Seeing off 2017

This post was supposed to have been written rather earlier in 2018 but somehow I seem to have become distracted by other matters.  Then again, a man who constructed an entire post around an abandoned loaf of sliced white or, in the early days, the genetic purity of the ruddy duck was probably always going to struggle to stick to the point or, indeed, any over-arching plan for a frivolous blog of his life.

I trust that a few readers are still clinging on to the last tatters of their most recent annual resolutions or have managed to maintain their temporary new dalliance with an absence of ethanol or animal products in their diet.  I expect the country’s gymnasia are quietening down again and many members will already have paid their last visit of 2018: though will continue to pay a direct-debited sacrifice to fitness for many months yet (it certainly satisfies one measure of “losing a few pounds”).  To be honest, a bit of extra post-Christmas carriage has probably been a boon given the rather stormy nature to the start of the year and helped to keep a few feet on the ground, despite Eleanor doing rather more than picking up some discarded rice.

In many ways, I ended 2017 much as I lived through the rest of it and managed to find at least one ‘gig’ for each of those ill-defined days that lurk twixt Christmas and the New Year.  The monthly acoustic (mostly folk) session at the Guide Dog restored much needed live music to my life after a two day absence on the 27th.  It was at this event that the first of two incidents of me being recognised over this period occurred: on this occasion my ‘fan’ explained that she had ‘seen me in pubs’.  She had me bang to rights, I think you’ll agree!

The following evening provides some more music but mostly poetry, the highlight of which was when a friend – who had bought some poems he wrote in the mid 90s just-in-case – found himself headlining the gig (or at least going on last).  Let this be a warning to you all: never carry a poem if you aren’t willing to use it!

On the Friday, feeling that I had unfairly been neglecting the Joiners, I spent my evening at a gig expecting to know none of the bands on offer – but the options were limited and it seemed worth a punt.  This became the second occasion that week for me to be recognised, this time as a member of previous audiences.  It would seem that I have become the Troy McClure of Southampton gig audiences, “You may remember me from such audiences as…”.  I had great fun at the gig: as it turned I had seen one of the supports (Myriad) before, but Eyes to the Skies and The Collision were both new to me and enormous fun.

The bands were all incredibly youthful, leaving me feeling particularly ancient and talentless: what was I doing at their age?  A Levels, I seem to recall and both reading and listening to radio comedy (not much else springs to mind).  The audience were also, mostly, young and so there was a lot more moshing and pogoing than I normally experience at a gig.  I do love this as it gives a wonderful energy to affairs, but I do find myself worrying about the motor control of the young people and the risk of them landing on my relatively unprotected feet.  I think I may acquire a pair of steel toe-capped shoes for such events where I can enjoy the youthful exuberance without fear of a crushing defeat (now, that’s what I call a pun!) style incident.  On these occasions, I usually assume that other people of even roughly my age are either parents (or grandparents! Arghh!) of someone on stage – and can often confirm this: the lovely young lad fronting Eyes to the Skies name-checked his mum in the audience way more often than I imagine happens at the O2, I seem to recall she volunteered to ferry much of the audience round the country when he goes on tour.

On Saturday, I voyaged by posh bus to Winchester to see a friend play in the Oxfam music shop.  It may be slower (usually) and more expensive than the train, but you do get a much broader range of sights from the top deck of a bus as it wends its way towards Alfred’s city.  It was during this gig that I was unable to resist purchasing a second-hand book of 15 keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.  This was an excellent buy and the first example (the D minor Kk.1) is bringing a lot of pleasure into my musical life as I attempt to play it.  The range of second-hand keyboard music available was impressive, though I was left with the impression that children in the nineteenth century were much more gifted at the piano than middle-aged men in the 21st: repertoire for the young written by Schumann looked impossibly difficult to me.  Or does this explain its presence in a charity shop?

I even bumped into my sister (OK, we had arranged this) and, despite the range of excellent pubs that Winchester offers, find myself accompanying her to a local Weatherspoons.  Oh, the shame of it!  The things one does for family, still I suppose I did get a pint of Upham’s Punter out of the deal!

