Crisis, what crisis?

Before you all run screaming for the hills, let me clarify that this post is not about politics; or at least to no greater extent than the living of any life impacts the polis and is thus political.  Far be it from me to note that many democracies have more in common with 5th century BCE Athens than is entirely healthy.  Voting for a present-day Alcibiades and the modern take on a bracing expedition to Sicily seem to remain all too tempting: if only someone had documented what happened next…

No, as always, this blog focuses the blunt scalpel of its attention on the author and, in this case, his slightly eccentric response to reaching a delicate time of life – one that occurs less near the temporal centre than its name might suggest.

As regular readers will be aware, I have for some time been preparing my body physically to run away to the circus – despite my advanced age, lack of any athletic ability and being in possession of a perfectly viable career (or at least job) which has very rarely required working within a marquee or much in the way of physical exertion.  Over the last couple of weeks, I have started to introduce some new threads into the rather abstract weave of my forthcoming acrobatic renaissance.

Recently, I came across the offer of a workshop on aerial circus skills at a local cultural venue which claimed to be suitable for beginners and so, in a fit of madness, booked myself a place.  Having put my affairs in order, the weekend before last I cycled off to Eastleigh to try my luck with hanging from the trapeze and silks.  The course was well attended, almost exclusively by young, female yoga teachers: so my age, height, gender and lack of flexibility did mean that I stood out somewhat from the crowd.  In fact, there were a lot more attendees than the organisers had been expecting, so my time in the air was more limited than I might have hoped and/or feared.

The writing of this post should indicate that I survived the experience (or have seriously buried the headline) and rather enjoyed myself.  Both the trapeze and silks were sited very close to the ground: at very much the right height for a female yoga teacher but not so much for me, so in inverted positions my head did have to force itself into the crash mat to make room for my torso.  I made a rather decent fist at the trapeze with my existing skills hanging upside down proving beneficial.  The only real issues were the sheer length of cord from which the trapeze was hanging, meaning that it did tend to rotate and sway rather more than I’m used to, and the more than usual height when standing atop the trapeze bar (I don’t often get to train in spaces with such high ceilings).  Still, I kept up rather well with my fellow students.

The silks were a completely unfamiliar medium but I did, eventually, manage to work out the basics of how to climb them – but sadly only as the session ended and so haven’t had a chance to consolidate this knowledge or rise more than a foot above the deck.  Most work on silks does require the player to gain some height first, so my skills will require a great deal more development in this area.  In this field, my limited ability was eclipsed by some of my fellow students who taught aerial yoga and were very familiar with using silks.  Nevertheless, the session was more than enough to whet my appetite and I rather fancy more time working on aerial circus: however, it does require somewhat specialist facilities and fairly tight supervision if I am to retain my neck in its preferred state (unbroken).

As a more widely usable alternative, the last couple of weeks have also seen me start new, more ground-based circus-related activities with the arcane art of hand balancing.  I should stress that I have not been raiding local undertakers for finger-heavy appendages no longer needed by their users for some charnel-house take on Jenga.  The only hands in use are my own and I am attempting to balance the rest of my body on them.  I’d already been doing a little of this with my attempts at the planche but I have now taken this to a whole new, and much more difficult, level.  There is quite a lot of my body to balance on my hands – of a decent size though they may be – and I often don’t know where my outskirts are or what they are doing.  The hard-won proprioception I have acquired thanks to my previous acrobatic endeavours does not always translate successfully to the world of hand balancing: apparently I can be upside-down in mutliple, confusingly different ways.

As an added element of difficulty, all my previous acrobatic work has had my body square-on to the action being attempted but I am now hazarding activities where I am side-on which creates new areas of difficulty.  It is also very exciting and yesterday I started on a movement which I have only previously seen in b-boying, capoeira and at the circus: it is going to be seriously cool when I can do it for more than a femtosecond without collapsing coated in sweat after a brief period of inept flailing.  I always felt I was meant to dance: perhaps break-dance will prove to be my Terpsichorean destiny!

The big advantage with hand balancing is that I can practice it anywhere – well, anywhere with nothing breakable within a six foot radius of my body.  It does involve a significant use of hollow body position, which I can manage in a lever but struggle to implement in other orientations.  I seem to have difficulty getting my glutes to engage: or so I thought, but given the extent to which they are bitching this morning they may have been more engaged than I realised (probably married against their will).  It is also quite hard work on the wrists: who’d have thought that as a single, middle-aged man my wrists would prove to be a weak point?

After yesterday’s session, my body was given an MOT or something analogous thereto: the inspection was limited to my body, so my horn and emissions went untested (just as well for all concerned!).  Unless you are very careful, you may find some images of this process smeared all over social media like a child’s jam-covered finger prints over a new 4K TV (not shared by me, who – as you know – largely eschews on-line sharing).  Unlike the car, my rear suspension passed with flying colours but a certainly lack of flexibility in my thoracic spine is going to need some work: it seems to need reminding that it is designed to move.  I also discovered (though should probably have suspected) that my shoulders are great in protraction (which has much less to do with measuring angles than my school maths lessons suggested) but very poor at retraction.  Overall, I seem to be in decent nick for a man of my advanced years and odd habits and there should be some mileage left in me yet.

I reckon all the minor issues identified in my MOT can be readily addressed, so I expect to soon start living life on my hands and give my poor abused feet a well-deserved rest!


On cobblestones we lay

GofaDM is proud to continue its commitment to archaic, fixed verse forms as part of a doomed project to rein in the verbal vigour of its author.  Today, we bring you a gig review in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.  At a time when many will hand in any bunch of words arranged into roughly 14 lines and call it a sonnet, GofaDM is pleased to stick to the rules (at least insofar as it understands them).  We say “No!” to half-rhyme and anapestic feet; no hens will sully our decasyllablic form.  Some might have expected the next verse to grace these pages to be a sestina, but this is proving quite the challenge and the triune form of the sonnet, capped by a closing couplet, more neatly matched the event being immortalised.

