They paved paradise

As my time as a resident of South Cambs draws to close – well, probably draws to a close, you can never by entirely sure with the rather painful process of moving house in England and Wales (Scotland, as so often, has its own programme) – Cambridge conspires to remind me of what a splendid place it is to live.  Joni Mitchell was right,  “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – and some of her other lyrics still ring worryingly true more than 40 years later.  Given the current plethora of newly introduced tree diseases afflicting these shores, a tree museum may soon be the only option for those of an arboreal bent in the UK (and not just Honolulu).

A real summer has been delivered to much of the UK after a gap of several years, and a trip to the Proms last week reminded me of how good it is not to live in London at such times.  Trying to live in a city where most of the infrastructure was built before the invention of air conditioning (and cannot be retrofitted) is no fun at all when the temperature rises much above 20°C – and above 25°C it becomes seriously unpleasant.  The RAH was as hot as Hades (though had been worse earlier in the week, added to which I’m not entirely sure that the ancient Greeks considered the underworld to be especially warm), though luckily unlike the poor musicians I was not having to work in that environment nor wear a lounge suit.  However, I am of an age (or social class) where I find it impossible to wear shorts to see classical music or theatre – despite my relatively nicely sculpted lower legs – and so was somewhat formally attired.

Cambridge too is alive with the sound of music (though mercifully free of singing nuns) as the Summer Musical Festival is in full swing.  Thursday night I had the joy of seeing the Aronowitz Ensemble at the St John’s Divinity school.  This is a period building on which a serious amount of money has been spent recently – so much so that it puts most London corporate headquarters to shame (or at least those the day job has allowed me to peruse internally) – and which included the joy of efficient air conditioning.  A really fabulous concert at a comfortable temperature, with the first piano quintet by Dohnanyi a particular highlight (and one previously totally unknown to me).

Friday night saw me at a garden party in the garden of Clare College with, among other luminaries, our previous Archbishop of Canterbury (who was not only less tall than expected, but much more slender.  I fear an Archbishop’s vestments are less than flattering to the slighter figure and I think I shall eschew episcopal purple myself in future).  This was followed by a stunning performance of the Monteverdi Vespers (of 1610) in the chapel of King’s College – and I had a seat in one of the few areas of that elevated building with decent acoustics.  My own singing has a way to go yet…

Over a beer after the concert, the organist claimed to recognise me – which was odd, as he is quite famous and I am not.  Even stranger, perhaps, as I take the word “voluntary” in the phrase “organ voluntary” very seriously and tend to opt-out wherever possible – except for one famous occasion in Edinburgh where I learnt the important lesson that clavier does not always refer to the piano and had to sit through nearly two hours of organ recital (it was tough, but good old English fear of embarrassment got me through – or at least prevented me from leaving).  Still, many other musical shibboleths have fallen in my time in Cambridge, so I am (bravely) going to see this chap perform next week – well, he was good to chat to and the main work is called Cycles, so I felt the cold, dead hand of destiny on my shoulder and will face my phobia.

Talking, as I nearly was, about celebrity encounters – earlier in the week I bumped into Stephen Hawking multiple times at the flicks.  As a result, I caught a prolonged glimpse of the screen of his speech synthesiser and it would seem to have a special function to produce puns – well, there was a section headed “\pun” and I extrapolated freely.  I find it very reassuring that a man of his eminence still enjoys a pun – and so what little guilt I feel about including them in this blog or in my Twitter ravings has been assuaged.  (Insincere apologies to those of you hoping I might grow out of this habit.)

Cambridge is pretty good for spotting those that I consider to be celebrities – generally academics and intellectuals – but annoyingly has never managed to furnish me with a close encounter (of any kind) with Mary Beard.  If I were to have heroes, should would definitely be one.  Still, I’m young(ish) yet and so there is always hope – or I could venture up the Huntingdon Road towards Girton, but that feels like cheating.

I console myself that Cambridge is not that far from the south coast via the miracle of the railways (larger water fowl permitting), so even once I’ve departed these shores (or should that be “banks” in the case of a river?) I’m planning to be a pretty frequent visitor so that I can continue to enjoy its musical, architectural and intellectual delights.  Anyway, my new home will be surrounded be stacks of new delights (a river, a forest and the coast to name but three) – so with a little low animal cunning (perhaps that of a stoat or weasel, the giraffe – for example – lacks cunning) I should be able to have the best of both worlds!

Bizarre crime

Yesterday evening, while British athletes were showing the world how it’s done, I was in a recreation of a Paris bar of yesteryear.  The final concert of this year’s particular fine Cambridge Summer Music Festival was an homage to Edith Piaf: there was even a glass of pernod on offer in the interval.  The concert was surprisingly good fun – but once again, I found myself missing Paris: it really is time I returned.  As result, I had to shed my tears at last night’s sporting drama this morning – but then, I blub at (almost) anything.

