The return of the Ethenyl Group

I was taught chemistry in the late 70s and early 80s and so defer to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) when it comes to chemical nomenclature.  If you are going to chlorinate ethene (please don’t, it makes for a very unpleasant compound which is highly inimical to life) and then polymerise the results you will produce polychloroethene.  Sadly, I would seem to be in the minority and people insist on calling it PVC, or vinyl for short, for which we must blame a wine-obsessed German who first coined the term in a footnote, of all places.  I dream that one day I too will coin a neologism in a footnote that will still be in regular use 167 years later!

Vinyl, in the form of a rigid circular disk bearing music carved into a spiral groove, is making a major comeback.  It no longer seems to be limited to those who regard the Victorian butcher or lumberjack as their paragon of style, but has broken into the zeitgeist.  I continue to resist its lure on two main grounds: (i) I can remember vinyl records the first time round and just how annoying and impractical they were and (ii) they require hugely more physical storage space than either CD or MP3 and, despite physicists suggesting that it is being created at an accelerating rate, I am rather short of space.  In researching this post, I can now point to the very unpleasant nature of its constituent monomers as a third reason to avoid it.

Despite this resistance, I do find myself in vinyl record shops on a rather regular basis having visited examples in Romsey (Hundred Records), Winchester (Elephant Independent Record Shop) and (last night) Southampton (Vinilo Records). Each of these visits has been prompted not by the presence of vinyl but because the shops were playing host to live acoustic music sets.  These have always been absolutely glorious sessions despite the spaces always being small and rather cramped.

Though I have only a very limited interest in vinyl, I find that I am rather fond of vinyl record shops (or at least the local examplars).  This fondness must derive from an element of nostalgia, though I was never an habitué of record shops in my youth.  I think a larger element can be explained by the appeal of the visual aesthetic of these stores.  In these days when it so easy to buy stuff on-line (well, right up until the delivery) there is probably a need for shops to provide something that the internet cannot.  Book and record shops both provide the opportunity to stumble on something as a result of an unexpected juxtaposition, which on-line stores seem incapable of replicating.  Perhaps they also offer a secular meeting space where slow browsing and a form of contemplation is encouraged.  For me, there is also something very comforting about a bookshop: probably something about being surrounded by words, many of them in a form which I have yet to read.  There is probably some of that feeling in a record shop, but I think there is also something about the artwork of vinyl LPs.  The LP has a scale – and so a certain majesty – that a CD lacks and when a few are displayed on the wall they give a record shop something of the feel of a rather intimate art gallery.  They also tend to offer more interesting background music – even when not hosting a session – than many stores.  As a result, I tend to feel guilty that I cannot support these shops – though if they do offer CDs, I can (and try to) make a direct financial contribution via that route.

Last night was my first trip to Vinilo Records, central Southampton’s take on the vinyl record shop.  I went to see a mixed bill of music and poetry, but may well return for the vegan hot chocolate – made with almond milk and tasting rather different to dairy hot chocolate, but still delicious – and excellent ginger cake which the store offers.  They also offer coffee and tea and a modest range of other sweet treats.  It was while drinking their green tea that a thought about that particular beverage finally crystallised in my mind.  On its own, green tea always has a slight hint of sardine about it: there, I’ve said it.  Normally, I drink it as ‘green tea with lemon’ which removes the fishy element, but as a pure green tea that piscine under-note is always there.  Is it just me that feels this way, or can others detect a hint of the ocean in green tea?  Should I be seeking medical help?

Anyway, I seem to have digressed, how unlike me!  Vinilo is sited in an unprepossessing building in the city centre and you can easily walk past and miss it (as I have).  The interior decor is simple and slightly distressed, but does contain a very fine cactus (see below).  For the gig, most of the windows were shuttered which created a wonderfully intimate setting.  The evening alternated between poetry and music, with decent gaps in between for conversation and refreshments.  It was a near perfectly constructed evening and we were done by 9pm – so no need for a late night!  Sometimes in US TV or film dramas set in New York, characters will go to Brooklyn for some sort of amazing cultural event and I would once have wished that such delights were available closer to home.  With events like last night’s, I need wish no more: Southampton offers an extraordinary range of cultural events of a range that (in some areas) would probably put a city, allegedly so good that it was twice-named, to shame.

