Lucky numbers

In our part of the world, the number seven is considered lucky whereas thirteen has largely negative associations.  As a lapsed pure mathematician, I view both as being irreducible in the ring of integers – and did learn the times table for both when in Mr Oliver’s class, back in 1976 (this, at a time, when you were only expected to go as far as twelve – so I was clearly showing off even then).

This last weekend I turned seven-squared and perhaps it was this which had me musing on my good fortune.  (I assume when I reach the ripe old age of 169 I shall be posting on the topic of my ill-starred life or, as seems more likely, my ill-starred death and continuing decomposition.)  I do generally consider myself to be pretty lucky (even beyond the relative good fortune of my birth in terms of timing, location, sex, class et al) though suspect to some extent I am “making” my own luck.  This does not mean that I have suddenly started believing in cosmic ordering (or some similar hokum) nor that I have found (or inherited) some mysterious magical artefact, the use of which generates good fortune.  No my good luck seems to stem from being vaguely polite and helpful to others, talking to people (whether they want it or not), being somewhat open to trying new things and making modest attempts to enjoy what happens and what is around you.  Writing that last sentence, I realise I now sound like some sort of Pollyanna with a mis-understanding of the meaning of the work luck – still, even Mr Collins is willing to admit that one definition of luck is “good fortune” and I have already established that I have out-lived my shame so I shall plough on.

I shall be illustrating today’s lecture with incidents from my birthday weekend, which was spend in the East Anglian city of Cambridge.  To the extent readers are using this blog as some sort of self-help resource (and if any readers are using it thus, would they please note that no warranty – express or implied – is offered and that they may wish to consider visiting a mental health care professional), they should feel free to generalise from the particular herein described to the specifics of their own drab, wretchèd lives.

I started my anniversary festivities with a good long massage – to prepare my flesh for the activities which were to come.  I believe many of those being massaged enjoy the experience in silence or to the strains of some sort of pseudo-Eastern pseudo-music or a Jive Bunny style mix of whale song.  I spend the time having oddly surreal and rambling conversations with my therapist – which certainly makes the time fly and usually provides some good, solid material for GofaDM (even at rest, I am always thinking about you: my audience).  This time we firmly established the comedy value of the word “weasel” and laid the basis for a future (and quite risqué) future post – but before the fruits of that particular conversation are laid before you I do need to acquire a few props.  The same conversation may also soon be responsible for the launch of my improv comedy career – all I need to remember is “Yes and…”.

Now suitably relaxed, I went to the world premier of a comic, chamber opera based on an F Scott Fitzgerald short story.  I think that younger versions of me would be appalled by the implications of that last sentence – but current me (who knows the producer) had rather a good time.  I feel Douglas Adams would also have approved as one character spent the entire opera in the bath whilst another spent substantial stage-time clad in a dressing-gown.

On the day itself, I took my traditional breakfast at the Indigo Cafe – where I sat next to operatic bass (and so potential role model for your author as singing student) John Tomlinson.  Sadly, he didn’t sing for his breakfast (next time I shall have to contrive to bump into him at supper time) but his speaking voice is very impressive – though I was pretending to read my book, I spent the whole of breakfast eavesdropping on the great man.

I popped into Fitzbillies to buy some breakfast provisions for Sunday (I feel breakfasting at the Travelodge is only for the truly desperate).  For some reason, perhaps because I didn’t want coffee or am a regular in the evening, half my breakfast (the nordic half, rather than the famous Chelsea bun) came free – a definite result!  After a visit to the cinema to see Love is Strange, which was rather enjoyable, I went to the ADC Theatre to see the Footlights’ Spring Revue.  I’d seen several Footlights shows while living in Cambridge, but this was in a whole different league: properly funny throughout.  This is what the radio comedy listener in me had been expecting from the Footlights all these years, but had always previously been disappointed.  The ADC also still offers the cheapest interval ice cream in Cambridge.

