Channelling Gogol: Panem et Circenses

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown amid further easing of restrictions based on the art of chresmomancy, Juvenal’s most famous words suggest that the governance of nations has not progressed as far as we might like to believe in the last nineteen centuries.  I seem to recall that the British did seek to create parallels between their empire and its Roman antecedent and so perhaps this continuing resonance should not be so surprising.  I presume it is only be a matter of weeks (or days) before a horse is made a special adviser to the government.  Where are the Prateorian Guard when we need them?

As part of an attempt to feel mildly useful at the moment, I am involved in three separate COVID-19 studies: two of which came about via my membership of the Cambridge BioResource, which is less scary than it sounds.  One of these has me completing a very extensive bi-weekly survey which attempts to gauge the state of my mental health: a brave project at the best of times.  I have noticed that with the last couple of questionnaires, my state of mind has deteriorated substantially relative my earlier responses.  Clearly, there will be multiple reasons for this.  I have been separated from my friends and family for more than three months now: I’ve bumped into a few from time to time in the flesh and see a small subset regularly via a screen but the feeling of isolation must be growing stronger.  I could also note that the weather for the last week has not been very conducive to exploring on my bike, and so I’ve been spending less time outside and in nature.  However, I think a key factor has been the gradual erosion of my hope that the world we will emerge into is one that will justify the effort of sticking around.

In its patchy efforts to support the economy, the governmant appears to have chosen to throw everything (and a sizeable proportion of the people) I care about under the bus.  Almost my entire economic activity, once we have dealt with the foundational levels of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, can be directly linked to small independent pubs, cafés and breweries and the arts: live music, theatre, galleries, dance, spoken word and, of course, books! Some of these will shortly be allowed to open again (albeit, for theatres, without one of their primary roles) but in almost all cases this is an invitation to increase the rate at which they haemorrhage money and rack up losses.  Nevertheless, many are trying to do so despite the huge costs of delivering both social distancing and “more” given the difficulty of sourcing perspex, masks and hand sanitiser et al and the recent steep inflation affecting the price of such items.  They recognise their vital role as places of community: something we have been starved of for so long.  I suspect some also fear that their take-out businesses will suffer as giant, chain pubs and restaurants re-open.

As well as many friends being laid off, Southampton has already seen NST Theatres go into adminstration and the closure of the Stable, a very decent pizza and cider restaurant which was a regular host to live music (and to me drinking slightly too much cider): these both from a single pair of new buildings which are at the heart of the city’s Cultural Quarter.  I’m sure many other places have already gone, I’m just not yet aware that their temporary closure for COVID has become permanent: and I fear many more will be lost in the weeks ahead.  The feeling I get from friends in music is that the hope of anything very much live occurring in 2020, apart from drive-in gigs, is looking decreasingly likely. Even if musicians and artists can keep going somehow into 2021, will there be anywhere left for them to perform: no doubt the already famous will still have stadia to visit but will there be any grassroots left?  Without roots, and the whole ecosystem that surrounds them, very little will grow…

Still, for the 99% of us not consigned to the ever growing statistic of excess mortality, life goes on.  Major, and positive, changes have taken place in the organisation of my flat: having time on my hands does (very occasionally) translate into concrete action.  With lockdown, I came to realise that my television was not justifying the space it consumes as, even while stuck at home (rather than being out every night), I was rarely using it.  So, I splashed out on a new, 32″ 4K monitor to replace both my existing monitor and the TV.  This enabled a re-organisation of my living/working space to give me a lot more room.  It also enabled the removal of around a dozen cables of various forms and seems to have given me back the window as a room feature: if only the glass were a tad less filthy…  My reforming zeal has also extended to the bedroom and I can now walk around three sides of my bed largely unimpeded by floor-living junk!  It has only taken seven years to tidy up after moving in: I think I’m improving!

I am sure I am far from alone in discovering in recent weeks how little of the stuff I own I actually use, even if I have literally nothing else to do.  Lockdown has provided a presentiment of retirement and I’m starting to think that my ambitious plans for self-improvement and the acquistion of new skills, once my working life is done, may not make the degree of progress that pre-2020 me fondly imagined.  If anything, my existing skills seem to be draining away the more time I, theoretically, have to improve them: somehow time, like fine sand, seems to slip through my grasp ever faster as the weeks progress with less-and-less being achieved.  I can’t help feeling that my life is a living metaphor for the concept of entropy…

At the start of the year, after 15 years of procrastination, I finally decided it was time to face the horror of estate agents and solictors, and sell my flat in Cambridge.  I never planned to become a landlord, but thanks to a cock-up by the developers, I was unable to sell the flat at the time I moved out and it has taken me a while to resolve the issue: fools don’t only rush in, sometimes they just sit on things for years.  All was going well until a global pandemic broke out: truly, my timing is impeccable.  Still, despite the difficulties, I finally managed to exchange contracts and complete last Friday.  I am now the proud owner-operator of only the single tiny flat in which I reside and am mortgage-free.  I feel that being without debt (beyond this month’s spending on my credit card) for the first time since 1987 should be boosting my positivity but I don’t think the fact has entirely sunk-in yet.  Perhaps I need to buy a bottle of Aldi champagne for a thrifty celebration (alone given the current circs) to fully appreciate my good fortune…

In other getting-things-done news, I finally cleaned up and brought back into full service my best bike: the steel-framed retro(ish) beauty I had built for me when I lived back in Cambridge.  It has seen very little use in the last seven years, but with all the sunshine (I refuse to allow it to become wet or muddy) it was time for it to shine again.  It was such a joy to ride it again after all these years and its acceleration and ability to elide hills was something of a contrast to the aluminimum framed 29er mountain bike which is my day-to-day workhorse on the roads of Southampton.  While my steel steed lacks the cushioning suspension to insulate my buttocks form the worst of the local road surfacing, the change in posture and different saddle do seem more comfortable on my much abused nethers.  I think this evening the weather may, after a week of heavy rain and very stong winds, by good enough to take it out for a spin and I can hardly wait!

Despite some of the ramblings above, I can mostly stay positive by focusing on the short term and drinking (this latter, as part of my plan to keep a couple of my favourite local pubs and breweries going: I gain no pleasure from it).  Superman had his Fortess of Solitude, which given its location may be growing increasingly damp on a warming world, and I have my own – now much tidier – analogue.  My own Fortress is largely constructed from music and books.  Lockdown gigs and other video sightings of third party homes suggest other people are able to own shelves without them immediately being filled with books: in some ways I admire the purely decorative shelf, but have come to accept that such a thing does not lie in my own future.  The latest addition to my groaning shelves has been Intae the Snaw by Thomas Clark: a set of poems translated into Scots.  It is amazing and I am now totally obsessed by the Scots language – and by my embarrassing attempts to pronounce it (sometimes, being locked-down alone has its upsides).  It has such marvellous words, each poem yields at least half-a-dozen that are entirely new to me: and I’ve read a decent amount by Scottish authors over the years.  How, for example, have I lived more for than 54 years without ‘clanjamfrie’ in my vocabulary: a word with particular resonance to our current leadership.

