Scottish fitness

I am often (OK, never) asked how I manage to maintain myself at the very peak of physical perfection whilst both in Scotland and subjecting myself to a dizzying range of culture each August.

Those in possession of the local stereotype will be aware that the typical Scottish man is lucky to make it past his twenties and breathes deep-fried air.  How does my frail, southern constitution survive in such circumstances?

Well, I’ll admit that I am in Edinburgh (and have not checked the rest of Scotland) and the city is full of tourists, but the men-folk do not seem in visibly worse physical shape than their counterparts in Southampton – so I suspect the stereotype may be a tad exaggerated.  Nevertheless, my physical perfection does suffer a number of challenges in the Athens of the North.

My diet undergoes a major shift as I eat out an awful lot more than at home, and consume 99% of the fried breakfasts of the year whilst here.  My vegetarianism is also rendered much more “mostly” than during the rest of the year – with the humble pig being particularly hard done-by.  I am also being forced to consume carbs, to save my hosts from temptation – a food-based throwing myself onto the grenade to save my comrades.  To make matters worse, my alcohol consumption rises – partly through its ready availability where I’m staying and partly down to the increased eating out scenario.  Somehow, it also seems de rigeur to knock back a pint of Deuchars IPA at many Fringe venues – especially the Free Fringe, where drinking is part of the implicit contract with the venue (and I am not one to shirk my obligations).

Late nights are also a daily (nightly?) occurrence – a contrast to my typical hay-hitting well before the clock strikes eleven.  Trust me, I need all the beauty sleep – or beauty tossing-and-turning unable to sleep – that I can procure.

Countering these negative impacts on my fitness is the fact that every journey in the city involves a hill – and I do walk a lot further at this time of year than any other (partly down to the lack of a local bike).  Just heading to the bus stop to go into town is a vertiginous hike requiring crampons.

In previous years, this has been the full extent of my Auld Reekie-based fitness regime.  However, given my drive to become the world’s oldest gymnast I decided that this year this would not be enough.  Without some additional activity, my poor aged body would be all too likely to snap when I return to the rings in 10 days time – so I have taken action.

Thanks to the facilities at the Craiglockhart Leisure and Tennis Centre I have been able to continue much of my normal regime of fitness-based insanity.  Whilst they don’t have rings, they do have several Jungle Gyms which can fulfil much the same role for a chap wanting to flay a feline – though they are somewhat more of a challenge when it comes to avoiding unwanted swing.  With this aid, I have now started to straighten my legs whilst I think I am in roughly the right orientation for a back lever – can’t be sure this is quite the right orientation as an attempt to look in the mirror at the same time was not an unqualified success (frankly, I’m pretty lucky my head didn’t fall off).

The CL&TC also has some bar-like facilities I can use to hang from – and I do find that after 48 hours I do have withdrawal symptoms if I don’t have a bar from which to hang (yes, I do recognise this is odd).  Thanks to these bars, I have finally mastered the full front lever – well, I can sustain it for 2-3 seconds at a time and did manage to do this five times in a row.  This may only be possible from quite close together parallel bars (as this is the only platform I have available) – but I will take that as a victory for now.  I will admit there has been a modest price to pay for this progress and yesterday I was quite achy across the upper back – but this minor discomfort was a small price to pay.

If I can keep up this progress, next August I will be bring my own Fringe show to Edinburgh – combining my comedy musings with elderly gymnastics (there’s juxtaposition for you!).  So far as I can tell, I don’t think it’s been done before, so I eagerly anticipate the 5* reviews!

Part of the in-crowd?

I like to think of myself as a maverick, a lone-wolf – never one to follow the crowd, rejecting anything that becomes too popular.  I have never wittingly followed fashion – though fashion is welcome to follow me, if it has the necessary vision and can keep up.

So events of the last couple of weeks have been rather disturbing, assailing my delicate self-image where it is at its most vulnerable.  I keep finding myself doing things which appear wildly popular with others – have I suddenly joined the mainstream?  Or has it joined me?  Which is the more disturbing development?  Will he ever stop asking us questions?

A couple of weeks back I took the train to Brighton from my home in Southampton (well, OK, not my home – but the nearby station).  This train was beyond packed long before it reached its destination – boarding was impossible for the last six or seven stations and regular Northern Line passengers were growing concerned at the level of over-crowding.  I had somewhat anticipated a degree of crowding given that it was a weekend in the summer, though one with a fairly poor weather forecast, and figured that the masses might be hurling themselves towards the sea – though to be fair, the sea was rarely more than a couple of miles away for the entire rail journey.  As a result, I paid the modest supplement for a ticket in first class – but even I was surprised.  Southern Railways clearly had no clue that the train might be busier than normal and so provided no additional carriages – I’m thinking I should be employed as a highly paid consultant to ATOC as I am far better at gauging the volume of travellers than any rail company.