Last night started with the very affecting poetry of Chloë Beihaut, followed by the chilled musical vibe of Kitty O’Neal and her band in fully acoustic mode.

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What a glorious cactus!  Tempted to have one chez nous… (Don’t think the band would fit in my tiny flat though, sadly)

Then followed the amazing vocal delivery of Joshua Jones with powerful poetry from a Llanelli youth and life on the oft-ignored, more difficult side of 21st century Britain.   Finally, Joe Booley finished the evening with his elegiac songs and guitar harmonies (which later in the evening soothed me to sleep via the miracle of Spotify).

I particularly love the photo of Joshua on the left: nothing to do with my skill with a camera (if you take enough photos, a few are bound to turn out OK), but because it captures something of the magic of the evening and the space.  I feel Southampton should be using such images to promote itself as the truly great place to live that it can be.  It is not just home to a million traffic lights, a similar number of alarmingly brazen rats, some dreadful road surfaces and West Quay: there is an amazingly vibrant arts scene which I am still discovering.

Conversation with friends, three interesting new voices, great words and music and delicious cake in a lovely, welcoming space: what more could a chap ask from an evening!   It might even re-start my career as a tennis ace (in a game where aces are low, obviously).  A very fine investment of £3.

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It’s over!

I trust that everyone sang the title using their best impression of Roy Orbison.  However, fear not, no-one’s baby has moved onto romantic pastures new (well, obviously I can’t guarantee that, but it is not the subject of today’s post).  The title refers to the end of Christmas proper – though those with an inappropriately generous true love may continue receiving deliveries of miscellaneous birds and people for some days yet – but the rest of us are now in that liminal space that lies twist the supposed birth of the ickle Baby Jesus and the start of the New Year.  After weeks of build-up (or in my case, an hour or two), Christmas joins us for a few brief hours and then is gone.

I thought I’d share some vignettes from my own Christmas while the remain relatively fresh in my alcohol-addled brain.

Christmas Eve

A new tradition began and an old one was resurrected…  I think last Sunday was my first Christmas Eve at a gig – and what a gig!  It was a jazz session at the Talking Heads with a Christmas theme, produced by the Fathers of Christmas (a name the quartet will probably not be using at other gigs).  The musicians were joined by a singer – who was the only member of the ensemble to make a serious effort when it comes to dress – for several of the numbers and who, based on his youth, must have been a son or grandson of Christmas.  As well as jacket and shoes in red and black, alluding to the season, he also appeared to have spent more effort on his hair for the gig than I have on mine over the whole of the last decade.  I’m probably at least as vain as the next man, but am just too lazy to act on it: especially when it comes to hair.  The whole gig was so enjoyable, I’d rather like to spend every Christmas Eve with live festive jazz and friends – however, the timing of that particular gig means this would only happen every 7 years (on average).

It was also at the Heads that I was given my first Christmas stocking for rather more than three decades.  This might suggest that I am spending too much time at gigs or am excessively childish and I did wonder if it was a form of intervention: though if it was, I am unclear as to its nature.  The stocking was a festive “sock”, embroidered with my name, rather than one of my father’s unadorned seaman’s socks (he never went to sea, but he did have the socks ready) which served throughout my childhood.  I opened the parcels on Christmas Day, and there was one item in common with my childhood stockings: the tangerine!  The other gifts seemed a step up from their 1970s counterparts: I can now be musical in miniature, massage my aching muscles and study to be rock star with a Ladybird.  I consumed the very fine bottle of Duet from Alpine Beer on my return to Southampton, which slipped down worryingly easily for a non-session 7% ale!  Finally, the Lindt reindeer allowed me to test my theory that it is just a re-badged Easter Bunny: it wasn’t!

Christmas jazz and (slightly deformed) stocking

Christmas Day

On Christmas morning, I drove back to see my family through pleasantly quiet roads: something of a throwback to the road conditions of my youth (albeit with bigger and safer cars).  After a brief stop-off with my parents, the bulk of the day was spent at my sister’s with my nephew: the only readily available familial child (as measured by age, at least).  I ate a frankly infeasible volume of food and was a very bad vegetarian indeed!  I danced to Queen (thanks to a videogame, which frankly only monitors my right hand) and on the third attempt proved triumphant at Exploding Kittens (a card game: no actual kittens were harmed or – more importantly – harmed me!).  By dint of refusing to play again, I retain my hard-fought crown to this day!