All the while such delights can still enter my life, I think I’ll stick around: though now I have something other than debts to pass on, should perhaps prepare a will.  I just need to decide where should I divest my very modest holdings, that the world is left doubly a better place by my leaving it…

Channelling Gogol: Going through the motions

I have good reason to believe that we are reaching the end of the twelfth week of lockdown.  It has been somewhat relaxed: less, I fear, in response to careful balancing of the science around the virus and the mutliple adverse impacts on life and excess mortality caused by lockdown and more to provide covering fire for the increasingly surreal behaviour of members of the government and its senior advisors.  I don’t think a virus has the capability to take control of humans – either directly or fiscally controlling behaviour – but fungi can cause very odd behavour in ants and such capture would explain a lot.  In a world with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis anything is possible…

I have broadly continued with my existing attempts not to go down in history as the Typhoid Mary de nos jour: though I have been enjoying the opportunity for longer bike rides to explore further afield.  I have now cycled to Winchester, Mottisfont, Lyndhurst and Hamble (plus a range of points in between) and each journey has brought its share of joys and annoyingly frequent hills.  The ability of horses to ascend relatively steep slopes has left all too many modern roads, inheritors of more ancient ways, rambling up and down hills for no very good reason.  If only man had discovered the railways sooner and the importance of following a contour line rather than willfully ignoring them!

I can’t be sure that this is a related phenomonen but I have had to say goodbye to an unusually high number of pairs of keks since lockdown began: I am blaming hill-based expansion in my thighs and buttocks for this increased wear-and-tear.  By the way, I do not wear normal keks for cycling but have a small range of padded numbers that I use to try and reduce the impact damage to a somewhat sensitive area occasioned by the relatively poor quality of local road maintenance: so we cannot blame increased friction between my saddle and nethers.

The nature of the last twelve weeks had meant that each day is very much like its predecessor.  I am not claiming that my pre-lockdown life was filled with danger and excitement, I was not typically descending Mont Blanc on my ironing board (to proffer but one example of an activity eschewed), but recent weeks have brought home the extent to which life is a matter of conjuring up, from the stuff of chaos, some semblence of purpose to cover the next sixteen hours of consciousness.  I deliberately chose the word ‘purpose’ rather than ‘meaning’ as I think I gave up on that as a life goal some considerable time ago.  In the first Discworld novel, when explaining the four fundamental forces that apply, Terry Pratchett noted that charm allowed trees to grow and bloody-mindedness kept them up.  I’m not sure that charm had much to do with my being brought forth into this world, though at times I’m fairly certain the bloody-mindedness has kept me here.  More broadly, given that I was brought up to believe that dying was in some unspecified way a slightly rude and attention-seeking activity (the sort of thing that would happen on ITV), it is perhaps as well that the human body decays and tends to force the issue at some point or I fear some weird politesse would render me irritatingly immortal.

Nevertheless, the Sisyphean struggle to imbue each day with purpose does seem to involve a stone and hill of monotonically increasing weight and gradient respectively.  This has led to me turning the mattress, vaccuming areas untouched since I moved and finally connecting my piano and Macbook via MIDI to allow me to “lay down” some tracks.  I would note that my filthy windows show that there are still heavier stones and more tightly packed contour lines yet to be brought to bear.  When not trying to solve the clean energy crisis by boosting the rate at which Bach and Scarlatti are spinning in their respective graves, I have been attempting to create a MIDI track of the right hand (the left hand is a project for a more serious pandemic) of the Noveltones 1963 ‘hit’ Left Bank Two.  And no, I’m afraid I can’t return any of your pictures: I’m not made of stamps.  I have found that the computer faithfully records on the score what I actually play rather than what I am intending to play.  I can generally render all the right notes in the right order, but the length of those right notes and rests between them can diverge somewhat from the accepted mean.  At this stage, I am hoping to pass off this difference as ‘swing’: probably of the continuously variable kind.

Work remains a boon.  On days when I feel too enervated and lacking in energy or focus to watch allegedely mindless television I find I am still quite capable of reading complex legal directives and regulations and indeed drafting my own legal text.  I’m not sure this is some indication of my own desperate mental state or a sign that we are massively over-paying lawyers (and, of course, I cannot discount the possibility that both statements are true).

This past week though was graced by some actual purpose: for the first time since lockdown I had an indoor appointment not in my own tiny flat.  Boosting my solipsism no end, this coincided with the first concerted rainfall in Southampton since the start of lockdown: see I am important, the uncaring universe saves precipitation for almost twelve weeks until it knows it can get me wet (little does it realise I have Welsh antecedents and spent most of my childhood holidays in North Wales: I am broadly waterproof!).  Yes, I had to cycle off to give my socially-distanced blood.  Well, perhaps wisely, NHSBT decided against 2m long needles: they would require extraordinary motor control to hit a vein with any accuracy.  However, we donors were kept apart from each other and masks and near continuous wiping down of everything were de rigeur.  My own donation was made in a specially kitted out conference room in a part of the centre normally off-limits to civilians.  The changed circumstances since twelve weeks ago did mean the process took a little longer than usual – no bad thing when trying to fill each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run (always good to slip a cake reference in) .  More sadly, there was also a reduction in the range of biscuits available (though due to a purchasing error, KitKat fans were in for a treat) and I had to substitute an Orange Club for my usual Mint and could only consume the one before I felt that I might be outstaying my welcome (I refer you to my earlier remarks on politesse).  Still, it filled a good three hours of my Wednesday with real purpose: roll on another twelve weeks!

Anyway, I have to attempt a solo ceilidh shortly as a sacrificial guinea pig: I may be stripping my own willow within the hour (and I’m not sure my medical insurance covers this).   I shall be relying on the far worse behaviour of senior members of the government which will, no doubt, shortly be unearthed to make this legal before a prosection can be successfully brought.  If only I could get a note from my optician…

The Lundiary: Lunday Too

I would certainly make no claims to be a wise man and this gift would probably not be considered suitable for a king, but on this eve of Epiphany I bring the next instalment of the Lundiary!