When I arrived in Brighton, every incoming train seemed similarly heaving – though my new train heading off towards Eastbourne was pretty quiet.  Only some days later did I discover why, apparently Gay Pride was taking place in Brighton – though my fellow sardines did not look particularly gay (then again, my lack of interest in gland games may make me rather poor – and supremely uninterested – in identifying people’s preferred sexual partner).  I will admit that on my return, I did identify that a small group of lads sitting near me were probably gay – but only because one was wearing a t-shirt stating that he couldn’t even think straight.  However, I feel if I was the primary rail operator serving Brighton I might have been aware of this event and laid on some extra rolling stock.

My train up to Edinburgh was also exceeding packed – so much so, that passengers were encouraged to disembark at Darlington and switch to a slightly later and much more empty train.  I had selected the train as it offered the cheapest Advance First fare to Edinburgh – so I fear East Coast may have rather mis-judged its popularity.

The last couple of years, I have ceased pre-booking gigs to fill every minute of my time here in the weeks before my departure – as this was, frankly, making me look slightly insane.  Instead, I rely on the edgy (or just plain unpopular) nature of my choices to allow me to book my gigs “on the day”.  Newspaper articles saying that there were just too many events at this year’s Fringe and audiences were spread too thin, reinforced my belief that this was a safe approach.  Really, I ought to be old and cynical enough to know better than to believe a newspaper headline!

All the “normal” (i.e. ticketed) Fringe events I have visited have been full – and several have just not been available as a result of selling out.  Is the left-field the new centre?  Or is my taste just less obscure than I like to think?  However, it is the Free Fringe that has been the worst – with most events filled to way beyond capacity.  I blame The Guardian (though other broadsheets must shoulder some of the blame)!  It keeps either recommending or giving 5* reviews to people I want to see – before I’ve seen them – thus revealing their desirability to the unwashed masses.  How is a chap to maintain his obscurantism under these circumstances?  Have I been hacked by left-leaning journos?

Liam Williams was the worst example, where I had arrived at the venue 40 minutes before the off to enjoy a leisurely pint.  The queue was already round two sides of the pub (jn the rain) when I arrived and grew much worse – the venue was packed (I suspect well beyond legality) and my tardy arrival meant I missed all the seats by some distance.  Still, the gig was fun – and quite disturbing – and I do tend to spend too much time sitting down whilst in Edinburgh.  I did, however, learn that my shoes were significantly less waterproof than I had hoped – so I did spend the rest of the day with wet feet.

My next gig was with Mark Cooper-Jones and was entitled Geography Teacher – and I (of course) have not one but two O-levels in geography.  When I arrived at the aptly named venue – The Globe (I like to think that MC-J insisted on it) – it was virtually deserted.  I bought myself a pint and by the time this transaction was complete (~ 90 seconds) a substantial queue had materialised from nowhere – and I only just obtained the last seat in the venue (and that was partly due to the kindness of strangers, I like to credit my grey hair and the sympathy for the poor, old codger it engenders – but I think the lad was just being polite).  The crowd weren’t even proper geography fans – no-one even knew what an esker was!  Still, MC-J did seem impressed (or perhaps slightly scared) by my knowledge of glacial features some 35 years after completing my second geography O-level.  Should he happen to read this post, I think mworld could use an inselberg – somewhere central.

I think I may have to learn to live with my new role as trend-setter – perhaps I could monetise it?  Perhaps we could also ban newspapers giving a review summary based on 0 to 5 stars – if people had to read the full text to identify whether a gig appeals, it might keep at least the lazier of the masses out of my way.  Another policy to implement come my imminent, and glorious, rule!

 

The summer of sport

I believe this summer is a bumper one for the sports enthusiast – in that, added to the usual roster of annual, summer sporting events we have both the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.  My interest in all sports is limited at best – a few I can watch for 10-15 minutes and be mildly diverted, but then my attention drifts and I feel the need to wander off and do something more interesting.  This is much like my view of spending time on a beach, unless combing or twitching.  I fear I have a rather specialised form of ADHD which only affects me when involved in activities that can absorb many others for long periods.

I am not wholly uninterested in sport – there is definitely some interesting ethnography, anthropology and sociology to be done in the sphere.  I’ve also enjoyed playing tennis and 5-a-side football (both badly) over the years and have had great fun at both Worcester cricket ground and Portman Road where the sport was accompanied by some corporate hostility (I don’t see much hospitality, so I make an effort to enjoy it when I do).  Looking back on it, all of these examples of enjoyment might be traceable back to the pleasant company as much as to the sport or any associated alcohol.  Perhaps I should try watching sport in a more communal setting?