There are some limitations to the explanatory power of the sonnet and so I will offer a little background to provide the merest dash of context to my versifying.

Last Thursday I attended the final gig of the soi-disant first season of Playlist gigs which have become such a highlight of Southampton’s cultural scene.  These have been glorious with each offering an extraordinarily diverse mix of excellent music in interesting spaces.  They attract an open-minded, respectful audience: something which should not be under-estimated and is clearly relished by the musicians. Not only do they provide really good gigs for musicians but also commission new music to be performed: which makes them a fish of a particularly uncommon feather.

This gig took place under one of the arches that once formed a part of the abattoir associated with the city’s cattle market but which have now been transformed into an arts space.  There were three performers: percussionist (and Terpsichorean marvel) Sam Wilson, flautist Pasha Mansurov and prog-rockers A Formal Horse as an acoustic trinity.  Australian composer Drew Crawford had been commissioned to write a new site-specific piece for the concert, which took advantage of its unique acoustics.  For the performance, the space was lit only by the tablet screens of the musicians (whether to read the music or find their instruments, I’m not sure) which was quite magical.

While A Formal Horse played, artist Alys Scott Hawkins attempted the, frankly impossible, task of creating live art inspired by their music which was projected behind the band onto the curving wall of the space.

All power to the elbows of the dedicated group of Playlisters who bring such broad artistic skies to our view.  Count me in as a Playlist Pal and roll on Season 2!

Enough with the procrastination, time to suffer the poetry!

To frictive rhythm words describe a route

Direct to deeds unknown on some staircase.

A Bach Chaconne follows, rising from a flute

Its liquid notes caress once bloody space.

Under the Arches, written for this gig,

Bass flute and vibes in muted light commune.

On electronic mat a whirligig

Of limbs, through laptop, dances out a tune.

To end our revels comes A Formal Horse.

An artist draws, as high voice rises clear

And strings compete in prog rock tour de force:

Behind, bright illustration does appear.

With its mantra ‘Music we want to hear’

Playlist concludes its first triumphant year!

Super marine city

Where else could the title reference but my adopted home, and that of Supermarine in days of yore, Southampton.  The city has been overflowing with cultural delights this week just gone – even I have only been able to capture a taste of the events which I shall ‘review’ in my inimitable (because, frankly, who would want to imitate it?) style.

Thursday was press night for the first production in the brand new NST City theatre and I was invited.  Not, as you can readily imagine, as a result of the press credentials granted by dint of writing this blog but as a friend of the NST.  I’ve chucked a few quid their way over the years (and bought a lot of tickets and warmed a lot of seats with my buttocks) but have also become friends with several of the people who work there.  As a result, it was quite a nerve-wracking evening as the brand new building and brand new play really had to shine to the full house of the great and good (and, in my case, the bad and the ugly).

The evening started with drinks – always critical for we members of the fourth estate – in the bar.  For me this was an excellent start as I knew the jazz trio playing and bumped into friends from many aspects of my life in Southampton – which does leave a chap wondering if they should be permitted to compare notes?  We then all filed – only slightly sloshed on fizz – to the auditorium for the play: in my case, just behind David Suchet.  I am holding this fact responsible for the somewhat surreal, Poirot-based dreams I had later that night (nothing to do with any alcoholic beverages I may have subsequently consumed).

The play, the Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton, tells a story I hadn’t known of how, after the Supermarine factory in Woolston was bombed in early Autumn 1940, buildings right across the city were requisitioned to be used for Spitfire construction.  This complex of buildings were known as the Shadow Factory: what a brilliant piece of naming, I can’t believe an urban fantasy novel hasn’t used it!  This episode was critical to the Battle of Britain but is hardly known.  Indeed, I happened to find myself in the Imperial War Museum yesterday and couldn’t find a single book about the Second World War which mentioned it – it was hard enough to find mention of Southampton, despite its importance as a port, production site for fighter aircraft and how heavily it was bombed.

The play was absolutely brilliant and totally rooted in Southampton.  It is gloriously funny at times with many of the jokes hinging on local knowledge: I have never been to a theatrical production with such a feeling of the place in which it is being performed before.  It also presents a far more nuanced picture of people’s response to the war and the impact on the home front of the need of the government and military to prosecute the war than is almost ever heard.  I’d had no idea that people moved to camp on the Common, rather than face continued air-raids, or thought about the impact of the general populace when their homes and businesses were taken for the war effort.  The play had a professional cost of seven (I think, sorry if I’ve missed someone) and a community chorus of twenty-five locals who play an important series of roles.  They are the people of Southampton (on stage as well as IRL), staff in Whitehall and Fighter Command and in sung numbers give an outlet to the emotions of the populace without the need for clunky exposition.  I’ve never seen this done before, but it was really effective.  The chorus were also an important element of making the play personal for me as I knew two of the lads, who carried the 40s look rather well: perhaps it is due a comeback…

The new theatre also deployed some amazing technology with plans of the city and Whitehall, landscape, blueprints, rooms and carpet being projected onto the stage in lieu of set: it was really effective seeing a bomber’s eye view of the city with the shadow factory sites marked.  This play also marked the first use in a UK theatre of nano-winches – NST are nothing if not ambitious – rows of which, in groups of three, held coloured lighting strips which sketched out buildings in light, but also represented bombers swooping and squadrons of Spitfires taking of in defense.  At one point, they even demonstrated the basic aerodynamic principles of flight.  It was beautiful and really well integrated into the play, but I could also see it would be amazing for kinetic artworks made of light.