For those of you returning to work after two weeks away, indulging in the modern rituals of midwinter, this could provide a much needed, alternative topic of conversation…

Lunday Too

In which our hero travels to the utmost north, the island’s peace is rent by un coup de vent and a crime is committed…

I was first to leave my room and head downstairs in hope of breaking my nightly fast.  Having fortified myself with a cup of loose-leaf Assam tea, I thought I should unload the dishwasher to make myself useful to the group – and avoid an early eviction.  This did not go to plan as it quickly became clear that the dishwasher had made no attempt to live up to its name. A little investigation showed that the machine had been run using a 6 hour delay, which had taken it into the period during which the island has no power.  A little button stabbing and I was able to turn off the delay and the gurgling music of robotic washing-up began.

H was next down and revealed an unexpected vein of asceticism with her preferred breakfast of dry bread: though she did eventually move towards hedonism with the addition of a fried egg.  We were then joined by A and his complex experiments with a cafetiere and the island’s 3-bean-strong coffee. This appeared to be 3 beans out of a possible 5 on what I presumed to be a linear scale: though I suppose it could have been logarithmic (or even exponential).  As a non-coffee drinker, I found I was unprepared for the degree of ceremony and complexity of process needed to deliver an acceptable cup: I wouldn’t have been surprised had a pipette been produced and some titration performed. I think the final formula was to use 5/3 of the normal amount of coffee: which seemed a simpler solution than the rather time-consuming methodology had suggested.

Eventually, everybody appeared – indicating no deaths or unexplained disappearances during the night – and breakfasted in their own way before we headed off in our various directions to explore the island.  

Having already been south on Lunday, I determined to explore the far north, via the east coast where possible, to attempt to see some of the fauna advertised in the previous evening’s talk.  After leaving downtown Lundy, I first passed the ruins of the island’s hospital which was now being used by the local wild ponies as a place to graze. I couldn’t help wondering if I had been granted a vision of the future of health care on the mainland…

I didn’t see a fellow human being for a good 90 minutes – and then only at a distance – which was a joy, if unexpected on such a small island.  Instead, I saw some stunning scenery and most of the larger fauna of the island, all of which – with the exception of the Lundy ponies – were equipped with horns.  I must admit to being slightly disappointed that in their commitment to horned beasts, the island’s previous owners had somehow missed out on the unicorn: which, legend has it, would have been drawn to me (and my ilk).

I was also treated to some stunning coastal views and made several attempts to stare at the island’s beaches through my rather inferior binoculars – I think they may actually make it harder to see things in the distance – in the hopes of seeing an amusingly named seal: I seem to recall one was named for a bite-mark on its buttocks (I assume as a mammal, a seal would have at least vestigial buttocks).  I became good at convincing myself that various vaguely seal-shaped rocks were alive, but I don’t think I can honestly say that a saw an actual seal.

As I was alone, I was fully able to indulge my inner child: heading out onto every granite outcrop, running joyfully over the more even ground and leaping from rock to rock like a somewhat arthritic mountain goat.  Had there been drifts of autumn leaves, I would have kicked my way through them: sadly there are few trees and both they and the island struggle to retain their leaves given its propensity to strong wind.

Eventually, I reached the far north and it’s associated lighthouse and, as I did so, the sun burst through the cloud cover.  I spent many happy minutes sat on a seat (or flatish slab) of granite (which had retained less of the heat of its formation than I might have hoped) watching the waves crash against the island and several of its smaller rocky neighbours.  It was very easy to imagine a ship being wrecked against its shores: as I fully intended to get wrecked in the Marisco Tavern later that evening. 

Shortly after leaving the lighthouse, I bumped into A+H who had headed north via the west coast.  I joined them to return to the northern light and we then started the walk back towards the pub and some hope of a late lunch.  Our yomp back did involve a few diversions to look at sights of interest, including Tibbetts: a house which once acted as a look-out for the Admiralty and which visitors can stay in (though I’d warn you it possesses neither running water nor electrons and is a goodly hike from the pub).  As we stood in the early afternoon sun, admiring the view to the east, it was noted that the air was totally still and that the island was eerily silent. With impeccable comic timing, A’s digestive tract chose that precise moment to let forth a great burst of flatus (via the lower of the two potential output ports) irrevocably rupturing the peace: first with its own trumpet blast and, shortly thereafter, with laughter and recriminations.  I feel this is likely to become the defining incident of the expedition and I fully expect the promontory between Gull Rock and Halfway Bay to be renamed in honour of this coup de vent.

When the laughter finally died down, we continued back towards the pub – pausing to say hello to the huge pigs, who I assume are unaware that the island shop sells ‘Lundy bacon’ – and a much needed lunch.  At the pub, I was tempted to introduce us as ‘travellers from the north country’ but I’m afraid the expression on the barman’s face rather put me off such frivolity,

Foodwise, I went for the soup and cheesy chips, on the basis that little could go wrong with the preparation of either item.  A chose the ‘Lundy pizza’: in theory this was like a normal pizza but one that was transitioning towards a new life as a calzone, giving it a shape slightly similar to that of the island.  In practice, this item would not have been out of place in the armoury of any Discworld Dwarf, easily matching the Battle Bread of B’hrian Bloodaxe in its potential use in a combat situation.  Dropped from a new centimetres onto its plate it sounded like a hunk of granite – which I assume was one of its key ingredients – and threatened to break the plate. Manfully (or driven by hunger), A managed to consume a surprising portion of this very hardtack: amazingly without any obvious loss of dentition.

It was during lunch that H commented on my NHS glasses: these were Rayban specs which I had previously considered to be rather cool.  H attempted to convince me that NHS glasses were now viewed as peng by the young folk, but I fear the damage has been done and I will never be able to look at them in the same way again (though will continue to look through them).

We then headed back home to rest and recoup after our exertions.  A and I attempted to create man’s red flower using the rather limited remaining kindling and the coal briquettes which had been acquired from the shop on Lunday.  Whilst the kindling would burn, it somehow managed to so without creating any heat; unhelpful both for the fire’s human audience or any real hope of encouraging the briquettes to start burning.  We did consider sacrificing some of the less critical furniture to the project but (possibly) wiser counsels prevailed. We were also hindered in our twisted fire-starting by the rather porous nature of the bag of the bellows provided: their provision of air was decidedly asthmatic.  A eventually got some sort of meagre heat from the stove but its range was limited to a few inches.

In the evening, we all went up to the Marisco Tavern for dinner: a much more successful meal than lunch and none of the food could easily double as a throwing weapon.  It also gave us a chance to use the library (which lay around us as we ate) to do some further research into the island and its history. I must admit to feeling that they were a little short on decent geology texts.

