Expect the unexpected…

I have it on no less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the advice given in the title is (a) glib and (b) a contradiction in terms.  I fear it will be difficult to speak to (a) without risk of appearing glib myself, however, I feel on safer ground with (b).  It is quite possible – and probably wise – to expect that something unexpected will occur without needing to have any idea what this might be or when it might happen.

Being single, my life is very self-directed – if we ignore the demands of work – and yet is full of unexpected moments (and even longer events).  I suspect the incidence of the unexpected has risen since I started to spend ever more time away from the orderly tedium of my home life – all this interaction with other people and the world at large must be having an effect.  This post started as an idea earlier in the week following a couple of encounters with the unexpected, but I fear may rather have grown over the following days.  I shall try and manage its length by sticking to short vignettes (and relying on the power of the image) from my week, but my logorrhoea may get the better of my good(ish) intentions.

During the interval of a gig…

…watching (but not listening to) a very low budget promo by Lost or Stolen for their upcoming single release.  The live video had something in the nature of a shrine about it, with tealights surrounding a plectrum raised upon a dais made of a pencil eraser.  From time to time, divine revelation would enter the frame in the form of words written on post-it notes – very much the clay tablets of today’s busy deity!  I was expecting some sort of blood sacrifice to propitiate the holy plectrum, with the precious fluid being absorbed by the eraser but, sadly(?), they stopped short of this level of commitment.

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An historic re-enactment!

During my piano lesson…

…lying underneath the grand piano while it was played by my teacher.  It was certainly a new experience, but I’m finding it hard to put the insights I gained into words.  It was, I suppose, a logical(?) continuation of the tour of the grand piano I’d enjoyed at my previous lesson – and my first hands-on experience with a grand piano.  I have now used all the pedals in purposive manner – and realised late last night that my own piano-substitute has a sustenuto pedal (which I shall be attempting to use later).

…smashing my head, with some force, into the lid of the same grand piano.  I had to say Messrs Kawai and Sons need to rethink the design of their pianos – the lid, which is black against a black background – projects some significant distance out from the rest of the case when the keyboard is in use.  A chap innocently laughing it some pianistic solecism just committed could (and did) easily injure himself!  My piano teacher found himself in the difficult-to-pull-off superposition of laughter and concern: I feel he acquitted himself well given the challenges of macroscopic existence.

At Playlist in the Butcher’s Hook…

…the glorious conjunction of diverse but wonderful music was entirely expected.  The unethereal vocals of Stanlæy accompanied by two fae from the Winter Court, extraordinary guitar sounds from Ben Jameson and the first public performance by Somerset folk-collective Zaffir were a reminder of why Playlist is one of the cultural jewels of the city.  My unexpected discovery was the existence of microtones in the amazing new piece composed by Ben and commissioned by Playlist.  I have tried re-creating these on my acoustic guitar at home, but I may need to get some more tips from Ben for better results.

…the delicious Cambrian Root by Vibrant Forest: a salt liquorice porter.  So many of my loves brought together in one tiny space!

Strolling home from the Butcher’s Hook…

…talking to a friend on my phone (I know, shockingly used to speak to another human!) to discover that he had found wholly unanticipated love.  The heavy irony of finding, halfway through our conversation about love, that as I strolled twixt the Aldi car park and an industrial diary (well, I don’t reckon it had ever seen a cow) I was unwittingly in the (or of one of the) city’s red-light district(s).  So little do I know of gland games, that it was only when the third young (from my perspective) lady said hello and then went slightly further in her salutation did the penny finally drop.  Until that point, I had merely thought that people were slightly friendlier than usual and that the lateness of the hour (and our friend Johnny Ethanol) had helped ease their traditional British reserve.  Is it any wonder I remain single when even those with a financial incentive in raising my interest in matters of the loins struggle so badly to achieve their goal?

At the launch party of the new NST City theatre…

…being asked if I had a job other than writing my cultural blog.  This left me somewhat taken aback, as I hadn’t realised this was a cultural blog (unless the culture in question be me).  I was also pleasantly surprised that someone though this farrago might be sufficient to finance my continued existence.  I fear it is far too short on insight and far too long on weak jokes, niche references and attempts to demonstrate my (largely illusory) erudition.