Any way, I seem to have wandered from my point – yes, there was one.  The reader might think that with our television schedules chockablock with events of little interest to yours truly, I would be bemoaning the tyranny of the majority (or at least, the more substantial majority) – but no, I say bring it on!  It is all too easy to vegetate and allow the haunted goldfish bowl to provide my entertainment – but this summer, I have a positive incentive to go out and do something less boring instead (to paraphrase the title of a somewhat suicidal kid’s TV show of my youth).

This all sounds a great – if somewhat middle class – plan for self improvement, or at least some potential for future blog fodder.  However, it doesn’t seem to be working out quite as intended.  I do rather seem to be filling the void in the TV schedules with the siren call of Netflix and its novel content – all available at my beck and call.

Readers will already know of my White Collar habit, though I believe this is under control. I’ve also watched all the available episodes of Grimm – which is quite entertaining.  Oddly, the hero is rather less appealing (for some reason) than the supporting cast who are much more fun.  It has also driven home the importance of Health and Safety when dealing with the occult.  Twice now our hero has knowingly tackled villains who can hurl poison into the eyes, but despite access to an impressive array of medieval weaponry and potions he has yet to invest in a simple pair of safety glasses.   I’ve lost count of the number of characters in action-based series and films who could have had a much easier ride if they had taken even basic precautions – or frankly, mastered their vanity long enough to wear a pair of specs rather than contacts.  My putative superhero (who as we know is already short, gay and ginger to shake up the genre norms) will also be myopic and will sport a stylish pair of glasses.  I will admit this will place him at a brief disadvantage when entering warm buildings during the winter months, but this is a small price to pay for the eye protection (and will often save him from buying the first round in the pub!).  When time permits, he will also work on at least a basic risk assessment before going into bat against his fiendish foes.

After Grimm, I have progressed onto Hemlock Grove – which is very strange but I rather liked (and the Telegraph didn’t – which is often a good sign).  It has a very strange dynamic and not an entirely satisfactory end, but does have what I imagine are rather more realistic 17 year olds than most US drama.  As it was made by and for Netflix, the teenagers are allowed to swear, smoke, drink and do all the other things which I’m pretty sure they do in the real world, but you never see on television.  This does rather add to the realism, which probably helps to ground the supernatural elements.  Also, I think Famke Janssen may be the natural successor to Carolyn Jones: Ms Jones, for those who have forgotten, played Morticia Addams in the black and white TV series of the Addams Family – and for me is still the yardstick against which all other femmes fatales are measured (well, her and Lauren Bacall).  Actually, seeing photos of Morticia as part of the research for this post, I’ve realised that Victoria Coren-Mitchell has something of the same look facially – which might explain quite a lot (and save me several months of therapy).  I wonder if VCM could be tempted into a similar black frock?

Any way, before this post becomes any more revealing, perhaps I should move on (to spare my blushes, if no-one else’s).  I will also blame my book habit for some of the “lost” time – and I can certainly recommend The Humans by Matt Haig (so good that I rationed the chapters to prolong my pleasure) and the Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (very odd and not at all what I was expecting – which is a very good thing).  Both of these were acquired from real bookshops on the off-chance – I think both had staff recommendation attached, which are so much more effective than the automated nonsense perpetrated by the on-line booksellers of the world.

So, I’m rather enjoying this summer of sport so far – though probably not in the way I am supposed to!  Vague guilt does suggest I really ought to do something of a little more moment or import – not just abuse Netflix and my library (and the UK’s physical bookshops).  Still, while it remains vague I shall probably continue to ignore it – and I do have the explosion of “going out” that is Edinburgh looming large on the horizon which will provide a truly prodigious amount of alternative culture.  So, I shall assuage these tendrils of guilt with the argument that my current activities are providing some vital pre-emptive balance to my life.  (As you can see, I was a sore loss to the Jesuits!)

Never go back

Today’s title is oft given advice, though I have not checked how frequently it is taken (this can be safely left as an exercise for the reader).  In most cases, I presume it is an attempt to forestall disappointment or a recognition of the rather short span of a human life and the resultant need to avoid repeats (so, we must assume that Dave – at least – has not taken the advice to heart).  In at least one case, that of a previously lit firework, there is a clear health and safety angle – which I like to imagine would be obtuse or even reflex to minimise the risk of cuts.  As a (further) small digression, surely “minimise” should be a musical term for converting notes to a length of exactly two crochets?