I learned that you can buy your giant rabbit (he’s called Starby, if you want to correspond with him directly) a house made from carrots (compressed into a more practical building material) which the owner will slowly consume.  It became all to clear that my whole family (including me) is useless at Guess Who – the version where you must guess the name written on a post-it note placed on your forehead (top tip: this works much better if you attach the post-it note to a paper hat obtained from a cracker).  To be honest, given how bad we were I’m surprised that the game is not still underway (some three days later).  I can also commend my sister’s gentleman caller on the excellent quality of his light fruit cake: quite the best example of its genre I have had the pleasure of eating in many years.  It was when attempting to light a (Roman) candle on this very cake that I discovered how poor my family are at matters incendiary.  After recourse to a gas lighter, several matches and a tea light ignition was finally achieved.  I think parliament is safe from any repeat of the gunpowder plot instigated by my clan: I shall have to stick with the military option when I sweep to power…

The true meaning of Christmas: Easter and Guy Fawkes (no relation!)

Boxing Day

Boxing Day was spent at my parents and as has become traditional, a modest constitutional took place in a futile attempt to burn off a few of the million (or so) calories consumed on the previous day.  In older times (and better weather), this used to involve a hike to the nearby supergrid point circling home via the Christmas Tree farm but in more recent years we have limited ourselves to a stroll along the prom at Bexhill.  This was glorious, if bracing, but gathering storm clouds led me to forego the traditional Boxing Day ice cream.  A wise decision, as it rained pretty vigorously on the drive back to Ninfield: though this did provide a glorious double rainbow as we headed north from Sidley.

The day’s other major excitement was my father’s decision to cook me a vegetarian lunch.  His chosen meal required a very large amount of grating: something I would only have attempted with a food processor.  My parents could only field a manual grater and a rather feeble stick blender so I think my father and I burned off far more calories grating root vegetables than we did on our walk.  Despite some misgivings, the galette proved more than edible and, with some minor tweaks to the recipe (and better equipment), could well be worth making again.  In the evening I drove back home through heavy rain and traffic, leaving Christmas behind me in the east.

Building and sating an appetite!

Post-Christmas

Christmas itself was the first time I had spent two evenings not at a gig of some form or other for several weeks (possibly even months) and there was some concern about how well I would cope.  I can reassure readers that the sheer volume of food and alcohol consumed did mitigate against me running amok.  Still, to minimise the growing risk I did go out last night to see some live music: so I think you’re probably safe (for now).  Life should now return to a more normal footing, though gigs in early January do look slightly sparse at the moment.

Some might think my Christmas odd, but five people on each of the two main days chose to spend some of their time consulting this august instrument.  One can scarcely imagine how badly their days must have been going that they came here, nor what succour they took from their visit…

 

 

 

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…

Three Nights in Southampton

I have, of course, spent rather more than a trilogy of nights in Southampton – despite my regular excursions across the water to Hibernia – but in the interest of brevity will limit the scope of this post to the a recent run of three.  This post is both a response to a lot of recent fun and to the discovery (indirect) that some of the more priviledged indigenes of the Chichester area seem to view Southampton as a Hampshire based dystopia, a south-coast Somalia if you will (a reference which may be a tad dated).

I will start with Thursday and a stroll to the wilds of Shirley.  The evening proper began with a stiffener at the Overdraft: a craft ale bar which brings a hint of Brooklyn to the south coast (as long as you don’t look out of the windows).  Despite being a craft ale bar, it is usually easy to “keep it session” (as we PCDs say) from the ever changing selection of cask ales.  So the author retained the vast majority of his sobriety for the short stroll up to the Santo Lounge.  The Lounge is a sort of bar-cum-cafe, but on Thursday night played host to a little corrner of Spain.  Jero Ferec, guitarrista of this parish (or at least with links to one nearby) was peforming: with three female colleagues from Spain providing the bulk of the cante and baile.  It was an incredible night of music, complex rhythms and energetic dance: by the second half it seemd the whole cafe was enrapt.  I was left with a strong desire to go back to Iberia and brush up my horribly rusty Spanish (though I fear I will still struggle with the pressure to eat very late at night).  In case you were worrying, the evening – in common with all three I shall be describing – also offered some excellent cake: it is, after all, thirsty work watching people exert themselves for my entertainment and it is very dangerous to partake of liquids without the natural safety harness we find in cake.  Also, with the gig being free, I felt it was encumbent on me to support a local venue via the method of cake consumption (it’s not that I wanted to, more that I felt an obligation, you should understand).