Everything went like a charm and, so far as I could tell, a good time was had by all: certainly, the play has garnered good reviews in the national press.  One of the highlights for me was seeing Mac, someone I know as we both drink in the Guide Dog, at the press night: he is roughly 95 and was a Spitfire pilot.  This is a link to WW2 which we won’t have for much longer and it was good to see it recognised

Friday night then marked the official opening of Studio 144: the pair of two new buildings which house NST City (North) and the John Hansard Gallery and City Eye (South).  These new cultural spaces have been a long time coming, the councillor currently responsible for culture noted that she was 12 when the project started.  Southampton City Council may not have necessarily moved quickly (but I’m probably on dodgy ground given my tendency to allow projects to lie fallow for a couple of decades), but across multiple administrations and financial crises they did stick with their plans for a cultural quarter for which they deserve credit.  The buildings seem really well designed and it was lovely to see both of them full of people on Friday – indeed, to see people queuing to get in!  Whilst I’d seen the North building before (the night before, for a start) it was my first time seeing inside the new John Hansard Gallery.  I particularly loved some de-saturated grey-scale prints of small details of the building while it was being constructed: as with a lot of art, they found something extraordinary in the mundane that one normally wouldn’t give a second glance.


Transformer: of the city’s cultural scene!

The ceremony climaxed in a huge dance number performed by children (some in parent’s arms) and young people from across the city under the aegis of Zoielogic.  This was seriously good and unexpectedly acrobatic, particularly as they’d only had a day or two to practice as a full ensemble on-site.  There was a huge crowd in Guildhall Square to watch the dancing and see the new buildings lit-up initially with floodlights and later, as the dance reached its finale, by fireworks launched from the roof of NST City.  There was the strongest sense of a community coming together that I have ever felt in Southampton (and possibly anywhere) and I found myself becoming quite emotional.


Friendly bombs light up the sky!

I followed all this culture with a music gig at the Talking Heads.  I felt it was important on this day celebrating new cultural facilities and multi-million pound investments to spend time in the deeper, long-standing cultural roots of the city.  Fewer speeches and no sign of the national press, but three stunning local bands playing acoustic sets – Reawaken, A Formal Horse and Our Propaganda – in one of the city’s vital grassroots venues.  In the case of Our Propaganda, it was the first (but I trust not the last) time translating their electric rock vibe to the acoustic stage.

Saturday I spent in London of which more in another post, but rest assured that there was a Southampton connection.  Today, I wandered into the city’s shopping centre – not to shop (though I did snag some reduced celery) – but for yet more culture.  The centre was hosting events to mark the recent start of the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Dog – and I’m ashamed to admit it was the first time I have ever been to such an event.  It was a glorious mix of the UK and China, with hints of the village fete in the speeches and prizegiving but also dragon dancing and martial arts demonstrations.  It may only have been a two-man dragon, but it was very impressive combining dance, puppetry, acrobatics and drumming in ways I’ve never seen before.  I was also rather taken with the Chinese dragon itself with its demurely fluttering eyelashes and taste for cabbage.


Any geopolitical symbolism is purely accidental…

The next couple of night’s will be gig free as I’m away for work in a cultural Atacama (not everywhere is as lucky as Southampton), but I suspect after the last four days of overload I could probably use the break!

The rhythm of life

I have a feeling that, along with music, all human cultures have some form of dance – well, all human cultures except me…  Until now?

This blog has documented a few encounters between my body (and the passenger mind) and the general concept of dance, with various attempts at vaguely rhythmic movement while music is occurring in close proximity.  These are generally sabotaged by my tendency to over-think things coupled with my status as a klutz.  Nevertheless, one should not be put off by the first few (or indeed, many) failures – if all else fails, one must merely redefine the parameters of the whole concept of dance and then attempt to enforce these on the wider population (by brutal military conquest, if necessary).

I had a tango lesson about a decade ago, so on my typical form another lesson is due in the mid 2020s.  Sometime around the turn of the millennium (the most recent one), I went to one (maybe two) ceilidh(s) (I strongly suspect this is not how a Gael would form a plural) in that hotbed of Celtish culture: Camden Town.  I remember these as being enormous fun and I clearly remember winning a box of porage oats which I carried proudly home on the bus (134 or 43): what I don’t recall is how I won these oats, but I like to imagine it was for my prowess on the dance floor.

If you now turn your mental clocks forward to the start of this summer, a friend and I went to a ceilidh in Winchester – in the rather grand surroundings of its Guildhall with the excellent Threepenny Bit providing the tunes.  Despite being ‘called’, i.e. someone with a mike telling you what to do, this was not an unmitigated triumph.  There seemed to be quite a bit of jargon and I feel things went badly wrong when multiple willows were being stripped in at least two directions at the same time.  At this event, a number of flyers were available (I suspect pushed on unsuspecting attendees) one of which was for an organisation named FASH (less sinister than it sounds) which seemed to promise potential learning experiences for the novice dancer in the autumn (and beyond).  My friend and I resolved to attend the first of these and try and become less embarrassing (and embarrassed) participants in future ceilidhs.  This was quite the commitment as it promised 5 hours of dancing with only an hour off for lunch – an exhausting prospect – but fortune favours the brave (allegedly)!

The summer whirled by and all too soon 8 October arrived.  My friend and I headed to Twyford and its Parish Hall, wearing loose clothing and comfy shoes, in the hopes of becoming the skilled (or at least marginally less useless) dancers that I felt was what destiny intended for us.


The Crucible!

As at Winchester, I knew some of the band – Mrs Savage’s Whim on this occasion (the precise nature of her whim remains unknown, but it is commemorated in dance) – but this did not entirely compensate for two minor problems with our plan.  Firstly, the session related to English folk dance which has some importance differences to the form of dance that the Scots (and wannabee Scots) practice at a ceilidh.  Secondly, whilst the day did have an educational element it was to teach different interpretations of a number of dances – not to handle the needs of a pair of complete rubes!

