For those of a certain vintage, tradition becomes increasingly important – if only as a bulwark against the ever-increasing rate of change.  I also find that I start to develop a growing number of traditions of my own – and the last couple of days has scored quite highly in the I-Spy Book of Fish Traditions (a book with a rather limited potential market I’ll admit – but that’s the joy of e-publishing, or so I’m told).

On Thursday I made my annual August pilgrimage to Edinburgh and, as is my wont, spent most of the journey stuffing my face with the nourishing largesse provide by East Coast to its first class passengers.  Unusually, my journey was routed via Kings Cross – as this offered the cheapest Advance fare at the time of booking (I may be first class, but I am still cheap and do manage to consume most of my fare in free food and drink, further boosting its value for money credentials) – so I was able to check out the newly revamped station.  This is a significant improvement on the old rather tatty concourse, and has even gained a platform – though those travelling with an owl will be disappointed to learn that it is numbered 0 (zero) rather than 9.75.  As part of the revamp, there has been a major boost to increase standards of customer care, evidenced by the announcements advising us to take care as we wandered around the terminal because of the “inclement weather”; this on one of this year’s all-too-rare warm, dry and sunny mornings.  If only other sections of our rail network aspired to – and better still delivered – such high standards.

Auld Reekie was bathed in glorious sunshine and in my first 24 hours in the city I managed to cover pretty much all of the traditional activities I have accreted over the last few years.

  • Seriously good classical music: Tick.  The Arcangelo consort and Iestyn Davies doing the honours at Greyfriars Kirk (no relation to James T, so far as I know).
  • Quirky comedy: double Tick.  Both Matthew Crosby and Stuart Goldsmith were huge fun.  I’m always puzzled where Mr G is not better known: I caught him as part of a triple bill of folk trying out their Edinburgh acts in Cambridge a few years ago (3 for £5) and discovered he was brilliant.  Yet another example of why it is important to try things you don;t yet know you like.  Push that envelope!  Lick that stamp!
  • Serious cake: Tick.  The Falko konditorei in Bruntsfield does provide some serious cake (or more accurately torte) action for the true connoisseur – and the hike across the Meadows from the Pleasance does significantly ameliorate any feelings of guilt that might otherwise be involved.
  • Bonsai: Tick.  On my first ever visit to the Fringe, I needed to find a decent eatery near the Pleasance – and the miracle of the interweb brought me to Bonsai.  This could be the best bit of browsing I’ve ever done as it is now my regular haunt whenever I’m in Edinburgh.  Japanese food is genuinely fast and sustaining, and so I can grab a quick “course” between gigs.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day – so often have I been, that the staff recognise me even though I’m only a customer for a single week each year.

The second 24 hours was pretty good too.  I can add Michael Legge and Lloyd Langford to my comedy recommendations – though I’d see the former sooner rather than later, as I’m not sure his heart will hold out much longer.  My plan to try and do a little bit less is working nicely – though doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of earlier nights yet.  Yesterday, it meant that I escaped from the rather limited (for which read, non-existent) cask ale offerings at the Fringe venues to visit the Regency splendour of the Cafe Royal.  Not a cafe, but a very fine pub which provided your truly with a brace of pints of Deuchars IPA at a significantly lower price than the nitro-kegged horrors on offer at the Assembly Rooms (though still at a price level that shocks those who fondly remember Joey Holt’s at 99p/pint in the Bluebell in Moston).  My visit also scored me another minor celebrity spotting to add to my list: the long-haired TV archeologist Neil Oliver.

Yesterday also yielded another traditional (and for the reader, tedious) trope with news reaching me of the official opinion on my latest OU essay.  It once again yielded 95 of your English marks (somehow I can never quite make it to 96): given the amount of blowing this particular trumpet is receiving at my hands, my embrasure must be coming along nicely.

Today I shall be breaking new ground, with my first visit to the theatre in Scotland – but first, back to tradition: the full Scottish breakfast.  So for the next hour or so, black pudding, bacon and sausages will be deemed to be vegetables (mostly).