The photo above I have “borrowed” from my Facebook feed as it appears to have been captured by a vastly more competent student of the photgraphic arts than I (he or she may also have brought better equipment – not that doing the same would necessarily have improved my own efforts by much, merely weaken this particular workman’s tool-related attempts to shift the blame).

Friday evening brought another free gig, this time at the Notes Cafe with the folk-inflected trio Tenderlore, who I had always assumed were local.  However, researching this post indicates that while they met at university here, they hail from across the south: Rob from the traumatic (to me) site of my driving test(s).  If I slept at night, I would no doubt still be haunted by nighmare visions of the hills and junctions of Herne Bay.  A totally different musical vibe to Thursday night, but the blending of voices and strings (and the occasional ‘ting’ from a glockenspiel) with music both complex and catchy made for a really enjoyable night.  It was also my first encounter with the U-bass, which is a bass for the player with limited carrying capacity – basically a ukelele with massively thick rubber strings – which is suprisingly effective (and I imagine, comfy on the fingers).  One of the best things about the modest gigs I go to in Southampton (other than the intimacy of the experience) is that not only the audience, but also the band are usually clearing having a really good time.  Even Rob was unusually smiley (not that I’m an expert on the effusiveness of his facial expressions, but I was under the impression he was known for his poker-face).  On this occasion, my cake served to protect me from the risk of an unaccompanied rosé: well, it is summer and I’m confident in my almost complete lack of sexuality (plus it was on special offer – and my momma didn’t raise no fool!).

On Saturday evening, for the first time in this post, I had to part with money (though not very much) to go to a gig: this time at the Art House Cafe.  This was the most unknown of the week’s musical offerings: an Italian group called Armonite who play violin-rock (not a concept of whose existence I was previously aware) with influences from the prog-rock of my youth.  They were amazing – and by some distance the loudest thing I’ve heard at the Art House.  Their set alternated between their own compositions and violin-rock versions of film scores.  Having heard the latter, this is definitely the best way to score a film (well, perhaps not during the quiet bits).  I (and the lucky few in the audience) had a ridiculous amount of fun and will have no cause to count our manhood cheap: as some 7 billion of the rest of you might.  Below is a ‘selfie’ taken by the band of themselves (the 4 youthful Italian-looking chaps in the foreground) and the audience (general older, less Latin in apppearance and further away).  For the avoidance of doubt (and anyone who knows what the author looks like), the expression on the face of the chap standing to my immediate right has nothing to do with me: I suspect he may have a medical condition (or have imbibed not wisely, but too well).

I feel the violin, at least in its electric form coupled to a Pod HD500X (which is the coolest looking set of effects pedals I’ve ever seen) , may have missed its métier.  It’s all very well en-masse in an orchestra, but perhaps its natural home is fronting some hard rock.  The bass was also rather an impressive beast: 5-strings and the biggest head I’ve ever seen on a guitar-derived instrument.  It looked like it weighed a ton.

In my recent gig-going, I have seen a wide range of stringed instruments wired for sound, even a viola: though that was an acoustic instrument with a mike.  I have never seen even a partially electrified viola da gamba: let alone a fully electric version.  And don’t get me started on the theorbo or the violone.  I think I’ve identified a gap in the market and will be going into production, just soon as I can clear my current to-do list and get myself vaguely organised (so, don’t hold your breath or anything fragile, folks).

Three nights, three great gigs, three totally different styles of music, musicians from three countries.  To paraphrase a local musician, Southampton “is not a shit-hole”, though this is not (as yet) the city’s motto.  (I apologise for the language, but I’ve heard worse of Radio 4 at 18:30, so it can’t be that shocking).  Sometime it almost has too much culture: on Friday there were at least two other gigs I was tempted by in the city:  I need to work on my tele-prescence (or cloning – though I refuse to live with any of my clones, one of me is quite enough).

