Do we need a bombard?

I should start by preparing fans of medieval military history for disappointment: I shall not be talking about siege weapons.  Well, not in any conventional sense, though the Old Testament would like you to believe that city walls can be breached using only members of a modern orchestra’s wind section (though I believe some supernatural interference may also have been involved and the events portrayed are not supported by the archeological record).

In the modern world, music is rarely used in civil engineering and almost never for demolition.  However, it does have a strangely powerful effect on human emotion, if not on masonry.  It can intensify your current mood or transport you into a completely new one.  I’m guessing this is culturally conditioned – you learn the difference between major and minor – rather emerging from the womb with all the basics of the tonic scale pre-installed (the gin scale, I believe, has to wait for puberty).

Music can take us to quite dark places: I well remember a quote about the final movement of Shostakovich’ String Quartet #15 which I used in an Open University essay a few years back.  It was described as being able to “do no more than thumb disconsolately through the album leaves of a deranged life”.  At the time, I was in no position to check this statement, but now with Spotify I was able to listen to the movement as part of the research for this post.  I’ll agree that it isn’t a barrel of laughs, but I didn’t find it that depressing.  Then again, I was in a rather positive mood having re-read TMA04 (the essay in question) and been positively surprised by its quality (to the extent that I can’t really believe that I wrote it).

However, a mere 300 words in, I can exclusively reveal that this post will be about the ability of music to bring joy (of the unconfined kind) into my life.  This can come in many ways, for example a semi-competent vocal performance of a piece of serious music by the author works (though I suspect in this case that the joy is limited to the author), but I shall actually be talking about the fun to be had from the live musical performance of others (let’s face it, GofaDM is more than sufficiently me-centric already).

Of all the splendid musicians I have seen in recent months at the Art House café, two groups particularly stand out in the joy stakes: in that it is impossible to listen to either without my face being parted by a grin.  As it transpires they share a common drummer, though I don’t think he can claim all the credit.

The first would be The Madcap Ponderlings (previously known as The Skull Kids) who describe themselves as “waltzing a fine line between carnival cabaret, whimsical psychedelia and alternative rock” (which is far better than any description I could generate). The second, who I saw on Friday, are Threepenny Bit who are a folk/ceilidh band, though this description doesn’t entirely do them justice.  For a start, I’m not convinced that either the saxophone or the electric bass would count as traditional folk instruments – though I feel the accordion and fiddle are probably on much safer ground.  As so often, I nearly didn’t go: associating folk with sandals, beards and a degree of po-faced seriousness.  I’ll admit there was one very fine (and familiar) beard (I am slowly discovering how the bar staff of the Turner Sims spend their time off), but I didn’t spot a single sandal or any visage reminiscent of the gazunder (a word which seems to have been appropriated by the darkling world of estate agency, if Google is to be believed).  I find it hard to believe anyone else had more fun than me last Friday night.

It was during that Friday evening that I discovered the hybridisation of musical genres has gone even further than I could have imagined.  One of the group had spent time in France with a band that mixed Breton folk with death metal – and it seems such folk-metal crossovers (le metal celtique) are quite big over la Manche.  Among the more standard instrumentation of ‘death metal’, this band included the bombard: an instrument whose very existence could make one appreciate a neighbour who has taken up the drums or violin (because it could be so much worse).  If I did need to find a woodwind instrument that would give me a fighting chance of bringing down a city’s walls, I think the bombard might be my choice: if only because the city’s denizens may demolish their own walls to escape its plangent song.  Perhaps luckily, it requires a lot of puff and so it can only be played in short bursts: rather less luckily, this issue is resolved by pairing it with a form of the bagpipes.  This traditional bracing (known as Sonneurs de Couples) is, having sampled a short snatch, even worse than you are currently imagining.  This is weaponised folk music and a very good reason never to upset the good people of Brittany.  Despite this view (which you should feel free to check for yourselves, but don’t then come crying to me: you were warned!), today’s title was posed as a serious question with a view to augmenting the musical forces (very much in the sense of ‘armed’) available to Threepenny Bit.  The vast majority of the band, very wisely IMHO, demurred.

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Rodent athletics: revisited

As those that know the way my mind works will already have realised, I am back from my sojourn in Edinburgh and am back to the rat race.

It was great living the life of the flâneur for a whole week, albeit one with rather limited exposure to green vegetables coupled with not insubstantial consumption of fried food and alcohol.  When in Rome as they say…    Normal service has very much had to resume, since my return I have completed my tax return for 2011/2 and finished my latest assignment for the Open University.  This was the dreaded “reflective essay” where I have to talk about myself as a student and despite what you may have inferred from this blog, I really don’t like writing about myself in any serious way.  I realise that I should in theory know far more about the Fish than I do about the art of Benin or the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich – but somehow it never feels that way.  Still, it’s done now – so my navel can go back to accumulating fluff unobserved by its owner.