The rest of the party, being actual musicians, had brought their instruments to the bar and played a session in the main bar (this had been previously agreed, it wasn’t a very small scale flashmob).  The music was great fun and seem to go down well with our fellow islanders: indeed, the band was invited back the following evening. A band should always have a name, and a A, H and I came up with a number of options: I think Heinkels Go Down was my favourite (perhaps as it reminds me of directoire knickers which I believe were known as Messerschmitts during the last war as they “came down without a fight”).  I can only ponder what 40s undergarment was referred to as a Heinkel). Another contender, was Loose Ladies of Lundy though I fear my surrender to the alcoholic temptations of the tavern has rather blurred my memory of the reasons why… 

The fireplace in the Marisco Tavern was merrily blazing, albeit exhausting rather more of its smoke into the pub rather than into the night air.  By its side, was a huge basket of kindling and another of hardwood logs and the like. These proved an irresistible temptation with A using the diversion created by the music to liberate a couple of chunks of likely looking wood and concealing them in my rucksack.  So, in many ways, I acted as the getaway driver for this daring raid: or act of xylarceny as I am calling it.

The young folk (A, H and I: the last only fitting the description if it is considered in geological terms) left before the music had finished to avoid ending up entirely kippered.  We also had a yen to look upon (and consume) some ale that was a little less brown: we had some bottles of Lundy Single Hop Pale Ale from Madrigal Brewery awaiting us in Millcombe House.  We also made an attempt to break-up the first of our recently acquired wood into a more usable form to get the fire going. The wood was cloven into smaller chunks using the sub-optimal equipment available in the kitchen (I once again regretted leaving my axe at home) but the results in the stove were disappointing.  As we lounged in the sitting room, in front of the merest hint of fire, A + H saw a pygmy shrew scamper across the room and then disappear: perhaps into a network of secret tunnels which are riddled throughout the house?

Tiredness made it desirable to head for our respective beds and I found myself without the energy to change room, so I once again slept in Christie: awaiting the inevitable murder…. 

As the days of the week return to their normal order, the adventures of the selected seven will continue next Sunday…

Preceding North Utsire

I have recently finished reading Thomas Williams’ rather splendid book on Viking Britain. This was a fascinating and very readable history of the often (but not always) violent interactions between the various kingdoms of the British Isles and the peoples of Scandinavia (and probably beyond). I think I most treasured it for the translated quotation of a work from my Welsh roots, the Armes Prydein Vawr, which appears towards the top of page 284 in my paperback edition. The 10th Century description of the English given in this work as “the shitheads of Thanet”, for some reason, rather struck a chord with me in these troubled political times. Lest this should appear gratuitously rude, I should point out that, as my last ancestor born in Wales was my great-great-grandfather, I am at best one-sixteenth Welsh, with my remaining blood having been sourced from England (mostly from within the Danelaw), and that I spent many happy childhood hours on the beaches and sea defenses of the Isle of Thanet.

These days, their work building the concept of England done, the Scandinavians visit these isles in a more benign guise. In fact, it is the Swedes (and the Dutch) that I feel sorry for if we carry out our nebulous intention to leave the EU and finally come to terms with our much diminished role in the world, as they shall be cast adrift with the rest of Europe without the dry humour of, at least some of, the British contingent to brighten the more tedious committee meetings. However, it is their, perhaps unlikely, embrace of jazz that shall detain us here.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed Phronesis at the Cambridge Jazz Festival back in November, whose members hail from the UK, Denmark and Sweden. I’m really looking forward to seeing them with the Southampton Jazz Orchestra in early May: a rendezvous which I shall be making despite being in Bristol on the day of their gig and in Cheltenham the day after necessitating a frankly ridiculous journey back to Southampton (but as I am frankly ridiculous, this is entirely “on brand”). However, it is Norway which seems to provide an extraordinarily rich seam of jazz musicians, especially relative to its modest population. Perhaps I need to move nearer to the Arctic Circle to achieve my full musical potential?

It was a couple of month’s ago that I made one of my increasingly rare visits to London to see Marius Neset – saxophonist extraordinaire – give a performance in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. This was everything that I’d come to expect, though I still don’t know how he manages to maintain that level of performance across a 100 minute set without an interval: it was exhausting enough to watch! The gig was also surprisingly good value, for London (and even Southampton) at only £18 and the Purcell Room made a very fine setting for jazz: and is very handy for Waterloo where my trains arrive into the city.

Back in March, I took a chance and went to see Trygve Seim at Turner Sims, knowing nothing about him other than that he was a Norwegian jazz musician – and I was willing to fork out £20 and an evening of my life on that fact alone. This gig took place while I was deep in Viking Britain and when Trygve walked out onto stage, with his flowing blond locks and plaited beard he could have stepped straight from a longboat. Fortunately, he came bearing a sax, rather than an ax, and no Anglo-Saxon blood was shed that night (or at least not at the gig). The gig was astoundingly good: the jazz reputation of the Kingdom of Norway was, if anything, enhanced. It was one of those extraordinary gigs where the music caused me to lose all contact with time and enter a somewhat trance-like state: when it finished I had no idea whether a few minutes or an hour or more had passed. Well, almost no idea: the seating at Turner Sims starts to interact painfully with my buttocks after much more than 45 minutes. My exercise regimen does not seem to be adding much in the way of padding to my backside: if anything, it seems to be reducing the limited cushioning they once offered. This is one side-effect of attempting to stay fit that is rarely mentioned in its advocacy.

About ten days ago, I was back at Turner Sims to see another Norwegian, Daniel Herskedal. This chap has a lot to answer for, as it was taking a chance by going to see him three years ago that launched my current love of jazz. On that occasion, he was joined by SYJO and so that was also the first time I will have seen musicians who have subsequently become friends. All of which suggests that my slightly random decision in 2016, has had much wider ranging implications on my life than I could possibly have imagined. Going out to see live music can change your life: in my case, immeasurably for the better!

Given the impact he unwittingly had on me, I felt I owed it to the lad to catch his return to the city. I was not disappointed, if anything he was, with his quartet this time, even better than I’d remembered. His performance proves how criminally neglected the tuba has been as a musical instrument and what a stunning pairing it makes with the, also neglected, viola. There was a magical moment when the valves of the tuba were cycling rhythmically and the instrument took on the visual guise of an exquisite, model Victorian steam engine: the tuba was a treat for the eyes as well as the ears in such skilled hands. I love the piano and violin as much as any man, but they already have stacks of repertoire: were I a composer, I’d be writing for the tuba and the other seemingly unloved members of the orchestra.

