Infernal nonsense

I rather fear that if you did not recognise the allusion in the title, the rest of this post may not be for you.  As a result, I shall not be explaining it – though I believe a range of internet search engines are available.

The only “going-out” culture I can remember from my childhood, excluding events arranged via school, was an occasional visit to see a Gilbert and Sullivan production in my local town.  A seem to recall that such was our keenness, that we once arrived a week early for a performance – but that may be the memory playing tricks on me.  As a result of this early indoctrination, I retain a fondness for the operettas of Messrs G & S: though find it wise not to listen too closely to some of the lyrics in our more liberal age.  Some of the plots also sit a little uncomfortably with the 21st century audience member: but would probably go down a storm in some of the more scarily fundamentalist portions of the US.

So it was that this past Saturday, I found myself partaking of a double bill of G&S: and observed a few of today’s kids being indoctrinated by the elders as I had been forty years previous.  In the afternoon, I saw the Southampton Operatic Society‘s production of The Mikado which was really rather good.  The odd stumble here-and-there perhaps, but some excellent and, to me, original business ensured a smile stayed plastered across my face throughout.  I think that The Mikado may be the greatest of the partnership’s work and the SOS did it proud: it ran Jonathan Miller’s production at the ENO a very respectable second!  I may be biased about The Mikado as it has several splendid roles for the bass soloist: and I did find myself sitting in the audience thinking “I could do that!”.

The world (and I) did not have long to wait for an unequivocal demonstration that my self-belief may exceed my ability.  In the evening, I went over to Salisbury to see a performance of HMS Pinafore in which we, the audience, were to play the role of the chorus: i.e. sailors, sisters, cousins (reckoned up by dozens) and aunts.  A friend had suggested I might like to accompany her and, on the basis that one should try everything once except incest and country dancing, I agreed.  Actually, if I’m honest, that boat sailed long ago: while I was still at primary school.  I should perhaps make clear at this stage that it was country dancing I tried (was forced into) and not incest (it may have been the seventies, but things weren’t that bad): my Circassian Circle and Cumberland Reel were a joy to behold.

On arrival, the audience were separated by vocal range so that ladies were on the left and gents the right, with the smattering of self-confessed tenors placed near the front.  The first half (prior to the interval) was given over to a rehearsal of our parts and, importantly, the cues.  I was surprised to discover that not only were we expected to reproduce some approximation to both the words and tune (the full G and S) but were also expected to perform various actions, e.g. marching, saluting, handle polishing etc.  Given that my ability in this field starts and ends with YMCA, and even then I can give the impression of one suffering from dyslexia, this was quite the challenge.  I suppose one might describe the performance as semi-staged, if one were very generous.

After the interval (an opportunity for a stiff drink or, in my case, ice cream) we then ran through both acts of HMS Pinafore with six professionals playing the leads.  Fortunately, the operetta was somewhat abridged, or I’d probably still be there now.  I have to say that the evening was enormous fun.  To add to the general air of bonhomie, we were all issued with (plastic) Union Flags to wave at suitable moments in the action.  What larks!  All that flag-waving did give the slightly uncomfortable impression of a UKIP (or worse) rally – surely we leave that sort of uncouth nationalism to the Americans?  I do worry that were some charismatic, nationalist demagogue to arise in these sceptred Isles, she might find it all too easy to use a G&S sing-a-long for ends nefarious.

All that flag waving and lyrical stress on the importance of being an Englishman did remind me that we are supposed to be picking a national song for England.  I’m not quite sure why, as we seem to have survived without one for a millennium or so.  Despite sterling work by Michael Flanders debunking it as an option, people do seem oddly keen on Jerusalem.  I think we can pretty sure that, no, it was not “builded” here.  I feel Flanders and Swann’s own output offers an option far more in keeping with government policy in The English Are Best.  A strong alternative contender, sure to go down well with Eurosceptics everywhere, would be Mitch Benn’s Song for Europe: though I will admit that this would only be usable after the watershed.  Thinking of a Song for Europe, I really don’t think we should let the general public anywhere near the selection of a national song given the dross they’ve chosen to represent us at the Eurovision Song Contest.  Equaly, if we turn our gaze to the hit parade (as I believe the young folk call it), the musical standards on offer are nothing to boast about.  Does the Queen not have a Master of Her Music who might be expected to ‘knock something out’?  I’m sure Judith Weir must have a few spare moments in her busy schedule…



