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!

Homebody

The Roma lifestyle (though without a caravan or Channel 4 film crew in sight) that dominated May has now come to an end and I am able to spend a little more time at home.  Whilst my peripatetic life was great fun, it does play havoc with provisioning and the laundry and left quite a backlog of radio to listen to and BBC4 documentaries to watch.  It did also leave me waking in the morning and finding that my first coherent thought was “where am I?”.

Back in South Cambs, and with winter finally in abeyance, I am reminded how much fun it is to be at home.  A couple of weeks back, in that time I fondly like to remember as Summer 2013, the sun shone and it was even warm (well, as long as you could find some protection from the north wind).  By luck or skill, this coincided with not one, but both Harrises visiting Cambridge: as an event, very much on a par with a State visit, though – perhaps surprisingly – not accompanied by quite the same frenzy of attention from our sadly diminished Fourth Estate.

The plan was to have a pub crawl, though given damage to Harris’ foot (Harris, was fine) a suitably short route was needed.  Despite the constraints, Cambridge can offer a very fine collection of hostelries located in pretty Victorian back streets.  The Free Press and Elm Tree offered some very fine pints, enjoyed amid the sunny peace and quiet of a Cambridge afternoon.    We ended the afternoon at the more touristy (and famous) Eagle in the city centre.  I’m afraid that despite the venue, and the inspiration previously consumed, no major breakthroughs in genetics or biochemistry were forthcoming.  Harris did expound a number of theories to make hat-wearing more compatible with the positioning of the human ear and these may later be recognised as scientifically significant (though perhaps not up there with the double-helix).

As befitting men of our advanced years, there was no descent into public drunkenness and festivities were done by late afternoon with no-one breaching their RDA of ethanol.  The Harrises purchased the elements of a picnic to be consumed on the train home while I headed to the Indigo Café to enjoy its excellent bagels, cake and hot chocolate.  It really is a wonderful institution and I’d missed its victuals and friendly staff while I’d been gallavanting around these Isles.

It’s not just cafes and beer: on my first night back, Cambridge offered me an excellent concert by the Britten Sinfonia.  The return home has also allowed cooking, singing lessons, cycling , gym-going and sleeping in my own bed to resume.  So after a month of enforced dissipation (well, perhaps I may have contributed a little) I am now returning to that most desirable condition of “mens sana in corpore sano“.  All-in-all, Cambridge and environs conspire to remind of the splendid place I live – or maybe just to highlight that I’m not cut-out to be an international playboy, but do make a half-decent, if somewhat prosaic, homebody.

Frugal Decadence

Whilst this blog may have given the impression that I have a taste for the finer things in life, in truth, my tastes are relatively modest.  Whilst I enjoy the occasional meal of the standard oft associated with a tyre manufacturer from the Auvergne, I wouldn’t want it everyday – and, when indulging, I operate within quite a strict budget.  Truth be told, a significant part of me still thinks of cherry pie filling as the height of luxury – yes, life was hard in the 1970s!  Now, I could probably afford to eat cherry pie filling every day, but haven’t even tried it since becoming an adult – I fear eating it now would somehow adversely affect my childhood memories, and that it would certainly be a disappointment.  However, in many areas my tastes remain pretty cheap to satisfy.

Last night I took myself to Ely to attend a concert at the cathedral.  Whilst I go to quite a lot of concerts, most are really very cheap – one of the advantages of child (well, student) labour! – and this one came as part of a season ticket making it even cheaper.  As I don’t really enjoy driving, and like it even less in the dark and still less when I’m going to an unfamiliar location and have to find somewhere to park, I let the train take the strain.  This does involve a change of train in Cambridge – but takes only marginally longer than driving would (at least according to Google, though I wasn’t convinced they had taken account of crossing Cambridge on a Saturday evening in the run-up to Christmas).

On arriving at Ely station, I discovered that the location of the cathedral seemed to be a secret.  Signposts indicated many of the delights that Ely can offer the visitor – but no mention at all of its most famous landmark, unless it was included under the rather vague description of “Visitor Attractions”.  How the mighty have fallen!  Perhaps this cryptic signposting was an attempt to encourage visitors to the City to try some of its other attractions?  If so, it failed for me as the cathedral is quite large – and so can at times be seen from a distance – and I knew it was uphill (and in this part of the Fens, there is only the one hill!).