I have described Mr Herskedal as “the lad” above, but on trying (and so far, failing) to identify his instrument and its dimensions, I have discovered he is 37. I am starting to wonder if life as a tubist also has rejuvenating properties – or is it something to do with Norway? Daniel’s tuba seemed to be of a more manageable size than some: though that may have been down to the concert hall and it might look massive in my flat (as most things do, ooh err!) I have been told that I have the right sort of embouchure for the tuba (which I don’t think was – only – a more oblique of saying that I have a big mouth) and I’m feeling somewhat inspired to put this to the test: my neighbours may wish to put their flats onto the market now…

In addition to a desire to re-train as a tubist, I think the time has come to blow all my savings and go to a jazz festival in Norway: seeking out the wellspring of these musical marvels. Depending on how things are going back home, I may seek asylum while there:Farvel mine venner

Two by Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t do much during the day, I’m a double bass player

I think today’s post wins the prize for the longest ever title.  It also represents a use of ‘found language’.  Yes, GofaDM is now handling stolen words in an attempt to generate some much needed ‘edge’.  The victim of my lexical crime may be revealed later in this post or you may have to pry that particular secret from my cold, dead hands.

While I will admit this post is all about its title, I shall be attempting to add some intellectual heft (or roughly 1000 words, as others might call it) to the whole enterprise by considering the topic of barriers to entry.  This is quite a broad topic, so I shall focus my gaze – using a series of purely metaphorical lenses (which fortunately do not suffer from either spherical or chromatic aberration) – onto the narrow field of what keeps people away from the fun that culture can offer and in particular the idea that it is “not for me”.

I have largely found my own way to the broad range of cultural activities which now dominate my life.  As I frequently find myself an outlier in the audiences of which I am a part, I suspect that I am willfully going to things that are not for me – but, as yet, no-one has tried to stop me.  I think broadly I don’t really care for whom any piece of culture was made – if indeed its maker actually knows or is qualified to decide – but work on the principle that if I enjoy myself or gain something from the experience than I am a valid audience.  Even if something turns out not to be my ‘cup of tea’, I will at least have had an experience (which is what you get when you don’t get what you want) and either an anecdote or material for a post.

For live culture, I will admit that the people I’ve seen on the stage (whether real or imagined) are like me, i.e. they have generally been between the ages of 15 and 95 and human (though I have seen the occasional dog and, once, two piglets!).  They have come from a wide variety of countries, enjoyed the full range of skin tones, had a range disabilities and have certainly covered a reasonably broad portion of the gender spectrum – though I will admit that statistically rather more will have been from privileged, white cis-gendered backgrounds than is true of the planet as a whole.  A lot of this will be path-dependent, a lot of culture was originally made in the even less enlightened past and occurs in institutions that are products of the past: and we are all, ourselves, products of the past.  A lot will also be down to economics, an issue which seems to be growing both more acute and chronic.  However, I suspect a lot of culture is made by and for the people that are expected to comprise its audience – as this seems to be a viable way to stay in (show) business. This seems to offer an opportunity for us – the audience and especially the potential audience – to affect our culture and its institutions.  Our feet – and more importantly our buttocks (and their presence or otherwise on seats) – will affect the economics of cultural events and venues and if there is a market for something, eventually the Arts sector will notice and start to try and satisfy it.  If you leave the audience to people like me, the world will tend to produce stuff I like or think I might like – which is a fairly broad church, but will still leave a terribly culturally impoverished society.  I’m not really into hip-hop, for example, though I think I might be starting to weaken in some areas: I have caught myself enjoying it in public spaces so it may go the way of olives, Sibelius and jazz before it.

Well, that last paragraph certainly went in a direction I wasn’t planning: still, ‘better out than in’ as I often say.  It was supposed to be moving us all gently towards my unwillingness to dress up to go events, but instead I have been forced to use this horribly clunk segue.  Except in very extreme circumstances – once a decade sort of territory – I will not go to any event that requires me to dress up.  I am expected to wear a suit for work – though would drop that convention instantly if it were socially acceptable – so prefer not to do so for leisure.  Many years ago I learned, I think via the television (possibly not a documentary), that Italians only wear black shoes at funerals and basically haven’t worn black shoes since: I have also been very careful never to fact check Italian footwear conventions.  Indeed, there are very few events to which I will not wear trainers.  I do have some standards as to when and where I will wear shorts or a sleeveless top, but otherwise dress to suit myself.  Many years ago, I was offered a loan jacket and tie at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna but I have yet to be turned away from anything but the dodgiest of night clubs.  I lack to imagine that I am passing as an eccentric millionaire, but it is probably just that no-one much cares.

I have noticed that performers tend to dress up for classical music, though am pleased to see far fewer bow ties (terribly impractical for violin or viola) and a lot more trousers on stage. I suspect this will cause some blustering from military Blimps in Kentish spa towns, but as long as their disgust remains safely between the sheets of the Daily Telegraph it need not detain the rest of us.  I can see some value to the whole band wearing black (or similar) as it reduces visual distraction but given that even quite sizeable jazz ensembles seem to get away dressed casually (and sometimes in ‘gardening casual’) I think audiences would quickly get use to a more demotic dress code in even the largest orchestras.

Congratulations anyone who has stuck it out this far, we have finally made it to the actual subject matter which launched today’s post.  I think taking 1000 words to reach the point is a record even for me!  One of the things that put me off jazz for many years was the feeling that it was a terribly po-faced endeavour carried out be very serious men.  I am a terrible, but frivolous, man and I’m not sure where this idea originated – but it was firmly held.  I wonder if it had more to do with the audience that the performers?  Whatever its provenance, the last couple of Sunday’s at the SMJC have firmly disabused me of this notion.  The Baker Brothers – plus friends, to make a septet – celebration of the not quite 40th birthday of the SMJC’s éminence grise was a joyous riot of jazz and funk.  Last Sunday’s gig with the Matthew Read Trio also contained a lot more laughs than the younger me would ever have guessed possible – or appropriate – at a jazz gig.

I bought the latest CD from the MRT, which was appropriately named Anecdotes II.  Every song was introduced with an anecdote which purported to explain its inception, but any links were tangential or fully surreal with tunes inspired by a Guardian Sudoku and a breed of hen (go Burford Browns!) among others.  It was the trio’s eponymous leader who provided our title and I can’t help feeling that this kind of strapline would attract a lot more young people to take up his instrument.  As well as being a lot of fun, the trio – and especially the guitarist – were wonderfully relaxed.  His movement along the fretboard never seemed even remotely hurried and yet has relaxed fingers were always where they needed to be.  I fear this is a long way off for the author, but my fingers are starting to land the right chord shapes in the right place a bit more often – so there is hope.  I shall resist his use of the capo at fret 10 or (as a joke) 12 for a while longer yet.

If this post has a moral, and let’s all hope that it doesn’t, it must be that we all need to become the audience we want to see!  Also, you can mostly dress how you like and go to anything and you’ll probably get away with it: ignore the tutting (I use headphones).

Popping my festival cherry

Fear not dear reader, my other cherry (or cherries? – I’ll have to admit that I’m really not fully on top of this US idiom) remain intact and so this post will not veer into unduly racy territory.  However, low level smut is always a risk.