…chatting with a chap in want of silver hair.  I offered him mine (I have an ever increasing abundance), but in a major failure of the supposed perfection of markets this transaction was impossible to carry through despite two willing parties.

…chatting about going vegan not for the sake of the planet or the animals, but as an economic choice to reduce costs.  A fine idea – very much in line with the teachings of Katherine Whitehorn in my youth – but I felt slightly weakened by the need to buy almond milk at much greater cost that its dairy equivalent.

…finding myself thinking, while in the stunning new theatre, that it didn’t feel like I was in Southampton: and then worrying why.  Even my photo of the entrance has an air of unreality about it.  I feel my thought was not disloyal to my adopted city but a reflection of the fact that I’m used to the city’s older and/or re-purposed venues, few of them much younger than me.  There look to be exciting times ahead: I hope their insanely(?) ambitious plans to strengthen and develop a sustainable cultural scene in Southampton, across the full range of culture, bear a bumper harvest of fruit.  Roll on (or up/down) the nano winches!

At a Film Week showing of short films…

…being surprised by the nature of the Jane Austen lecture theatre: not a hint of wood panelling or even one over-stuffed leather armchair.  Very much a modern university lecture theatre: so, much like a cinema, but with more USB charging points and less comfortable seats.  It also lay, rather unexpectedly, in a basement below a spaceship which had become inexplicably trapped in an atrium (or was the atrium built around it?).

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No sign of the extra-terrestrial Postman Pat (or any black and white companion)

…finding myself enjoying a piece by Skepta (it arose in my favourite of the short films).  I suspect I may not be his primary target audience, more some unanticipated bycatch: he should probably throw me back to avoid harming the wider ecosystem.

I feel this conceit could be re-used in future to link other disparate observations which the author is too lazy, or unskilled, to draw together into a coherent whole.  I think the only lesson we might take from these 1300 odd words is that if you go out and also talk to people, unplanned things happen – and many of these are delightful!

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[Daigo sighs]

Twice during the course of flaming June (an adjective which, thanks to the wonderful flexibility of English, works both if the sun shines and the mercury rises or if the heavens open and the all-pervasive chill seeps into your bones), I have chosen to spend an evening at home watching a film.  On both occasions, I have decided to go for something light and amusing, a rom-com perhaps, but somehow I have actually ended up watching a foreign language film about the preparation of the dead for their final journey.  I should make clear that on neither occasion have I regretted my choice of viewing: the correct decision was made and I really loved both films.

I am beginning to suspect that this says something about me, probably something slightly worrying.  It would certainly suggest that the part of me which believes itself in charge of decisions doesn’t know me very well (and so should probably steer clear of Delphi), but fortunately the aspect of the self invested with executive control is rather better informed.  Concerns might also be raised that I am becoming excessively morbid – or, and worse, may be acquiring a penchant for necrophilia.  I would like to reassure readers that, as of the time of going to press, I have managed to resist the urge to make the short stroll up to Southampton Old Cemetery for any purposes other than the purely historical or to enjoy its still living flora and fauna (via my eyes and ears alone).

The first of these films was Atmen (Breathing) wherein a young offender finds a new direction working for the Vienna coroner’s office.  I believe this has been covered in a previous post, and so need not detain us further – other than to say that it rewards a second viewing.

This evening, by the power of Netflix (well, I don’t seem to have transformed into an overly muscled superhero – so perhaps I am saying this in the wrong location or holding the incorrect object aloft.  One can only imagine how many failed combinations of place and article Prince Adam tried before He-Man made an appearance), I watched the Japanese film Okuribito (Departures) about a chap who gives up his dream of being an orchestral cellist and by chance finds redemption in a new career as an encoffinist.  In many ways, not a vast amount happens – at one stage a car is driven relatively quickly, there is a scuffle at a wake and our hero shouts once, briefly – but two hours passes very enjoyably.  Unlike many shorter (and most longer) films, at no stage did I feel the lack of a decent editor.

The actor playing our hero (Daigo), and who is slightly older than me, is irritatingly well preserved and also wrote the film.  Back in the eighties, he was in a very successful boyband – which may give some hope to the current crop of bedroom pin-ups when fickle fashion moves on to the next new thing.  Having said that, I’m not expecting any serious arthouse cinema out of the ex-members of Blue or The Wanted in the near (or even distant) future (and yes, I did have to Google the names of boy bands for these references).