As the rain had largely dispersed, I took my bicycle into town and parked it under cover near the West Road Concert Hall.  When I returned to it after the concert (and post-concert bar and chat), I did sense something was awry – but couldn’t initially work it was.  As I was putting the lights on I finally realised what had happened: some wretch had stolen my front tyre.  Not easy to do, and probably the lowest value part of the bike. Why?  I haven’t a clue but it did make the bike impossible to use – perhaps foolishly, I don’t carry a spare tyre (not even around my waist as so many of my age seem to) – so, my velocipede and I were forced to endure the ignominy of a cab ride home (though I think I’ve given the taxi driver a story to use for many months to come).

So, tomorrow I shall have to take my wheel to the bike shop to have it re-tyred and seek a method to secure my tyres in future (I’m thinking I need some more lockable skewers) – I really hadn’t seen them as potential swag before…

In training

Not in my case for the Olympics – I fear I may have left it a little late, despite my natural athleticism (well, I was never picked last for any sports team – close to last, yes, but never actually last).

No, I am training myself for the orgy of going out of an evening (and often the afternoon and late morning too) that is my annual trip to the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe.  At my age, a little preparation is important before any major period of exertion – even if most of that exertion is sitting down, there is still the whole issue of being up past my normal bed-time.

Luckily, Cambridge is here to help, with this last week seeing the start of the excellent Cambridge Summer Musical Festival and also playing host to the Cambridge Comedy Festival.  As a result there have been plenty of nights out for the author – and even my car has seen some action given the rather wet evenings that were very much the norm until the summer arrived on Saturday (not sure how long its planning to stay, but I’m trying to be Zen about it and live in the moment).  This has had an impact on blogging activity and I trust you are suitably grateful at the reduction in output.

My musical highlights, other than a surfeit of Bach with Floriligeum, would be the guitarist Stewart French and the pianist Karim Said.  In the case of Mr French, it is partly the solidarity one feels for a fellow Oxford mathematician, but more seeing a classical guitarist up-close brought home to me just how difficult an instrument it must be to play well (and play it well he certainly did).  It looks to be absolutely agony for the fingers of the right hand at least, though perhaps years of practice would help with that.  He also showed that the guitar is not a bad substitute for the harpsichord – which makes a certain sense as they are both plucked string instruments – and is a darn site cheaper and, as a further bonus, a guitar already lies within my possession.  Only 10,000 hours of serious application (well, according to one M Gladwell, Esq.) stands between me and one of my earlier blogged dreams!  The even more youthful Mr Said has performed the minor miracle of making me re-consider my dislike of the later Schoenberg (yet another shibboleth shattered) with his excellent introductory talk prior to performance of the Opus 25 Suite for Piano.   That piece would certainly bear a second listen, and I fear may act as a gateway drug to Opus 26 and beyond.

Comedy-wise, I’ve tried to see new acts given the extremely reasonable prices of the CCF – £10 for 2 acts (even if they are practising material for Auld Reekie) strikes me as a jolly good deal in this day and age.  My top recommendation would be “The Trap”, a three-man sketch team (collective?) – I’d never heard of them until last week, when I caught a 30 minute sketch show they had done for Radio 2 on the iPlayer (thanks to a couple of recommendations I saw on Twitter) which was far better than the vast majority of radio sketch fodder.  I tried to see if they would be on in Edinburgh – but no sign in my Fringe brochure (though they are appearing!) – and then I spotted that they were a late replacement for another act at the CCF.  Serendipity: more than a dodgy film from the early noughties!  “Bad Musical”, the live show I was lucky enough to catch, was an absolute scream – some very clever wordplay and silliness galore.  Searching the web it would seem that they are far from new, and have appeared in several examples of radio fun I’ve enjoyed over the last decade which just goes to show what a very poor witness I would make if ever called upon to testify (though some of their names do seem slightly familiar).

So, I feel my going-out “muscles” are now becoming well-conditioned ready for the fray.  Based on last year, I probably ought to do something about beefing up my ankles – we don’t want a repeat of last year’s swelling incident.  Perhaps it’s time to trying brushing my teeth whilst standing on one leg again  – well, it seems to be that or playing around with a giant rubber band according to the fount of knowledge that is the internet – if you hear a crash, you’ll know things have not gone entirely to plan…

Baking

Whilst the title could be an allusion to some of the temperatures ‘enjoyed’ in the environs of Sawston over the last week (conditions that, according to our friends at the Met Office, will not continue to be enjoyed over the week that is to come), it is, in fact, a reference to the culinary arts.  Indeed, given the all too frequent downpours which were so much a part of the past week’s weather, a more apposite culinary reference to recent climatic events would have been to steaming or use of the bain marie.

Regular readers – as well as needing to get out more – may well be aware of my love of cake and other expressions of the baker’s art.  I refer here, of course, to the individual or artisan baker here – rather than to the mass produced rubbish that passes for cake in so many commercial outlets.  Now, I am more than capable of baking but, perhaps as a consequence of my inner puritan, tend to feel that making cakes for myself is rather louche – so usually only bake when I am entertaining (yes, I know you dear readers are still waiting for this circumstance to occur).