My return has also meant the need to return to the day job.  As if this were not horrifying enough, I shall have to spend two days (and the night they encompass) in Woking.  I have another thrill unpacked day in Surrey next week as well.  Woe, woe and thrice woe king, to paraphrase the soothsayer of Up Pompeii!  Truly, I am the monarch of dolor.

I also find myself missing the heady mix of comedy, poetry and theatre that filled my time among the Picts.  The combination of Luke Wright and Dirty Great Love Story – which had significant chunks in verse – reminded me of how little use I have made of my rhyming dictionary.  Before I doze off of at night, I have been trying to construct poetry to fill this void but with little success.  For some reason my wind wanders either to work – be it paid, voluntary or OU – or to construct poor quality jokes.  As an example of this latter, I present “Exhibit A”:

Q: Why do Balladeers make very poor surveyors.

A: Because they constantly vacillate between three and four feet to their meter.  (The correct value is 3.28 feet).

I did warn you it was poor and should probably have mentioned that it requires knowledge of the metrical form of the ballad.  It would work better with a verse form entirely in trimeter, but I was unable to find any in English and I thought Greek verse would be needlessly obscure (even for GofaDM).

My yearning for the theatre was partially satisfied by BBC2 on Sunday night with Murder: Joint Endeavour.  Not a cheery piece this, definite hints of Scandi-noir (not too surprising as it was directed by a chap who cut his teeth on The Killing), but an absolutely brilliant piece of television and really quite theatrical (I could see it working as a play without too much difficulty)- if none too kind to my birthplace. I think all this theatre-going is expanding my taste in drama: to continue the good work, I wonder if I can sneak in a  visit to the stalls on one of my journeys back from Woking?  Must be worth a try…

Creeps in this petty pace

Procrastination is, as is widely known, the thief of time.  Somehow, despite this fact, it remains at large to commit new and blatant acts of temporal larceny: I must admit I am beginning to suspect some degree of corruption at the heart of the authorities charged with its apprehension, I suspect they have been bribed with stolen hours.

The word comes to us from Latin – suggesting the thief has been operating for millenia – and their word for tomorrow.  However, it comes to my mind as a result of the many delays to work commencing on my latest essay for the Open University.  This, which is to cover ideas about the transmission of medical knowledge from the Islamic world to Europe, was supposed to have appeared in its dreadful first draft form the weekend before last, but did not.  I would claim that this was not the result of procrastination but because the day job consumed much of my time and mental resource.  Under interrogation, I would also have to admit that the Cambridge Comedy and Summer Musical Festivals (and my attendance thereat) were also involved.  I somehow allowed that week to slip through my fingers in broadly the same way, but by the Friday night I was all out of excuses and planned to set to work.  Somehow nothing happened once more.  Why you ask?  Let’s just say Danny Boyle has a lot to answer for! (I toyed with “for which to answer”, but that seemed a little stilted, even for GofaDM).

From previous posts, you may have detected my slight lack of enthusiasm for all things Olympic – but I felt some sort of duty to at least glance at the Opening Ceremony as it had garnered so much coverage in the media (so much, that even I had been unable to avoid it).  OMG! As I believe the young people say, which I believe celebrated the British synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Gloaming (who later, of course, found fame as OMD).  What an incredible piece of theatre – though one can only wonder what the rest of the world might have made if it, as it was really rather British (perhaps there were handouts for foreign broadcasters).  I was hooked – and my essay remained unwritten – until well after my normal bedtime.  I even stuck around to watch quite a lot of the athletes parading round the stadium – how nice to see so many people smiling – and was particularly impressed by the Czechs in their very natty wellies and matching brollies, they at least had noticed the rather moist weather we’ve been enjoying (and which does seem to have returned).  Apparently, the ceremony cost £27 million and peaked at 27 million viewers in the UK – and I, for one, do not begrudge them my pound.  One of the best quid I’ve ever spent!

Last Sunday, tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow) finally arrived and my excuses were at an  end, so I was forced to knuckle-down and generate a first draft of the essay (you see, it was pro-crastination, not am-crastination).  For some reason, this has proved by far the most difficult essay to draft: it took all day to place my ideas and arguments into some sort of vaguely logical and coherent order.  Once the back was broken, this Friday I managed to hack it into better shape and rein in my verbosity comply with the word limit, though, as usual, consuming almost all of the permitted +10%.  Oh yes, when writing essays I quite literally give it 110%!  Yesterday, it was finally submitted and a great weight was lifted – some of it is even quite well written (I think, or at least hope), though it is somewhat turgid elsewhere I fear.