I have a feeling that Departures may be the first Japanese language film I have seen (though as previously discussed my memory is now failing rapidly) – and, equally important, heard.  The film reinforced my view, acquired after hearing Kenta Hayashi sing, that the Japanese language forms a beautiful soundscape, with none of the abrasiveness I have come (quite possibly wrongly) to associate with Chinese.  As I don’t speak Japanese (but am rather tempted to try) the film was provided with very thorough English language subtitles.  It would seem that these are intended to serve both the non-Japanese speaker and the deaf reader of English.  As a result, every vocalisation is given a subtitle, as is each use of music, and by far the most common subtitle was [Daigo sighs] – and so we achieve titular enlightenment.

Among its many delights, the film introduced the ancient Japanese idea – from a time before widespread literacy – of giving a meaningful stone (more a pebble based on the examples in the film) to a loved one: a kind of ready-made sculpture, from long before Marcel Duchamp, if you will.  This struck me as rather a fine custom, but some thought would be needed to ensure a reasonably common understanding of the meaning invested in a specific pebble.  One would not want to give inadvertent offence, especially while equipping the now aggrieved party with effective ordnance.

Eschewing Community Chest

Southampton is fairly generously served with cinemas and screens, and further options exist a short way off in Winchester (and a new cinema is apparently being constructed).  However, this apparent bounty does not extend to offering a particularly wide range of films.  Basically, each of the cinemas – even the art house ones – just offer a subset of the films showing at the main multiplex.  In the extreme case of the Picturehouse and Cineworld, doing so barely 100 yards from one another.

This contrasts with Cambridge, where the Arts Picturehouse offered a very wide range of films – though it did only make some of its more obscuring offerings available on a single occasion and at rather odd times.  I think this is down to perceived (or perhaps even actual) supply and demand: the cinema managers of Wessex do not feel their audiences are up for any particularly challenging (or even just slightly quirky) fare.  Given the number of copies of the Daily Heil one sees around, they may well be right – but it is a disappointment for the more eccentric denizens of these parts (which certainly includes me, though I’m reasonably sure I’m not entirely alone).

The only ray of light breaching these clouds of conformity are Discover Tuesdays (a terrible name in many ways, as I think few people are still surprised to find a day lurking between Monday and Wednesday) when we are allowed to see something more interesting: as long as we are willing to have an early tea and hit the cinema by 18:00 (the concept of having a late tea, some time after eight, is clearly a non-starter – unless you fancy gorging on wafer-thin chocolate-covered mints).  Annoyingly, this time slot does tend to clash with desirable concerts at Turner Sims – events which I tend to book further ahead than trips to the flicks and so I’ve missed out on several films that I might otherwise have found stimulating.

This week, my visit to Turner Sims was on Thursday to see Schubert’s last three piano sonatas.  This was worthwhile, if only for hearing the stunning way Christian Blackshaw played the second movement of D960 (for the avoidance of doubt, he played the rest very well too – but this movement really stood out).  However, it did in turn mean missing out on a gig at the Art House Cafe which also looked like a lot of fun.  Life is full of regrets – unless you are Edith Piaf or a UK wetland (oh no, sorry, that’s egrets).

As a result I did have the chance to Discover Tuesday (it was located as expected and still named after Tiw), but the film was unknown to me and I hemmed and hawed about it.  Eventually, I decided to take a chance (blow my £8) and go – if nothing else, I felt I needed to encourage the Harbour Lights in its more adventurous programming (and if I won’t, who will?).  I’m very glad I did as I really enjoyed The Best Beneath My Feet – in some ways, it is a British take on the US High School movie but being British has strayed quite some way from the source genre.

Whilst it is set in the present (I think) it has some of the feel of a period piece.  This is partly because we see very few cars and our hero’s laptop and mobile phone are not the most recent, but mostly down to the school our hero attends.  For the first time in ages, a school being shown on screen reminded me very strongly of my own experiences in the seventies and early eighties..  The classrooms and corridors were all very familiar – though the chemistry lab was a bit of a giveaway as to the more modern period: no ancient, heavy (and heavily scarred) wooden desks with built-in bunsen burners accessed by high wooden stools (I do feel that when it comes to chemistry, the youth of today are missing out).

