (and even longer events).  I suspect the incidence of the unexpected has risen since I started to spend ever more time away from the orderly tedium of my home life – all this interaction with other people and the world at large must be having an effect.  This post started as an idea earlier in the week following a couple of encounters with the unexpected, but I fear may rather have grown over the following days.  I shall try and manage its length by sticking to short vignettes (and relying on the power of the image) from my week, but my logorrhoea may get the better of my good(ish) intentions.

During the interval of a gig…

…watching (but not listening to) a very low budget promo by Lost or Stolen for their upcoming single release.  The live video had something in the nature of a shrine about it, with tealights surrounding a plectrum raised upon a dais made of a pencil eraser.  From time to time, divine revelation would enter the frame in the form of words written on post-it notes – very much the clay tablets of today’s busy deity!  I was expecting some sort of blood sacrifice to propitiate the holy plectrum, with the precious fluid being absorbed by the eraser but, sadly(?), they stopped short of this level of commitment.

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An historic re-enactment!

During my piano lesson…

…lying underneath the grand piano while it was played by my teacher.  It was certainly a new experience, but I’m finding it hard to put the insights I gained into words.  It was, I suppose, a logical(?) continuation of the tour of the grand piano I’d enjoyed at my previous lesson – and my first hands-on experience with a grand piano.  I have now used all the pedals in purposive manner – and realised late last night that my own piano-substitute has a sustenuto pedal (which I shall be attempting to use later).

…smashing my head, with some force, into the lid of the same grand piano.  I had to say Messrs Kawai and Sons need to rethink the design of their pianos – the lid, which is black against a black background – projects some significant distance out from the rest of the case when the keyboard is in use.  A chap innocently laughing it some pianistic solecism just committed could (and did) easily injure himself!  My piano teacher found himself in the difficult-to-pull-off superposition of laughter and concern: I feel he acquitted himself well given the challenges of macroscopic existence.

At Playlist in the Butcher’s Hook…

…the glorious conjunction of diverse but wonderful music was entirely expected.  The unethereal vocals of Stanlæy accompanied by two fae from the Winter Court, extraordinary guitar sounds from Ben Jameson and the first public performance by Somerset folk-collective Zaffir were a reminder of why Playlist is one of the cultural jewels of the city.  My unexpected discovery was the existence of microtones in the amazing new piece composed by Ben and commissioned by Playlist.  I have tried re-creating these on my acoustic guitar at home, but I may need to get some more tips from Ben for better results.

…the delicious Cambrian Root by Vibrant Forest: a salt liquorice porter.  So many of my loves brought together in one tiny space!

Strolling home from the Butcher’s Hook…

…talking to a friend on my phone (I know, shockingly used to speak to another human!) to discover that he had found wholly unanticipated love.  The heavy irony of finding, halfway through our conversation about love, that as I strolled twixt the Aldi car park and an industrial diary (well, I don’t reckon it had ever seen a cow) I was unwittingly in the (or of one of the) city’s red-light district(s).  So little do I know of gland games, that it was only when the third young (from my perspective) lady said hello and then went slightly further in her salutation did the penny finally drop.  Until that point, I had merely thought that people were slightly friendlier than usual and that the lateness of the hour (and our friend Johnny Ethanol) had helped ease their traditional British reserve.  Is it any wonder I remain single when even those with a financial incentive in raising my interest in matters of the loins struggle so badly to achieve their goal?

At the launch party of the new NST City theatre…

…being asked if I had a job other than writing my cultural blog.  This left me somewhat taken aback, as I hadn’t realised this was a cultural blog (unless the culture in question be me).  I was also pleasantly surprised that someone though this farrago might be sufficient to finance my continued existence.  I fear it is far too short on insight and far too long on weak jokes, niche references and attempts to demonstrate my (largely illusory) erudition.

…chatting with a chap in want of silver hair.  I offered him mine (I have an ever increasing abundance), but in a major failure of the supposed perfection of markets this transaction was impossible to carry through despite two willing parties.

…chatting about going vegan not for the sake of the planet or the animals, but as an economic choice to reduce costs.  A fine idea – very much in line with the teachings of Katherine Whitehorn in my youth – but I felt slightly weakened by the need to buy almond milk at much greater cost that its dairy equivalent.