It would seem that much of the canon of English folk dance comes from The English Dancing Master written (or at least assembled or claimed) by one John Playford in the 17th century.  This is a splendid resource, but was written for an audience well-versed in the dance of the day.  As a result, it is (to put it kindly) exceedingly unclear to the modern reader, lacking access to a TARDIS, how the dances worked.  Various people have attempted to put some clarifying flesh on Mr Playford’s terpsichorean bones, meaning that there are several competing forms of each dance.  Our day in Twyford was designed to explore these variations by means both scholarly and physical.  This had some advantages for the novice as we had a chance to try each dance several times, but also the disadvantage that on each run through the dance had changed from the previous iteration in subtle (or rather substantial) ways.

This description might make the day seem like a write-off, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The good folk of FASH could not have been more welcoming to the two incompetent cuckoos they found, unexpectedly, in their nest.  I do have the feeling we may have been the first new blood seen since the end of the Peninsular War!  They were so patient and helpful with us, that in almost all cases we found ourselves reaching at least modest mastery of each dance and its allotropes.  I think we might also have provided a useful ‘excuse’ for the regulars to ask the caller to explain a particularly abstruse element of his dance plan again.  Still, by the end of the day, despite exertions both mental and physical, neither my friend nor I needed a stretcher.  We both left invigorated, feeling like we understood far more of the basics of English folk dance (and by extension more of ceilidh) and having had a great time and keen to return to the (folk) dance floor.

My opportunity may come this Sunday, when I have been invited to a Morris Dancing Taster Workshop.  I think I have been promised sticks (or at least stick!) which is a major incentive: who could say no to dance with a weapon!  There is a certain degree of challenge returning from Lewes (where I will awaken on Sunday morn) in time, as there is a replacement bus service operating between Angmar and Barad-dûr: something about Nazgûl on the line. (OK, the engineering work is between Angmering and Barnham – but how often does a chap get to reference the Witch King of Angmering?).  Not sure I will ever go ‘full’ Morris – it does seem to come with rather significant laundry obligations – but it should be an entertaining afternoon and some useful exercise and offer further grist to my dance-mill.

So, if in future should you hear the sound of bells, be prepared to duck as a big stick may not be far behind!


Lord of the Dance

A title that even I wouldn’t have the bare-faced cheek to claim.  For me to justify the epithet, the human race would have to face an extinction-level event which would make the plague needed to raise me to the position of king of these isles look like a mild case of the sniffles.  Nevertheless, these past few days did raise the faintest glimmer of hope: of my mastering some form of dance rather than of the extinction of the species (the latter task I feel I can safely leave to our leaders – both foolishly elected and otherwise).

Southampton and its environs offers quite the cultural mix to the diligent seeker after divertissement.  On Wednesday, feeling exhausted after a night wrestling with the jazz-status of a range of vegetables, I did bestir myself to go see the launch of Huddlehood.  This is a new (temporary) public artwork which I will struggle to explain: it involves two ‘shells’ painted in a very cheerful shade of yellow containing a range of hoodies and hats designed to be shared by a number of people from 2-12 (in number, the age range could be somewhat greater).  There were also some ‘benches’ decorated in highly magnified images of carpet.  I cannot claim to understand it – despite talking to the artist – but I left feeling re-energised with my joie-de-vivre topped-up.

Huddlehood from afar and in amongst it!

Brimming with positivity, on Thursday I went to Bournemouth to see the sea and undergo mild exfoliation as the fine sand of its beaches was hurled against my body by the bracing wind.  I rather fear this might have been the last of the summer as since then Southampton has fallen into a rather premature autumn.

Upon my return, I headed to the Guide Dog (a particularly fine public house but a short stroll from my rude shack) to watch the Wickham Morris and Red Stags Morris perform a range of dances involving both sticks and handkerchiefs (not at the same time).  I think this was to celebrate a new mural of the Earl of Peterborough (the third of that name) – one time resident of the area – but it was gloriously entertaining.  Late in the performance, the audience were invited (even encouraged) to participate and I somehow found myself in formation, clutching two brightly coloured hankies in my nervous hands.  I’d been hoping for sticks, but I think the morris-folk were right to go with the less dangerous dance implements in my inexperienced mitts.  I will own that my willingness to participate may have been enhanced my my earlier consumption of several pints of the Red Cat brewery’s excellent Kairos.

I have to say that I think I’ve found my terpsichorean métier!  I feel I was noticeably less terrible at Morris than at any other style of dance I have previously attempted.  I think with the expenditure of very modest effort I could acquire a working mastery of the art!

Morris and Me

Grace in motion!

I had been thinking for a while that a flip-flop wearing serial killer could be a very effective plot device.  The sinister flip-flop sound in the dark would be very atmospheric.  However, I now think a killer morris man (or woman) would be even better: the sound of the bells emerging from the fog would be truly terrifying!

After the dance, many of the dancers and all of the musicians (plus some extra musicians) retired to the Dog House (the back room of the Guide Dog) for an impromptu folk gig.  This was wildly enjoyable and I have never seen so many accordions and melodeons in action in a single room before – plus a flute, several fiddles, a hammer dulcimer and a couple of bodhráns.  I am now fighting the urge to buy an accordion: I can play the piano (somewhat), so how hard could it be?  I feel the instrument also offers the player a cardiovascular workout, so in many ways it would represent an investment in my future health!

Friday I wandered as far as Winchester to see Jero Ferec and friends (and/or colleagues) staging a masterclass in flamenco.  My companions, based wholly on the length of my legs and general lack of excess weight, felt I would make a natural flamenco dancer.  Based on my own observations (and some limited self-knowledge), there seem to be rather a lot of skills required for flamenco, beyond vaguely appropriate body shape, all of which I lack.  So, I think I shall stick with morris for the time being.  Perhaps, if I am cursed with immortality, I may have the time to tackle flamenco, but for now I can’t even click my fingers in the required style.