By yesterday afternoon I was feeling quite good about myself and then WordPress notified me of a new post from James Devine, the man who I now think of as my nemesis.  While I was pfaffing around and writing one essay, he managed to build a muon detector.  I am going to have to up my game quite substantially if I’m planning to compete.

Perhaps appropriately for a post about procrastination, this entry in the GofaDM canon was mostly drafted a week ago.   I seem to have been temporizing to an extraordinary degree since then – though I might blame the need to write for both work and the OU for having exhausted my writing muscles.  Still, pleasing to have the link back to Macbeth (the last time I studied the Arts) and particularly appropriate as this same soliloquy brings us the wonderful words “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”: which could stand as the mission statement for GofaDM.

Nothing for a pair

…not in this game.  Where would the world of the catchphrase be without Brucie?  Do I have a catchphrase?  I suspect there are phrases that are heavily over-used in these posts, but I’m too much of a coward to check: unless anyone would care to notify me…

As some may have guessed, this is the post that no-one wants to see but I create as a way of (dolly) dealing with my sense of astonishment.  I have just received back my marked assignment on the art of Benin and my heart-rate has yet to return to normal.  This huge increase in heart rate occurs whenever an email arrives revealing my assignment has returned, marked – and then tends to become worse when I discover that I have once again fooled the Open University with a semblance of competence.  I don’t ever recall this happening at school or university – is this perhaps a normal feature of middle-age?  OK, just me then.  With each essay I grow less confident either that I am producing what is required or that I know what I’m doing.  I also become more frustrated that there is insufficient depth in the teaching materials provided to support my ambitious plans for my latest prose work.  It is often said that you learn through your mistakes and I am now becoming paranoid that I am making too few mistakes: I feel like I am fluking the entire course.  I realise that no-one else cares about my insecurity: the successful, like the thin (another camp into which I fall), receive very little sympathy for their plight.

Anyway, as the title implies (or, at least, will have led the better students to infer), my latest opus once again received 95 marks and some extremely kind comments from my tutor.  It would seem I have some future in art history (should I want it) and can construct a decent argument.  I suspect the remark about my tendency to use “elevated language” will strike a familiar chord in the hearts of readers of this blog, and may only partly be intended as a compliment.

This must all be very frustrating for you poor blog sufferers – to know that I can write half-decent prose, but never to see any examples.  Sadly, the rules of the OU prevent me: I already worry that students more generally are plagiarising this blog for their homework and failing courses as a result (and I really don’t have the mental capacity to process any more sources of guilt).  It is also quite frustrating for a chap trying to decide where to take his Arts foundation course next.  I had been leaning strongly towards philosophy, but now I’m wondering about including a bit of art and I’ve always been tempted by literature and classics.  The only issue about art or literature is that I’m (currently) a bit picky about the sort I’d like to study: basically the stuff in which I have an existing interest, but I suspect higher education doesn’t work quite like that.

I think, for the sake of variety, my next essay will be on the transmission of medical knowledge from the Islamic world to Western Europe.  Unusually, I am already full of ideas for this – which probably means it will be a disaster.  Quick doctor, bring me a leech…

On writing

I believe that professional writers, once they reach a certain level of success, are asked how to write by those who believe that a novel (or film or sitcom) lies within just waiting to be unleashed.  To the surprise of no-one, least of all myself, I have yet to be so cross-examined: but will share my modest insights nonetheless (yes, I do recognise that if my insights were properly modest, I would not be broadcasting them to an unfeeling world: I’m just ignoring this fact).

Since starting this blog, and feeling the pressure to keep producing new content, I have written more than at any previous point in my life.  This requirement to write has intensified since starting my Open University course for which I have to produce an essay (or two) every month (now up to 1500 words).  This writing has to be produced to a rather higher standard than the blog and to stick to the point substantially better.  As a result, they take a lot longer to produce – and despite the evidence to the contrary, these posts take quite a period of time to craft from the raw material of language.