This last weekend, I attended my first proper multi-day, field-based festival.  I suspect that I did the festival-going experience in my own way (or at least, not in the traditional style) and this post will bring together some of the highlights (and the odd lowlight, but I’ll steer clear of tea-lights) of my four days at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  Apologies to those unfortunate enough to have be-friended me on Facebook (though I’d like to point out that nobody forced them to – or so I have been assuming), but some of the content of this post has been up-cycled from that platform: very much in line with the green credentials claimed by the festival.

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Before the crowds!  Not a typeface I’d advise for your dissertation…

I chose the Cambridge Folk Festival partly because I have an interest in folk music, but also because whilst it does take place in some fields, these fields are situated close to a city and one that I know well.  This meant that if the whole festival became too much, I could escape to a relatively safe space.

I did not camp either on the festival site itself or on the two other campsites offered as I felt I’d like my digs to offer a contrast to a day in a field and offer better facilities than would be forthcoming from the sort of tent I could carry on the train.  I did not choose to glamp in a luxury yurt (which I presume is a yurt with the scent of yak reduced until it is almost, but not quite, undetectable) but went with my normal choice of accommodation in a university town outside of term-time: student halls of residence.  This was my first time at Murray Edwards College (which normally focuses on young women) which is not the closest college to Cherry Hinton but was definitely the cheapest available.  It was also very comfy, offering en-suite facilities, excellent wifi, a decent breakfast and in-room biscuits: all without even a hint of yak!

The interior of my “tent” and a glimpse of the wider “campsite”!

Its distance from the festival site and the rather erratic weather did mean I made a lot of use of the local buses.  Luckily, my bus skills are second-to-none.  Not for me the slow and crowded (if recommended) Citi 3 from the city centre to the festival, not when the fast and near-empty Citi 2 is available.  BTW: I feel the Citi 2 is an excellent bus route for a pub crawl: it passes within close proximity of several of the city’s finer hostelries and, if you head southbound, ends up at Addenbrooke’s hospital to deal with any incidents related to imbibing not wisely but too well.  The combination of the Citi 2 and Citi 5 provided a near door-to-door service and use of a Megarider kept the costs below that of a single cab ride.

The CFF has much to recommend it.  There was a wide range of music with the idea of folk interpreted fairly broadly and with 3-4 gigs going on at any one time.  The sound, lighting and use of smoke was excellent and the time-keeping unexpectedly Swiss.  There was a very good range of decent cake on offer and, despite my best efforts, I did not manage to sample every possible variety.  There was also a good range of vegetarian eating options and Otter brewery’s finest to wash it all down with.

The festival was oddly secretive about running order, or indeed when the music started on day one (luckily, my years of forecasting came into their own and I correctly guessed the ~5pm start).  They did seem very clear on not bringing glass on to the site (though, as it transpired, were more than willing to sell you some in the form of an £8 commemorative tankard) and also seemed opposed to the bringing of chairs (unless age or disability made them essential).  Given the number of camping chairs on the site, I think I may have been the only person to take this second requirement seriously.

I discovered that around 5 hours at the festival, mostly at gigs, was about my limit.  The discomfort of standing in mud-capable shoes reaches some sort of critical threshold around that point and I decided it was time to do something else.  It would seem that shoes good for the ascent of Cader Idris are not necessarily ideal for standing around in: though speaking to other festival-goers, this would seem to be a tall order for any shoes (and I did see several people barefoot and I was slightly tempted to join them).  I also found that all the standing around caused significant complaint from my right buttock (my left remained happy throughout).  Luckily, I had semi-organised a range of other potential activities to keep myself amused away from the festival, giving my feet and buttocks a rest (or at least some variety).

The weather was very erratic and at times exceedingly wet, which I feel added a degree of authenticity and the mud never became too bad.  Luckily the worst of the rain was focused at times I wasn’t on site, except on Saturday evening (though Saturday night was even worse, and I was particularly glad not to be under canvas).  On these occasions, a lot of people try to squeeze into the stage tents, many of them by this stage several pints into a major session, and I did find my claustrophobia became an issue in Stage 1 (for some reason I was fine in the smaller Stage 2) and had to leave.  Still, my planning had paid off and my wet-weather gear and shoes did sterling work in keeping me dry.

Friday night was also wet, but I had strayed from the world of folk to catch some of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival.  I managed to dodge all of the rain in Trinity College Chapel listening to the glorious choral singing of Tenebrae, seated on an actual chair (I paid the modest supplement to upgrade from a pew).  Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles was particularly stunning.

Saturday morning and early afternoon I also spent in central Cambridge.  I started at the Fitzwilliam Museum where my random wanderings took me past pottery from ancient Greece and 20th century Britain and into a glorious exhibition of 17th century samplers.  I think I may have to add embroidery as a pastime to my long list of desired retirement activities.  While there, I also took in a CSMF concert covering the violin sonatas of Debussy and Strauss: a very different use of the fiddle to that in evidence a couple of miles down the road.

A friend and I then wandered over (I say wandered, more fought our way through the press of language students and tour groups) to the Arts Picturehouse for a fortifying slice of Guinness cake (very fine, and a variety not available from the festival) and to see The Big Sick.  The film is very good and funny, though did also leave me in floods of tears (and not for the last time that weekend).

Sunday morning I also spent with my friend as she demonstrated her new euphonium skills, and we jointly discovered how to properly drain the instrument.  She, along with a horn player I saw a month or so back, insist that the fluid being drained is condensation and not spit: I very nearly believe them…  That evening I also fled the folk (to an extent while the buses were still running) and spent an evening listening to live jazz at the Tram Depot: which as well as jazz offered a good range of bitters (the trams, I’m afraid, are long gone).

My favourite acts at the CFF were Talisk, the Rheingans Sisters, Thom Ashworth, Chris TT and Josie Duncan and Pablo Lafuente – but I found much to enjoy in everything I saw.  Chris TT was responsible for my second major weeping incident of the weekend.  I think he normally sings punky political songs, but on this occasion brought a punky sung vibe to the poetry of AA Milne – from Now We Are Six (among others).  I am clearly now of a certain age (though NWAS was old even when I was 6) as his rendition of Binker, especially after explaining a little of its context, reduced me to uncontrollable tears.  I had to acquire – and more importantly eat – more cake to recover (lemon and almond, if you’re interested).

I spent most of my time at Stage 2, though did enjoy the music issuing from Stage 1 when I was wandering around or acquiring and consuming victuals and beer: the Eskies seems a lot of fun!  My favourite venue was The Den with its rugs and more chilled, seated (or even more recumbent) vibe – and that’s not just my feet and buttocks talking.  It was also fun occasionally encountering impromptu sessions in the bars and cafes on the site, though there were fewer of these than I expected – perhaps they get going after the main gigs are over and I’d toddled home to my digs?  I most enjoyed the afternoon gigs and the Thursday evening when the site was less busy: I’m quite fond of humanity, but this position is best maintained by it being delivered to my “grill” in relatively small doses.