Doo-dah.  Serendipity, day.  No-one?  I’m wasted here…

As part of my continuing efforts to broaden the range of music to which one can strive while in the gym, this morning I went with The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann.  This can be slightly distracted, I will admit, as the desire to either join in or laugh can be quite strong for some of the songs.  Nevertheless, I felt it was a successful choice -in general, I think I am looking for distraction or sometimes a “still small voice of calm” rather then motivational lyrics or a strongly motivic beat when I am working-out.  If I had a home gym (which I don’t) would I then be able to work-in, I wonder?

Anyway, I had taken a grip of a bar and was about to invert my body prior to fully “skinning my cat” when Michael Flanders began to introduce the song The Bradypus (aka The Three-Toed Sloth).  The sloth spends much of its time inverted and Mr Flanders apologised for not singing the song whilst upside-down (I feel the wheelchair provides a decent excuse) and suggested the listener might like to make good the lack – and so, for the first time, I did and enjoyed the song as F&S intended (hanging upside down from a bar, well no convenient and more authentic branch was available).  Unlike the eponymous hero of the song, I am not able to remain in position for the entire song (3’15) as I lack the adaptions required to prevent my head filling with my body’s entire complement of blood (which I suspect may be detrimental to long-term existence).  Still, I enjoyed the additional authenticity for as long as I could and would recommend any reader who feels sufficiently confident to give it a go (Please note, GofaDM takes no responsibility for any loss or injury which may occur as a result of taking this advice).

I now find myself wondering whether there any other songs which provide lyrical (or introductory) parallels with the “work” of the gentleman gymnast…

Ynys Enlli

is what my forefathers (or at least the Welsh ones) would have called Bardsey Island,  a place I rather fancy visiting one of these days.  However, given the rash of productions of his plays and documentaries about his life at present, I think perhaps the whole of Great Britain could be considered “Bard see island”.  Given that 2012 does not seem to represent any particular anniversary for old Will, I assume this is driven by the Jubilee and/or Olympics.

Not that I’m complaining (about the Shakespeare: the Jubilee and Olympics themselves do little for me, but I don’t begrudge others their fun – which may make me unique in the blogging community) – for a start, I’ve enjoyed several of the documentaries spread across Radio 4 and BBC4.  Talking of TV history documentaries, I felt compelled to watch the first quarter of Simon Schama’s recent contribution to the oeuvre without being able to see the screen as I was fighting with a model at the time in pursuit of my day job (for the avoidance of doubt, the model was of the computer rather than the human variety).  This highlighted the extent to which many (if not, most) of the visuals from TV history documentaries are unnecessary: the radio with a fairly short, synchronised slide show would be sufficient unto the material, and probably rather cheaper to produce in these days of declining budgets.  Surely, this sort of approach should be readily achievable in this modern technological age?

As well as taking in a couple of productions the plays by each of the National and the Globe, I have also seen the RSC’s take on the shipwreck trilogy at the Roundhouse.  This wonderful building, I discovered yesterday, used to be an engine shed with a turntable to rotate steam engines (or to play very large vinyl records).  There is little need for such turntables these days as most modern rolling stock is symmetrical (and development of the MP3 player) – with no real distinction between bow and stern (to borrow the nautical terminology).  The only exceptions I could think of are the Class 91 Electric Locomotive and the Class 82 Driving Van Trailer (DVT) – and I have seen a 91 back-to-front – so I wonder how they turn these round?  Also, would a pair of DVT socks help when driving a 225 rake south?  (Yes, that was a joke for any train spotters who have stumbled here by mistake).