At the cathedral I saw my second Verdi Requiem of the year (and, indeed, my life) – in an even larger, more impressive venue than the last! (I’m not sure where I’ll have to go for my third…)  The cathedral seemed rather warmer than the streets of Ely, and was packed with warm bodies, so I decided to remove my coat for the concert: otherwise I’d not feel the benefit on my departure.  This turned out to be a bit of a mistake – Ely cathedral has physically very impressive heaters, but sadly they are rather less impressive when their heat output is taken into account (though if you are less than a foot away, you can feel some warmth).  The Requiem lacks an interval, so there was no chance to correct my clothing error – so by the end, I was really quite chilly.  Luckily, I had been to Ely once before in winter – so I had a plan!  But a brief stroll from the cathedral – on a route back towards the station – lies the Fountain Inn.  This offered me a reviving pint of Woodforde’s Wherry, a packet of rather superior salt and cracked black pepper crisps – and even more important: a roaring open fire.  I do wonder if the Good Lord gave us cold weather purely for the joy that an open fire and a pint of bitter can then bring – and all for less than a fiver.  It had been too long since my last pint of Wherry – which might even have become my favourite bitter since the sad demise of Butterknowle Conciliation – certainly, it slipped down very nicely.  Sadly, no time for a second (I like Wherry, but not enough to miss the last train) – but as the winter approaches, perhaps I need to find excuses to visit Ely of an evening (or find a local source of flames and Wherry).

As on the way out, my home journey was broken at Cambridge station – and another chance to check out work on our exciting new platform!  (Not long to wait now).  This gave me time for a steaming hot, waxed paper cup of hot chocolate – yet more decadence!  Another inexpensive, guilt-free pleasure afforded to the traveller on these cold evenings.  Thus fortified, I was delivered back to Whittlesford Parkway and my velocipede for a bracing – and wind-assisted – ride back to Fish Towers.

A thoroughly enjoyable, slightly decadent and extremely economical night out.  It also illustrated the joys of slow travel: had I driven, I’d have missed out on beer, fire and cocoa – much to the evening’s detriment.  If only there were a local source of glühwein and pâtisserie somewhere on my travels, I could fully embrace slow travel and make the most of my waiting times.

The Right Tool

Not a description of the author (or, not intended as such – though you may wish to draw your own conclusions) though there will be a rather limited autobiographical element to the post.  My journey into Cambridge this morning led me to muse on the importance of having the apposite tool for each occasion.

In the first incident, one of my unvoiced prayers seems to have been answered – or, perhaps this blog has a rather wider mustelid readership than I had hitherto supposed. As I was cycling towards the area in which, during the hours of darkness, I am plagued by suicidal bunnies I saw a curious moving shape.  At first I thought it was a blackbird hopping about, but then it seemed more mammalian.  As I got closer, I could weaselly see that it was a stoat – behaving as an archetypal stoat should, i.e. leaping around like a complete eejit without an apparent care in the world.  I have occasionally seen stoats before – but only at night and running rapidly across the path some distance away from me. However, this time, even as I drew along side, it did not flee into the undergrowth nor did it try and hurl itself under my wheels, like a suffragette faced with the King’s horse, but continued to play in its own little world – offering me Springwatch-quality views (though in glorious 3D) of its antics.  Given the idiocy of the local rabbit population, I think it will become a very fat stoat in very short order: for foolish as they may sometimes look and dwarfed as they may be by their prey, stoats are the perfect tool for managing an overly populous warren.  I do hope it brings along some friends (or family) to partake in the plentiful local food supply as I fear it would find leaping much harder when morbidly obese after bunny-based over-indulgence.  With my new friend in residence, I am anticipating much safer night-time cycle rides in future. Truly, nature is a wonderful thing – and I like to think that GofaDM has done its small part in enabling the exploitation of this ecological niche.