…finding myself thinking, while in the stunning new theatre, that it didn’t feel like I was in Southampton: and then worrying why.  Even my photo of the entrance has an air of unreality about it.  I feel my thought was not disloyal to my adopted city but a reflection of the fact that I’m used to the city’s older and/or re-purposed venues, few of them much younger than me.  There look to be exciting times ahead: I hope their insanely(?) ambitious plans to strengthen and develop a sustainable cultural scene in Southampton, across the full range of culture, bear a bumper harvest of fruit.  Roll on (or up/down) the nano winches!

At a Film Week showing of short films…

…being surprised by the nature of the Jane Austen lecture theatre: not a hint of wood panelling or even one over-stuffed leather armchair.  Very much a modern university lecture theatre: so, much like a cinema, but with more USB charging points and less comfortable seats.  It also lay, rather unexpectedly, in a basement below a spaceship which had become inexplicably trapped in an atrium (or was the atrium built around it?).

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No sign of the extra-terrestrial Postman Pat (or any black and white companion)

…finding myself enjoying a piece by Skepta (it arose in my favourite of the short films).  I suspect I may not be his primary target audience, more some unanticipated bycatch: he should probably throw me back to avoid harming the wider ecosystem.

I feel this conceit could be re-used in future to link other disparate observations which the author is too lazy, or unskilled, to draw together into a coherent whole.  I think the only lesson we might take from these 1300 odd words is that if you go out and also talk to people, unplanned things happen – and many of these are delightful!

A night in the doghouse

Having previously noted that my attempts to post in a more original (or at least unusual or unexpected) way on Facebook were diverting some of my creative energies away from the blog and into more live, if shorter-form content, there has come a cri de coeur from those readers (OK, reader) who miss regular hits of GofaDM.  Truly, there is no accounting for taste and we can only lament the under-funding of mental health services in modern Britain.  However, I do not have a heart of stone – though recent news on pumping molten tin suggests a one of ceramic might be a possibility in the future – and I cannot deny my public!  There is in fact a small queue of blog posts awaiting my attention, though for now they must be considered as existing deep in the Argand plane.  These should emerge, blinking and still bearing traces of caul, into the world in the next week or two.  However, this post has jumped the queue and driven by the juxtaposition of events from the weekend and last night (though, in the interests of transparency, I should make clear that these events are not fully independent).

The preamble now safely over, we can start on the walk proper (and textual).  The title does not refer to the author having sunk into some form of disgrace – or at least no more than usual.  The Doghouse in question is the back(?) room of the Guide Dog pub – which I think is (or is very nearly) the nearest pub to my home as the corvid travels.  These is something rather glorious about this room, especially on these dark, dreich evenings when our most proximate pole has turned its face from the sun.  The warmth of its orange walls and the intimacy of the space just seem to be an open invitation to conviviality and community.  The former is certainly aided by the quality and range of ales, both well-chosen and well-kept, on offer from the pub.  Last night I found myself partaking of several servings of Wallops Wood from Bowman Ales (based in nearby Droxford).

My visit last night was to enjoy the monthly festival of music-making which, slightly prosaically, goes under the banner of the Doghouse Acoustic Sessions.  On these occasions the room fills (and overflows) with musicians and their instruments.  This does present a degree of physical risk to the observer: I could easily have taken a bow to the eye (in a low cost, close-range, re-enactment of a pivotal scene from the Battle of Hastings) or as the image below might suggest, a cellist’s elbow to my very vitals!

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Cello peril!

I have the fear that cellists, like swans, seek to redress some past wrong by shattering any human limb that comes within range with one blow from their mighty wings!  Still enough of my bravery in the face of terrible peril, we should return to the music…

I would say, in my state of genre ignorance, that most of the music would fit broadly under the umbrella of folk though with excursions into gypsy jazz and even a glorious rendition of Summertime.  However, my personal highlights were a song in Welsh – following, I like to think, in the footsteps of Taliesin – and a small clutch of songs from the Iberian peninsular.  These also led to the making of the two resolutions during the course of the evening (while any fool can attempt to be resolute at the turn of the year, it takes a real maverick to do it on the fourth Monday in October) – of which more is to come…

Ooh!  Look at me using images to create some dramatic tension in a narrative.  The SO: To Speak Festival has not striven in vain!