I finished the evening watching the Sea Slugs and their take on afrobeat in a pub too cramped to permit dancing, which was probably just as well.  Still, very enjoyable and my first time in the Cricketers – which was rather a decent pub and even closer to home than the Guide Dog.  I choose far better than I knew when I moved to Southampton!


Most people – and a much larger proportion of those who have actually met me – assumed that I would never get married.  The phrase “confirmed bachelor” has probably been bandied about behind my back (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is my best side).  Who would be fool enough to take me for a start?  However, yesterday afternoon – in front of several dozen witness – I finally tied the knot.  Some readers might wonder, was it was a church service or a rushed registry office job.? Did the old fool marry a man, a woman or an other?  Was a shotgun involved?

All of these questions will be answered (after a fashion), but not until I’ve forced you to wade through some background material and a few weak attempts at humour (as is entirely traditonal for GofaDM).

I spent yesterday in London with a (much older) friend.  For the avoidance of doubt, he was not the object of my wedding vows (though he did witness them): I have no intention of becoming a toy boy at my age.  He took me to the ballet in the evening and I took him to a panto in the afternoon.  Financially at least, I was very much the winner from this arrangement as ticket prices (and production values) were significantly higher at the ballet.  To partially compensate, I did treat my a companion to a pie and a pint as his pre-ballet supper: as you will imagine, the pub was heaving with pie-munching ballet fans!  Despite this entirely characteristic (if overwhelming) display of generosity on my part, I have somehow remained unmarried for fifty years: go figure!

I can thoroughly recommend The Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells (especially if someone else is paying).  When I saw ENB’s production of Giselle a couple of months ago, I thought I was unlikely to see a better ballet in my lifetime, but as it turned out I didn’t even have to wait until the end of the quarter.  The whole production was stunning: the scenery, lighting and costume were all incredible.  The range and depth of creativity on display was truly extraordinary – you could certainly see where the ticket price had gone.  I have never seen the like on a stage before: and all without so much as a single revolve or trapdoor.

The stars of Sadler’s Wells may have brought scarcely believable feats of grace, flexibility and athleticism to the stage – but they weren’t the first example of Terpsichorean brilliance to have graced a London stage that day.  Which brings us to the afternoon’s panto and, more importantly, me!

My cultural offering to the day’s fun was Ricky Whittington and His Cat at the New Diorama Theatre.  The panto is subtitled “London’s F*cked. A Panto for our Times”: which correctly suggests that it was not your traditional family option.  The panto was hysterically funny and included all the standard panto tropes, while gleefully subverting them.  It was so good that no-one missed the absence of the line “3 o’clock and still no Dick”, which I had always assumed was the only reason to stage Dick Whittington.  I have long harboured the dream of writing a panto, but I rather fear Liam Williams and Daran Johnson (the writers) have left my hopes in tatters by doing it so much better than I ever could hope to match.  The songs were also alarmingly good and the staging simple, but really effective.

The whole cast were great, but if I had to pick a couple of stand-out performances it would be Omar Ibrahim as the most cat-like cat I have ever seen on stage (and I have been taken to Cats!) and Rob Carter as (among others) a doomed Tiny Tim-alike, a plaice-obssessed fishmonger and King Rat.

As one would hope, the panto included audience participation with some decidedly non-cananocial words and phrases for the audience to shout-out at the appropriate moments.  It also included slightly larger roles for some audience members: my friend had to hold a sign (a task at which he rather failed) and another audience member had to catch and hold a number of spoiler-free northern dinner related items.  I had a somewhat larger role…

The fun started early on when I was involved in some banter with the Dame and then described as “past-it”: to the obvious delight of my companion.  Things moved forward rapidly in the second-half when I was “taken” as a boyfriend by the Dame (aka Big Peg) and required to come up on stage.  My starring turn started with a  short quiz where my obvious ignorance of Mario and his counterpart was somewhat redeemed by knowing that Keenan belongs with Kel (though I have no idea who, or what, either of these names might represent).  I was then required to take part in a dance number – just think Busby Berkley, and you won’t be too far wrong – in which I produced the sort of genre-defining performance that critics will be discussing for years to come.  Minor exaggeration aside, I think my dancing was pretty good for a man with peroneal tendonitis, and I don’t think the audience noticed my wincing, but I am now paying the price for my inability to resist amy opportunity to show-off and am typing this post with an ice-pack round my foot.

Anyway, after a fair chunk of further business with Big Peg, (s)he and I were married to much hilarity: especially from my soi-disant friend.  Given that a man dressed as a vicar was involved and we both said “I do” at the appropriate stage in the brief ceremony, I’m pretty sure I’m now actually married.  We have yet to decide on a location for the honeymoon, and I will admit my wife was getting a little too friendly with a toreador at one stage, but I believe I am now step-father to the London Mayor.  This makes it the third time I’ve played someone’s dad in a theatrical setting since the summer (which is becoming a tad depressing: I like to imagine I had my various children very young as a result of my sexual precocity and irresistable allure).  One of the perks of my new role was having the lovely Charlotte Ritchie sitting on my knee (luckily of the limp-free leg): an experience for which many would pay good money!  The downside (from some points-of-view) was the requirement to feel David Elms’ cleavage – but I’m sure it was vital to the plot and in no way gratuitous or staged only for laughs (though these were forthcoming).

You may wonder what drew Big Peg/David Elms to me as potential husband material.  I can only speculate but (s)he did admit to some degree of madness and did seem quite taken with the depth of my voice (perhaps enhanced by a couple of recent late nights and some associated embibing that could be desciribed as undertaken not such much wisely as too well).