In the Bible, that go-to work for zoological insight, dogs are supposed to ignore this advice in respect of their own vomit – though I can’t say I have particularly noticed this as an issue.  I too have ignored this advice: for a start, as a fool I keep returning to the folly of this blog but, and more relevant to the meat of this post, I recently returned to Cambridge in whose environs I was, until recently, resident.

I had a whale of a time whilst there: catching up with old friends, haunting old haunts and singing old songs.  In respect of the last of these, I realised that there exist a substantial body of carols completely unknown to me (I speak of the seasonal song-form, rather than the girl’s name – though in both cases, the range of my ignorance is wide).  I also discovered that reading choral music is much harder than music prepared for soloists – you have to fish your musical line out of two lines of song, avoiding muddling the bass with the tenor, and after each printed line is finished there comes the desperate search for where your next line begins (generally further away than expected).  I’m also used to my words appearing below the music rather than above.  All of which led to a vocal performance on my part that could best described as faltering (and more accurately described as awful).  Still, it was great fun and not taken too seriously by anyone – and did provide an excuse to partake of a restorative mulled wine and mince pie (or several).

Whilst in Cambridge, I also took in the cinema, a singing lesson – as a result of which Arm, arm, ye brave! is rhythmically rather more sound (I am now dotting where Mr Handel intended) – and live music from the Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra.  Dmitri Shostakovich still has the strange ability to wrest control of parts of my autonomous nervous system away from me, especially in the more motivic sections of Symphony No. 11 – I think it may be the snare drum that does it.

Almost my final act in Cambridge – just before a rapid march to the station – was to pop into the Fitzwilliam Museum for 20 minutes.  I asked what I could sensibly do in that rather brief period (I had rather dawdled over lunch and the purchase of Christmas cards), and was recommended the John Craxton exhibition.  It was brilliant, his pictures (in various media) of (mostly) Greek shepherds and reapers from the 1940s were particularly fine.  I intend to return (look what I did there, the theme within the theme!) before the exhibition ends so I can spend a little more time.

I have a theory about why going back is so much fun.  When you live somewhere, you tend to have responsibilities tied to that place and to your nearby home – and so there is usually something else you should be doing.  When you return as a visitor, hedonism can be given free rein – you can eat out or have a quick nap in the afternoon without any guilt attaching as you can’t cook for yourself and there really is nothing more important you should be getting on with.  I think this may also explain why I think of Edinburgh as “home” as I only go there for fun: perhaps living there would destroy the relationship (like sleeping with your best friend allegedly does?).  Nevertheless, I remain tempted by the Athens of the North – and shall be visiting it shortly – and always have the option of returning to Cambridge at some stage as I still own property there (not through design, but as a result of lack of legal competence on the part of Laing Homes).  Still, for now there is plenty to occupy me on the south coast: I have yet to see the local sea or the New Forest to name but two items yet to be ticked off in my I-Spy book of Southampton.

Where are you from?

Today’s title is a question I was asked earlier in the week, but to which I found I lack a good or ready answer.  I know where I was born and where I was brought up – but I don’t really feel I am “from” either of those.  This lack of belonging to my place of birth can be explained by my forced departure before I was even six months old.  I’m less sure where my lack of belonging to the location of my childhood originates – perhaps just prolonged absence?

I could – and did – list various of the places I’ve lived over the years since my body (though not my mind) reached adulthood.  However, this does not seem a terribly good answer to a perfectly banal question.  I am clearly from the UK, but this only works as an answer if the question is posed by Johnny Foreigner, so am I somehow rootless beyond my basic nationality?

The (relatively) recent house move had already led me to ponder the nature of home and where it lies.  For quite some time, I continued to view Cambridge as “home” – and I can still catch myself thinking in that way even now.  Still, since the arrival of the new sofa (the old one being too large to make the move), Southampton has been fairly securely established as “home”: hat location is surprisingly unimportant, despite what Paul Young would have you believe.  However, Southampton is not alone in holding this honour.  Cambridge is still “home”, particularly when I am there or I see it on the screen.  After an absence of 25 years, a couple of trips back to Oxford over the summer have made it clear that the city of dreaming spires is also still “home” – I suppose I did live there for three years (well, nearly half of three years – during term time – to be strictly accurate) but its continuing claim on me is a little surprising.  More surprising still is that Edinburgh also qualifies as “home” despite the fact that I have never lived there (or even owned so much as a deck chair there, let alone a settee) and only visited the city sporadically for the last 6 or 7 years – but I am quite familiar with the bus routes (or at least some of them).

I’m struggling to find any obvious common link between my various “homes”, which presumably means I must blame affect (or go the way of Dr Freud and blame my mother and/or a childhood trauma).