Overall I had a whale of a time and would definitely go to further festivals: as long as I could do so on my terms, i.e. with alternative, building-based activities and accommodation to allow me to break it into manageable chunks. I also really enjoyed the pseudo live blogging of my experience through Facebook and the feedback from my unwitting audience: I’ll have to see if a more “live” element could be brought to GofaDM…

The early bird

According to received wisdom, catches the worm.  I must admit that I am unaware of any research by vermicologists that would suggest worms are especially early risers – and it strikes me that the presence of early birds would place some evolutionary pressure on the worm massive to enjoy a lie-in.  I suppose it may be that worms love a rave and are returning to the earth in the early morn, fuddled by drugs and dance, and fall prey to their feathered foe – but again, evidence to support this hypothesis is scant (at best).

Still, I think that’s enough from ornithology corner as this post is less about birds (or even worms) and more about me: your feeble attempts to feign surprise are fooling no-one!

As July burst forth into 2017, I was in London to enjoy the Actually Rather Good Comedy Festival (or ARGCOMFEST as it is more punchily known).  This offers me the chance to see 16 Edinburgh previews (from a set of 48) over the course of a single a weekend (and without eating into the mornings).  I think I am growing in maturity when it comes to visiting such events: no longer do I attempt to make use of 100% of the opportunities on offer and leave exhausted with my brain reduced to a barely functional paste.  This year, I limited myself to a mere 11 previews and arrived back home in Southampton on the Sunday evening in a sufficiently viable state to enjoy some modern jazz in the latter part of the evening.  One of the joys of ARGCOMFEST is that of the 48 acts on offer over the weekend, exactly 50% can boast a substantially higher proportion of X-chromosomes than can the author – thus closely modelling the population as a whole.  Somehow, despite this highly unusual situation, the world failed to implode.  Still, it would clearly be dangerous to draw any conclusions from this one event and the industry (which doesn’t exist) should continue to apply the precautionary principles and treat female comedians like plutonium, i.e. enforce decent physical and temporal separation between them for fear of critical mass being achieved and dangerous amounts of energy (and/or laughter) being liberated.  I had a great time and my buttocks have almost recovered from the seating provided.

To make for a more relaxed experience, I stayed in London on the Saturday night and once again used my standard choice of accommodation when I’m paying (and sometimes when I’m not): student halls of residence.  This time, I stayed a stone’s throw from Waterloo in a shabby, but perfectly serviceable room which provide a decent night’s sleep, a hot and vigorous en-suite shower and even breakfast.  Having the morning to myself, I took the bus up to Piccadilly Circus to sample the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.  As I was the sole passenger, I viewed this journey as being chauffeur-driven in a particularly large, red limo.  Central London is surprisingly civilised before 10am on a Sunday morning!

So swift was my transport that I arrived at the RA a good 10 minutes before it opened.  This might have been considered slightly annoying, but as part of the exhibition the quad in front of the building was furnished with giant, ‘arty’ beanbags.  I have never been terribly impressed by the beanbag as furniture in the past, but I have now realised the error of my ways.  I had several giant, stripy beanbags to myself and reclining in the summer sunshine surrounded by beautiful architecture, with arts and comedy on the cards, may well have been the highlight of a very enjoyable weekend.

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The author’s skill with the selfie shows little sign of improvement!

Somehow, I did summon the energy to leave my perch – though it was oh-so tempting to stay – and enter the exhibition proper.  The RA was a revelation at 10am: I had the Summer Exhibition largely to myself – only a few other early risers had made it – which made for a much more relaxed viewing of the art.  It also struck me as delivering a particularly fine crop of artworks this year, particular snaps must go to the room hung by Yinka Shonibare for its many delights.  A giant photograph of three presumably Muslim women astride scooters with a couple of friends, all wearing niqab, is one of the most joyous images it has ever been my pleasure to encounter.  Even thinking about it to write this post, I can’t help smiling.

Leaving the RA, I wondered up towards the horrors of Oxford Street to catch my bus to Shoreditch for ARGCOMFEST part 2.  This would normally be a pain fighting past people and traffic, but it wasn’t.  Regent Street had been closed to traffic for some sort of street event – which involved fake grass and a gazebo (probably other things as well, but this is all I can attest to) – which also took out several side streets.  What a joy London is with the traffic removed!  That part of the city was in a state only normally glimpsed in post-apocalypse movies (but without the near mandatory zombies) or in car ads (the urban variety, rather than the empty twisty mountain road variety).  Surely, we can find some way to do this more often in more cities: think of the reduced stress and the happier city dwellers and visitors and the improvement in air quality and reduction is noise.

I think my forthcoming dictatorship (my bid for world domination will start with the UK, taking advantage of Brexit chaos and the clear incompetence of both government and opposition) has a new objective.  Traffic-free city centres!  I might sweeten the pill by providing free urban beanbags, in lieu of the rather hostile benches which tend to be provided by the current authorities.

Journey to the Pole

Not the North or South Poles – these have been done too may times before and I feel any sense of achievement remaining must be very modest.  Plus, I’m not very keen on wearing a jumper – though I am having a modest rapprochement with that particular garment could this be the bony fingers of old age?) – which I believe is considered important if one is to avoid a chill.

No, I chose to visit one of the several Poles of Inaccessibility.  Again, in my desire to the tourist hordes I avoided those listed on Wikipedia in their North, South, Oceanic or various continental flavours.  I tackled a far more challenging Pole.  A place so difficult to reach that an attempt to visit it made up a substantial chunk of a recent More-or-Less episode on the subject of labyrinths and mazes.

My Pole of choice lies in the city of London which I visited yesterday (and, indeed, on Saturday) to defy those whose stock in trade is terror or those who thought I should have been #reeling.  OK, I was going anyway and was not going to allow a small bunch of coins to interfere with my plans.  I lived in London and regularly used London Bridge when folk hoping to kill me where willing to go to the effort of learning a little basic chemistry and constructing explosives.  I will admit I did catch a slightly earlier train to be “on the safe side”, though that decision was probably more strongly influenced by my train into London on the previous which had lost the ability to recognise signals before it reached Micheldever and then limped into Basingstoke before retiring hurt.