In training

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a flyer in sight

No, I am not reporting live from Heathrow but remain in Auld Reekie. For the first time in several years, I am visiting Edinburgh away from its famous Festival and Fringe.  As a result, the streets are strangely empty of tourists, performers and their provisional, marketing wing: no-one has tried to hand me a flyer all week!

Despite the apparent entertainment vacuum, there is still plenty for a chap to do.  For a start, it has been great to catch up with old friends (by which I mean long-standing, rather than antique – though at my age, the two are becoming synonymous concepts) and their new arrivals.  And what a charming new arrival… just don’t show her a hat! (I was unable to test her opinion on the fascinator issue – jumped-up alice band or mini hat?).

For the first time ever, I saw the Forth Rail (and road) Bridge: up close and personal. There is always a risk with such an iconic star of page and screen that reality will disappoint – but not in this case.  Its sheer physical presence just can’t be captured by an image (though I, in common with many before me, have attempted to do so) – and, for the first time in many years, it is not being painted at the moment and so is scaffold-free.

In the glorious afternoon weather yesterday, I ascended to the summit of Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the stunning views (and obtain a little exercise).   As a result, I would like to suggest to Arthur that his seat could do with some work in the upholstery department – even the odd scatter cushion (normally anathema to our hero) would provide a more comfortable sitting experience.

Prior to my ascent in search of a sit-down, I visited Earthy – a splendid eatery in Causewayside – where I was furnished with the finest example of the quiche-maker’s art that has ever passed my lips: aubergine, chilli and feta were the headline ingredients, but I suspect the secret was in the fluffiness of the underlying egg-based substrate.  Possibly even more excitingly, I sampled a new vegetable – new not only to me, but also to the world (having been first reported only one year ago – almost to the day!).  This was the flower sprout the bastard love-child of kale and the brussel sprout.  Apparently, this off-spring was achieved without genetic modification – so I can only assume the “process” required huge patience, subdued lighting and a Barry White CD.  Luckily, their efforts were not wasted and the child takes after its father in taste (assuming kale was the daddy) – and is delicious served  cold with chilli and sesame seeds (and probably in many other ways too!).

There has been culture too – with the visual arts being complemented by a stunning performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Queen’s Hall last night.  Not many laughs compared to my traditional Edinburgh cultural fare perhaps, but some of the finest live music it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy (and at a very recession-friendly price too!).

So, if you are looking to escape the depressing winter weather of the home counties, I can thoroughly recommend a mini-break to Scotland!

Pulse Pugilism

It’s about time I completed my in-depth coverage of the Edinburgh festivals, before it becomes entirely moot.  I’m not sure the Culture Show has much to fear yet, though the small portion of their coverage I have glimpsed was rather lighter on weak puns than this blog – so it depends what you prioritise in your arts coverage: cultural insight or dodgy jokes.

After being thrilled by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography, I made my way to the Pleasance Grand – sounds exciting doesn’t it?  No chandeliers here, it’s an indoor basketball court for the other 11 months of the year – a sport which tends to use strip or flood lighting (in my very limited experience).  I came to the Grand to see Paul Merton and chums (including wife – his, rather than mine) improvise short sketches or playlets based on suggestions from the audience (both written and shouted-out).  Fresh from the gallery, I proposed “capturing lightening” as the basis for a skit and, to an admixture of my delight and horror, it was pulled from the basket and performed.  Yes, in a very small way, I am now a successful playwright – my legs may not be short or fat, but they are fairly hairy (despite cycling, I refuse to shave them – that way lies madness, blood and stubble) and it would seem that 1 out of 3 is enough.  I really must get on with my panto… the West End is in desperate need of an injection of new writing blood! (AB+ obviously).