Orange megaphone

“Where is he going with this title?” you may wonder.  The thought “Why has he been so poor at updating the blog of late?” might also have crossed your mind.  At most one of these questions will receive an answer (though not necessarily a satisfactory one) in the text that inevitably follows.

Southampton is a city of hidden delights.  Before moving here, I checked to see that it had all of my vital needs covered: an art house cinema, a theatre, a classical music venue, a John Lewis, decent rail links (in theory at least) and a blood donor centre.  A slightly odd list of needs – and certainly one which suggests I see myself as some way from the foot of Mr Maslow’s triangular hierarchy.  This post will cover none of these key conditions precedent to my relocation, but a lucky find that has oft been mentioned before in this blog will now be thrust into the limelight.

On my first visit to Southampton (as an adult, I may have come here as a child), to reconnoitre the town and view my flat-to-be, my first stop after leaving the station was the Art House Cafe for a spot of lunch.  No-one wants to meet an estate agent on an empty stomach (or, indeed, at all).  The internet had pointed out the cafe to me as a likely spot to offer some cake-centred breaking of my relatively brief fast.  The internet had not been economical with the truth and I was suitably fortified before my rendezvous.

Time passed (as is its wont).

I then discovered that the Art House also staged events, and so went to a few comedy nights there – at this stage, all starring Andrew O’Neill who managed to bring three different shows in a year.  After this lengthy introduction to their first-floor ‘venue’ (fools may rush in, but I don’t like to be so easily typecast), I branched out and started to attend some of their fairly regular musical offerings.  These have now become the mainstay of the rapid recent growth in my CD collection.

Going to a gig at the Art House is not unlike having the music performed in your front room – except, their venue is a little larger than my deceptively-spacious (OK, small) lounge and has a vastly better sound system (indeed, for my money offers the best venue sound in Southampton other, perhaps, than Turner Sims).  I nearly almost always manage to sit in the front row – offering good leg-room and allowing my glasses to remain in their case – as others seem to fear the potential for audience participation (though this has only happened rarely, despite my obvious star quality).  They also book the ‘talent’ and deal with all the admin and set-up (and down) – which is a major boon.

As a cafe, they can also provide drinks to satisfy both the temperate and the dipsomaniac, which can be consumed during the gig from ceramic or vitreous vessels (no plastic beakers here), and a selection of food, including cake.  Somehow, the lack of an interval ice cream is much easier to bear if a thick slice of cake is available in its stead.  Their cake is vegan – not something I have ever attempted to make at home – and I have no idea what they use in lieu of eggs (and will perhaps be happier remaining in ignorance), but the results are delicious.  As I have discovered over the last week, they also make the best mince pies in Southampton (based on my slightly limited, but growing, experience).

I have enjoyed some wonderful music there: recent highlights include the folk and gypsy-jazz infused work of Kadia (unusual, perhaps, for having a cellist on lead vocal) and the more classically strung delights of the Stringbeans Quartet (who improvised not one but two pieces in a key and style of the audience’s choosing: apparently C# Major is quite the challenge).

However, due to a recent rather dilatory approach to this blog, this post has been hanging around as an unfinished draft for quite a while and so the inspiration for putting digits to keyboard was a Sunday afternoon gig way back in October.  This was even more intimate than usual with myself lounging on a comfy sofa with a truly massive chunk of cake (and a responsible pot of tea) to enjoy some Hungarian indie synth pop from The Kolin.  I had zero idea in advance what they might be like, but the gig was amazing fun: the only disappointment being that they did not sing in Hungarian. How the band came to be performing in my local cafe/venue, on their four date UK tour, I have no idea but I’m grateful for the improbable juxtaposition.

The band have a certain fame for the use of body paint, rather than more traditional habiliments.  However, on the day they were fully clothed though I fear the drummer may have taken his style tips from the Swingtown Lads (perhaps ironically).  However, painting was still much in evidence – with some incredible face and body painting going on to one side of the stage (the stuff you see on children was as nothing to this) and a mural being painted on the other.  An afternoon at the Art House can truly be a gesamtkunstwerk.