So far, married life is treating me well – though I do now have now some extra Christmas presents to acquire.  If you are looking for gift ideas, I would recommend acquiring some tickets to see my new wife (or is (s)he my husband – it is so hard to know when marrying a Dame) in Ricky Whittington and His Cat.  If nothing else, it should help out our new family’s finances at this difficult time of year.

Dad 321

It had to happen eventually (it didn’t), I have finally experienced the joys of fatherhood (true, but misleading).  And now I shall just leave matters there, in an attempt to build some dramatic tension…

I spent last week in Edinburgh, at the famous Fringe and its much smaller cousin, the International Festival.  As usual, I attempted to fit way too much culture into a week, but as last year I attempted to manage my addiction by refusing to attend any show starting after 22:00.  I may have been massively over-stimulated, but at least I was tucked up in bed before midnight!  Effectively my ego was acting as a rather laissez-faire parent to my id, but did at least impose some boundaries (okay, one boundary – but you have to start somewhere).

As I headed north for my annual cultural overload, the weather was set fair – or so the Met Office claimed, erroneously as it transpired.  So damp and totally unlike the forecast was the actual weather that a lesser man might suspect the Met Office to be in the pay of an unscrupulous cabal of Scots mackintosh and umbrella vendors, attempting to lure gullible Sassenachs north with insufficient wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, years of childhood holidays in Wales mean that I am not so easily fooled.

As is traditional, my Fringe had an underlying bedrock of comedy, but this made up the smallest proportion of my gigs yet. Before going I had left myself a note to see a chap called Tom Ballard, though I no longer had any idea why.  Trusting in the judgment of past-me I dutifully went to see the youth – and was surprised to find he was Australian.  Despite this handicap, I had a great time at his gig and current-me can thoroughly recommend the lad: however, I still have absolutely no idea why past-me had made a note of his name.  Does this suggest that my work in temporal mechanics will shortly bear fruit and that I use the breakthrough to provide gig recommendations to my past selves?

In a further nod to tradition, several mornings were spend at the Queens Hall soaking up some classical music.  Mark Padmore made a vastly better fist of An die ferne Geliebte than I ever have – and I was watching him (and listening) very closely for tips.   Despite this hawk-like observation, I still cannot say how he filled the whole venue while also singing piano and even pianissimo.  Other musical highlights were the Dunedin Consort playing Handel, accompanied by the stunning voice of Louise Alder (where required, she sat out the concerti grossi) and a concert of piano, viola and clarinet centred around György Kurtág.  This is a very fine grouping of instruments and the works by Mark Simpson, Marco Stroppa and Robert Schumann have opened a whole new area of music to me, though I may need a little more time to fully embrace Mr Kurtág himself.

Circus also played a big part in my week, once again demonstrating that I have a long way to go before running away to the big top is a viable career plan.  Most of the circus seemed to originate from Australia, perhaps indicating greater legal protection for French-Canadians (who, like elephants, can no longer be exploited to thrill an audience), and was very good.  My two avourites were A Simple Space and Elixir which both combined amazing skills with a lot of fun – and, in the case of the latter, the first time I have seen a man actually steam.   In fact, every circus I saw was good and introduced some new physical feat or new way of approaching an old idea which suggests that there is life in the form for some time to come: which is good new for my long term career planning.

For the first time in Edinburgh, I branched out into dance and saw an amazing piece called Smother.  This claimed to be hip-hop dance, though given my limited (okay, non-existent) knowledge of the genre I wouldn’t have guessed, and the 55 minutes flew past.  It would seem that hip-hop embraces rather more than a rap-based musical style: you live and learn!  I am now more keen then ever to extend my limited gymnastic skills into  b-boying – though was distressed to discover that even in this apparently free form of dance, one is still expected to keep in time with the beat (or at least the young performers clearly acted as though this were required).  Do evening classes still exist, or are we supposed to leaen everything from YouTube videos now? Music-wise I also went to see the Melbourne Ska Orchestra which was a great experience, though unlike much of the audience I did resist the urge to dance (too early in the day for my blood-alcohol levels to have reached the threshold required for dancing), but I’ll admit it was a close-run thing and had the seating been a little less cramped I might have “cut a rug” (as I believe the young people say).  My other favourite musical piece is harder to describe, it was a combination of fairly thin spoken autobiography, a music lesson and some virtuoso piano playing by Will Pickvance (a chap I had heard on The Verb, purveyor of many good things).  This, in a place where animals were once dissected, was a thing of total joy and a complete contrast to everything else I saw.  It somehow seemed to recharge my cultural batteries.

I also looked at some art and discovered that 10am is rather to early to face the full onslaught of surrealism.  It also became clear that Bridget Riley’s work is not ideal for the sufferer of astigmatism: though staring at some of her works does function as a suprisingly effective legal high!  I can fully recommend Inspiring Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery which opened my eyes to the the role of Daubigny in so much of the impressionist art – and indeed beyond – I have seen over the years.  The exhibition ends with a wonderful, if heart-breaking and very late, painting by Vincent Van Gogh: it would seem I now cry at paintings too.

The final category of fun was theatrical.  My favourite piece came from Belgium and had the unpromising start time of 10am and subject matter of the terrorist massacre at the high school in Beslan.  Despite this unholy trinity of issues, Us/Them was an amazing piece of work and made the whole week in Edinbugh worthwhile on its own.  In fact, Summerhall was awash with interesting Belgian theatre (mostly Flemish) – of which I had time to see far too little – so I think I may have to spend some quality time in Brussels.