Do others have the same issue responding to the question “where are you from”?  Or, is it just me?

Anyways, the originator of this question was much clearer about where she was from as she cut my hair.  She hailed from Middlesborough, or more accurately Great Ayton, and so my list-based answer of places inhabited was sufficient to spark lively conversation.  We chatted about the joys of a night out in the ‘Borough on the lash and the beauty of the Cleveland Hills with particular reference to Roseberry Topping (a hill rather than a dessert) and the simple pleasure to be gained from a beer and steak sandwich following its evening ascent.  So, despite my failure to properly answer the question and the subsequent soul-searching, the interrogative device served its purpose admirably.  I suspect there is a lesson here for me to learn…

The end of the party

Well, I am now back from Edinburgh and have to face the return to “real” life.    On my return, I have realised that hurriedly unpacking your life into a new flat and then leaving for two weeks of fun was not one of my better plans (though in my defence, it was less a “plan” and more what happened).  Finding stuff is proving surprisingly challenging as I struggle to replicate my thinking from early August – still, order is slowly being established (I think).

I had enormous fun in Edinburgh and I think I managed to take in 48 shows in my 11 nights in the city – which isn’t bad going for a man of my advanced years.  In previous years, I had booked everything long before heading north leaving nothing to chance of serendipity.  This year, largely down to the move, I had booked virtually nothing and most of my gigs were booked on the day.  This worked really well – though did perhaps benefit from my slightly left-field choices.

Last Thursday worked particularly well – and some of my choices were truly unplanned.  I started in mid-afternoon with Stuart: A Life Backwards – this was an amazing piece of theatre (rightly well-reviewed) and the sort of thing I doubt would appear on TV (or if it did, I probably wouldn’t have watched it).  Amazingly, it cost only £6 for a ticket (making it my cheapest paid event): I have no idea how this can work economically.  After the first half of dinner,  some fine autobiographical stand-up from Ivo Graham – well, I’m always going to love jokes about use of the subjunctive and subordinate clauses.  After the second half of dinner I was joined by one of my fellow best men.  We started the evening with the very funny and moving show from Tom Wrigglesworth as recommended by my host in Edinburgh.  After a refreshment break, we rather randomly selected a show on the Free Fringe at a nearby pub – I say randomly, though the choice may have been influenced by the title.  The show, by one Richard Gadd, was really very good – if quite dark – and we overcame our disappointment at the lack of either cheese of crack whores.  The pub offered decent beer and a pub quiz (which we largely avoided – the questions did seem to presuppose a much greater knowledge of Scottish football than either of us could muster) and also won the hard fought prize for the hottest Fringe venue (narrowly beating the Sportsman Bar at the Gilded Balloon into second place).  My plan for the next show was kiboshed by it selling out, but plan B worked rather well.  We took in the Set List show instead: I had vaguely heard the name but never seen it before.  Five comics do a brief stand-up set based on a series of random (I assume) concepts (usually 4 or 5) which they have never seen before – so this is never before seen material (though it was being recorded, so it may be seen again).  This was quite brilliant, aided by the cast comprising many of my favourite stars of Radio 4: Susan Calman, Marcus Brigstocke, Pippa Evans and Mitch Benn.   The only downside to the event was the slightly wobbly and very slippery stool I found myself perched on – I was expecting to perform my own, very brief, slapstick set at any moment!  Not something I wanted captured on camera.

The festivals also give one the chance to try something completely new.  The Chinese take on Coriolanus – complete with not one but two heavy metal bands – was less a success and more an experience.  It rather reminded me of a school production headed by a trendy teacher trying to make it “relevant to the kids”.  In one particularly emotional scene, the background metal did make me think of the rather camp film of Flash Gordon (sadly, no war rocket Ajax was dispatched).  Circa: Wunderkammer was rather more of a success – and my first exposure to the circus in more than three decades.  The only animals involved were human – all significantly stronger and more flexible than me (and with much better core control).  Is it too late to take up gymnastics?  Back in my youth, I was always defeated by the backward roll and I may now be too tall, but it would make for some decent party tricks if I could gain even a modest degree of mastery!

I loved the chance to make more adventurous choices which Edinburgh in August offers – and the relatively low costs help.  For the price of a decent seat in the West End, I could easily see 5 or more shows in Edinburgh – and, pleasingly, even the longest was only 1hr 40 mins so I could easily average 4 a day.  I’m not sure if this approach offers any way forward for the Arts more generally (for all I know the economics may rely on staff going unpaid and performers making a serious loss) or if it really does need that critical mass of events to make it work – but it would be nice to come up to London (or any other city) for a day and be able to fit in more than a single show in the evening (and still be able to catch a train home at a sensible time again afterwards).