After a pitstop at Bonsai, I headed to my next gig which also required a modest amount of audience participation – providing the bones of a very brief musical.  My suggestion garnered the biggest laugh of the entire gig – and, indeed, of my entire comedy career to-date.  However, it is hard to see the words “ten past three” ever going down quite that well with an audience again (I should perhaps make clear at this stage that I was going for the laugh).  Still, it has given me a taste for the sound of an audience laughing with (rather than at) me.  I did have some vague plan that this blog could form the basis for my stand-up act – however, I now realise that it would require a very specific and well briefed audience.  Or I suppose I could provide York Notes or access to Google (other search engines are available) for my gigs, so that the audience can look up the jokes and thus understand why they are so funny.  Perhaps I need to start working on some more commercial material…

I then headed still deeper into the lowest caves of the Underbelly – a venue whose use for the rest of the year is a mystery to me – for one of my highlights of the festival.  This blog may have given the impression that the range of my musical tastes is somewhat limited – quite broad within the classical world, but not straying very far from there – so you may be surprised that a beatboxer was such a highlight (I certainly was).  I had heard Shlomo beatboxing (hence the title: why have a thesaurus unless you’re willing to use it?  I’ve also been reading about Anglo-Saxon poetry, where alliteration is big.  Go hemistich!) very briefly on the Shaun Keaveny breakfast show and thought it could be quite interesting, but doubted it would fill an entire hour.  Boy (or girl), was I wrong!  The range of sounds he could produce using only the human vocal apparatus (his, in this case) – augmented only occasionally by use of a mouth harp – was quite extraordinary.  His performance was extended by use of a loop station, nothing to do with the railways, but a device which enables a single performer to accompany themselves (by recording and looping the voice) – ideal for the lonely child with a huge vocal range and a desire to stage major choral works.  The mix of musical genres he could cover in an hour using only his own voice was incredible – and very entertaining.   If Mouthtronica comes to a village hall near you, I thoroughly recommend giving it a go – if nothing else, it will do wonders for your street cred (just look at mine!).

My final Edinburgh highlight was seeing Neil Gaiman whilst I was queueing outside a carousel (well, it looked like a carousel – but inside it was more like a round tent).  You will be pleased to know that he was shorter than expected – natch!  I was very excited – my first author-spotting for the blog (my view is spotting an author at a Book signing doesn’t count – any celeb-spotting has to rely on serendipity) – but sadly, and shockingly, the young chap I was with had no idea who Neil Gaiman was.  This was even more shocking as the youth in question had, in years gone by, dragged me to Games Workshop. A chap could despair about the national curriculum.  Maybe its time for me to start a free school: obviously the curriculum would be based on this blog – certainly, its use would teach the students a lesson.  Get your kids names down early (conception?) as I expect places to go fast…

It’s a poor sort of memory

and does, indeed, only work backwards – though I suspect that any other form would be worse.  Still, it’s always a joy to quote the Red Queen: a woman of rare insight.

I have been thinking about memory of late, which does rather bring the god Odin to mind.  He kept quite the menagerie (rather more than à trois): in addition to two wolves and an eight-legged horse (surely a riding accident waiting to happen) he also kept two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (and mayhap other creatures as well).  The ravens’ names are normally translated into English as Thought and Memory, and I sometimes imagine myself as little more than a pair of corvids trapped in a box – with Muninn probably in the ascendant.

I have always (so far as I can recall – ha ha) had a pretty decent memory.  I am often asked how I remember so much (useless) stuff to which I have no real answer other than “how do you not?”  I certainly do not sit (or stand or lie) around trying to memorise useless facts, somehow it just happens when I’m busy doing other things.

It can be quite a useful skill as, all too often, a good memory can be mistaken for intelligence.  It also saves a lot of mental arithmetic if you can just remember what the answer was last time: one of the many beauties of mathematics is the consistency of arithmetic over time.  It has also served me quite well in both examinations and pub quizes (other quiz venues are available, but rather less fun).  However, it’s not all good news – I do frighten myself at times, for example, when I instantly know an answer with no understanding as to why.  It can also lead people to believe me when I say something about the past, even if I have (literally) just made it up – a power that can be used for both good and evil (mostly the latter).

Whilst my memory is pretty good, it is far from perfect.  I think part of the problem is the sheer volume of junk stored means that memories can become somewhat muddled – for example, when seeing people my brain tends to perform some sort of internal identikit operation enabling me to confidently ‘recognise’ complete strangers (well, he had A’s nose, B’s hair, C’s chin etc).  Repeated actions are also poorly recalled: I can remember locking the front door, but is the memory I’m accessing from today or November 2009?

