Re-marque-able

In the olden days, a brand name had some sort of link to the product, its maker, manufacturer or inventor.  Today, highly paid “creatives” bolt together a few random phonemes which might suggest something vaguely cognate to the product (or not) or just choose a random word or two: hence we now have TV channels called Dave and Spike (but none that I could find with a girl’s name: yet another example of sexism?).  A limited grasp of the orthography of the English language also seems to be a boon when it comes to naming your brand.  As well as the name, you do need to choose a font, a colour scheme and some sort of symbol: what arcane arts are used here I know not, though I’m pretty sure that any official explanation given later will be a hastily cobbled-together, post-hoc justification.

As I recall, the purpose of a brand is (or was back in the day) to offer the promise of a consistent and reliable product to the customer.  Early brands were established to spare consumers from the rampant adulteration of foodstuffs that was then rife, though recent, regular public health stories suggest this aim has now rather been discarded in the name of profit or expediency.  However, I believe there is still the intention that the customer should feel some loyalty towards the brand: even if this loyalty is unrequited.

Given this background, I find myself puzzled by the regular re-branding of products that occurs in this modern world, a process which seems to run counter to the whole point of having a brand in the first place.  I strongly suspect that this is the marketing or branding department desperately trying to justify its existence – but as a strategy, it strikes me as expensive and lan effective route to a diminished customer base.  FMCG (fast-moving consumer good) companies seem the most prone to this re-branding activity. For instance, the re-naming of much loved products to match the name used elsewhere in the world: at a stroke reminding us that the item is produced by a soulless multinational corporation and weakening the bonds of nostalgic attachment for all but the youngest of consumers.  I would guess (based on my traditional sample of one) that this must negatively impact sales, which only recover as we older users are called to our internal reward and are replaced by those innocents who suffer from post-auricular moistness and never knew Opal Fruits (or the like).  Even rather more niche products, like the Somerset-grown pearled spelt I use, seem to re-brand with startling frequency: the whole design of the packaging and its colour scheme seem to be changed every couple of years.  I am quite keen on pearled spelt (part of my Cnut-lie attempt to support British agriculture and minimise food miles) and so go to the trouble of seeking out the new-look pack, but I suspect many less committed users just purchase some much-easier-to-find arborio rice instead.

Recently the gym which I use has taken the re-branding route.  The only benefit to its users that I can see is the repainting of the walls – but the costs to the shareholders must have been substantial: all new signage, uniforms, stationery and marketing materials across 100 gymnasia to name only the most obvious items of expenditure.  I can’t even guess what benefits the change of font, colour scheme and symbol are supposed to deliver, nor how these might be measured, but I’m sceptical that they will match the costs.  One likes to imagine that a modern commercial corporation would not re-brand without a very real expectation of a net gain, but I rather fear they are as subject to magical thinking as the rest of us.  Perhaps the sacrifice of the old brand is supposed to propitiate the gods of the market?  However, my classical reading suggests that Hermes would probably prefer honey, cake or livestock: perhaps the modern marketing professional looks to a different Pantheon for its theistic underpinnings?

All of which musing probably indicates that I am not cut out for a career in marketing – or could it be that I’m right and so exactly what the world of marketing needs?

The Balkanisation of the Gym

Look.  You do know that I can hear you groaning?  I will admit that you have come up with the correct response, but not for the right reason (so it doesn’t count).  This will not be further tales of my mid-life crisis which, eschewing fast cars and/or women, I have chosen to spend hanging bat-like from bar or rings.  Vampires are still cool, right?  Or should allow age-related decay to have full rein and hope that zombie-chic is still in?

I have noticed that a significant number of exercises have been claimed by Balkan nations.  For some time, I have been attempting the Romanian deadlift, the Hungarian push-up and the Bulgarian dip (which is delicious and based, I think, on the humble chick-pea).  Yesterday, I was introduced to the Turkish get-up – a manoeuvre requiring not only strength and agility but also a significant grasp of choreography.  How the Ottoman Empire grew to such a size, when they have rendered the process of rising from the floor, palliasse or bed (I have failed to properly research Ottoman sleeping habits) so challenging, is a marvel.  I presume most never made it out from under the duvet, but those few that did then found conquering huge swathes of Asia and Europe a relative doddle.

Pondering the naming of these exercises, I wonder if they were one of the many bones of contention (a whole ossuary’s worth) that led to such misery and bloodshed during the nationalist disintegration of first the Habsburg and then Austro-Hungarian empires?    Given that this acrimonious break-up continues into the current century, it is probably only a matter of time before Montenegro, FYROM and Croatia have their own, national physical jerks (I’d like to imagine the last will involve a tie).  Still, I suppose it is important for a country to retain its physical culture.

