Not flying tonight

I had originally planned to be spending this time at a workshop learning about things rhythmical and folk-related with the splendid people of Folk Active but instead find myself in front of the keyboard, full of cold.   Having a cold was not, of itself, enough to keep me from learning the arcane secrets of the spoons and the jig-doll but this morning, while my body’s doughty defenders attempted to fight off their undead (and unalive) viral assailants, I slumbered on.  By the time I awoke, it was too late – lacking both breakfast and a working teleport – to make it to the workshop in time.

Having fixed one of these lacks – and starting at the bottom of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (so, I remain without a working teleport) – I have decided to work on the principle that ‘misery loves company’ and share a new post with the uncaring world.  I should point out, lest any of you are worried, that I am not miserable.  The sun is actually shining outside and whilst I may have missed one rendezvous with the spoons, the battlefield of my body has delivered a full night of unbroken sleep – something it is generally incapable of achieving during peacetime.  This sleep may also owe something to a couple of glasses of mulled cider and some Night Nurse taken just before bedtime to provide a little +1 Armour for the home team.

As the regular reader will know, I am a frequent commuter across the Irish Sea for work and so am intimate with the passenger experience on a FlyBe Dash 8 Q 400.  I can sing-a-long with the flight safety demonstration and perform the relevant actions better than most of the cabin crew.  I also know Southampton, Belfast City and Dublin (Terminal 1) Airports far better than would be considered to form part of the ideal life.  Despite this familiarity, I remain bemused by the exhortation – issued by the captain or first officer – to ‘sit back and enjoy the flight’.  I am basically in a glorified bus: though it lacks the free wifi, charging point or anything like the legroom or seat width of the local buses.  I suppose it does have wings and is capable of flight which is certainly helpful when crossing an open body of water and beyond the compass of most buses.

Given that the plane’s seats are not placed adjacent to the aircraft windows (if anything they seem to have a window-phobia – perhaps Microsoft related?), added to which the pod holding the engines and landing gear obscures the view from most of the windows, passengers can only obtain rather limited entertainment (usually involving some degree of neck-strain) from observing the ground and clouds unfurl beneath us.  Food is limited, not great and rather over-priced.  The ears are assailed by the constant drone of the engines.  On only a tiny fraction of the FlyBe fleet do the seats recline – enabling one to ‘sit back’ – and given the rather cramped quarters I have never felt it fair to use this functionality and further squash the poor soul travelling behind me.  My feeling is that the only enjoyment to be had on the flight will either come from conversation with the passenger sitting next to you or, more likely, you will have to bring it yourself.  Modern technology makes this straightforward but I feel I am less ‘enjoying the flight’ and more enjoying myself, as best I can, while the flight continues in the background.  All of the enjoyment I have obtained on these flights could easily have been accomplished in greater comfort without the flight!

Is there some flight-related fun to be had on a Dash 8 that I remain unaware of?  Could the low-level vibrations be used to some pleasurable (and legal in public) end?  Should we, the passengers, be playing a high-altitude version of sardines on the flight?  And if so, how would this interact with the allocated seating and the severely nose-heavy nature of the Dash 8?

This last Wednesday, I ‘sat back’ (bolt upright) and ‘enjoyed’ (endured) my last two flights of 2018.  The first was somewhat delayed by the entire check-in systems at Southampton airport crashing and the staff having to return to a hand-written, paper-based system to ensure the right passengers and luggage ended up on each aircraft.  The return took place in the 21st century and it was with a feeling of release (and relief) that I climbed down the ricketty steps for the last time until mid-January.


My final sky-chariot of 2018 (not pulled by goats, disappointingly)

It is somehow sad that an activity which would have been miraculous for most of human history and until recently would have been the reserve of a wealthy elite has been rendered so mundane and even tedious.  There is slightly more ceremony involved than catching the bus or train – but only because of security and the relative infrequency of flights and their inability to take standing passengers (though I’m sure Michael O’Leary is working on the latter) – but short-haul flying is very short of romance (unless that is what I should be doing in the air while sitting back?).

On Thursday evening, I once again found myself in ‘a space’ arts‘ Arch 04 for the latest instalment of Playlist.  This started with Karla Powell playing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza vii – the most extraordinarily virtuosic piece for the oboe I have ever seen: it must have been an exhausting 7 minutes and the sheet music looked terrifying!

The concert finished with Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss giving us a modern twist on folk tunes on the violin/viola and the accordion.  As it transpires, this was almost exactly a year since I last saw the boys at the launch of their first album – Laguna – at the Harrison in London.  I rather hope they will continue to name their albums after Renaults and look forward to their sophomore effort: Megane or 19, perhaps.  It is becoming a regular event for Facebook to provide a memory of what I was doing exactly 12 months ago and for me to discover that I had done (almost) exactly the same thing last night.  It sometimes feels like I’m stuck in a time loop – destined to repeat myself until the merciful release of death – or is that just being middle-aged?