I believe the most common advice to the novice writer is to just write.  In my experience, this is very much to the mustard.  I find it very easy to spend many days, sometimes well over a week, thinking about an essay – but at some point, nothing moves forward unless I start to write it.  After the first draft, I tend to be cast into the slough of despond (nowhere near Eton, whatever one J Betjeman and his entreaty to airborne ordnance might suggest) as the writing seems awful, I’m over the word limit and have still failed to cover a number of points I feel are critical to include.  I then try and leave the abomination for at least a couple of days (not always easy) and then return to redraft.  This is usually much better and covers all the bases within the word limit (though I generally require most of my 10% allowance), but still not really there.  The second redraft a day or so later, usually allows the essay to reach its apogee – it is still not perfect, but I can live with it and it seems unlikely to improve to a material degree with further effort.  Earlier this week, my opus on the art of Benin finally reached this state and was submitted – only time, and my tutor’s marking, will tell whether it achieved the required standard.

The blog is a fish of a rather different feather.  No-one provides a subject, word or time limit for the production of a post.  Nor am I required to write in the academic style or quote my sources (though I could if there were pressure from the readership).  This freedom is all well and good, but my relatively incident-free life (by design) coupled with the desire to be funny (hadn’t noticed?  Oh well…) does lead to my life being dominated by the tyranny of the blank page (or web form) somewhat frequently.  I also feel I should try and be somewhat original – though seven billion other souls on the planet (assuming humans, and only humans, are possessed of souls) makes this a challenge (and rather hard to test) – but at least I can try and avoid the merely trite or clichéd (which is doubly a past-participle: would that make it a pluperfect, in Franglais if nowhere else?).  However, I may be hindered in these attempts by my general failure to understand how other (they might like to think “normal”) people ratiocinate: generalising from myself seldom leads to as much insight as hoped.  To my astonishment, I do still seem to come up with topics on which to witter from the minutiae of my existence – despite being well into the difficult second year of the blog – though I now find myself wondering if used this idea before (and am too generally lazy to check).

I tend to feel posts are overly long, without the discipline imposed by the OU, with too much text integument needed to link the key ideas together.  Perhaps with more time, I could produce more condensed material – with less extraneous detail, though that can sometimes provide a useful diary function for me (which could be handy if I ever decide to write my Memoirs).  Despite these reservations, when I look back over the 335 back-numbers – usually in response to a post being viewed by a reader – they do still make me laugh.  (If you will indulge me in a brief divagation, why are the good folk of India so interested in a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear?  Is it on their national curriculum?  This blog is  receiving an unusually large number of hits from this search – and I’d never realised Edward Lear was so big on the sub-continent, and fear I am going to be of little practical assistance).  The occasional idea of mine really appeals to me, most recently the concordance between a rail journey and 2001: this is one of the few ideas that feels as though it could be worked up into a proper chunk of a stand-up act (most require far too high a level of general knowledge to ever work in public).

Still, it has never been my intent to rest on any member of the family Lauraceae (whomsoever claims ownership) and I seek continuous improvement.  As part of this drive, I found the excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast: which is a series of interviews by Stuart Goldsmith (a man whose comedy and forename I admire) that provide a fascinating insight into how proper comedians come up with ideas and write material.  Reassuringly they face many of the same problems that I do; annoyingly they seem to resolve them rather more successfully.  This listening has also had the positive effect – for the world at large – of putting me off a career in stand-up: it seems to be seriously hard work with far too many late nights.  I think I shall stick to writing material for other poor saps to perform (while I am safely tucked up ‘neath a duvet): which reminds me of the very poor progress made on two other writing projects: the panto and the poesy post.  Must try harder…

Writing of distinction

I return to the theme of big heads previously explored in Stalking, though many of you may not have made it far enough through that particular magnum opus to know this: never mind the quality, just feel that quantity!  And, do remember that 1200 is the new 500 (well, it is when it comes to word count).  On this occasion, the over-sized cranium in question will be mine.  Yes, roughly a month has passed since the last use of this particular shoe-horn, so it is once again time for me to try and slip in a reference to my essay prowess.

Yesterday evening, TMA03 was returned to me by the electronic magic of the Open University: marked and commented on in the by now traditional manner.  To my significant surprise, my marks had risen once again to reach a level that would gain a Distinction, though you should not expect this quality of writing to make an appearance on GofaDM any time soon (I do only produce one post a month for the OU, and puns are frowned upon).  Plato scored rather better than the Dalai Lama (yes, I am thinking of developing AA100 Top Trumps as a way of garnering extra credit), so perhaps I did pay a price for my lunchtime spurning of the latter’s element of the Open Day back in April.  Or perhaps I’m just a natural at philosophy and it’s time to start inviting young ladies to come back to my place to see my stone?