In the evening, I was back at the Talking Heads to send off 2017 in style with three of my favourite local bands in action.  The combined forces of Tenderlore, Jack Francis and Shy Boy provided a perfect musical conclusion to my year.  The evening ended, unexpectedly) with a pilot for an exciting new reality TV series, in that it comprised a relative ordinary activity made dramatic by the injection of unnecessary temporal jeopardy.   It did lack a formal judging panel, though the process was accompanied by a degree of badinage which I feel could have evolved in that direction.

A young guitarist due to travel back to Leicester the following day for an important party starts the attempt to purchase his advance rail ticket at 23:50, before the prices go up at midnight, using his mobile phone (I find the young often embrace the Japanese concept of Kanban to a greater extent than is strictly necessary).  As a musician, this attempt was made using an account with £0.01 in it, and so also required a money transfer from an account which probably contained slightly more money.  As the last few minutes of the day ticked over, tension mounted.  Would he make it before the prices went up?  Midnight came and went, and prices seemed not to rise but still the abortive attempts continued.  Sadly, I was forced to leave before discovering the outcome – did Matt make it to Leicester?  A future blog post may reveal the answer, if I ever discover…

On New Year’s Eve itself, I followed my own tradition of spending it with friends: eating, drinking and in wide-ranging conversation.  This year was an away fixture for me, so I was able to eat like a king (actually, I suspect way better than any king and with less emphasis on swans and too many lamphreys) without having taken much part in the preparation.  I did lend a hand beating a couple of egg whites into stiff peaks, but that was mostly to try out my friend’s rather excellent balloon whisk (it contained a contra-acting internal element I had never seen before, but did stiffen my peaks in record time).  I was also inspired to make my own pasta as it was made to look both easy and fun.  I have already bought the OO flour (I decided N-gauge would be too fiddly) and will soon start scouring charity shops for unwanted pasta makers going cheap.

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The cryptically named ‘agog’, cruelly dropped from the Septuagint, was very tasty!

At times during the evening, background music was provided from various programmes my friends had recorded from Radio 3.  An unexpected number of these seemed to be music written for coronations – perhaps to remind me that I was dining royally – and many by William Walton.  “Crown Imperial” seemed an obvious enough title for such a piece, but I was foxed for an embarrassingly long time by his piece “Auburn Sceptre”.  This frankly sounded more like a piece to written to accompany saucy movies for (or about) the strawberry blonde than for a formal state occasion.  It was eventually pointed out that the piece was called “Orb and Sceptre”, however, I am still hoping to use it to choreograph some adult “dance” using a ginger friend or two (or more, I’ll admit my knowledge of adult dance is quite basic).

Reading back through this post, I wonder if I am less aiming at becoming official blogger to the Southampton cultural scene and more the scriptwriter for a new batch of Carry-On films.  Still, it is always good to have some achievable goals for the new year!

What’s the Deal?

Audiences regularly baffle me.  Sometimes in terms of their composition, but more often in terms of their numbers.  I rather suspect this is because I extrapolate from myself and, despite attempts to correct for my musical (and other cultural) tastes (broad though they may be), I am clearly not coming up with a decent model for the general public.

Most of this post will be about the Southampton scene, but I thought I’d start in the nation’s capital.  On Saturday evening, I went to a folk gig in a London venue I assumed to be somewhat famous to see a pair of musicians I also assumed to be famous: I was anticipating a fairly packed 200 seater.  I think I may have been confusing the concepts of “known to me” and “famous”.  The music venue at The Harrison was a surprisingly small cellar with dangerously low ceilings (well for me, my mother would have had nothing to worry about).  While the cellar became moderately busy by the end of the gig, I think I was in a very small minority having booked ahead and I suspect the only person to have travelled even a fraction of my 70 odd miles.  It was a lovely gig and Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss (footwear sponsored by Adidas) do some amazing work with viola and melodeon (I am listening to Laguna as I write this post).  Even better, the boys finished in time for me to catch the 22:35 train home (albeit with some fast footwork across the Waterloo concourse): an important aspect of any night out in London!

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Moore & Moss: too formally attired?