However, it is the middle piece of the concert – by Seán Clancy – that is relevant to my thesis.  He is a composer based in Dublin but working at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  As a result, he too spends a lot of time in the air over the Irish Sea – though he has the further disadvantage of using Ryanair, who I suspect make FlyBe appear the very paragon of customer service.  Rather than chanelling this experience into rather too many words, he took the main events of each flight, their typical timings and the engine noise to produce an amazing 35(ish) minute drone piece called Ireland-England.  This he played on some astonishingly compact synths (ideal for the regular commuter to or from Hibernia and quite tempting future purchases for more than one member of the audience!) with a slideshow with various facts about what brings people from the island of Ireland to England (some of which were new to me).  It was an amazing piece and I’d love to have an extended version (which I think is doable) – Southampton to Belfast/Dublin by turboprop takes rather longer than Dublin to Birmingham by jet –  to listen to on my next flight.  I think that this, coupled with some noise-cancelling headphones to ensure that the only drones were Seán’s, would allow me to sit back and enjoy myself (though, I would – once again – be the one bringing the source of my enjoyment).


Tuning the synths… (who knew?)

It is events like these that could send me into a downward solipsistic spiral, but I think I shall continue to treasure my insignificance (even within the human realm) and put it down to coincidence.  Well, that plus the fact that if I go out often enough some things are bound to be linked eventually (and so appear in these pages)…


PS: For any readers pondering the goat reference, Odin’s chariot is pulled by two goats: Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr .  These are then eaten by the gods, before being resurrected by Mjölnir to allow the process to be repeated.  The Norse gods were surprisingly sustainable!

Transcending flightlessness

As this blog has observed before, I have to cross the Irish Sea on a regular basis for work.  Despite being in possession of a number of unwanted (and, if I’m honest, fairly useless) superpowers, I have yet to master unaided flight and so I am forced to rely on commercial airlines – and mostly FlyBe – to effect these journeys.  For the first year or so of my migrations, this process worked improbably smoothly but more recently delays, cancellations and unexpected visits to Cardiff (only its airport, so far…) have become a more regular feature of my life.

On Tuesday evening, I headed out into the torrential rain to catch the bus to the airport.  All was well as my bus arrived at the airport, but by the time I had dashed the few tens of yards from the bus stop to the terminal FlyBe had cancelled my flight.  This late decision-making is not unusual, it is almost a trope that they will wait until I have arrived at the airport to cancel my flight – though I strongly suspect that the decision is made much earlier.  On Tuesday, while no reason was given I suspect it was down the heavy snow that was alleged to be coating the whole of Northern Ireland.

Having re-booked on a flight the following morning, I decided that my evening, and at least some of my journey to the airport, should not be wasted.  My ride home takes my past the Turner Sims concert hall, so I stopped off there to enjoy an evening of piano mastery by Marc-André Hamelin.  This was a great deal more enjoyable than a flight in a Dash 8 Q400 – though unlike the flight, there were no announcements telling me to sit back and enjoy the experience.  The Dash 8 is basically a rather cramped bus with wings and any enjoyment I find in the experience will have been provided by myself: in the form of a book, some music or some iPlayer content.  I will admit that on the rare occasions when I am not in a seat from which the view of the outside world is largely obscured by the aircraft itself, and when spared heavy cloud cover or darkness, there is some enjoyment from looking out of the window – but again, I feel FlyBe have made only modest contributions to the beauty of the British countryside.

The programme of music was particularly fine and my favourite was probably the 4th Sonata (in E flat Minor/G flat Major) by Samuil Feinberg – a composer entirely new to me.  However, the concert was perhaps most significant for a change in the author.  I have for many years (>20) attempted to sit on the left-hand side of concert halls for piano music, so that I can see the pianist’s hands.  I’m not entirely sure what insights I have been expecting to obtain from this observation, but I think my piano playing makes clear that few, if any, have arisen.  However, on Tuesday I found myself – for the first time – devoting significant CPU time observing his feet!  Truly, I have started to integrate use of the pedals into my core identity.