Our hero himself is also slightly disconnected from the present, his school uniform and parka would have been (almost) entirely at home at my own school circa 1980 (a slightly different tie and the wrong badge on the blazer were the only clues that would have given him away to anything but a detailed uniform inspection).  Perhaps because of this, he reminded me very strongly of the youthful me, though I think there were also strong visual similarities.  He certainly had my terrible posture and a similar build and was even somewhat facially similar (though you should bear in mind I have not seen my teenage face in 30 years).  I had (and still have) less musical ability but on the plus side don’t think I wore such awful glasses and was (a bit) less of a loner.

Another bonus was the sight of one-time, teen heart-throb Luke Perry, who is very slightly younger than me.  I have no particular interest in him personally (and am unfamiliar with the rest of his oeuvre), but was very pleased to see that he is not wearing as well as I am.  Now, I do appreciate he was playing a very dissipated character in the film, but I like to imagine that I can tell what was make-up and what was the ravages of time.

So, all-in-all, taking a chance played off handsomely.  A fun film, an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and to feel that I am ageing relatively well (not quite a £10 win in a beauty content, but at my age you take what you can get) – and all for less than a (small) round of drinks.  Since this came only a couple of days after a similarly late and uncertain decision to see David Goo and The 150 Friends Club, I feel my spontaneous decision-making to see culture “because it’s there” is going rather well.  As a result, I’m going to try two separate events organised by Pint of Science this coming week – one related to physics the other to biology, but both (I assume) related to beer – which are taking place in nearby pubs as part of some broader UK-wide pub-based science festival (whose existence I discovered from a flyer I spotted at Turner Sims on Thursday).  If anything interesting happens (and quite possibly if it doesn’t) you will be the first to hear about it!

Cars on screen

As a somewhat regular filmgoer, I often fall prey to the motor industry’s marketing messages.  Yes, we the cinema going public are apparently gagging for a new car, strong liquor and something to treat our terrible acne (mostly recently interminably promoted by a CGI goose) – which does feel less than ideal as a combination.  On the whole, the ad reel is entirely independent of the cinema or film – but I did recently discover a couple of exceptions.

  • Before the Shaun the Sheep movie (U), the ad reel was really very different, nothing to dull the pain of existence or excise my spots, but full of much brighter colours and mysterious products which I presume were aimed at much younger viewers (and left me begging for strong liquor).
  • In Scotland, an ad for the NatWest morphs into one for the Royal Bank of Scotland, losing the dulcet voice-over tones of Rebecca Front to be replaced by a someone with a Scottish accent and changing the corporate logo in the branch at the end (but nothing else).

But, I should return to the plot (such as it is) and the attempts by car makers to flog their wares.  What I have come to realise in these visual offerings is that the vehicles always have UK licence plates, but are clearly not in the UK (and frequently admit that the model shown does not even exist in the UK).  Why is it so important to maintain this flimsiest of fictions?   Would the actors’ skin tones be darkened for sunnier markets as well – or have they been lightened for cloudy Britain?

More importantly, the cars are always being driven either on entirely deserted streets or in some barren wilderness (the latter is normally true if the vehicle is a 4×4).  Clearly, we are being sold some entirely spurious idea of freedom which the automobile is supposed to deliver – and I suppose if we go back far enough in time, once did.  However, to me it looks as though motor manufacturers are in complete denial about the existence of traffic or are hoping their clients will only wish to use their cars after the recent detonation of a neutron bomb (or perhaps in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse).  This gives all the ads a somewhat dystopian feel which seems at odds with the desire to shift product.

A few recent ads, show a “classic” car from a company’s product line and then show it driving near to its latest incarnation.  Without exception (for me at least) these make the older car look much the more attractive – but that may be down to my age.  However, the message seems to be: look how ugly our new car is, why not try and find a decent second-hand example from when our cars weren’t designed be a committee of accountants?

I think this demonstrates why (a) I am a poor target for advertising (I insist on taking home the wrong message) and (b) should never be hired to work in marketing – or perhaps I am the small boy pointing out the emperor’s nudity in this scenario?  The ads rarely look cheap (though clearly are recycled across multiple markets) so I assume someone has checked whether they actually do any good?  Still, I probably shouldn’t complain as they must be subsidising my cinema-going habit – though I must try and curb the desire to laugh (or at least splutter) at some of the more egregious examples.