I believe my visual memory is particularly poor, it seems that my brain stores visual information in a very compressed manner – like a rather extreme form of JPEG.  This can cause trouble: I nearly missed my stop travelling on the bus in Edinburgh as the bus shelter on the opposite side of the road had been changed and this was enough to confuse me.  Yes, of all the permanent landmarks around the stop that I could have chosen – stone buildings, geomorphology etc – the key one I relied upon was a temporary structure. I really need to let Huginn out of his box a little more often.

However, the real tragedy of my poor visual memory is that it impoverishes my recall of great visual art.  Storing it in a highly compressed conceptual form really does not capture the essence of great art.  Strong affect is supposed to improve memory – an important defence mechanism from our evolutionary past – but somehow this doesn’t work for me in a gallery: I just start aching.

Whilst in Edinburgh, I went to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art: Two – quite a hike on my swollen foot, so I didn’t go the few extra yards to One (I’ll save that for another time). I went there to see an exhibition of photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto which came in two parts: Lightening Fields and Photogenic Drawings.  The first were photographs of electrical discharges (400kV) and were truly extraordinary – I have never seen their like. The second were re-prints of negatives created by William Henry Fox Talbot in the very early years of Victoria’s reign – some of which were truly haunting.  I think it may have been the finest art exhibition I have ever visited – and as a member of the Art Fund, really quite cheap.  As a bonus, they also had some wonderful woodcuts by Ian Cheyne – perhaps trying to keep the Japanese vibe going?

The tragedy is that with my lousy memory for pictures, my recall of the exhibition is already fading and there were no postcards for sale and an original is likely to be beyond my budget.  But, there is some good news: in researching this blog I have found that Google images comes (slightly) to my rescue with a few actual JPEGs of both the photographs and the woodcuts.  Whilst no match for the real thing, they are significantly more faithful to the originals than my ageing neurons.

Surely, there must be a way to train your memory to be better with pictures?  Or perhaps not, as normally you are taught to remember ‘boring’ facts using pictures – a method I find utterly useless.  I can only remember the picture by first remembering the original facts, and then using them to try and re-construct the picture by adding in some recollection of how I might have converted the facts into a visual form.  This does both rather defeat the purpose and make me wonder if I am entirely normal.  Yes, I know you’ve wondered this for some time – or more likely, gone beyond wondering and drawn some pretty firm conclusions (and not just in pencil, but have mentally inked them in).

I have no great desire to be normal – always strikes me as over-rated – but I would like to remember the visual with greater fidelity.  Then again, perhaps a photographic memory is only a desirable thing if it comes with the ability to Photoshop the contents?

I survived

(but it was a close-run thing).

Yes, I’m back at Fish Towers after a week in Auld Reekie – and am still more-or-less intact (more about the less in due course).

In the last week, I have had more late nights than in the preceding 11 months, “enjoyed” a pretty major shift in my diet (5-a-day has still been achieved but only if we substitute the words “fried food” for “fruit and veg” in the standard dietary advice: when in Rome etc) and consumed rather more alcohol than is perhaps compatible with the life of simple purity that makes up my quotidien existence.  I have also spent a lot of time sitting on some seriously uncomfortable chairs (the rest of the country, and perhaps even much of Europe, must be stripped of dodgy temporary seating in August), mostly in rather cramped and sweaty conditions.

As a result, blogging and sleep have suffered somewhat.  However, the last week has provided much needed fresh material for future posts and the lack of sleep should be resolved by a few early nights (those Zs don’t count themselves, you know).

Perhaps more worryingly, my left foot and both ankles seem to have put on rather a lot of weight whilst away – they are looking decidedly chubby.  It may be that my body starts storing excess calories (or joules) starting at the ground and slowly working up.  If I spent a whole month in Scotland would it reach my knees, or even higher?  Do I quite literally have hollow legs (as has often been proposed)?