Having a Catalan friend on Facebook, some of my posts are read and (apparently) enjoyed by those for whom English is not their mother tongue.  In a fit of hubris last night, I decided to attempt to make a post in Spanish (my knowledge of Catalan was way too limited for even my overweening arrogance).  This attempt made it all too obvious the parlous state to which my ability in Spanish has descended.  After listening to the Spanish songs I found myself, like Viktor Frankenstein, igor [sic] to raise the cadaver of my Spanish language skills from their marble slab of neglect.  The monster may turn on its creator, but the attempt must be made.  The first step will be to read ¿Qué me quieres, amor? a collection of short stories by Manuel Rivas which I already own in Spanish (not, as I have just discovered their original language, but learning Gallego will have to wait).  Well, I didn’t really have enough hobbies to fill my time…

Talking of hobbies, yesterday was my second Doghouse Acoustic Session.  On both occasions I feel a mild sense shame that I don’t contribute to the musical forces present (though, everyone should be grateful that I hold back).  The piano is never going to be an option – it is not that portable – and I think guitar-based participation is still some way off.  So, over the weekend I fished my descant recorder from a drawer to see if my childhood skills would return.  In fact, the instrument was actually acquired in the mid 90s and taken to the Greek island of Lesbos.  I cycled into the wilderness – away from all human ears – and at that time discovered that any historic abaility had been lost.  As with so much in the 90s, the project was shelved for a couple of decades.

Over the weekend, I raced through School Recorder Book 1 (the same instructional guide I used with Mrs Spicer – no relation – in the mid 1970s) which, frankly, has a very dull selection of tunes with which to improve one’s playing.  This seemed relatively straightforward so on Sunday afternoon, finding Hobgoblin music unexpectedly open, I splashed out on a copy of English Pub Session Tunes (so they made me buy it).  I feel this may provide my entrée to musical society by the time of the next session – and I can even take the recorder away to practice when I cross the Irish Sea!  Watch this space, as the value of property in my vicinty collapses!

Plan B – should the recorder prove too challenging, even for the selection of tunes falling under the title of “Absolute Doddle” – is to try and learn a shanty or two – a song-form which Gilbert and Sullivan have lead me to believe positively embraces the bass voice!  And the doyens of late Victorian light opera wouldn’t lie to me, would they?

Listening, at very close range, to song in the tongue of my ancestors has led me to my seond resolution to go to an Eisteddfod.  It is way past time to more fully embrace my Welsh heritage – and not just the willingness to spend time outside in the rain.  It may be time for a second trip to Llangollen: a town which has very fond memories because my father, sister and I ate chips from the bag in the street (an activity make much more enjoyable by my mother’s disapproval – I don’t ever remember us doing it at any other time!).

I feel that this post, in many ways, returns to the themes of Music in the city with the importance of going out, drinking beer and listening to live music once again front-and-centre.  Despite my remarks about their propensity to violence, I have acquired two cellists as Facebook friends from last night.  One is also high up in light opera, as part of a shadowy organisation which goes by the telescopic moniker of LOpSoc.  This collection of phonemes my brain is unable not to link to the phrase “and two smoking barrels” – which would certainly lead to a grittier take on The Gondoliers than is traditional…  Over to LOpSoc to bring the long-awaited cockney gangster vibe to the standards of the Savoy Opera!

Louche lepidoptera

Oh yes, people, I am after some of that sweet, sweet Horrible Histories coin.  I think I’ve mastered the title: two words, alliteration, the second word is a group noun and the preceding adjective hints at a little excitement of which you teacher would not approve.  Obviously, the HH folks have the history market sewn up, so I’m going for the world of Natural History.

‘Why now?’ you may well ask, well let me explain.

Yesterday, I was trying to ignore the news on 6Music as further evidence was offered that those in power were – armed only with a hand-cart and their almost limitless reserves of stupidity – dragging the planet, at all the velocity they could muster, toward a village just south of Stjørdalshalsen.  My attempted reverie was suddenly interrupted by news so unbelievable that I felt sure I must have mis-heard.  Maybe it was time for the ear trumpet to join the soon-to-be-delivered reading glasses.  However, research today suggests that my hearing is fine (or at least this news story did not bring its efficacy into question) and I really did hear what I thought I heard.  I’ve cancelled the order for matching tartan rug and slippers.