In a related topic, I have noticed the frequency with which characters on both film and TV will have a conversation whilst in a moving vehicle.  The only problem with this idea is the apparent difficulty of doing this in real life on both safety and continuity grounds (I would guess) means that the world outside the vehicle is usually faked.  My issue is that it tends to be faked really badly – even on otherwise high-budget productions.  It is usually a little better at night, but would still rarely fool anyone who has ever been in a vehicle while in possession of functioning eyes.  Entire series are made leaning heavily on (often quite convincing) CGI, but somehow no-one can create a convincing backdrop for a moving car.  Given this clear difficulty, surely it would make sense to hold fewer (or no) conversations in moving cars? It is not as though (in the real world) people only talk in cars, there are lots of alternatives!  Is the “moving” of the vehicle supposed to distract us from some slightly dull (if plot critical) exposition?  Or is it just down to a failure of the teaching in film school?  Is avoiding this issue part of the allure of period drama?

AB

This year seems rather rich in anniversaries – or perhaps I’ve just noticed more of them – though I am still awaiting the JFK, Doctor Who and Benjamin Britten cross-over for which we are so obviously crying out.

Britten, of course, had a productive working relationship with W H Auden through much of the 1930s, so, it is perhaps not surprising that I encountered the pair of them twice over a (long) weekend.

The first encounter was at Turner Sims and covered rather a large number of my interests in a single gig.  We had Britten’s music, the Aurora Orchestra, Auden’s words and the films of the GPO Film Unit – all topped off by the wonderful voice of Samuel West.  I am far more likely to watch a TV documentary – regardless of subject matter – if Mr West is providing the voice over.  I’m not sure what it is about his voice – there’s nothing obviously showy, but it is truly one of the greats.  As a child of radio, I am a fan of a good voice – and that same weekend watching the final episodes of Fringe (a consistently entertaining, if barmy, series) reminded me of what a stunning voice Lance Reddick has (if I had such a voice, I’d be disappointed not to be ruling a significant portion of the earth’s surface).

Some of the films were splendidly dated with some of the most stilted “acting” you will ever see, but others were wonderfully fresh: a silhouette animation to sell Post Office savings was glorious (current advertisements couldn’t hold a candle to it – though may well be more successful at selling stuff).  It was a truly great night out – it even offered a special Britten centenary beer in the interval – but provided almost too much to take in at a single sitting.  It was also rather bittersweet as one film was about the coal industry (now virtually gone, but once a huge employer of men), another about electrification of the line to Portsmouth (with many references to the shipyards which had just received their death notice) and Night Mail (when the post was delivered by train).

The GPO was once a staggering organisation – it was heavily involved in the development of radio and made films which commissioned some of the country’s finest artists in the 1930s.  When I was a boy, it still ran the phone service and a bank.  Gradually, successive governments have whittled it away until the current incumbents recently ended 173 years of public service by flogging it off (for well below its market value) – what an ignominious end to organisation which has brought us so much.  Monolithic organisations have their issues (the lack of a second stone, for one), but I wonder if we have thrown rather too much of the baby out with the bath water and will live to regret it (as we have following so many badly organised privatisations over the years).

My second encounter with the Auden-Britten axis was at the cinema, in my second play beamed “live” from the National Theatre.  This was Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art – provisionally titled AB – dating from 2010 with the late, great Richard Griffiths playing Auden and Alex Jennings playing Britten.  The aspect ratio seemed a little odd, but the play and performance more than justified the recommendation that had sparked my attendance.  This is the third play Bennett has written for the National which I have seen, and if he chooses to write any more I shall try and see those too.

Southampton may not have quite the cultural scene of Cambridge – though may be rather better served for the DJ scene (and other young people’s music, much of which is an arcane mystery to an old codger like myself) – but there is still a lot going on locally and it’s a joy when I can be home less than 15 minutes after the (often metaphorical) curtain comes down.

Get me an agent!

I have learned today that Matt Damon and George Clooney are making a film set during the War (presumably the Second World one) in the nearby village of Duxford.  Actually, they are probably filming at the Duxford wing of the Imperial War Museum rather than the village itself which doesn’t shout wartime at the visiting film crew (or didn’t on my last visit which had a more late Medieval/early Renaissance vibe).