But for now, it’s back to real life – the day job and a work trip to Manchester – but I shall try and retain the spirit of adventure in the months to come…  After all, living in a small gaff, the Arts offer a great way to spend my money: fun without any ensuing need to store anything!

Moving times

This poor blog has been rather neglected of late, which I blame on the inconvenient need to live my life rather than just try and write a heightened and more humorous version of it.  In the last couple of weeks I have moved house (of which more in another post) and then, well before the unpacking was done, headed up to Edinburgh to enjoy the festive delights it offers the visitor in August.

In fact I have been in the Athens of the North (not quite as financially-challenged as the Edinburgh of the South) for almost a week now – and still have another five days before I must return to reality (and boxes).  When I first came up to the festival, it was for a mere three days – and the visit was annual.  I am now coming here four times a year and for ever longer periods – in practical terms, I am slowly moving to Edinburgh, but doing it with (I like to imagine) sufficient subtlety that no-one notices.  It’s a whole new way to “do” immigration – though may work less well if there were any border security.

For me, the “serious”, International Festival has been a festival of the piano – with three quite excellent piano concerts.  Any could have been the best of the year, but in a close-fought field Nikolai Lugansky came out on top of Mitsuko Uchida and Andreas Haefliger to claim the crown (not that any royal millinery was on offer).  Should his concert be repeated on Radio 3 I strongly recommend you try and catch it: it is only slightly marred by the severe and widespread TB outbreak during the early stages of Janacek’s In the Mists.  Fortunately, a cure – or merciful death – had arrived before the Schubert Impromptus.

The Fringe has been the now traditional combination of comedy, spoken word (a category that would seem to incorporate most comedy and theatre – with the exception of the sung and mimed) and theatre – though I have noticed theatre being pushed to the liminal space of the afternoon with comedians now dominating the evenings.  I quite like the matinee – as it means I can be earlier to my bed (and places me much closer to the youthful end of the audience age spectrum) – but it can’t be great for those with a day job.

Picking theatre – from the huge range on offer – is always a challenge.  I do use reviews – but only a pretty small percentage are reviewed in the broadsheets and their opinions often vary rather more widely than the layman might expect – so have had to rely on my own skill and judgment.  This year, I pinned my faith on writers and/or actors I knew and on the Invisible Dot as generally being reliable purveyors of stuff I might enjoy.  So far, so good – no duffers and I haven’t drowned.

Threesome was excellent and did involve the now traditional removal of most of their kit by the cast.  I’m not sure if this dis-robing trend is big in theatre at the moment, or just in the plays I have attended, but I have seen far more of actors – both famous and less well-known – over the last few months than I had ever anticipated.  Perhaps it reflects falling budgets and cost-cutting in the wardrobe department?

Holes had the added excitement of a mystery location – which turned out to be Portobello Town Hall and a coach trip.  We were dropped a little way from the venue and so enjoyed a walk along the promenade at Portobello and an ice cream – oh yes, not content with a volcano, castle, towns old and new and a bunch of festivals: Edinburgh also has its own beach resort.   The play was very good – funny and dark – but if you sit in the front row, do beware of flying sand and water!  Daniel Rigby was particularly excellent  – and tonight I shall be seeing him as a stand-up (in which role I first saw at the Fringe many years ago, before the acting – and broadband selling- rather took off).

Each of Use by Ben Moor was more a monologue with actions than a play, but was stunningly written.  One of the inspirations behind this blog – or at least something in the very far distance to which I aspire – is the radio show Elastic Planet written by Ben back in the mid-nineties.  Each of Us was at least its equal being packed full of wonderfully off-beat ideas and beautiful turns of phrase – who could resist “caramelised sellotape” to give but one example.  My writing has an awfully long way to go – as you, dear readers, will be all too well aware.

My most recent play was Moving Family – set in the back of a removal van driving across Newcastle.  Both funny and moving and making a serious political point this was a near perfect 55 minutes of theatre (and no clothing was removed).  My knowledge of Tyneside – gleaned from several years living in Jesmond and North Shields – even came in handy.

My comedy picks, I shall save for a later post.  But, in summary, it has been a very good festival so far and I’ve enjoyed rather un-Scottish weather: a lot of warmth and sunshine and very little rain.  It has been good to have the longer stay as it feels a little less rushed trying to fit things.  I hope to manage a few more plays before I go, but there are just too many to see – even if I spent the whole of August in Edinburgh (always a tempting prospect).  I shall have to hope that some of them make it down south and give me a second bite of the cherry – or just accept that part of the charm of live theatre is its transience…

Back to the flat

After a week of unaccustomed hills and even more unaccustomed walking I’m about to leave Edinburgh.  Perhaps I need a skateboard to use when I’m away from my bike?  Or just skates? I feel the need for wheels of some sort, and a cool one would be nice – as long as I can manage the associated issues of balance.