After passing the stoat I was soon able to continue my journey into town on the new guided busway – or, more accurately, on the cycle path which runs adjacent to it.  The busway is the subject of much controversy in Cambridge (but, I suspect news may not have reached the world beyond) and is very late and over-budget (though unlike the virtual trams of Edinburgh, I think most of the cost over-runs have fallen to the contractors).  I cannot comment on its use as a busway – as I have never used it as such, and only once seen a bus doing so – but the cycle path is a marvel.  Beautifully smooth tar macadam with no motorised transport (and its associated paraphernalia: junctions, traffic lights, motorists et al) getting in the way.  (The absence of heavy motorised vehicular transport should also mean that the surface remains undamaged for a good few years to come.)  The busway makes for a much swifter and more pleasant journey as far as Cambridge station for the Sawston-based cyclist.  Only two minor niggles: some of the on/off-ramps haven’t quite been finished yet and the bridge to cross the railway as you join the busway has awfully steep ramps which offer the sort of gradient with which we Cambridgeshire cyclists are far from familiar (I have had to use previously neglected gears on my bike when the wind has been against me!).  Nonetheless, the busway is an excellent tool for the cyclist – one day I shall have to try its extent beyond Cambridge to the west and sample some of the excellent pubs that lie in that direction.

Eventually, the southern portion of the busway expires as you reach Cambridge station and I was forced onto the backstreets around Mill Road.  Here I found myself stuck behind a very slow moving Ferrari – eventually, I was forced to overtake it (I did try not to smile too broadly as I did so – though I fear I may have failed abjectly).  Whilst the Ferrari may be an excellent tool on the track, it is really not at home in the crowded back streets of Cambridge.  In that domain, my velocipede, at less than a fiftieth of the upfront cost and with vastly lower running costs, is the right tool.  Not only was my mode of transport quicker, but in the morning sunshine I could work on my tan whilst the stiff nor-westerly I’d been battling against on my journey provided free air conditioning, plus I was obtaining a free cardiovascular workout (or as I like to view it, a free pass to eat as much as I want come lunch-time).

A triumvirate of appropriate apparatus anecdotes.  What more could a chap ask for?  I fear it can only be downhill from here (or, as a cyclist, should that be uphill?).

Harvest

I always feel that harvest should be a superlative, one step beyond the comparative harver – an alternative formulation to most harve, if you like.  Well, you may like but my dictionary does not.  Mr Collins insists it comes from the old Norse word for harrow – or possibly Wealdstone (the Vikings were always a little shaky on the geography of Middlesex).  Now, I’m no farmer (shocking I know, but true) but I’m pretty sure that harrowing is a rather different operation to harvesting – certainly, I have never knowingly seen a combine harrower (which does sound like something from the imagination of one of our darker horror writers).  I imagine that getting harrowing and harvesting muddled up would quickly lead a farmer to the poor house (or worse).

But why, I hear you ask between sobs, is the old fool wittering on about harvesting?  Well, let me tell you dear readers…

When I cycle into Cambridge, I pass a number of arable fields (well, the crops are arable – the fields are just fields).  Between one evening and the next, these crops – cereals and rape – had not just been harvested but the stubble ploughed back into the soil. This struck me as very swift work – and if it weren’t for the chaff all over the cycle path (does rape produce chaff, or is that only wheat?) you’d hardly know the crop had been there at all.  This is rather sad as, along with the crop, the harvesting took out the taller, sturdier weeds that lived within it.  It was these that my frequent companions of the last few months, the buntings (reed and yellowhammer), used to perch upon to sing to attract the ladies and keep the other fellas off their ‘patch’.  Where are my bunting boys going to perch now?  I think there ought to be a subsidy for farmers to put perches into recently harvested fields so that the lads have somewhere to make a stand – or I fear anarchy may descend on bunting society.

With the recent run of festivals in Cambridge (though not, as yet, one directly linked to harvest – or even Harrow), I have been cycling to and from the city in the evening many times (many many times) over the last month or so.  As a result, it has been brought forcibly to my attention that the nights are drawing in.  Added to this, we have the recent cool, grey weather and the fact that the German word for autumn (herbist) is derived from the same source as our word harvest.  As a result, I am left with the feeling that the misty fingers of Autumn are already wrapping themselves around Fish Towers – and we’re not even out of July yet!  I fear we may be mere hours away from ‘seasonal’ displays appearing in our retailers warning us of the imminent arrival of Yuletide.   Perhaps someone has over-wound the Earth, and it’s running a couple of months fast – after all, we did have the summer in April…

Barry who?

Not a new time-travel TV show set on a peninsular in South Wales, but an allusion to my trip to the cinema yesterday afternoon.