Back to Fitzbillies for dinner and my last glass of Sipian, a red wine from the Médoc which has been my tipple of choice for nearly two years now.  The cupboard is now bare, and there wan’t even enough for a full glass – though it looked a pretty decent glassful to me – so my last glass was enjoyed FOC.  Definitely a glass more than half-full rather than half-empty!  The restaurant was on a new menu and so for some reason (though as a regular haunt, I do know many of the staff quite well now), I was offered a second and quite delicious smoked salmon-based starter as a free bonus (sometimes, being only mostly vegetarian is a boon!).  I left quite nicely stuffed to head off to the West Road concert hall.

The CUCO concert at West Road was the primary reason for being in Cambridge for the weekend, my favourite orchestra playing one of my favourite pieces (Beethoven’s 7th Symphony) in a very strong programme which included Stephen Kovacevich playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor.  Not only excellent music, but I bumped into a friend in the lobby and was invited for a free glass of interval wine where I managed to have my second conversation in six months with someone who has been trained to handle an attacking polar bear.

I finished my birthday in the pub – The Punter – with a friend from my tennis club days.  A more perfect day would be hard to imagine – if I must get older (and apparently I must) then this is the way to do it.

The following day I had an early morning singing lesson (where I made a start on the Trill – or Trilly as Mr Vaccai delightfully calls it in the Peters Edition) – following a windswept stroll along the River Cam – before going to a Masterclass run by Stephen Kovacevich.  My piano playing is dire, but its always interesting to see much better players being given insights into improving further (I think at some level I hope something will rub-off on me).  I have been playing longer than most of the students had been alive – though I suspect they had put in more hours, or certainly more effective hours, at the keyboard.  Mr K makes an excellent teacher and you could really see the young players gaining from his experience.  The undoubted highlight was a young chap called Julien Cohen who was working on the Allegro Agitato from Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.  He was good to start with, but after Mr K’s insights he was quite extraordinary – his playing made me fall in love with the piece of music (it even bought a tear to my jaded eye).  He seemed so much better than the recording I have of  Joanna McGregor and the LSO, which always leaves me rather cold.  I am really disappointed that I can’t make it to the performance on Thursday: CUMS really ought to start recording their concerts and sticking them on Bandcamp (or similar).  I would certainly be willing to pay to hear them, and I cannot be the only person who can’t always make it to West Road on the day.

All that then remained for my birthday weekend was the rail journey home – but at least engineering works on the line to Southampton have finally finished.  A wonderfully lucky weekend, though I’m sure nothing that happened to me would be even in the top thousand wishes of most people given access to a genie.


Today’s title continues the fine British tradition of understatement – not as a matter of policy or desire, but because I am otherwise unable to spell the sound of a cough.  I realise “ahem” is more of a genteel throat clearing, but it was the best I could muster.

Ever since coming out as happy, in a recent post, something has been attacking my chest (something microbial or viral, rather than a confused woodpecker on the hunt for grubs) which I presume is the universe taking revenge for my o’erweening hubris.  As a result, I have been coughing for two-and-a-half weeks – and not usually in a genteel manner, for a start my coughing often seems to have more than a hint of a goose’s honk (though offers substantially greater volume and bass).  Despite the obvious hint for any believers in homeopathy (into which camp I do not fall), I have not been treating my condition with goose grease – for a start, is this the same as the goose fat which until so recently filled the seasonal shelves of our supermarkets?  Frankly, if we are going for seasonal unguents I’d prefer rubbing brandy butter on the affected area – though it would make a terrible mess of my clothes.

The last couple of weeks has been a tricky time to be afflicted with a cough, as a number of musical (and other) excursions had been booked back in the halcyon days when I still had my health.  As this blog has noted before, the concert hall and theatre are very much the preserve of the bronchially-challenged, but until now I have always managed to avoid adding my own input to the typical cacophony.  In an attempt to avoid becoming any more hypocritical than normal, I have been attempting to suppress the desire to cough on a rather regular basis of late.  This has generally been reasonably easy with the aid of the odd sucky sweet (one contained in a quiet wrapping and accessed in the gaps between the music).  However, early on in the world premiere of a quiet piano piece at Kettle’s Yard, I was overcome with an urgent need to cough and suppression proved very difficult, but a combination of physical contortions and a readiness to die rather than suffer embarrassment just about saw me through.  As a result, I remain (almost) entirely unsympathetic to those who cough their way through recitals.