The lead singer (keyboard player and driving force) of The Kolin as well as using a normal-seeming mike also used the style of microphone I had previously associated with taxi drivers and policeman for some lyrics.  For one song, he even used an orange megaphone (see figure 1).

Orange Megaphone

Figure 1: The title explained!

As you will glimpse, they are also the first band I’ve seen at the Art House who brought their own neon signage!  (You can also see a corner of the Muriel and the artist hard at work).

This reminds me of another great thing about an Art House gig: the performers seem to enjoy themselves as much as the audience.  It is wonderful to see musicians clearly having a really good time: it makes for a special evening (or afternoon) out.  While many of my readers may not have the good fortune to be local to Above Bar Street (oddly, not famed for its subterranean drinking dens), I suspect many a town or city will have a decent, independent music (and more) venue and at a time of year when people are making new resolutions might I suggest people plan to check out their local ‘Art House’ in 2016.  You probably won’t regret it (and I’m sure they could use your support) – and I’m taking no responsibility even if you do.  The buck doesn’t even slow down here.

Mystic Moor

For some time, the class of men’s magazines that focus on the six-pack rather than fast cars or loose women has been promoting the idea that we should return our diets to those of our oldest, stone-age ancestors.  I rather fear that this idea is based more on a repeated viewings of a fur-bikini clad Raquel Welch fleeing Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs than on any serious academic study of paleolithic life.  As a result, it has little scientific credibility – but remains oddly popular.  On the plus side, it does encourage lower consumption of refined sugar which is certainly a good thing (unless you are a shareholder in Tate and Lyle)  – but to find such a diet in general use we need only roll back the clock a couple of centuries or so.

In fact, we need turn the clock back only 20 years to find the first reference to such a diet (that I know of) in Ben Moor’s seminal radio series Elastic Planet.  In the finest episode – The Train – one of the passengers sharing our compartment started an ill-feted restaurant called Le Néolithe which served only food from the stone age.  Does Ben have the second sight?  Or was this merely a lucky guess on his part?

Anyway, in the spirit of scientific enquiry (and in the hope of some content for GofaDM) whilst in Earl’s Court (unexpectedly devoid of uptalk) I partook of a soi-disant paleo brownie.  For the avoidance of doubt, this does not follow the discovery of a flint woggle or a Neanderthal counterpart to Baden-Powell, but would fall under the broad umbrella of cake (delicious, but impractical in any but the lightest of showers).  This was very tasty – and so it should be, comprised as it was largely of nuts and dried fruit – and since my return I have investigated recipes for this sweetmeat.  Unexpectedly, these all turn out to be vegan – not what One Million Years BC (released in the year of my birth) might have led us to expect.

These recipes suggest that our stone-age ancestors were considerable more advanced than is generally recognised.  Requiring cocoa from the Americas, almonds and dates from the Middle East, coffee from Africa and coconuts from Melanesia our forebears must have been prodigious travellers – or had vast trading networks in place – just to obtain the raw ingredients.  I know they were supposed to be hunter-gatherers but that is some serious gathering!  It certainly suggests that excessive food-miles is not a new issue.

Once the ingredients were assembled, they would have had to grind the almonds to make flour, dry the dates and extract oil from the coconut – plus find a source of baking powder and some well controlled heat (175°C for 25-30 minutes) and knap some stone cookware before their brownie dreams could be brought to fruition.  Wild almonds are far from safe, containing as they do worrying levels of prussic acid which the grinding process would liberate, and so many cavemen must have lost their lives while the brownie was being perfected.

I’m all for pushing back the human discovery of cake but wouldn’t all this industry have left some marks in the archeological record?  Surely, there must have been easier cakes (or even biscuits) for the Pleistocene baker to attempt – and their audience would be far more forgiving than a modern one (and possessed of a rather less sweet tooth, I would guess).  I reckon some sort of rather basic (so no icing) tuber-based “carrot” cake, perhaps using mammoth lard, might be a goer.  The flour-substitute would be a challenge, but gluten free “flour” seems to be made from all manner of stuff, so I’m sure a determined ancestor could have found something by trial-and-error – or our proto-Mary Berry could just spend a very long time collecting each odd stalk of emmer or einkorn encountered as they hunted and gathered: hard work, but a lot less globe-trotting than the brownie needed.  Academics have posited many reasons for the start of settled agriculture some 8-10,000 years back – but could it be as simple as the desire for better, more easily made cake?  I do like the idea that cake – rather than any of the other, less tasty things suggested by mainstream science – is in fact the foundation of modern, human civilisation.  Perhaps SETI, rather than seeking a radio signal from aliens should be searching the spectra of distant star systems for the unmistakable markers of lemon drizzle cake?  My soon-to-be best-selling book expanding on this idea will be in the shops by Christmas!