Cambridge is fortunate to have three cinemas (and three theatres – more, under some definitions) as well as venues for classical and more allegedly popular music – and this flowering of the arts was one of the reasons I chose to make it my home.

My film-going preference is for the art house cinema, primarily because it offers a better quality of food and drink to consume around or during the film itself but also, as previously discussed, I do like to think of myself as a bit “arty” despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The Arts Picturehouse also offers a much more “Waitrose” audience than the big chains: we cinema-goers are free, but everywhere in chains (to paraphrase Rousseau).  Indeed, on my previous visit, upon emerging from the auditorium I found the public areas of the cinema full of elderly, rather well-dressed patrons which did cause me to wonder if I had inadvertently strayed into a parallel universe (as such folk are rarely seen at the cinema, and never en masse).  A modest degree of reflection provided a more prosaic explanation for the audience than one involving the many-universes interpretation of quantum theory: the cinema shows live broadcasts of opera from the Met in New York de temps en temps, and so I was seeing an opera crowd.

Yesterday, I saw a flick called Kaboom: the reason for whose title does ultimately become apparent.  This was quite enjoyable and decidedly odd (but I like an odd film – I think it’s how I recognise that it was “art”) and did involve its young participants exchanging frequent dry and witty barbs.  I always feel real life needs greater use of witty rejoinders – but I fear most of us are unable to afford the teams of scriptwriters this would entail, nonetheless it is a source of continuing disappointment (that and the lack of proper romance).  However, the film will probably be most remembered by me for the quite extraordinary amount of sex (involving almost every combination of 3 or fewer human participants) that was portrayed.  It also included proper swearing, but was still only a 15 despite being a huge step-up from the PG animation I watched last weekend (which had no sex and only mild language) – this is clearly a very quantised (perhaps even logarithmic) scale of measurement.

I think the only film I had previously seen which attempted to get close to this volume of on-screen sex was Caligula (starring Malcolm McDowell, as I recall) which I was subjected to in the mid-eighties.  I think this was supposed to be shocking and/or erotic (certainly I think it had garnered an X certificate – though would now probably be PG) but I’m afraid I found it to be exceedingly tedious with short interludes where it achieved the dizzying heights of merely laughable.  Having recently read Suetonius’ “Twelve Caesers” (in translation once again I’m afraid) and so now knowing something about Caligula, I am amazed anyone could produce such an uninteresting film from his life.

However, perhaps it’s me – I am fairly sure that my interest in sex is significantly more modest than that shared by most of the rest of humanity (which I suppose is a good thing when it comes to continuing the species as I am currently – and fully plan on remaining – an evolutionary dead-end).  I fear my interest in the procreative arts falls below my level of interest in ironing – something which I assume that most people do, but which I have no interest in watching or reading about.  Talking of which, all my recent business travel means I have a stack of shirts awaiting my attention, so it’s time to get hot and steamy with something hard in the bedroom…

A Degree of Insecurity?

As I was wending my (rail)way back across the country I was struck by signs on Wolverhampton station identifying it as the home of Wolverhampton University.  One wonders where else people would expect to find Wolverhampton University, if not in Wolverhampton?  Other university towns I passed through did not feel the same need to emphasise that their eponymous university was sited as would be expected.

Cambridge station does mention that Cambridge is home to Anglia Ruskin University (but makes no mention of the much older institution of higher education with which it shares the city), but this does seem to offer information which is not entirely obvious.

Perhaps the signage reflects insecurity on the part of the burghers of Wolverhampton: they want to make clear that their city boasts a university.  I think I’d boast about being the site of the UK’s first automatic traffic lights (which does make me wonder if there were older, manual traffic lights elsewhere?) or the birth place of “Iron Mad” Wilkinson – but each to their own.

There is (at least) one thing which links the universities mentioned on Wolverhampton and Cambridge stations – they’ve both been through quite a few names over the years (rather like British Leyland and Sellafield).  WU is on its fourth name since the “Wolverhampton Mechanics’ Institute” was formed in 1835 (though only the seriously mature traveller would still be seeking the WMI), while ARU which started life as the Cambridge School of Art back in the 1850s is now on its fifth name. Perhaps the railways are being used as an attempt to strengthen the current “brand identity”.  I’ll need to visit more “university” towns to see if my theory of nomenclature evolution holds more generally – it should be easy enough to contrive a trip through Hatfield…