Last Saturday, the cough appeared to be in remission and so I decided to celebrate by enjoying some live music at the Art House Cafe.  Well, of late at Fish Towers, and in direct contravention of the rules laid down by BBC Radio 2, Saturday is music night!  After the fun of the Skull Kids, the following Saturday night I found myself in King’s College Chapel listening to Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem – which provided a degree of contrast in my sonic outings.  This was also huge fun – it’s not often these days I get to see a full orchestra and choir in action – and from the front row a great wall of sound washed over me.  This Saturday was Jonny Phillips (a subset of Willowen) and Hot Feet – and once again, while being unknown to me before the evening started, they were excellent and I’d certainly seek them out again.  I’m not sure how the Art House chooses its bands, but they do seem rather good at it – perhaps the southwest is just blessed with good music?  I also love that the space is wonderfully intimate and (important for a man of my age) you get to sit down!

Anyway, having booked to go to the gig in the morning, the cough returned with a vengeance in the afternoon – with barely time to draw breath between vocal explosions.  Arriving at the Art House, I usually partake of their wares – and given how bad the cough was I threw caution to the wind.  Chocolate is not supposed to be your friend in my condition, but on the principle I couldn’t make things worse I had a hot chocolate (with my traditional shot of “medicinal” rum) and a thick slice of chocolate cake.  Delicious!  It also softened my cough to almost complete non-existence for a good three hours – in a manner not produced by any of the palliatives obtained from the pharmacy.  Now, this was not a proper medical trial – and I can’t be sure if it was the beverage, rum or cake which was decisive in effecting my miracle (if temporary) cure – but I’d thoroughly recommend it to any similarly afflicted GofaDM readers.  Even if it doesn’t work, you can still enjoy the cure – to an extent rarely offered by the stock of Boots’ the Chemist.

At some stage, I think I shall have to collect together all the “cures” for modern ailments I am discovering as I make my way through this veil of tears.  I can now fix both a bad back (using a car battery and a walk) and provide respite for those with a serious cough.  I am rapidly becoming the Galen de nos jours.

Yesterday was a good day

I wouldn’t want you to think that most days are a veil of tears which I struggle to make my way through with wrists intact, but yesterday was particularly good.  This is despite some rather poor planning by the man in charge (me, for those in any doubt), which meant an insane amount of racing around and meals hurriedly grabbed.  So frantic did things become that I was forced to use the car in the evening, and worse than that to parallel park it.  I think this is my first attempt at parallel parking in the current millennium – and it is not a skill that improves through benign neglect.  Still, in fewer than 100 manoeuvers the car (I’m not saying how many fewer, but it was fewer) was acceptably close to the kerb – and my ability to achieve better positioning by use of the steering wheel and the forward and reverse gears was becoming a significantly less random proposition.

So, given the unnecessary stress caused by poor planning, and the concomitant rushed eating and need to utilise my limited abilities with a motor vehicle, why was yesterday so good?  (I hear the voices in my head ask).   Well, there are three main strands which made it such a good day which spanned a range of the Arts.

We start in the world of literature, well books anyway.  I finished reading the final 60% of the latest Harry Dresden novel by Jim Butcher.  This series is unlikely to trouble the Booker panel (many other literary prizes are available) but are great page turners.  I was introduced to them by the library and now own most of them – which just goes to show what an engine of economic activity your local library can be.  Almost all the books I own have been bought thanks to an introduction by my local library or via the joy of browsing through a real bookshop – recommendations from online bookshops are entirely useless (perhaps because the internet believes I am a pensioner as discussed in an earlier post).  Cold Days has really started opening out the mythology which means I need a new fix – though I fear Mr Butcher has yet to write one.  Still, patience is supposed to be a virtue – and a card-game for the solitary without access to a decent book.