It would seem that moths – and particularly the family of hawk moths – are attracted by alcohol and tobacco and the folk at Butterly Conservation are suggesting we use this weakness to capture (and later release) migratory moths as part of a census which is currently underway.   I think their idea was for the public to lure moths to their domestic stretch of greensward (or decking as the case may be) using some of their unused duty-free.  I’d suggest that the better garden-based venue would be the beer garden of your local hostelry.  This could be the draw that the pub trade so desperately needs in these difficult times: come for the beer, stay for the moths!  Now, where did I leave that pooter?

This does place a rather new spin on Oasis’ hit Cigarettes and Alcohol: certainly, I’d never realised the Gallagher brothers were such keen naturalists.  Might it be that moths are not confusing bright lights with the moon but rather they have mistaken the illumination for a pub or off-licence and are looking for a fresh fix.  We all know to protect any open jam against a vespine onslaught, but now a moment’s inattention of an evening could find a moth tucking in to your pint!  (And, a moth has rather more effective camouflage than a wasp: you have been warned).

Anyway, I can’t just sit here typing at you: I’m off out for a little moth-watching.  Mine’s a pint of Best!

The Danger of Short Stories

I’m not really a fan of the short story format: or so I thought.  As it transpires, I don’t know me very well – a fact which seems to be brought to my attention increasingly frequently as the days practise their merry dance across my ageing bones.  I am starting to think that my self-image was preserved in aspic some time in the 1990s and is badly in need of an update (very much the antithesis of the approach taken by Java).

My self-image is far from the only item of frequently changing data which has been subject to premature ossification in what passes for my memory.  The price of beer is forever frozen at 99p per pint (pace Joey Holts as once served in The Blue Bell in Moston) and a price as high as £2.50 is viewed as excessive and only to be entertained by the over-paid fools resident in London.  Sadly, the price of petrol is similarly fixed as 44.9p per litre – based on a price once paid at a petrol station lying somewhere between Sharpthorne and Lewes.  As a consequence, purchasing either liquid in 2015 is a painful experience for the author – though evidence would suggest he is better able to overcome the trauma of purchasing the former than the latter.

Whilst we seem to be digressing into the area of traumatic pricing (don’t you love the way I effortlessly implicate you in this digression?), it as at this time of year that I most miss living in Sawston.  In those heady days, I would gorge myself on a huge variety (and quantity) of plums purchased for significantly less than £2 per kilo from Cam Valley Orchards.  This week just gone, it was only by some shopping around that I manage to achieve a price of £4 per kilo.  I cannot say that the quality of the plums improves at this higher price (and the range on offer is vastly diminished), but what you lose on these desirable swings you make up in the unwanted roundabouts of added plastic packaging.  Anyway, I’m starting to sound like a curmudgeon even to myself, so let’s segue back to the main thrust of the post.

Recently, the short story has been worming its way into my life: but I thought I could control the habit.  In the case of All the Rage by A L Kennedy, each story – short though many were – was so rich that the temptation to immediately start on another was relatively easy to control.  In this, the experience was not unlike reading poetry – which has also begun to creep through the interstices of existence into my life – where each poem (unless of a relatively trivial or comic type) needs time for digestion before the next is consumed.  However, this last week I started (and finished) The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin: the complete Rebus short stories.  These were huge fun and the writing is excellent, but they also proved very more-ish – it was very hard to just read one (or indeed two).  I suppose at least they are not directly fattening: ‘a moment before the eyes, a lifetime on the thighs’ is not yet a common coinage among the portly reading community.

Sometimes with a full size novel, reading on can prove a rather daunting prospect: one may lack the emotional strength or endurance to face what is coming next.  There may be several hundred pages left to travel and so little hope of a swift resolution – and it can be dangerous to attempt sleep while there are important lexical matters “to be continued” (but equally ill-advised to try and finish the book, especially should an early start be needed).  With a short story, you are never more than a few tens of pages from a conclusion – and so a resolution can be guaranteed before the head must make serious contact with the pillow.  This is how their insidious charms work, of course: there is always time (or so I can convince myself) for just another quickie – and then the whole afternoon (and/or evening) has been frittered away to little constructive effect.

I suppose I should come clean and admit that it is not only the short story that has this effect on me.  Carlos Ruiz Zafón seems to have discovered a similar trick and so The Prisoner of Heaven didn’t last long – perhaps fortunately, he takes a goodly while to produce new work and I have now consumed the full back catalogue (so I – and my afternoons – should be safe for a while).  However, now I find Alice Roberts taking his place with The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being yielding so much fascinating material that it is proving hard to ignore: still that is science, so counts as a slightly more productive use of time to the weird, internal temporal accounting system which retains some influence over my activities.