I saw my last gig this morning, watching a bass-baritone sing a whole lot better than I can manage to the delight of a rather elderly crowd at the Queen’s Hall and, I believe, the live(ish) listening millions (OK, hundreds) on Radio 3.  As a result the programme had strict instructions as to when we were allowed to applaud – presumably to avoid us crashing the pips (or some similar radio disaster).

Yesterday, I saw Dirty Great Love Story which counts as the best rom-com I have ever seen, bar none.  Probably the cheapest too – it involved only two actors (who had also written it) and two chairs.  No set, no scenario and no costume changes.  Truly romance for these economic times.  It made me both laugh and cry quite a lot: I think there may be a romantic trapped deep within me somewhere though fortunately he usually only makes a break for freedom in the safe anonymity of the dark.  This time though he made his escape only 3 feet from the actors in a rather too well lit venue (I’m putting it down to a sudden attach of hayfever – not the play by Noel Coward – if anyone asks).  This release of emotion also took place within touching distance of Michael Mosley: maker of excellent TV documentaries on medicine.  Not quite the way I’d planned to add another celebrity to my growing list of “spottings”, but still rather better than when I invited Simon Amstell to go ahead of me in a sandwich shop using French a little earlier in the week (in my defence, I hadn’t recognised him at this stage – but I can’t really claim he looked particularly French either.  Still, I like to imagine the Auld Alliance remains strong and so most of the locals will understand the language of Proust and Voltaire).

The other highlight of yesterday was Luke Wright – if not actually my favourite poet, then definitely top of the list of those I’ve seen perform live.  Weekday Dad brought another errant tear to my eye, but luckily far fewer lux were in attendance.  This performance did also make me wonder why theatrical lighting still produces so much waste heat: surely, there are more efficient and, more importantly for the small venues of the Fringe, cooler options available in this modern age?  Is there a business opportunity here?

Still, now our hero must away to catch a bus into Waverley, before seeing how much of the cost of his First Class ticket home he can manage to munch his way through on the train south.  I’m keen to give it 110%, at least!

Yawn free?

My Fringe binge is drawing towards its close and I have this morning “off”, except for a modicum of IT support (which is the currency that I exchange for my accommodation), so I felt it was time to bring my readership up to date with my “doings”.

Booking later and to a less rigid plan, coupled with fewer late night gigs, has definitely been a success – though, perhaps oddly, has failed to result in my aged limbs finding the duvet’s embrace any earlier.  My gig choices have generally been sufficiently obscure (or, indeed, unpopular) that I have failed to obtain tickets to very few of my original selections – and the resulting need to explore more interesting alternatives has resulted in some excellent choices.

This is the first year I have tried Fringe theatre and my two examples so far have been excellent – with my third to come just after lunch.  I can thoroughly recommend Blink! at the Traverse and Oh the humanity… at St Stephen’s: both combined small casts and minimal sets but still provoked real laughs and some serious thinking, as already established it is much easier to sneak a “message” past my defences if it is accompanied by a good sprinkling of jokes (though whether I’m thinking the “intended” thoughts I’m never wholly convinced).

With the exception of the theatre, none of my Fringe choices have cost more than a tenner (obscurity is your friend), and even those have been some of my cheapest theatre going experiences of the past year.  As treasurer of an arts charity, I now found myself counting seats and worrying about the financial viability of the artists who have been entertaining me over the course of this last week.  Even if the venues are very cheap to hire (which I suspect may not be the case, despite their rather ad-hoc nature), the costs of a month in the Athens of the North (which given the collapse of the RBS and Bank of Scotland may be a more appropriate choice of alias than in days of yore) are going to make break-even little more than a dream for most.  Laundry costs alone must be substantial given the small and very sweaty nature of most of the performance spaces.  If I were ever to perform at the Fringe, the music played while the audience are waiting for my (not-so-grand) entry would be a recording of me playing a piece of 100+ year-old music on the piano or recorder to save on PRS costs, though oddly no-one has gone this route, yet…

Most stand-up is just the one person, but I’ve been to see a couple of sketch groups – which must have higher accommodation costs or else be very close.  Both Jigsaw and the Three Englishmen (Spoiler Alert: ** contains four men **) were very good (and extremely silly) and far more hit than miss (unless you count Nat Luurtsema as a miss).  Both shows may provide fodder for future nightmares: in the case of Jigsaw relating to fellation of Tom Craine (one of the risks of sitting in the front row) and for the “beef” Englishmen (ask Tom Goodliffe) I shall never be able to watch Nigella again.  I think sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my late night Radio 4 listening when a lad (for some reason it seemed to be banished to the post 23:00 slot), may be having a bit of resurgence.