I have been to some stunning theatre in Southampton, often very highly reviewed by professional critics (rather than random, self-obsessed bloggers like me), but very rarely in a mid-sized theatre even as much as half full.  This fact has proved quite handy for me as I can book very late once I know I will be at home, rather than over the Irish Sea, but can’t be ideal for the funding of the arts.  I also feel that lots of the folk of Southampton and its environs are missing out on some reasonably priced treats: I can generally go to the theatre half-a-dozen times locally for less than the cost of one trip to the west end (and this is very much what I do: there’s nothing wrong with thrift!).

However, the main thrust of this post will be about music and my totally inability to guess how busy a gig will be.  Part of this must be down to my rather sketchy musical knowledge: especially in regard to the popular music of my lifetimes.  There would appear to be large number of touring bands of yesteryear that visit Southampton, perhaps with some changes from the original line-up, of which my memory can deliver no recollection whatsoever.  I have, for instance, noticed that there were a lot more punk bands than I have any memory of and can also observe that the years have not treated the fans of these bands kindly.

I do have a feeling that a significant audience prefers to go (or only goes) to see musicians they fondly remember from a formative period of their youth.  Luckily, I don’t do this – or I’d never go out.  My youth seems to have been formative in non-standard ways, if at all…  Recently, in an unexpected (and now forgotten) context, I heard a JFK quote about not looking to “the safe mediocrity of the past“.  I’d been planning to use this in a savage indictment of the recent politics of both left and right – and perhaps typified by Brexit.  However, I shall instead – and perhaps more in keeping with the character of this blog – apply the principle to being culturally adventurous, with particular application to music.

I do wonder if there may be a certain lack of courage when it come too programming music – though, there may be some financial wisdom to this cowardice as I suspect audience caution robs them of experiences they would love.  Just this Sunday, I went to see the Armida Quartet playing at the Turner Sims.  My reading of the audience – including a few I chatted to over cake at half-time – was that the most enjoyed piece was the least safe choice in the Bach, Mozart and Beethoven: the third string quartet ‘Jagdquartett’ by Jörg Widmann.  It was the presence of this piece (well, that and the free half-time cake) that was my trigger to book the gig, but I suspect I was in a tiny minority (if not alone in this).  I was not disappointed: great music and visually exciting to watch as well – particular snaps to the acting skills of the cellist!

However, sometimes I am positively surprised.  Last Tuesday, I went to my Sofar gig – as part of Sofar Southampton.  These were traditionally held in people’s homes, with the venue announced only 24 hours ahead of time.  This has been an issue in the past, when I have been dependent on public transport or my bike.  They also have tended to require booking ahead of time, which has also been an issue with my rather variable availability midweek.  However, I now have a car and decided to take a punt.  As well as not knowing the venue, the artists performing are not announced at all: you find out who they are when you arrive at the gig.  So, no safety net: you are entirely relying on the skill and judgment of the local Sofar team (I will admit I do seem to know several of them).  I always feel slightly ambivalent about music taking place in unusual places: it is always great fun to see new places (I’m as nosy as the next man – more, if you’ve seen my face), but I feel I should be supporting established venues which have a hard enough time financially without the nation’s reception rooms filching their raison d’être.

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This is not the droid you’re looking for, it’s busy enjoying the music!

No cause for guilt last Tuesday as the ‘front room’ was upstairs at the Art House (a music venue I have often visited).  However, they maintained the usual Sofar vibe by having much of the audience (including me) sitting on cushions on the floor: I’m too old for this, I have come to realise and next time I’ll sit on a chair with the old codgers.  All four acts were great fun: Tom Pointer was originally from Southampton, Djuno are a local band and Ciircus Street had come from exotic Reading.  I enjoyed all of these, in each case sat underneath the neck of some sort of guitar, and would certainly seek them out again.  The headliner (or at least he was on last), Will Varley, claimed to have come all the way from Deal, however, post-gig conversation (as I was buying CDs) revealed he actually lives in Kingsdown (but he did have a range of Southampton gigging experiences, so I think we might still claim him as a son of the city).  I spent chunks of my youth in Walmer (I lived there for four years, as a blonde!  All natural!  Where did it all go wrong?) and regularly walked over Kingsdown with my grandparents and their dog.  Apparently, the area has changed somewhat and is now trendy and possessed of a vibrant music scene (in my day, I think the music scene was limited to the Royal Marines Band).  I now have a hankering to return to the places of my youth, walk the cliffs and prom and take in some live music: might wait for the weather to warm up a little first…  Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress!