Anyway, I just hope by ‘coming out’ about my short story habit, I can save others from descending the same slippery slope: just say ‘No’, people.

Fringe mastery

I believe this may be my tenth year of coming up to Edinburgh in August to see the Fringe and, sometimes, a little of the Festival to which it forms a rather overgrown adjunct.  However, as I type this racing south by train, I feel this is the first year that I have truly mastered the experience (obviously, mistressy remains an even higher standard, but one which will ever lie beyond my reach).

This hard-worn mastery has a number of components which, as the more prescient or fatalistic reader will have realised, I am going to reveal to you (whilst studiously avoiding use of the phrase ‘life hack’ – except just then).

Let’s start, as some actors do, with the feet.  Enjoying the Fringe does involve a lot of walking around: most of it up hill and much of it over cobbled ground.  This can – and, in the past, did – play havoc with a chap’s feet and ankles.  This year, in one of those flashes of insight which is such a rare visitor to my intra-auricular void, I travelled north with the perfect footwear solution.  What are these wonder-shoes?  They are a pair of New Balance 1060s, bought several years ago as urban walking shoes: but rarely used.  They entered my life just as I started cycling everywhere and they make for a poor cycling shoe.  As a result, they have lain forgotten at the back of the wardrobe for several years – just waiting their chance to shine.  Shine they most certainly did – taking hills and cobbles in my stride.  Never have I left Auld Reekie with such undamaged feet.  I’ll admit that they lack style – and whilst gloriously breathable (a boon in the hot and sweaty venues that characterise the Fringe) are not the ideal companions in heavy rain or deep water – but they have more than repaid my faith in them.  No longer will they be mocked by more obviously popular footwear in my wardrobe: they have (finally) found their niche.

Next, I shall turn my attention to the duration of the visit.  I started at a mere couple of nights and have gone as far as a fortnight.  This year I went with a week – and I feel that is the perfect length.  Enough time to indulge thoroughly in the delights on offer, but not so much time that the physical and mental toll on the visitor becomes excessive.  To avoid missing out on too much on offer, in the weeks prior to Edinburgh I caught a number of acts previewing their shows – which is also quite a thrifty option (special thanks must go to ARGCOMfest and the BAC).

This year, I also decided that you may have a very fine show – but if it starts after 22:00 it will not be graced(clumsied?) by my presence.  I now miss the last bus home for no man (or woman) – and so can generally have my head in contact with pillow by midnight.

It is generally best to avoid buying beer in most of the paid Fringe venues – the choice for the connoisseur is limited and prices are higher (£4.00-£4.50 per pint!).  The Free Fringe or Fringe-free venues are a better bet with prices falling to £3.90 (that I have lived to see the day when £3.90 seems a relatively reasonable price for a pint) and a much better range of session ales on offer.  This year, I acquired a cold mid-way through my visit – though my immune system has already (almost) sent it packing – so on health grounds, during the day, I switched from beer to black tea for my liquid refreshment requirements.  This was a much cheaper option and must shoulder much of the blame for my current abnormally healthful state.

This year my events formed a rather pleasing balance between comedy, spoken word and circus (of which, more in later posts).  In the past, I think I have tended to over-emphasise comedy and it can all become a something of a blur – but adding circus made for a much more balanced(!) mix.  I also spread myself across a wide range of venues and between the Free and paid Fringe – though, in general, I pay as much (or more) for the Free Fringe – so the latter is rarely the cheaper option.

The final element is my growing knowledge of where to find some decent food or a refreshing session ale when one is called for.   This year’s discovery was Malone’s – an unexpectedly spacious and architecturally-interesting Irish bar which is handily close to several Fringe venues.  Here, standing on the gallery, I took in the second half of the England-France rugby match and indie music from the Free Fringe.  Not a combination which would generally be wise, but it was time-saving and did make for an enjoyable end to an evening out.

Not serious theatre

I am rather fond of the Finborough theatre, it has introduced me to a number of exciting, challenging, new plays over the last 18 months – Unscorched and Silent Planet particularly stand-out in my mind as I write.  They do also stage revivals, typically of neglected works.  Its location can be a challenge, particularly on the day of a Chelsea home game when one has to share the streets of Earls Court and the Finborough Arms (which acts as the foyer to the theatre) with boisterous football aficionados, but is not really that remote from Waterloo (where I am – on a good day – delivered by Southwest Trains).