Going in early worked like a charm and my train made it all the way to Waterloo without coming down with anything and was even slightly early.  This gave me the chance to have a quite splendid – if artery-challenging (but they do love a challenge!) – brunch (though as I had it at lunch-time, would that make it supper?) at Spuntino.  This was my second time at Spuntino – the best tentacle of the Polpo empire (which I like to imagine has 8 branches) – and it is now very much a favourite.  I love its distressed decor with the ghost of its previous life still visible, the friendly staff and most of all its delicious if often hard to fathom food.  I think it is supposed to exude a Brooklyn vibe – which it does for me, but then I’ve never been to Brooklyn.  Both my courses yesterday were loosely based on the idea of toast, but far tastier and worse for you than any toast I’ve previously consumed.  They also offered the option of having a Dutch Baby for dessert: but I drew the line at this: Brexit may mean Brexit, but I feel one can go too far.  (I believe that no youthful Netherlanders were harmed in the making of brunch, though a pancake or two may have lost their lives.)

After this filling lunch, I strolled in a rather leisurely fashion towards my goal.  I find it’s best not to approach it too directly or to let it see you coming.  In my perambulations (no, I was not wheeling a Dutch baby around London), I found myself in the delightful and almost empty (which it might not been on a weekday lunchtime) Postman’s Park which contains the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.  This does not limit itself to those members of the Royal Mail who have valiantly lost their lives trying to ensure that the post gets through – not a single mention of a vicious dog – but instead mostly relates to fire or drowning.  Slightly frustratingly, the memorial does not reveal if the sacrifice was in vain or not – part of me likes to imagine that it was (but, as previously discussed, I am a Terrible Human Being).

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The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

With this inspiration, I continued on my heroic quest hoping that it would not end in my own self-sacrifice.  Tracing part of the much depleted London Wall (sadly not a patch on its Southampton counterpart – our city fathers might not have retained much of the historic centre, but our wall is surprisingly complete), it was not too long before I reached my goal: St Giles-without-Cripplegate.

You may find this an unimpressive feat, but let me tell you that while it can be glimpsed from many a vantage point within the Barbican complex few indeed are the travellers who are able to reach its once hallowed environs.  Once I had arrived, I could look across the water to the crowds in front of the Barbican centre reclining from a choice of a myriad of benches within the empty churchyard empty: well, but for one other hardy explorer.  However, as he had used dogs and oxygen, I feel the laurels were very much mine to claim having travelled unsupported and with minimal equipment (a good book and a pair of glasses).

To briefly leave today’s conceit behind, I was actually travelling to the Barbican centre itself – but it is always good to invoke the spirit of Scott or Livingstone on any trip to the theatre.  In keeping with their spirit, I have decided to claim the area around the church and name it the Ffoulkes isthmus.  I know the locals probably already had a name for it, but I’m British and that sort of nonsense has never stopped us in the past!

I went to see a truly amazing theatrical “event” called 887 by Ex Machina (which I think is basically Robert Lepage and friends).  Last year, I saw their (his?) Needles and Opium which was incredible with its use of a rotating cube and projections: if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  I think 887 made N&O look like a walk in the park.  887 was incredibly technically complex and involved a huge range of styles of theatrical story-telling.   During the two hours you only see Robert Lepage on stage, but during the applause it did become clear that it used at least seven stage-hands (ASMs?) to make it work and there were three people sitting near me that also seemed to be controlling aspects of the show.  It is not just very clever, it was also a great afternoon of theatre and entertainment.  I even joined in the standing ovation – and not just to give my knees and buttocks a slightly earlier stretch.  If you ever have a chance to go to one of his shows, I’d strongly recommend you don’t let it pass you by.

I would not, however, advise the inexperienced to attempt to reach St Giles-without-Cripplegate.  I have been training for this sort of expedition for years and I would not want to have any reader’s blood on my hands following a failed attempt to emulate your hero.

THB

I find that I have (once again) made it to the sunlit uplands of thirty.  On this occasion, I find myself forced to use base-17 for this statement to work, and would note that this is not one of the more practical number bases bequeathed to us by mathematicians past.  I suppose it could have some applications for a particular family of periodic cicadas – assuming that, once we are gone, they develop capabilities in the field of mathematics-  but otherwise it has little to commend it beyond permitting me to maintain a flimsy pretense of relative youth.  Otherwise, I would be forced to look to geology or cosmology to place my age in a broader, and more favourable, context.

At times such as these, it is perhaps appropriate to look back at one’s time on this earth and look forward to an end to travelling hopefully and the uncertain rewards of arrival.  However, if it is that sort of insight you are looking for you have very much come to the wrong blog in search of satisfaction.

Yesterday morning when I was from my bed untimely ripp’d by the 5am alarm, everything ached and I did wonder whether this was the future.  In fact, fairly simple analysis strongly implicated the past and my foolish vigour in the gym the previous morning.  If I’m honest, between the gym and the guitar, this middle-aged dog is making reasonable progress in his attempt to learn some new tricks.  Beware: should his mastery ever reach a level where he is confident enough to perform in public, he will be more than willing to bore a small (or, preferably, a large) crowd (and, it would seem, refer to himself in the third person).

For now, my faculties – such as they are (or were) – remain undimmed by the entirely unasked-for passage of time.  The hair may be greyer and I do need two pairs of glasses (though I have resisted the urge to take either into the shower) but, other than occasionally catching a glimpse of my father in the mirror, the constant near-misses by a speeding winged chariot have been pretty kind to the author.  (Well, if we ignore the fact that he is spending his Thursday evening in one of the less salubrious areas of Dublin airport – an area where bare aluminium is as close as a chap can get to seated comfort – awaiting a Q400 Dash 8).

I do, however, increasingly catch myself acting out a rather strange, almost caricatured, version of humanity.  Sometimes it feels as if I have done all the background reading, but lack some critical element of practical experience in the art of being a human.  On the whole other people don’t seem to notice – or are at least sufficiently polite (or scared) not to bring any failings to my attention.  Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering what they make of the strange collection of habits and tics (mostly borrowed, without attribution, from others) that, for what of something better, I am forced to describe as my personality.  Such introspection may not be helped by websites often asking me to confirm that I am not a robot.  I tend to reply in the affirmative: but can I really be sure?  Can anyone be sure that this post hasn’t been written by a sub-Turing AI?

It is such ponderings that bring us back to the title.  I have often been known to refer to myself as a terrible human being.  I tend to leave my audience to decide in which context those words should be interpreted (for myself, I tend to assume all possible contexts have some validity).  I suspect it is too late to do much to improve my simulation of a normal person – when I was younger, I felt I should make an effort (though never to a sufficient extent to do anything about it) to be more normal, but such impulses faded some time ago.  Still, there are probably a few “normal” human activities I should plan to fit in before I part company with my mortal coil: perhaps I’ll make a list one day…

Still, enough of this navel-gazing: the other passengers are starting to look at me strangely and this departure “lounge” really isn’t warm enough to remain topless much longer.  Here’s to the next 30 years – in whatever number base the gods are willing to grant them to me!