Strand two took me to the theatre (come on, with my addiction you knew it was coming) and back to Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre.  Hello/Goodbye was absolutely brilliant – really funny and it also made my cry (though many things do that, including some members of the allium family) – and did make me wonder why drama in the theatre seems so much better than so much that makes it onto our TV screens?  Is it the live nature of the thing or just being able to avoid layer upon layer of commissioning editors and focus groups slowly crushing out the creative spark?  I also remain amazed at how cheap off West End theatre is – this cost me a mere £12 (which you can pay for the cinema these days) and had I gone a few days earlier it would have been a mere fiver.   I suppose there were only four actors and relatively modest set (though it did have a fully plumbed sink and a working hob, kettle and toaster) – but even so, with only 80 seats the economics must be very challenging.  Based on the ticket, I think I should be thanking the late Peter Wolff whose Theatre Trust seems to have provided some support – a jolly decent thing to do with one’s surplus cash.

Strand three was music in Cambridge and involved the desperate race back from Swiss Cottage by tube, train, bike and the automobile.  The CUMS Symphony Orchestra gave a stunning programme including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Stokowski orchestration and Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto.  The only painful thing about CUMS is that as I age, they never do – each year those reaching their early twenties are replaced by those still in their teens in an orchestral take on Logan’s Run (though so far as I know, the leavers go on to living long and fulfilling lives) allowing the orchestra to remain eternally young.

A good book, an excellent play and the day rounded off by some great music – what more could any chap (or chapess) ask for?  The whole day was even pretty budget friendly given strategic use of my Network Card.

Music Nation

Apparently, the last couple of days have been the Music Nation weekend: a whole series of musical events which form part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.  Regular watchers of QI will remember that culture was once a part of the main Olympics: with competitors vying for medals in architecture, sculpture, literature, painting and music.  Apparently, the arts were finally dropped in the 1950s as artists were thought to be professionals, whereas athletes were required to be amateurs: o, the irony!  Perhaps, in the 21st century where a ticket to see a Premiership match makes a decent seat at the opera look cheap, it is time to revisit this decision?

Anyway, despite my ignorance of this key component of this Olympic year, I did manage to take in a couple of contrasting musical events yesterday – well, someone has to support the arts in these parlous times!

The first was a matinée performance of The Mikado by the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society – my first chance to see inside Cambridge’s other university.  This (i.e. the production, I’m not part of OFSTED) was pleasingly amateur (very much in the Olympic spirit) but was nonetheless enormous fun – and uniquely in my experience of the work, the three little maids were, only very recently, from school!  As part of my singing training, I have been tackling some of the lower pitched works of Messers G and S with some success (in my mind, if nowhere else) – and sitting in the audience could think “I could do that!” (not a thought that used to arise much when I was a regular visitor to the London Coliseum: then again, given a gladius I’d probably be a danger to myself).  As a result, I am now starting to feel the lure of the stage (not the first one out of town): the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!  GofaDM is all very well, but you can’t actually see the audience suffer…

The second musical event was an altogether more serious (and Russian) affair with the CUMS Symphony Orchestra (the new name for CUMS I).  This paired Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Concerto with Shostakovich 7th Symphony, aka ‘Leningrad’.  I am a big fan of Dmitri’s seventh: very much the acceptable face of propaganda for my money.  It is, at times, quite a loud piece using a large orchestra with plenty of brass and percussion, but I had only previously heard it at the Proms in the caverous surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall: audience capacity c.5000.  Last night made use of the largest university orchestra I have yet seen, so large that some 10% of the 500 seats at the West Road Concert Hall had to be removed to make room for it.  The performance may not have been as technically perfect as those I’ve seen in London, but it made for an incredible experience.  O boy, did it pack an emotional, and physical, punch!  Brought a manly tear to my eye – though, as we have already established I do cry at the drop of a hat (figuratively speaking, I have never blubbed at an example of the milliner’s art experiencing a sudden, unwanted drop in gravitational potential energy, nor for that matter, at the work of Flanders and Swann), it has only happened once before at a concert.