Often on a Sunday, they stage two different plays – a matinée and an evening performance – which does boost the benefit side of the trip-to-London equation.  The downside is the risk of engineering work and the fact the last train home goes at 22:54 (it would seem that Stagecoach do not expect the denizens of Southampton to stay out late on a Sunday, unlike the lotus eaters of nearby Portsmouth who have services until 00:50).  Still, yesterday I decide to brave the outbound replacement bus service as far as Eastleigh and keep my fingers crossed for the 22:54 home.  As a result, I spent the afternoon and evening indulging in Victorian fun (for the avoidance of doubt, no laudanum was consumed by your reporter).

The matinee was of the rarely performed Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Princess Ida.  Given the diminutive size of the Finborough, this was akin to having G&S with a pretty full cast performed in your living room (if you had also invited 39 friends to join you).  The orchestra, for obvious reasons, had to be reduced (by transcription) to two pianists and the audience were a little cramped – but the whole thing was quite an experience , especially when the full cast (a baker’s dozen) are on stage singing and acting at once.  I’m pretty sure I have never seen Ida performed before, but I did know one of the songs – as a man with tiefe stimme, I had explored a little of Lord Gama’s output as part of my attempts to become a singer (one generally does have to play the elderly in G&S, a role continue to transition into).  I have to say the performance delivered all that one could have wished for: young lovers, a wicked guardian and lots of silliness (and, I must admit, some slightly dodgy gender politics).  The staging was as thrifty and clever as I have come to expect at the Finborough and only an audience member with the the hardest of hearts could have failed to have a wonderful time (even if corrective knee and buttock surgery may have been advisable afterwards).

Between the afternoon and evening performances I found myself wandering the streets of Earls Court in search of victuals.  As I was doing this, someone coming towards me seemed oddly familiar – not an unusual occurrence as I am more than capable of recognising complete strangers and also because I was not wearing my specs.  I tend not to wear my glasses when just ambling about as I have realised (as Hollywood did many years before me) that most of the world looks better in slightly relaxed focus – and it also makes catching glimpses of myself in reflective surfaces substantially less traumatic.  However, the impression remained as we grew closer together and I finally realised that it was Prince Hilarion (once and future husband to Princess Ida) in mufti and riding a skateboard.  Now I do realise that these people are just actors and he is not really a Hungarian prince, but it was still oddly jarring to see him in this mode – despite the fact that I had already seen him dressed as both a prince and a classically-attired woman during the course of the afternoon.  The lad had a fine voice, and I suspect some Teutonic heritage which means that while he was unlikely to have had to change his name on joining Equity (surely there was not already a Zac Wancke?) he may well have been horribly bullied at school.

Refuelled, I returned to the theatre foyer and enjoyed some of the liquid refreshment on offer as part of a mid-west beer festival being staged(!) there – well, it covered Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Shropshire (for some reason) and how else might one describe that group of counties? – before further Victorian fun in the form of Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor.  This play is (in)famous as being the one Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.  I had always assumed that this would be some serious work of art inspired by Melpomene, but as it transpires it owes far more to her sister Thalia, i.e. it was broad comedy, verging on farce.  Luckily, I survived the fateful line – when John Wilkes Booth (playing the eponymous hero) carried out the wicked (and decidedly unheroic) deed under the cover of a reliable laugh – and so remain unassassinated (for now) and saw the denouement.  Oddly, I am unaware of any other murder committed under similar cover – but perhaps MI5 should be recruiting more comedians (or Brian Rix) rather than sitting around reading our email.  The current James Bond franchise could also benefit from being a tad less po-faced.   The play still made me (and many of my fellow audience members) laugh despite being 150+ years old (the play, I am barely a third of that) and having gone unperformed in the capital for more than a century – or perhaps my sense of humour is just rather Victorian.  I couldn’t help wondering what the Americans of the 1860s would have made of it and their portrayal therein – but according to the programme it was a huge success (other than depleting North America to the tune of one president – and we can’t blame the playwright for that).

Victorian values have a terribly poor press – but I think this may be because people espousing them usually make very poor choices from the menu on offer – but they can offer a very entertaining day out and still deliver you to Waterloo in time for the train home.  I can thoroughly recommend it, but would note that this opinion may not necessarily generalise to other activities hailing from the same regnal period.