Talking of Scotland and deep-fried food, I fear it may be losing its pre-eminence in this field.  As East Coast was whisking me south (while plying me with food and drink), I listened, on my iPod (other MP3 players are available), to The Bugle podcast.  If you like your news discussed with somewhat silly, some meet even say puerile (which, based on my schoolboy Latin, I assume means “boyish”) humour (well, you are reading this blog!), I can thoroughly recommend the Bugle.  On last week’s edition, I learned that the folk of Iowa take a block of butter, pierce it with a stick (like a butter lolly), coat it in batter (to make battered butter – there has to be a tongue-twister in this!) and then deep-fry it.  I can feel my arteries hardening just writing about it!  By comparison, even stereotypical Scots eating is looking pretty healthy.

The only alternative explanation for my puffy pedal extremities that has come to mind is that, rather than gaining weight, perhaps they are swollen – perhaps caused by my enforced separation from my bicycle or walking on cobbled streets or over volcanic hills. Has my body become overly adapted to cycling on the relatively flat?

However, neither explanation really covers the divergent impact seen on my left and right feet.  My feet are pretty much inseparable – I have rarely caught them more than 6 feet apart (or would 2 metres be a less confusing measure?) – and so surely anything affecting the left should also affect the right?

Still, I’m not in any pain – though my left shoe is a little tighter than normal – and if my feet have put on weight, it should lower my centre of gravity and lead to a much needed improvement in balance.  Surely, it’s not too late for a career as a gymnast?  Though I will admit that most gymnasts I’ve seen are slightly younger and shorter than me – but my study of the field has been less than exhaustive.  I’m also slightly concerned that even as a (supposedly) flexible primary school child I could never manage even the lowest BAGA award – the backward roll was always beyond me.  Then again, I couldn’t manage differential calculus in those days either – so there’s always hope!

Still, despite my sub-shin tumefaction, I had a really wonderful week away.  Where else could I take in 30+ shows covering music (old and new), poetry, photography and comedy in a single week?

Critic’s Corner

As any regular reader will be all too aware, my previous outings as a critic of the arts have been desultory efforts at best.  Should my witterings ever be exposed to the critical gaze of some form of meta-critic (one who criticises the critics) I’d be lucky to garner a single star.

Despite these inauspicious portents, I feel I should provide some sort of feedback from my gig-going in Edinburgh.  So far, I have been to twelve comedy gigs and two chamber music concerts – however, there seems little point in reviewing the latter as they were one-off events and, frankly, you’ve missed them.  (In case you enjoy regret, I should tell you that you’ve missed out on a treat – and I’m not just referring to the interval ice cream or the generous legroom provided when sitting in the main stalls).

The comedy, by contrast, is repeated nightly for another week (and some may be touring to a town or city near you), so a few readers may be in a position to act on any recommendations I care to make – though please be aware that I offer no warranty, express or implied.  I tend to select the story-telling style of comedian, enjoying a range of styles and approaches within this genre.  Over the years, I have found that whilst one-liners are great over a five minute slot, they tend to be rather wearing for a whole hour.   Sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my radio listening for many years, is known for its hit-and-miss nature which is much harder to handle when the performers are there in the room with you (rather than hiding behind the anonymity of Marconi’s invention).  We can only hope that with this concentrated dose of professional comedy, some of the skills will rub off on me leading to a modest rise in the quality of my own musings (though, I wouldn’t hold your breath – unless you enjoy that kind of thing).

So, without further ado (I’m running low on ado – and it’s a bit of a hike to the shops to get some more) here are my top recommendations (in no particular order):

James Sherwood: funny and intelligent as ever.  Do not be put off by the name of the venue – they do re-use pretty much any space in Edinburgh as a venue, but the Wee Room is not a re-purposed urinal.

Tom Rosenthal: much shorter than anticipated (I think television adds about 6 inches to your height), but anyone who provides a tutorial on basic logic as part of his set gets my vote.

Alun Cochrane: more observational than my other picks.  Includes some great life tips.