Right, I suppose I’ve kept you waiting long enough, I should explain my recent fatherhood and introduce my new son (who has a bushy beard and probably out-weighs his father).  My second favourite piece of theatre was Every Brilliant Thing, which I wanted to see last year but was sold-out and so this year I got myself organised (just a little bit, to quote that sage of life planning, Gina G).  It was worth the wait, though I did blub a little (well, I was more involved than usual in the plot) having made it through Us/Them with (almost) dry eyes.  The play stars one half of Jonny and the Baptists (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal it is not “the Baptists” and that one should never trust a swan) and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the audience.  Many people are handed a slip of paper to declaim at the appropriate moment: mine was numbered 321 (not, so far as I know, in tribute to the late Ted Rogers).  However, a few of us had larger roles and I had to play Jonny’s father (and to an extent Jonny).  This seemed a fairly modest obligation at first, safely discharged from my seat with only a minimum of speaking (just the one word, albeit delivered several times) or acting required (so very much pitched at my level of skill).  This contrasted with one member of the audience who had a lot more work to do while wearing only one shoe: and in my performance she was so good at her part I still wonder if she had been practising.  However, just when I thought it was safe to rest on my laurels (or cushion, no laurels were provided) I was dragged centre-stage and required to give an impromptu wedding speech as the father of the groom.  I’m sure my readers would not have been caught napping, but I had come woefully unprepared with not so much as a best man’s speech on me.  Luckily the discovery that Jonny (my son) was very much shorter than me provided an “in”(by way of reference to his tiny mother) and I managed to extremporise a small speech which went down suprisingly well.   It is rather nice being applauded by an entire theatre, if also a tad embarrassing, and I rather fear a monster has been created.  In future, I shall expect a round of applause for any impromptu declaration exceeding a couple of sentences.

Gosh, that was a long one – and such a range of references, if I were a better chap I’d provide footnotes.  Suffice to say, I had a splendid holiday but very little (if any) of a rest.


As Melvyn Bragg, or more accurately, his guests have relatively recently revealed, the exact number and nature of the muses varied over the course of the Classical era.  However, given any list of the occupants of Mount Helicon, it seems hard to argue with the thesis that I have been least touched by the influence of Terpsichore.  Then again, I have never shared any of my Love Poetry with you (or anyone else for that matter) – so I could always be lying.  I’ll leave that thought with you while I gently pluck at my cithara and await the arrival of Erato.

As has been noted in this very organ before, I am not a natural dancer.  My attempts at dance are about as unnatural, affected and artifical as could be imagined.  However, 2016 has seen me adding increasing volumes of dance into my cultural mix: though only as a voyeur (so far).  My younger self would be horrified as he found dance entirely without merit – well, except for the unintentional laughter it often brought him (and can still bring me).  Current me has, in many ways, reversed into his current interest in dance.  My gateway drug, as it were, has been circus: an art form which continues to obsess me.  This last week did see me first fully successful essay of the back level, suspended from gymnastic rings.  I will admit I can only hold it for a couple of seconds – I can’t actually breathe at the same time and holding the position does burn through the contents of my lungs at an alarming rate – but it was pretty good for an old codger.

Quite often the acrobatics in circus include elements of what I take to be contemporary dance. Both of the excellent shows by Barely Methodical TroupeBromance and Kin – have certainly included dance which clearly carries the narrative, even to a clod like me.  Emboldened by seeing dance and enjoying it, even if mostly in terms of the physical feats involved (and trying to work out if and when I might be able to replicate them), I have been branching out into more overtly dance-based events.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Salisbury International Arts Festival in the summer sunshine and all three events I attended contained dance.  Blocks was a circus/dance combination staged around a set of gigantic Jenga blocks and so was playing to my existing interests.  You and I Know, by Candoco Dance Company, I literally stumbled across by accident when seeking cake (I never found cake and am still struggling with the trauma: Salisbury was a major disappointment in this regard on a Sunday afternoon).  This was pure dance, though using two disabled performers – one in a wheelchair and the other with only 1.5 arms – and was incredible.  These appetizers were both free, but for my third encounter with dance I actually parted with real money – and moved indoors.  May Contain Food by Protein was dance-based but also involved operatic singing and a small amount of nourishment for the audience.  It was nominally set in a high-class restaurant with the audience as the diners and dancers and singers as the staff.  It was quite the strangest piece of culture I’ve ever seen, but very interesting and entertaining (and the food – eccentrically described and consumed – was appreciated).  It seemed to please both young and old in the audience, so some forms of weird could be the way to go when it comes to increasing cultural engagement.

As well as what we (OK, I) might call popular dance, I have also tried something a tad more classical.  Between Christmas and New Year, I accompanied my brother-in-law to provide  moral support for his first ever visit to the ballet.  This was to see Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells which I think was a fairly modern production: well, it invoved two conveyer belts and some puppetry and very little in the way of tutus.  I enjoyed it greatly and it was also a big hit with the accompanying ballet virgin: his fears proving groundless.  Inspired by this success, when I was in Cambridge recently I went to see Life by the BalletBoyz.  This was amazing, and at times very funny, and not a tutu in sight (just a lot of rabbits)  : though the Arts Theatre is a dreadful venue in which to watch dance as the sightlines are way too poor (something that has never been a problem with theatre which still works fine, but is almost fatal to dance).  If the circus won’t take me, I think maybe I’ll run away to join the ballet: it can’t all be cruel Russian matrons and bleeding feet (as the children’s TV of my youth suggested).  Realistically, this probably isn’t a great back-up plan for my retirement from the desk job: whilst the physical feats of ballet seem less extreme than at the circus, you do seem to be required to make them look entirely effortless and, worse for me, graceful.  The nearest I’ve come to grace in my life is thanking the Lord for the food I’m about to consume at a formal dinner, though I suspect a good word for the kitchen or waiting staff would probably have been more productive.

Still, I do fancy taking up some form of dance to take advantage of my improving flexibility.  Probably something not too dependent on rhythm or grace.  Do you think 50 is too late to take up break-dancing?