Leaving the rat race

As I come to write, I am struck with the rather strange nature of the phrase “rat race”. The human race has forced a fair variety of animals to race against each other for our entertainment (and, more often, as a basis for a wager or three) over the years – but never so far as I know the rat. Then again, as previously established I am no great authority in the field of sport, so perhaps one of Sky’s more obscure sports channels does offer aficionados the chance to see members of genus Rattus going head-to-head on the track.

I should also make clear that despite the title, I have never knowingly participated in competitive sporting endeavour with any creature claiming allegiance to Order Rodentia.  In fact, I try to avoid running under any circumstances – competitive or not – as I can move quite swiftly walking and where that is insufficient would prefer to use my bike.

OK, title successfully deconstructed we can move on…

I recently spent a week on holiday not far from Barmouth (Abermaw) in west Wales.  This was a week of hiking, cake consumption and generally eating well (even if I says so as shouldn’t as I did most of the cooking) and (mostly) avoiding the responsibilities and stresses for my “normal” life.  For the most part as I did this, I was surrounded by beautiful scenery and the sun shone on my upturned apple cheeks (for the avoidance of doubt, this is not evidence of my desire for an “all-over” tan – my skin is ageing fast enough without encouragement from the sun’s ultry-violet rays).  Even my base was set in stunning grounds with views down to the Mawddach estuary and across to the Cader range.

In such circumstances, a chap’s mind quite naturally started to wonder if it was really necessary to return to the real world.  I’m not that materialistic (am I?) and surely I could survive on the salary I could draw working in a cake shop – and with all those mountains, I should be able to ameliorate the worst of the side effects of my eating any (or all) of the surplus stock (well, I do hate to see good food go to waste – much better that it go to waist!).  The desire to leave the rat race was particularly strong on my last day, the Sunday.  I was dropped off in Dolgellau and went for a walk around the town – a walk taken from the excellent range of guides produced by Kittiwake (I have yet to find a bad one in any of their walks in this part of Wales – and most have been excellent with very good directions).  Unlike previous years, T H Roberts is now open on a Sunday so I could have a pre-exertion slice of cake.  The walk was good with nice views of the town and it environs.  After the walk I had a little time to kill until my bus would take me back home, and so wandered over to the village cricket pitch.  I think this may have the most beautiful setting of any cricket ground in the world – and I suspect is unique in boasting a stone circle in the outfield.  As I sat there, with the River Wnion behind me and the sound of willow on leather before, it was very tempting to never leave.  With luck a photo should illustrate my point, but WordPress has made major changes to its interface so rather than permitting simple attachment it is now part of a “gallery” (presumably, they will be unable to return my pictures, but I may win a prize).

Eventually I did leave, if only to consume some post-exercise cake from the TH Cafe (you can never be too careful) and catch my bus.  There are some things I’d miss if I lived somewhere quite so remote – a viable mobile phone signal and decent broadband for sure.  I’d also miss the cultural activities that are possible living in and near more major conurbations – though saying that, I did have a lot of fun at Theatr Fach in Dolgellau with a two-man performance of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.  The other downside is that it is a long way from anywhere and I probably would have to run a car, as public transport is somewhat limited (though there was a later bus home from Dolgellau to my lodgings than Stagecoach offered the Sawston resident on a night out in Cambridge!).  On the plus side, I would note that the roads around Barmouth are the best (in terms of surface quality and traffic) of any I have seen in the UK – not much dual carriageway, but then who needs to hurry?

Still, on balance, I shall continue giving the other “rats” a run for their money – but I was (and remain) sorely tempted.  If “the man” pushes me too far or the stresses of life in the over-populated south grow too much, I could easily return to the land of my fathers – and I have always meant to learn Welsh to honour my roots.  Watch this space…