There are a couple of exceptions to my ascetic home life.  I do make a rather fine (and, to me at least, somewhat addictive) bread pudding – indeed, in my youth did so commercially on a very small scale – using store-bought bread made using the Chorleywood process.  I tend to use Hovis as the primary raw material because a) they use British wheat and b) it amuses me to think of a Yorkshire youth pushing his bicycle up a steep cobbled street to the accompaniment of Dvorák’s symphonic homage to the United States (now, there’s juxtaposition for you!).

I also have a bread maker (a machine, rather than a member of my household staff) and so make my own eating (as opposed to cooking) bread.  Recent scientific advances have led to the creation of a wholemeal spelt fruit loaf which is rapidly supplanting bread pudding in my affections.  This recipe was developed from a model provided by the Panasonic corporation but with a number of tweaks – the most significant of which was substantially upping the dried fruit content and adding nuts.  Nevertheless, I am always on the look out for a new cake emporium…

Last night I was in the packed chapel of Corpus Christi college, as part of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, listening to pianist Libor Novacek play a programme which (uniquely, in my limited experience) combined Brahms and Liszt.  You will be pleased to know that despite this provocation, I limited myself to a glass of elderflower pressé in the interval.  The concert was stunning – especially the closing Liszt piano sonata (in B minor), though I do feel sorry for the poor chap’s abused fingers.  Conversation with the lady sitting to my left during gaps in the programme yielded the secret of a local, and somewhat hidden, tea room which apparently serves a wide range of excellent, home-made cakes and scones.  Any sort of fine weather which may be delivered by the week ahead will definitely call for a ride out to Grantchester to investigate…

Festival!

The festival season is now well underway, and for many it’s not a festival unless you are standing up to your oxters in mud, surrounded by tens of thousands of other strongly odiferous, unwashed people with access to only sub-medieval plumbing facilities.

I take a rather different approach to my festival going.  Over the past week, the Cambridge Summer Music Festival has served up a concert hall, two college chapels and an art gallery as venues.  All provided a roof (often quite an impressive one), seating (though its comfort may not always have been of the very first rank), modest volumes of relatively sweet-smelling fellow festival goers and (mostly) modern plumbing.

I suspect the quantity of drugs carried per capita may have been similar at the CSMF to the more rock-based events (you know what those geologists are like!), but in Cambridge I suspect most of the drugs were both legal and on prescription (certainly, between – and sometimes during – pieces, you can feel like you’ve inadvertently stumbled into the bronchitis ward at Addenbrooke’s).

Today’s gig was in the Fitzwilliam Museum and so between the two halves of French piano music on offer, I could survey the work of Matisse, Bonnard and Spencer (among others) whilst sipping from a reviving glass of chenin blanc.  I think I also managed to find a singing teacher in the same interval: a degree of productivity which is rendered only slightly less impressive when I reveal that this was my one, and only, New Year’s resolution (surely, somewhere in the world must start its year in August?).

All of this festival going brings to mind the patron saint of ushers, St Eward, who was martyred (as I recall) at a rather poorly marshalled event in the twilight years of the western Roman Empire.  His death was not in vain, as ladies (and a few gents) d’un certain âge now proudly wear a sash bearing his name whilst ensuring that all are safely delivered to and from each event.

Wallflower

I eat quite a lot of nuts and while you are very much what you eat, I don’t think you can really use this statement to deduce anything about my mental health.  Many of these nuts come from Waitrose and they used to come in numbered packets (00-99) with each number representing a different type of nut, seed, dried fruit or combination of the above.  However, in recent weeks this has all changed with nuts (and other comestibles) in new (un-numbered) packaging and re-branded ‘lovelife’.  I am unsure whether it is we the consumer or the nuts themselves who are being encouraged to say ‘no’ to suicide – or perhaps organic walnuts are an aphrodisiac and the new brand is by way of a recommendation for victuals that will spice up a couple’s gland games.

All very well you may say, dodgy re-branding is a fact of modern life – even for the Waitrose shopper – but why do you bring this up?  Well, while I was waiting at the till earlier this week, I spied a copy of the Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine (free to Partnership cardholders!) which displayed a strap line to the effect that lovelife was “the range everyone is talking about”.

I like to think I get about a bit – only last night I was hob-nobbing (well, more cava and canapé-ing, if honest) with the fragrant Mary Archer and the Mayor of Cambridge (among other luminaries) at the launch of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival – but despite the celebrity-inflected gay social whirl that is my life, I had encountered no-one discussing a newly re-named range of edible tidbits from the John Lewis Partnership (and this despite the fact that last night’s canapés were consumed in the 3rd floor brasserie of the John Lewis store in Cambridge).  Where am I going wrong?

It is not as though this is the only example of me being left out.  I must be one of the few people left in the UK never to have been offered (or even mentioned in conjunction with) a vacant position in the Sugarbabes or the role of England football manager.  I will readily admit that my singing voice may not be the Mae West and my grasp of the off-side trap lacking – but I doubt I could do a poorer job than the current incumbents.

Worse, the News of the World has failed to make even a desultory effort to hack into my phone (either landline or mobile) – which may make me unique in this country.

What does a chap have to do to get noticed?  I had thought that after leaving school the weekly ritual of being picked last (or penultimately) for every sporting team would be at an end, but it would seem not…