Stuart Goldsmith: as beautifully constructed as last year’s set.  He (like me) is an Uncle Stuart and did make me feel that I may be neglecting my avuncular duties (though, he does have some rather useful uncling – yes, I can create new verbs – skills that I lack).

Matt Crosby: a little obsessed by Nando’s, but has usefully tagged some more of my typical behaviours as nerd-like (so I may have to keep an eye on these in future if I wish to maintain the, non-existent, illusion that I am one of the cool dudes).

Lloyd Langford: the least story or strongly thematically based, just very funny – and the only venue (so far) to boast a chandelier.

The Comedy Zone: you get three new(ish) acts for your money (and a potty-mouthed CBBC presenter as compère).  The two acts with historic links to Asia were particularly good and the third act was quite strange, but not without a certain charm.

I’d also give honorable mentions to Jon Richardson, Elis James, Rich Hall, Gareth Richards and Pete Firman – all of whom will handsomely reward the purchaser of a ticket to their shows.

I will also heartily recommend Bonsai to satisfy the victualling needs of any Fringe-goers. It is perfectly sited near the Pleasance, and as Japanese food is quick to prepare and consume you can grab a quick bite between shows.  It is also quite a healthy option for Scotland – though I am knocking back quite a lot of vegetable and banana tempura, so am still getting my fair share of deep-fried goodness.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day in years gone by – but this year, I tried to leave rather longer meal-breaks between shows (in an abortive attempt to produce a slightly less frantic festival experience).

Fire and Ice

I have headed north in the hope of free education and prescriptions and, given my advanced years, to enjoy the free care we elderly receive in the more boreal portions of the UK.  Yes, dear reader, I am in Scotland spending a week in the Athens (or, at this time of year, Islington) of the North for the famous International and Fringe (or Bangs for our US readers) Festivals.

The weather has been mild and I have seen the sun (and quite a lot of rain – but less, I think, than home which is what matters!), but one does not generally visit Scotland to enjoy the sultry heat.  I was therefore puzzled to find at the Pleasance (one of the main Fringe venues) that all the beverages on offer were “extra cold” – the stout, cider and bitter were all branded as “extra cold” and the lager is always offered heavily chilled.


I can’t imagine that over-heating is such a huge problem in the Scottish climate that the serving of tepid, or merely cool, drinks should be so thoroughly interdicted.  I will admit that some of the venues can become quite toasty (not to say sweaty) when packed with punters, but there has been no need for salt tablets to be issued – and the offering of a few cold drinks within a wide range of beverages would be more than sufficient to cover any concerns.

Luckily, today I shall be amused at the Gilded Balloon (or that’s my plan – one I hope is shared by the comics whose work I shall be sampling) – which on past form, is willing to offer bitter that has neither been nitro-kegged nor chilled well beyond the point of potability.  So, clearly it can be done – let’s start a campaign to make drinking at the Pleasance more pleasant!

Yesterday, I also visited the Queen’s Hall (she wasn’t there) to enjoy Ravel, Chin and Schubert (or at least some of their chamber works).  This was a late morning session, but it still counted as classical music and so, as part of my plan to support the arts in these difficult times, I was required to partake of an over-priced pot of artisan ice cream in the interval.  I was offered – and tried – a flavour I had never encountered before – Scotch Bonnet ice cream.  A Scotch Bonnet – as well as a piece of millinery – is a particularly fiery strain of chilli pepper and so might be seen as an unusual partner for ice cream. However, the combination was a marvel – the wonderful admixture of fire and ice in a single mouthful was a delight (and made a baked alaska seem a very pedestrian offering).  I think chilli could usefully be added to other flavours of ice cream (not just the basic iced-cream flavour): I already like chilli-flavoured dark chocolate, so that would be an obvious option but I think it would also augment the experience when consuming strawberry, honey and ginger or vanilla ices.

I’m now also wondering if I should introduce chilli into my bakery – chilli icing (as well as a pleasing word-pairing) could definitely be a viable option.  Upon my return to Fish Towers, it will back down to the crypt for some experimentation..