My observations that evening led me to two new insights.  The first is that I am excessively lead-footed when using the sustaining pedal: for me it is a very binary option – no shades of grey.  The second followed from the first and is that I find that I am – or at least can imagine being – better than my digital piano.  This was not a situation in which I ever expected to find myself. I know that the piano sound is sampled and so not entirely like that of a real piano.  I also know that the keys are only pretending to have the haptic feedback of hammers striking strings.  However, I never expecting that my own dull senses would ever become aware of these compromises for the sake of convenience (and cost and space).  I lay the blame for the unanticipated discernment of my ears and hands on my piano teacher: he it was who let me loose on a grand piano.  It may represent a continuing, serious risk of head injury and not be particularly grand – but it has opened my senses to a bigger (dare I say, grander) world.  The grand still manages to shock me whenever I use the una corda pedal and the entire keyboard shifts slightly to the side.  However, the main issue is that the sustaining pedal on my instrument seems to be either off or on, but I want to play with more nuance.  I also think I’m reaching the point when playing Scarlatti where I want better feedback from the keys to improve the musicality of my performance.  This is particularly true when playing the same note multiple times, especially when responsibility has to shift from one hand to t’other.

It comes as something of a shock at my advanced age to find that I am rather less lumpen than I had always believed: it feels quite late in the day to start editing my self-image.  However, after returning from another gig last night where the Steinway D was in action, I did find myself searching on-line for digital pianos with more convincing keys and pedals and a better soundscape than the Kawai CA65 can provide.  What has happened to me?  Am I turning into an audiophile?  Am I about to start buying vinyl?  I’d assumed at this point I could focus my efforts on settling into the slow decline to the grave, but instead I seem to be wallowing in the new and acquiring unexpected skills.  Maybe there is still hope for unaided flight!

To finish this tale, I should report that the following morning FlyBe did manage to successfully transport me to Belfast.  I was disappointed to find the city snow free – though there was a dusting on the surrounding hills – and no need to attach tennis rackets to my feet so that I could yomp into the city.  To be honest, I needed a boat more than snow shoes given the torrential rain that afflicted the city for much of my stay.  I did finally directly encounter snow on the Thursday – though this was in the car park of the Banbridge Outlet shopping centre which, to the best of my knowledge, does not double as a regional airport.


Actual snow! Sadly, no time to fashion a graven image.  And you doubted the romance of business travel!

I have seen the future

Well, a tiny fragment of it!

I find myself (once again) in the Athens of the North – not as a result of a rather convenient abduction, but by booking (and then taking) a flight with FlyBe. This does spare my Facebook friends from the usual flurry of activity occasioned by the traditional long train ride – but leaving at short notice, flying was vastly cheaper (and faster) than the surface options.

Flying from Southampton is surprisingly painless – the airport is a short bus ride from home and formalities at the airport can be completed in a matter of seconds. There is also no long queue (or, indeed, any queue) of planes waiting to depart ahead of you and so my flight departed (and arrived) well ahead of schedule. Sadly, for the economics of FlyBe, the plane was mostly empty and so we were allowed to spread out from our default positions (all packed together over the wings), but for the first time in my flying experience this spreading out was constrained by the passenger weight-distribution in our Dash-8 (basically, we could all move nearer the back of the plane, but not even a single row forward – presumably to avoid the aircraft face-planting on the Southampton tarmac).

This more rapid (if less green) route north meant that I could have breakfast, a serious gym session, shower and lunch in the south and still be in Edinburgh for leisured consumption of emergency cake in the Filmhouse cafe followed by the 18:00 screening of the Skeleton Twins (great fun, despite roughly four attempted suicides – on screen, not amongst the audience) at the Cameo. Whilst I realise this capability has existing for many years, it still seems like a form of magic to me – though not, in fact, the vision of the future to which the title refers.

Talking of the Cameo, can I thoroughly recommend Cameo 2 to GofaDM readers. It is quite unlike any cinema I’ve visited before, it has a large and very wide screen but only three (3!) rows of seats. I think it may be (almost) the perfect cinema – why are all others narrow but deep, when wide and shallow is so much better? But, no even this is not the future.

After the film, I went to Tuk-Tuk, the only known source for the finest (IMO), if least authentic, naan in the world – I refer, of course, to the cheese naan. Forget your peshwari or keema, cheese is the filling that naan was invented for!

OK, I’ve teased you for long enough – now to the future bit. I am staying with a friend and he has been upgrading a number of rooms in his house (and is partway through a major extension). My room has been refurbished and as part of this work, the mains sockets have been replaced. As well as the usual two 3-pin mains sockets, there are also two USB charging ports provided – what a delight for the traveller and how practical in almost any modern home. The number of devices which need a USB power feed, but end up using a whole 3-pin mains socket leads to the proliferation of multi-plug adapters and extension cables in every home. It’s like having four sockets in the space for two and would be a boon for the foreign visitor (but also the local) as you need to carry far fewer plugs/plug adaptors with you. It could even lead to fewer hurt feet, with fewer currently unused 3-pin plugs lying inverted waiting to punish the unwary, barefoot pedestrian. The campaign for this to become the standard for all homes starts here!