Back to the Bard, I saw the shipwrecked based plays in the order The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and finally Twelfth Night.  It was rather interesting seeing three plays with similar premises, and sharing the same production, basic staging and cast.  All could be recommended, though my favourite was Twelfth Night and coincidentally this made the most extensive use of the ‘ocean’ which formed part of the set.  This also provided the answer to a question which had been puzzling me for some years.  In a piece about Greenfleeves (a passing melodious roundalay), Michael Flanders mentions a number of plays from the 16th century – including something I have previously interpreted as Gorba Duck (he introduced perestroika to many a pond, you know).  However, now I know it was the play Gorboduc (thanks to the surtitles provided at the Roundhouse for the hard of hearing, or in my case, understanding) by Norton and Sackville.  Subtitled Ferrex and Porrex,with hints of Antigone in the plotting (I’m thinking it wasn’t a comedy, for laughs you should look to Ralph Roister Doister) it was considered quite controversial back in 1562 – but sadly would not have been in existence (and neither would RDD) when Henry VIII (allegedly) took a brief break from wife-swapping to pen Greensleeves (yes, I am fact-checking the beloved dead).  Still, I’m willing to forgive Flanders and Swann for taking minor liberties with history given the enjoyment their output has given me over the years.

Anyway, documentaries and plays by the Bard of Avon are stacking up on my PVR thanks to the BBC and Humax, so I ought to watch some of them.  If the first 45 minutes of the RSC’s all black production of Julius Caesar is anything to go by – which were quite incredible, and not a sign of Kenneth Williams (whose portrayal I have relied on heretofore), though I have yet to reach the famous Infamy speech – I am in for a treat!

Country Bus

Along with the loss of their libraries and post offices, recent news suggests many rural communities fear the loss of their buses as well.  Although, in many cases this may be a limited loss as, even today, many services run only once a week – it’s a long wait if you miss the 139 in Sawston I can tell you.

But, all this talk of the country bus reminded me of the Jake Thackeray classic – and caused me to fish out the CD of his greatest hits.  So many gems, including the only use of the word “surd” I have ever heard in a song (or, indeed, outside a mathematics classroom) recounting his supposed misconception that they were flowers with square roots.

I had assumed that younger readers would have no idea who Jake might have been, but I discovered in the extensive research for this post that Alex Turner sites Mr Thackeray as an influence (for any older readers, Mr Turner is a key member of the popular beat combos The Arctic Monkeys and The Last Shadow Puppets).  As I have seen Jake Thackeray live (in a small hall in Haywards Heath), I think this may make me very nearly cool by association (and, let’s face it, that’s as close as I’m ever likely to get).

Thinking of Jake brought to mind how much I have learnt over the years from comic songs.   A sample would include:

  • To this day, its Ladies Magical Circle is the only thing I know about the town of Castleford.
  • Donald Swann (along with Xenophon and his Anabasis) taught me nearly all the Greek I know.  This can be problematic – I once stayed with the Greek father of a friend in Toronto and as a polite chap tried to use my Greek.  Sadly it was all either 2500 years out of date and related to fighting your way out of Asia Minor or came from the Greek equivalent of “Old MacDonald had a Farm”.  Not, as it transpires, the ideal preparation for general conversation.
  • In related news, whilst being taught Spanish for business I did attempt to translate the Olivadados monologue by Michael Flanders into Spanish for my teacher.  It worked surprisingly well (well, she laughed – but that may have been at my Spanish or my amazing comic timing and delivery), the one issue was that the Spanish word for olive is aceituna.
  • Tom Lehrer taught me of Riemannian manifolds (of the infinitely differentiable variety – so seriously smooth) – but was sadly short on details.  Certainly not enough to help me understand the non-commutative geometries (which have no points – as opposed to no point, or this was the point my rather limited mental faculties managed to reach) which seemed to be a rather key part of modern cosmological alternatives to string theory (and this from a book, the Astronomer Royal described as suitable for the general reader – I like to imagine I’m quite bright with some background in mathematics, but clearly not up to Martin Rees’ standards).  On the plus side, thanks to Mr Lehrer I am good on modular arithmetic and the periodic table.

Maybe I should start a free school with the comic song as the basis of the curriculum? And for any of you, my blog students (I do view this blog as equivalent to a University module and there will be a formal examination come the summer), if you have yet to hear the ouvres of Messers Thackeray, Lehrer or Flanders and Swann can I heartily recommend you make good this lack at your earliest convenience.