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!

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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.

Gideon’s bible

This week has seen the return of that annual ritual, the Budget.  I find the budget rather uninteresting, but also deeply annoying.  It strikes me that if something needs adjusting in the economy it should be done, and if it doesn’t then it shouldn’t – but instead we seem to save up a whole series of unrelated tweaks and announce them all in one go once a year.

The Budget ends up being a strange admixture of changes driven by tradition and ideology.  So, it seems to be vitally important to fiddle with excise duties on an annual basis – and also usually a good plan to move tax thresholds and interfere with pensions.  Each Budget also offers an important opportunity for chancellors to make the tax system even more complicated – just in case there was a risk that someone actually understood it.

The Budget is also the chance to announce changes to income tax – usually to either raise or lower the rate for the very rich.  Lowering taxes for the very rich is unlikely to attract many votes (the über-rich are not terribly numerous, though very influential) so I assume is driven by ideology or with an eye to future party funding.  Raising taxes on the rich may be more of a vote winner, but perhaps is less conducive to future party funding (or lucrative consulting jobs for ministers when the political gravy train hits the buffers).  In either case, changes need a strong dose of ideology as no-one knows what tax rate would maximise tax revenues from the seriously rich – I believe there is some certainty (maybe a sigma or two) that the value lies between 30% and 75%, but nothing better than that.

The other platform provided by the Budget is to announce a combination of increased spending and/or cuts – though usually these have already been announced and are nowhere near as new as the Chancellor would have us believe.  I have a rather serious problem with announcements of either type, as they all seem to suffer from a common failure of understanding.  Chancellors of all political stripes seem to believe any problem can be solved either by throwing more money at it, or throwing less money at it.

If you throw more money at a problem, the money will certainly be used but usually with minimal impact on desired outcomes.  There is a form of financial Parkinson’s Law in action whereby costs expand to consume the money available.  The most powerful segments of any organisations being funded will take the lion’s share of the money and grow bigger and more powerful.  Sadly, power rarely lies where you want the money to be spent.

If you throw less money at a problem, despite what many think, organisations do not tackle waste and become more efficient.  Instead, the most powerful segments of the funded body will devote all their energies to protecting themselves and their empires and will instead ditch activities they consider to be peripheral.  Sadly, these peripheral activities are probably the very ones for which the bodies exist and which represent their most important outcomes for UK plc.

These last two paragraphs are true for organisations whether funded by public or private means – though, on the plus side, privately funded organisations may eventually go bust (unless prevented from doing so by the State, yes I am talking about the Banks).  I always feel that when my employers start eliminating biscuits from meetings (a meaningless cost-saving activity) it is time to seek employment elsewhere – and I assume that other savvy employees think similarly.  Cost cutting is, thus, an excellent way to weed-out the competent, go-getting portion of your employee-base while retaining the dead-weight.  I do wonder if something similar applies to nation states – and austerity is an excellent way to “fix” net migration by selectively disposing of the more economically-valuable portion of your economy whilst simultaneously encouraging the more sensible potential immigrant to seek another destination.  Are we deliberately turning the UK into the B Arc of Golgafrincham?  Well, we do seem to be turning into a service economy – though my phone does remain staunchly unsanitary.

Anyway, time to turn from Budgets in general to the most recent offering.  This is dear old George (née Gideon) Osborne’s fifth attempt at a budget, and despite all the evidence he does continue to believe that he has the common touch and knows what matters to we members of the lumpen proletariat.  After singeing his fingers with the pasty tax and static caravans, he has now turned his attention to beer and bingo.

As a sometime beer drinker, I did wonder what his headline measure would mean for me.  As a man, I am given a suggested weekly allowance of 28 units of alcohol – and if I choose to take all of this in the form of beer at a relatively modest 3 units per pint, I would find myself £4.85 richer every year.  I’m afraid, were I a woman, this boost would be a mere £3.64 and given my modest drinking habits (and foolish consumption of wine and spirits) I will be luck to clear an extra 50p.  Not quite the giveaway the newspaper headlines (both good and bad) suggested.

I must admit I have no interest in Bingo – I think that I blame it (quite incorrectly) for the destruction of so many cinemas (well, it tended to use old cinema buildings in my formative years, creating the unfortunate association).  I must admit I wasn’t even aware there was a bingo tax – but I suspect reducing it is not going to have a large financial effect on very many people.

Nevertheless, some in Mr Osborne’s own party seemed to think these two changes were the most important things to be announced in the budget.  Sadly, their crowing about this seems to have back-fired rather spectacularly.  I had always assumed that such measures were designed to provide a fig-leaf of good news behind which to hide the entire forest of bad news contained in the rest of the Budget.  If this was the good news, which seems to have gone down like a lead balloon, how bad must the rest of the Budget been?  I have seen some suggestions that new pensioners are to be encouraged to spend their pension pot on fast cars – rather than frittering it away on an income for their declining years.  I presume this is an attempt to defuse the pensions time-bomb via the medium of road traffic accidents – which is certainly a bold initiative and bound to be more fun than spending one’s lifetime savings on the cost of a nursing home or one way trip to Switzerland.  So, unless pensionable age continues to recede from me, I could be the proud possessor of a shiny red Ferrari in a mere 20 years time!  Not really a dream of mine, but I suppose someone has to prop up the Italian economy – and it would be churlish of me to try and live forever bleeding dry anything that remains of the State in 2038.