I can’t say I’ve seen either of the chaps in Budgens  or Fish’n’Chicken – but perhaps they have people to fetch them lunch (or make their own sandwiches before going out of a morn – something I have often intended but almost never succeeded in actually doing).  Apparently, they have even been spotted using a Cambridge municipal gym (not by me I should stress) – well, weight training without a “spot” can be a tad dangerous.

However, this lack of celebrity action is not my main problem with this news.  Why I haven’t I been offered a part?  As this blog has recently  revealed, I am quite the frustrated actor and I could be in Duxford in less than 15 minutes on my bike.  I can only assume that being away for most of May meant that I have missed out on my Hollywood debut.  Clearly, I need an agent to look after my interests when I’m otherwise engaged (or, for that matter, vacant).  So, who fancies representing me in my meteoric rise to the dizzy heights of A-list celebrity?  (Always an odd phrase that, surely meteorites are more famous for falling than rising?  Does the phrase pre-date Newton?  Or just represent a basic failure to understand the gravity of the situation?)

Unwanted super-powers

Superheroes seem terribly popular at the flicks these days and have been the mainstay of comics (though such pamphlets seem very short on the jokes that the name suggests to me) for some time.  Whilst the acquisition of super-powers does seem to cause some initial angst, the powers always seem to prove very useful: either for the righting of wrongs  or for their initial execution.  I believe I may be developing some super-powers – and whilst I have the associated angst, it is hard to see how they will ever prove useful: for good or ill.

My first power seems to relate the Victoria line in the vicinity of Seven Sisters (nowhere near chalk-based cliffs – must be a different sorority, perhaps the former site of a very small convent?).  I used to think that the effect was nothing to do with me, but reflected the fact that the Victoria Line Controller had been crossed in love by, or perhaps bought a dodgy second hand motor from, someone who lives north of Bishops Stortford.  I would board the Victoria line somewhere within the Circle Line of a late evening and the advertised transit time would suggest I should reach Tottenham Hale with 5-10 minutes to spare before my train back to Whittlesford was due to arrive (and, more critically, depart).  However,  more than 9 times out of 10 I would miss the desired train.  Instead, I would fritter away my time in a tunnel just before reaching Seven Sisters, and then spend further time admiring the tiling at Seven Sisters station itself.  Sometimes this would be explained as “regulating the service”, but more-often-than-not there would be no explanation.  It would seem that no Victoria line train is permitted to arrive at “the Hale” in the period from 10 minutes before a Cambridge train departs until two minutes after.  However, the effect now also appears to be occurring whenever I travel southbound as well – so my explanation involving a disgruntled line controller is looking rather shaky.  I am only left to conclude, in my solipsistic way, that I am causing this effect due to an unknown and uncontrolled super-power.  Do I subconsciously want to move to Seven Sisters?  Or spend quality time at Tottenham Hale?

My second super-power is also related to public transport, and the strange effect I have over people of the distaff persuasion.  Sadly, this power only seems to work before they learn to walk or it could do wonders for my love life (pre-supposing that I also developed an interest in having a love life).  However, for this limited demographic, I am a source of total fascination when they catch sight of me on train, tube or bus.  Only this last week, a nipper caught sight of me on a busy Victoria Line train and was unable to tear her eyes away.  I have no idea what it is that attracts the young female gaze: I certainly don’t find myself that interesting to look at and generally eschew the reflective surface where possible (though that is probably a case of over-familiarity with the subject rather than incipient vampirism).  I don’t feel that I was particularly eccentrically dressed and whilst I am no oil-painting (yet! But I’m open to offers), I have yet to be played by a sack-wearing John Hurt on film.  So, I can only assume that this is also evidence of my mutant DNA.  I suppose I could (perhaps) raise an army of babies – but as they would all be pre-toddling, I’m not sure that I’m in any position to take over the world (but, perhaps N15 lies within my grasp).

All rather prosaic, but if anyone out there does fancy converting my life into a blockbuster or graphic novel, then I could be tempted.  However, I’d like to make clear from the outset that I refuse to wear head-to-toe lycra and that my keks will be remaining beneath my trews as God (or, Beau Brummel for the atheists among us) intended.