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Will Varley with an almost JJ Abrams vibe, viewed from beneath.

Despite the uncertainty about location and musical fare, the gig was fully booked – and I believe this is not unusual.  Clearly there is an audience in the Southampton area with a sense of adventure, but where – I found myself asking (as I didn’t recognise most of them) – are they the other 29(ish) days of the month?  I’ve been to many gigs with three or four acts unknown (to me – and I suspect many others), often at lower cost than a Sofar gig, but been part of a sadly tiny throng: most of whom later turn out to be in (or related to) one of the bands on the bill.  What is Sofar‘s secret and how can we spread it more widely around the local music scene?

Every time I go to update (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide (as I did this morning) I find yet more music and other cultural treats in and around Southampton.  I think I might have to establish a new page to capture details of the potential audience so that we can (together) do suitable justice to our cultural riches!  It’s either that or some experiments of very dubious ethical standing to clone myself – and nobody wants that!

Or is he a very naughty boy?

I shall open with a confession, and I’m sorry if this shocks anyone: I have never seen The Life of Brian.  It is an area of our culture that I have acquired entirely by osmosis and a having seen a few clips – usually after alcohol has been taken.  There are other whole swathes of popular culture for which I can talk a good (or if not good, than usually sufficiently convincing) game but have never experienced directly – these may be revealed in later posts, or I may take some shameful secrets with me to the grave.

Talking of the grave, I like to think that I am raging against the dying of the light: quick before Chaos’ dread empire is restored and universal darkness buries all.   I like to think that my foolish attempts to become a multi-instrumentalist and gymnast (among other manifestations of the mid-life crisis) in my early fifties – despite little previous indication of any innate ability in either sphere – set me well ahead of the vast majority of my cohort.  Last night I had the great joy to meet someone who makes my raging look more like the work of a man only vaguely disappointed before the uncreating word.

Yester e’en, I took myself I took myself by Sprinter Express to Romsey to see a performance of Handel’s Messiah (hence the title) by the Hanover Band and Chorus, plus some rather fine soloists.  Arriving a little early (always safest when relying on public transport), I had time for a rather pleasant pint of Tessellate at the Tipsy Pig.

The gig was held in the impressive space of Romsey Abbey and described as The Messiah by Candlelight – and there were certainly lit candles present, but the vast majority of the light was powered electrically.  While I may quibble about the light and the lack of heating (the poor choir must have been frozen by the end of the gig), there was no room for complaint about the quality of the music.  The Hanover Band play on period instruments and play them with surpassing skill – and the soloists were excellent.  Sitting in the front row – my feet were in a position to trip the tenor on his way to perform each aria – the quality of the sound was excellent (it may have been good elsewhere, but I have no direct evidence for this).  It was great to be so close to the action for such an iconic choral work, it was particularly astonishing watching the bass (as I am one) singing The trumpet shall sound and his extraordinary breath control – I couldn’t even tell he needed to breathe (if I attempted that aria, people would know of my need to inhale from a couple of counties away!).  However, if there is one tune in the Messiah which really grabs at my very vitals, it must be the soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth – somehow it always catches me by surprise (it’s right up there with Ruht wohl from the St John Passion for emotional punch).

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Marvel at the massed candles!

During the interval, while a chap raced to tune the harpsichord and I assume the choir tried to get warm, I was somewhat surprised to be recognised by one of the second violins.  Now, I have seen the Haonver Band once before but it was ~15 years ago and I was part of an anonymous crowd at the Wigmore Hall.  As it transpired, he had played at an Out-take Ensemble gig and remembered my skilled audience-work from there – truly I do need to permanently be on my best behaviour as I could be recognised anywhere!