Perhaps my biggest insight from this year has been the joys of the Free Fringe.  These events have no tickets or entry cost, you make a donation on exit, and the artists don’t pay for the venue – which I think is funded through bar sales (as they seem to take place in pub basements, usually of establishments offering a rather better range of beer than the paid Fringe).  I am wondering if this can be a funding model for classical music?  I’ve been to three FF (and now I abbreviate it, it is obviously my natural home) events so far: all have been excellent and include my two top Fringe shows of 2012.  Domestic Science was good fun, and properly educational: I shall never look at turmeric in quite the same way again and now want a stick dulcimer.  Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD was hysterical and I’ve now booked to see his new show this evening.  However, this year’s winner of the comedy Fringe is Nick Doody and his soi-disant Massive Face.  Most shows have been good for 50-55 minutes – a few with material for only around 40 – but have reached a conclusion after an hour and I’m happy to leave. I reckon Nick did a good 70 minutes and I would have been happy to stay all night.  I’ve only really seen him once before, also in Edinburgh, and he was brilliant then as well (a show I still remember bits of years later) – this man ought to be properly famous and not just to those of us who haunt late night Radio 4 and listen to the full list of writers at the end of the show to pick their choices for next year’s Fringe.

I know readers worry about the level of my calorific intake, so let me put your minds at rest.  I am now so well-known in Bonsai, that they know my usual – not bad in a bar-bistro more than 300 miles from my home.  Yesterday I also discovered the Edinburgh Larder – which provided quite the finest takeaway sandwich I can ever remember consuming and the accompanying brownie was pretty special too.  I may have to return in around 90 minutes time… (assuming I can hold out that long).

I have also learned some stuff about myself – and not just that I am now obsessed about the financing of the arts.  I have now reached an age where I am no longer afraid to sit in the front row – it usually has the best leg room, and that is way more important than the risk of being “picked on”.  I have also let go of yet another element of my masculinity.  I used to find the individual rooms at some of the larger venues using my own skill (or an exhaustive search): now I just ask some child employee (there seems to be almost no-one employed who would have had their own door key in my youth) or, at a pinch, anyone wearing a lanyard.  It is so liberating – and quick – I think the rest of my masculinity may not be long for this world (if only I had a feminine side to fall back on).  Or is this just the last of my shame finally departing for a less challenging assignment?

Edinburgh delights

There are many joys to being in Edinburgh – and not just the various arts related festivals at this time of the year.

Friday night, as I was waiting for my bus on Princes Street, the city staged a firework display to keep me entertained.  You don’t see that in Cambridge!  The buses, once they arrive, are also substantially cheaper than their Cambridge counterparts (and more frequent).  OK, I’ll admit that the fireworks might have been related to the Tattoo – but in my solipsistic world they seemed timed for my personal pleasure.

Whilst the south-east of England has been roasting in unpleasantly high temperatures (in my opinion), Edinburgh has been much more temperate – and surprisingly dry.  Yesterday afternoon, it did rain for a while but I managed to miss most of it filling my face with a truly prodigious volume of vegetarian fare at Henderson’s Bistro.  I seriously approve of their portion sizes: a starter for two which lives up to its name, rather than being a disappointingly small snack for one.  I also hope this single incident will cover two concerns for readers relating to previous coverage of this year’s Festival which apparently lacked sufficient references to food and rain.  No-one should fear that I am suffering any lack of sustenance.

But the best thing about Edinburgh is the drinking policy.  Down south, pubs throw you out at around 23:00 – but here they throw you in at 22:00.  It doesn’t seem to be that important if you were already drinking and are just choosing to enjoy the cool evening air, or are merely passing by.  I think the policy is that it is now 10pm and you are in Scotland, so you should be drinking.

I have also been introduced, for the first time, to the work of Messers Innis and Gunn – Edinburgh brewers to toffs and gentry (and me).  In those venues where the draft drinking options are limited to over-chilled, fizzy yellow muck, the work of I&G is available in bottles and very potable it is too.  Quite strong though – and I haven’t been brave enough to try the “Rum Finish” yet (though it does look a lovely colour and the tasting notes are tempting.  Actually, the whole Innis and Gunn website is rather fine, I particularly recommend their spider graphs!).  In conjunction with a rewed acquaintance with the fine folk of Brewdog, I fear my alcohol consumption might best be measured not so much in units but tens (assuming we are working in decimal).