The only way to fly

Is, to paraphrase Westlife (you may like to imagine me standing up from a high stool at this point), without wings.  I am not suggesting that I possess some gravity-cancelling gizmo, but would merely posit that it is far better, to quote a marketing message from years gone by, to let the train take the strain.

Earlier in the week, I made the journey from Fish Towers to the Scottish capital city and seat of government, Edinburgh.  Living close to Stansted, with a little planning I could no doubt have flown very cheaply – or at least, apparently very cheaply, before the cost of such optional extras as check-in, luggage, actually paying for the flight, engines on the plane, a pilot etc were mysteriously added to the cost of my journey.  Instead, by using a considerably greater amount of planning and a detailed knowledge of the vagaries of UK rail ticketing (a subject which could probably form the basis of a rather challenging degree course), I was able to make the journey using the railways at a fairly reasonable cost.

In fact, I was able to make the journey in the relatively sumptuous surroundings of a First Class carriage.  For most of the trip, this upgrade allowed me improved legroom and a more comfortable and reclinable chair.  However, from Peterborough there was another – to me, entirely unexpected – bonus.

The East Coast Main Line has been through a degree of upheaval in recent years, and I believe is effectively nationalised at the moment.  As part of its move back (albeit briefly) into State ownership, the exterior of the rolling stock is being re-painted in the most hideous livery yet attempted on our liberalised railways.  The new paint-job has a pale silvery-grey background with a horizontal stripe and writing in the shade of purple normally only associated with an alcoholic’s nose.  I can only hope that this paint was going very cheap, perhaps left-over from some earlier government project, rather than that we (either the taxpayers or rail users) are paying good money for it.  Or perhaps, after all these years, every pleasing colour-combination has already been used and companies are having to use increasingly outré chromatic combinations from the furthest reaches of the Dulux colour-card.

In addition, the East Cost line recently garnered publicity (of a not entirely positive nature) when it discontinued the restaurant car service on its trains.  As a result, my hopes for snacking on the train were not high – and I had even gone so far as to prepare a packed lunch before leaving home.  How wrong I was!  Within 5 minutes of sitting down, I had already been offered a glass of orange juice and a danish pastry (an offer I was all to happy to accept).  For the rest of my journey, barely 15 minutes passed where I wasn’t provided with some new comestible item, or a beverage to ease their passage through my digestive tract.  Even better, all of this nourishment was complimentary – included within the modest cost of my ticket.  Even I, a man often accused of harbouring a tapeworm, could not have asked for more food – and that is not a sentence I get to use very often! The contrast with the offerings of our soi-disant low-cost airlines was striking.

One of the other great joys of rail travel, when I can tear my attention away from my stomach and its provisioning, is to stare out of the windows and watch the British countryside roll past.  Whilst the eastern side of the UK is not, perhaps, known for its exciting scenery – there are no great mountain ranges, canyons or cataracts – you do get to see a range of UK electricity generation facilities, cross four major rivers beginning with the letter ‘T’ and to see the sea.  As a result, I can confirm that Great Britain remains a green (and gold, at this time of the year) and pleasant land – if rather well stocked with rosebay willowherb (a plant I can only assume was introduced from North America given the fact that it has four – count ’em – four first names!).

After a slight platform shortage at York station – a place I had always considered to be very generously provided with train parking – my train ran a little late and we finally arrived into Waverley (you’ll have had your tea) some 3 minutes after the timetable suggested.  The level of apology this occasioned was extraordinary – as was the assistance to ensure that no-one missed their relatively tight onward connection to Inverness. Again, the contrast with the airlines was palpable – these never mention lateness at all, but boast to the heavens if the plane lands on time (or even early).  This boasting is despite the minutes (often tens of minutes) of taxiing that follows landing before one can disembark – and the fact that you then have a serious hike to escape the airport and a further, often extended, journey into the city which is your destination.  With my train, on the other hand, the instant we ‘arrived’ we had actually arrived and I could climb down into the heart of Auld Reekie.

Why would you travel any other way?  Truly (as I may have said before), if the Good Lord had meant us to fly he wouldn’t have given us the railways!