I was sitting on the right-hand edge of the front row of the central nave and found myself chatting to the pair of ladies sitting next to me.  Somehow conversation turned to my attempts to play Valse Lente and Cruella de Vil on the piano and the joy that I find in the slow process of mastery.  Not only did one of my new companions (I shall call her J for the rest of this post) also love these pieces, but she could also recommend Joc cu bâtă by Bartók and the Bach A Minor Invention from the same book!  The three of us got on like a house on fire – including some mischievous football-related banter between J and the tenor – so well, in fact, that they offered me a lift home (saving a longish wait on the platform at Romsey station).  It was on this journey that I discovered just how extraordinary J was.

I would say that J was certainly well into her sixties and quite possibly beyond, but I already knew that she had cycled 20 miles that day.  As it transpired, this was very much one of her lesser feats.  In very recent years she has skydived, para-glided, climbed Kilimanjaro, Go(ne) Ape and abseiled off the Spinnaker Tower.  In her day-job, she is a piano teacher and is corrupting her young female charges in ways that frankly their parents probably don’t (initially) expect from a woman of her age.  She also makes my own recent bike accident and recovery look very tame.  Recently, she was rear-ended by a car at a roundabout and really quite seriously injured – quite the range of broken bones and lesser abrasions and contusions.  Lying on the ground she heard a woman screaming and wondered who it was, before realising she was the one making the noise.  Nevertheless, she refused an ambulance and instead insisted – very forcefully – on being taken to the crematorium.  Not to cut out the middleman, but because she was due to play the organ at a funeral – which she proceeded to do.  She has also continued working through Hepatitis B and her survival from this continues to amaze the medical profession. What a woman!  What a role model!  I shall have to seriously up my game…

There has been a recent “thing” on Twitter after someone asked users to “name a badder bitch than Taylor Swift”, probably rhetorically.  Historians (among others) led, on my feed at least by the lovely Greg Jenner, have been offering some stunning examples from the past.  I would definitely add J to the list – and to think, if I hadn’t gone out last night and chatted with complete strangers, I would never have known that such amazing folk live among us!

Fame!

No, I don’t want to live forever (frankly, it seems an even more ghastly prospect than the other option) and nor am I about to start dancing and singing on and around the stationary traffic of New York city (an allusion there for the older reader).  Fame, like significant wealth, has always struck me as something to avoid and, given the events of 2016, does not seem conducive to obtaining value-for-money from my pension contributions.  I fully intend to survive long enough to be a burden on whatever state remains on these isles by that point (if any): a point at which demographers promise that we (the then old) will be a far from silent majority!

Despite my attempts to eschew fame, I do seem to have acquired a degree of notoriety in a limited number of spheres.  It would seem, to my eternal surprise, that I am somewhat memorable and people who have met me tend to recall having done so.  This recall may, perhaps, have been enhanced by the extensive therapy oft occasioned by meeting the author – but even accounting for this, and despite my fairly mundane appearance and mind, I do appear to stick if not in the craw then in the memory.  One of life’s great mysteries…

I do have the gift of remembering people.  Sadly, its utility is weakened by my ability to remember complete strangers and my inability to provide a name or context for the people I actually do know.  Still, unwanted though my gift may be, it is far too late to send it back or try and exchange it.

Going, as I do, to a fair number of musical gigs in Southampton and given my legroom based preference for the front row, I have on several occasions been recognised and greeted by members of the band without having the slightest clue who they were.  On this front, I think I may be improving and my “context engine” is a becoming little faster at offering hints as to my interlocutor.

As both a regular visitor to Belfast and a creature of habit (suprisingly few of them filthy), I am now recognised by most of the staff at the Premier Inn in Alfred Street (which I heartily recommend) and several at O’Brien’s Sandwich Bar at Belfast City Airport.  This does lead to the slightly odd situation where I’m asked where I’ve been, why I wasn’t around last Thursday and the like.  I like to imagine I am an occasional guest star in the continuing drama or sitcom of other people’s lives (in my case, more likely the latter).

However, this morning I feel I reached some sort of peak.  Returning home from a session hanging upside down, I slewed my bicycle in front of a DHL van parked in front of my flat.  The van was static at the time, though about to move off – but the driver recognised me and called out that he had a package for me (rather than grinding me ‘neath his wheels).  This was very pleasing (and not just for avoiding my untimely demise) as I was half-expecting a delivery via DHL, but also somewhat of a shock as the driver has only seen me once before for barely 60 seconds about a fortnight ago.  Either the man has a prodigious facility to remember faces – in which case, I fear he is wasted driving a delivery van – or I have become far too memorable.