But, I know the question on everyone’s lips – what about the ice cream?  Well, I can exclusively reveal, that the newer university provides a larger tub of artisanal ice cream at a lower cost than its older sibling.

But let it whistle as it will

Another poet describing the wind, but from here Sir Walter Scott goes on to strike a festive note – well, it’s never too early to start thinking about Yuletide, especially with the days starting to shorten next week.  However, as I’m sure all but the very slowest of students will have guessed by now, I digress.

On my way into Cambridge this very e’en, my bicycle (one of the four – hereineafter referred to as the workhorse) decided to start whistling – much as butcher’s boys did in days of yore.  The note varies with speed, but is very far from tuneful – tunempty, if you will.  Yes, whilst the workhorse carries me in a degree of comfort and style – and with its rack and suitable panniers can carry a surprising amount of cargo – it cannot carry a tune.

Fortunately, upon arriving in Cambridge, I found that CUMS I and the CUMS Chorus were very much able to carry a tune (several in fact) at the May Week (yes, I know – in Cambridge May Week is in June, but with weather from April) concert in King’s College Chapel.

Prior to the gig, I partook of a couple of flutes of champagne with some of the local glitterati – oh, it’s a gay social whirl as a patron of the arts!  I don’t like to name drop, but I was chatting with the opera correspondent of the Daily Express (yes, I didn’t know they had one either) who looked the very spit of the man who taught me how to play chess as a boy (via the media of TV and print).  A little research upon my return showed it was indeed the very same man, William Hartston, who looked barely older than when I was a boy – the combination of opera and chess must be better than a painting in the attic!  As the moisturiser is proving of rather limited benefit in holding back the ravages of time (think King Knut and the incoming tide), I think I should go fetch my chess set down from the loft and pop the Ring cycle into the hi-fi…


Some of my friends and acquaintances believe me to be quite posh.  I think they mistake my ability (on occasion) to spit out a grammatically structured sentence, the use of long words and the superficial erudition for a place in the higher social strata.   You will, of course, recognise this for what it is – showing off.

I am just returned from the Dream of Gerontius.  No, I have not acquired some Freddie Krueger like ability to invade the sleep state of others – I’ve merely been enjoying the so named choral masterwork by Malvern’s most famous son.  If I had acquired Herr Kreuger’s abilities in conjunction with his youth slaughtering proclivities, I would like to think that I could see off a bunch of American teens by the end of reel one and have the rest of the film to myself.

But, I seem to be at risk of losing my narrative thread.  My primary reason for attending this musical extravaganza was as a supporter of CUMS (Cambridge University Musical Society) I feel I ought to turn out for their gigs.  Yes, I will admit I was tempted by the acronym – for perhaps the same reason, my waterproof rucksack cover has the word HUMP in large friendly, reflective letters emblazoned upon’t (I should perhaps point out that this is a brand name, I did not have it added specially).

As a supporter, I was invited to pre-concert drinks – quite a reasonable champagne since you ask – with other worthies.  I was welcomed by the most amazingly posh young man I have ever met – through no fault of his, I felt terribly plebeian.  He further blotted his copybook by enquiring whether I was the parent of a performer.  Now, I do recognise that I am middle-aged (I’m fast approaching 90 – and indeed, approaching 437 at exactly the same exhausting pace) and quite old enough to be the parent of a university student.  However, I do fondly like to imagine that I look too young to have teenage children – an illusion I try and maintain by avoiding simultaneous use of my glasses and a mirror.  Still, I suppose if you are going to have your illusions shattered, it might as well be in a cut-glass accent.

He did then make partial amends by introducing me to a pair of charming classicists (and the aforementioned glass of champagne).  The music was pretty good too, and King’s College Chapel makes for an impressive venue – if decidedly uncomfortable chairs.

However, I think it should be clear to all that I am moving up in the world.  I can see my summer being a gay, social whirl of garden parties with the minor nobility.  I shall be looking for a better class of reader in future.