However, this ever upward ladder of achievement is doing nothing for my performance anxiety.  I’m going to have to pull something pretty spectacular out of the hat for TMA04 (and thinking about TMA07 just brings me out in a cold sweat).  Still, I did have a small epiphany this morning as my bowl of porridge slowly rotated in the microwave, which will help to fit the Jewish element into my 1200 words.  This post is, in a very real way, a form of procrastination before I start my essay plan.  A plan!?  What have I come to?  Next, it’ll be running my life based on PRINCE, and I worry it will be the project management methodology rather than the self-help manual penned by Niccolò Machiavelli.

In other news, Spring is finally busting out all over Sawston and so my swollen cranium has had a chance to gain a little colour and my body some much needed vitamin D.  In response, I’m heading off to the seaside tomorrow: bucket and spade in hand and hankie knotted to protect the top of my head from the sun’s ultraviolet rays (it may also help to connect me to my virtual Jewish grandmother – of which more in another post).  OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but I am off to Brighton, “a town which looks like it is helping the police with their enquiries” in the immoral words of Keith Waterhouse.  I shall be visiting that city’s famous Dome to take in a performance of Shostakovich’ 13th Symphony Babi Yar (in which at least one regular reader of GOfaDM will be performing) which is (a) about as Jewish as his output gets and (b) demonstrates that symphonic composers are rather less triskaidekaphobic than hotel and airline operators appear to believe that we, the great unwashed, are.  So, my visit counts as both homework and one-in-the-eye for superstition.

Now, I really must start that essay plan…

Back to school

Last Saturday I took the next step in my cunning plan to become an expert on The Arts: Past and Present (sadly, the Open University is unwilling to offer me mastery of The Arts: Future – or not at this level and/or cost) and attended my first Day School.  This very much does what it says on the tin, in that it lasted the whole day (OK, 10:30 to 16:00 – but that counts as a long day for me) and it took place in a school (OK, a very highly rated sixth form college).  School does seem to have gone rather upmarket since I last attended, though the chair technology seems to have moved forward not one jot.  It is an oft quoted “fact” that back pain costs this nation a fortune in lost working hours each year: perhaps a modest investment in more lumbar-friendly seating for our young folk would be a wise one.

But, I seem to have divagated from my point somewhat (and we can thank my OU course for that rather handy piece of new vocabulary).  I spent a fair chunk of the day in a room that was dedicated to PE (Physical Education).  In my day, this would have involved parquet flooring, bars, mats and an unwanted requirement to engage in coordinated, physical activity – but this room had desks, chairs and a fair volume of IT equipment and, as a result, no room for anything terribly strenuous.  If PE had been more like this in the seventies, I might have taken more of an interest and who knows what sporting prowess I might have achieved.  This room also introduced me to the East Anglian pastime of dwile flonking (its name was pasted to one of the notice boards around the room, along with the names of more familiar sporting activities).  Strangely, this sport was not on the curriculum in my day – but sounds a great deal more fun than those that were, and could well be one of the few in which the UK still leads the world.

The day itself was divided into four sessions, and an introduction.  Regular readers will be pleased to know that I only attended three of the sessions (I don’t want to seem too needy): the lunch break provided was insufficient for anything other than sandwiches, and after two trips to Woking for the day job in the preceding week I’d had enough of John Montagu’s invention.  Added to this, the 6th form college was next door to a restaurant that had received very positive reviews and which I’ve been intending to visit for some time, so the Dalai Lama didn’t stand a chance.

The day (well the 7/9ths I attended) was enormous fun and it was good to meet a wider selection of my fellow students.  The feedback forms seemed to suggest the day was wholly designed to help us with our next assignment (sadly, it seems that all education – even the elective – is now skewed at passing exams rather than learning anything) at which it was only mildly successful, I’d suggest they should be seeking feedback on a wider range of outcomes from the day.

Talking of assignments, this week also brought the marks for my second assignment (TMA02)- which was basically re-writing the weaker half of the first assignment and reflecting on the comments that had been made thereon.  Once again, the author received very good marks – even better than TMA01 – yes, as before this post is just an excuse to boast about my incondign mastery of the art of essay writing.  This weekend, I need to start work on TMA03 and I’m starting to experience performance anxiety.  All these decent marks are creating a rod for my own back: do I have anything worthwhile to say about the Dalai Lama and Plato’s Meno?  Will I come to I regret my lotus-eating last Saturday lunch-time?  I’m not feeling much love from the muse at the moment, so I may just have to stop procrastinating and hope that 90% perspiration will either (a) be enough or (b) act as a spur to at least a few percent of inspiration.  Sadly, unlike Mr Edison I don’t have a large team whose combination of sweat and innovation I can claim as my own.