As a result, I have a resolution to work on for the forthcoming New Year (other countries and religions may have their own programme): I must cultivate anonymity.  By 2018, if things go according to plan, I should be instantly forgettable…

Dark side fame

Today’s premise will require a degree of set-up and I can virtually guarantee that the pay-off will not be worth it.  However, they do say that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive: so why don’t we all strap-in and try and enjoy the journey despite our foreknowledge of its disappointing conclusion.  In many ways, this post will be an allegory for life – sometimes, I wonder if this blog is too clever for its own good…

So, let’s start with the dark side.  I refer not to the Force – fear may lead to suffering via anger and hate, but this need not trouble us here – but rather to the moon.  The dark side of the moon is not, to the best of my knowledge, exposed to any less sunlight than its obverse: the name is just another aspect of our species’ tendency to anthropocentric thinking.  As tidal locking means that our satellite constantly shows the same face to us, earth-bound humans, we have decided that the side we could not (historically) see must be “dark” (never having been illuminated by our hubristic regard, I presume).

My head is shaped not wholly unlike the moon and, as a result of limitations in my cervical vertebrae, use of a single reflective surface reveals only a single face (mine) to my gaze (were I an owl, it may be a rather different story – but I’d probably struggle to blog in quite the same style or quantity).  As a result, the back of my head is somewhat analogous to the dark side of the moon – though has yet to be celebrated in album-form by Pink Floyd (or any other popular beat combo of the last half-century, for that matter).    When my hair is cut, I am usually asked how I would like the dark side of my noggin to be coiffured.  I have tended to allow my interrogator relatively free-rein on the basis that I will never see their work (except on the single occasion when the haircut is complete and a second reflective surface is deployed that I might admire their efforts) – however, I am starting to think that this may be a mistake.

Earlier today, I came to the realisation that the dark-side of my head has achieved a considerably greater degree of fame than the side where my features are located and on which I lavish the vast majority of my, admittedly limited, cosmetic attentions to tart up what nature has provided (and subsequently decayed).  For the purposes of my current thesis, I am defining fame in terms of appearances on the internet: either as a still or in a moving image.  How, you might ask, has this come to be?

Appearances, on the web, by the business-side of my head (as we might call it) are relatively rare.  I have added few myself (I feel this blog is suffering enough for one man to inflict on the general public) and have generally managed to avoid having pieces of my soul captured in the photographs that have then been placed “on-line”.  If you (or at least I) image search my name, you will see more pictures of John Finnemore and nearly as many of both my blog brother and Saint Rita of Cascia as you do of me.  Only a single video of my visage seems to exist, created by the author for Metablog 6.

The back of my head, by contrast, is a regular star of both video and stills: three of each from last night alone.  This arises through my regular attendance at music gigs in the Art House Café, here in Southampton.  To enjoy greater legroom and obviate the need to use my glasses to correct my myopia, I tend to sit in the front row: audience participation is rarely required (though this has happened, but luckily I am a shameless show-off).  For what I presume to be marketing purposes, fragments of these events are often captured on the digital equivalent of film and then released into the wild via the café’s Facebook page.  Satisfactory visual capture of an event seems to benefit from a little distance from the action (unlike my ageing eyes) and so the back of the front row (and often more) of the audience is captured.  After last night’s very enjoyable time spent with the musical stylings of Cat Eliza T and then Daisy Chapman, I happened to check Facebook to discover the back of my head appears in more of the uploaded content than either of the “talent”.  Should I, perhaps, be selling advertising space on the dark side of my bonce?  Does it need an agent?

Those with the desire to follow our every move (along with reading our every email et al) have invested significant money in facial recognition software.  This is in line with our own human obsession with the business-side of the head – but why should we inflict this preoccupation on our software children?  My own experience suggests that the dark-side of the head may be a far more valuable target for intelligence gathering.  I await the call from MIn (for suitable n)…