Despite learning Spanish twice during my life – once at school and then again, a decade-and-a-half later, for work – and acquiring a reasonably varied vocabulary, I did not encounter the title until yesterday evening.  It does not appear in my dictionary, and so I have had to rely on the web’s favourite translation aid.  As a result, I fervently hope that it does mean “cool stuff” and not something obscene and/or offensive (I can’t really afford to upset some 400 million readers at this stage in my writing career).

Even before encountering the title, my life yesterday had a somewhat Spanish flavour – despite no ham being involved.  The new day started with a new book, The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón which I am reading in English translation (Southampton library does not provide a long enough loan – even with maximum renewals – for me to tackle it in its original tongue).  At times, it does seem to be rather directed at me as a newly admitted writer and it is clear that Don Basilio would not approve of my style and its adjectival liberality.  At other times, its protagonist reminds me of my brother – but I am only up to page 70, so this may change.

Last night, I had my first full experience of live flamenco – at the Arthouse Cafe, as regular readers might have guessed.  I had seen a little flamenco-inflected guitar many years ago at the Meson Don Felipe in the Cut in London while I munched on tapas and consumed a glass or two of blude-red wine.  On that occasion, it was just a guitarist perched precariously above the doorway leading to the facilities.  Yesterday, Jero Férec and his Flamenco Group – fresh from Ronnie Scott’s – provided not just the guitarist but two singers and a dancer.  Yet another amazing guitarist – and even more depressingly youthful than those that had come before him – and another musical style for me to enjoy at the Arthouse.  The two singers were also extraordinary and I, at least, thought I caught more than a hint of the Umayyad caliphate in their slightly unearthly vocal performance – many years ago, I heard a small amount of a flamenco mass on CD, but it hadn’t prepared me for the reality.  As part of the evening, I also learned that any previously attempts at rhythmic clapping were mere child’s play compared to the rigours of the flamenco beat: performers’ hands must be red raw after a performance.

On any normal night, the guitar or singing would have been the highlight – but to my surprise that honour must go to the dancing.  Usually, dancing does very little for me – it usually seems at best pointless and often laughable.  Last night, no-one was laughing: we would have been too scared.  Despite being the very image of imperial Spanish hauteur, the dancer had a prosaically English name: Ollie Giffin.  His dancing was commanding and somehow very adult: tap which is perhaps a distant cousin appears rather infantile in comparison.  The dance is intensely physical and at time the rhythm seems impossibly fast for a tall man in relatively high-heeled wooden-soled shoes.  He did have very sturdy thews which may have helped but, on a sample of one, I can’t be sure whether this was critical to his mastery of the dance.  It is not just a physical experience for the dancer but also for the audience as the vibration is transmitted through both the room and your body.  I strongly suspect that flamenco is an art-form best experienced live – with something vital lost in its recording (while I believe gaming controllers can provide haptic feedback, I doubt this has yet been exploited in the context of dance music).  I feel rather privileged that I can experience some of the thrill of downtown Seville, just a brief stroll from my home.  You can catch a flavour of the experience from the Arthouse’s Facebook page or via the link supplied above.

Incredible though the dance was, I do worry about young Ollie’s feet.  The shoes looked less than comfortable and I fear that the combination of the violence of the dance and his sockless condition (his choice, I assume) would render his feet a mass of blisters, cuts and partially-healed scars.  He did, wisely I would imagine, restrict his dancing to brief, if very intense bursts.  Still, I have once again established my suitability, in all but the purely physical sense, for the role of somebody’s maiden aunt.

The title I came across when researching Jero after the concert.  When even younger than he is today – still just at school, even – he released an album and it provided the title for this post which truly covers “cool things”.


This afternoon, I went to see SUSO (the Southampton University Symphony Orchestra) – the Southampton equivalent of CUSO (who I will be seeing next weekend).  Southampton does have an equivalent of CUMS, called SUMS, but perhaps wisely this acronym has been nabbed by the Mathematics Society.  I presume no-one else in Cambridge wanted CUMS so the Music Society had free rein.

The orchestra provided a very full programme of music from the Americas – well, to be more accurate the US and Mexico, but “the Americas” sounds better than “NAFTA less Canada”.  Within this very enjoyable programme was Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez: described in the programme notes (which hopefully compensate in accuracy for what they lack in style) as having been embraced as the unofficial national anthem of Mexico.  I have no idea what the official national anthem of Mexico sounds like, and am far too lazy to resort to Google to find out, but I seriously doubt it could hold so much as a rushlight (let alone a candle) to Danzón No. 2.  Our own national anthem is positively dirge-like by comparison.

In contrast to the rather martial air lent by the march which forms the basis of so many national anthems, Danzón No. 2 takes its inspiration from dance (rather to my surprise as I was convinced that bailar was the Spanish verb “to dance” – but I guess Mexico is a long way from Castille).  I would agree that the piece lacks any stirring words (or indeed, any words whatsoever) to sing along with at times of great national passion, but I feel this may be no bad thing in these days of heightened nationalism.  Both Flanders and Swann and Mitch Benn (to my certain knowledge) have attempted new national anthems which disparage Johnny foreigner, but no-one has attempted a new anthem for the UK (or the mostly UK of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) based on indigenous dance.  Morris is always a possibility, but I wonder if it would lack the gravitas for the international stage.  Perhaps the Dashing White Sergeant (assuming we retain the Scots in the Union)?  Or if that seems too military, the Gay Gordons as a celebration of equality?  The UK has brought the world many a dance – some of which I was introduced to at primary school, anyone for the Circassian Circle? – and surely one of these could provide the basis for a new national anthem in the hands of a suitable young composer?  The right choice could leave our international “partners” literally reeling!