Most of these Balkan exercises are somewhat niche in nature with only true athletes, like myself (stop sniggering at the back), attempting them.  However, there is one which those lads who otherwise prefer to stick with the bench press and bicep curl for their exercise regimen use on a very regular basis.  I refer, of course, to the regular need to Czech oneself out in the mirror!

(OK, even I’m embarrassed by that dénouement – but not enough, it would seem, to keep it to myself).

Life is like a sewer

To quote the immortal words of Tom Lehrer, who went on to say “what you get out of it depends on what you put into it”.  I was reminded of these words as I have been listening to the collected works of the great mathematician as I’ve been working out over the last week.  Some may consider this an odd choice of listening, and in the early days of using my own music to drown out the awful noise served up in the modern gym under the guise of music I did try to use slightly more traditional, motivational musical tracks (though never anything by Survivor).  However, over time I have drifted away from this “ideal” and used klezmer, Jake Thackeray and The Mikado (to name but three) to accompany my physical jerks.  These have all been fine, but not all music works – for some reason the standard symphonic and classical string quartet repertoire is decidedly unsuccessful.

It was lovely to return to Mr Lehrer’s oeuvre after an absence, a return initiated by the seasonal need to listen to I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica – which I feel is cruelly overlooked in Christmas playlists.  Anyway, that seems to have covered the source of the title, so perhaps I ought to add some content which might have occasioned its use.

I’m not entirely sure what I have put into this life, though it certainly includes a lot of hours – well over 400,000 by the time of writing, which seems to suggest a pretty decent attendance record, if nothing else.  I am even less sure what I want to get out of it.  I tried to think back to previous versions of me to see if my current life might have been what they (previous-me, that is) would have been hoping for – but this generated remarkably few insights.  I think past-me might be quite pleased that I only work part-time, but probably disappointed that it has taken more than 27 years to make any sort of start on number theory.  He would be astounded (and perhaps horrified) to find he had turned into a (mostly) vegetarian gymnast-wannabe.  I think past-me might also expect current-me to have more of the answers – I have spent my life assiduously collecting answers (mostly, unintentionally), but have been even more successful at collecting questions so the net position is sadly on a downward trajectory.

Part of my problem with developing a life plan is the fact that I seem to have rejected almost all the ready-made plans which our society would suggest we use.  I have shown little interest in procreation (or the supposedly fun activities that can lead to this end) and so my body is largely acting as a long-term prison for my genes (with no sign of parole), rather than as a vessel for their transmission.  Whilst I quite like people – both as a concept and often in the flesh – I have singularly failed to pick a specific person on whom to lavish some seriously concentrated “liking” (for which you should all be grateful).  I haven’t pursued vast wealth, career progression, fame or power over others – as, frankly, all of these strike me as seriously inconvenient to possess and would probably require some significant effort on my part to achieve (so very much a lose-lose scenario).  I haven’t even climbed the property ladder or its motor vehicle analogue (ramp?) – my current flat is the smallest home I have owned and my car is also the smallest and least powerful yet (and, the poor thing is barely used).  I fear I may be holding back the whole country in the “global race” in which it seems to be so important we all compete.  The best life plan current-me has been able to produce is to avoid disappointing future-me – but as I have little idea what future-me might value, this is not a particularly constructive strategy.

Against this aimless backdrop, the whole world seems to be heading for the realm of Hades in a small portable whicker vessel.  Only today I saw further proof of this fact (and you may find this hard to believe, but I assure you that it is true) when I saw something described as an “artisan kettle”.  It wasn’t clear if this was marketed at the artisan – though the price would suggest not – of if the electric kettle in question was made by kettle craftsmen (or women) in the same way they have been making them since the sixteenth century.  A chap could despair – how long until the first artisanal 4K television hits the shelves?

Despite all of the above, my flat is often filled with laughter – sadly much of it directed at me rather than with me, but you have to take what you can get when you live alone.  I seem able to have fun on a relatively modest budget – my last theatrical trip (to see Tree at the Old Vic) cost a mere £13 (+£1.50 booking fee) and allowed me to laugh at third parties for an evening (I try to avoid laughing at fire or theft, potentially inappropriate).  I can usually get enough answers right on Only Connect (even if this did require some very unexpected – and embarrassing – knowledge of the surnames of the less famous 80% of One Direction on Monday) to feel that I am not a total idiot (despite the evidence from the other 167.5 hours in the week).  As a result (perhaps), I suddenly realised whilst watching Birdman (odd, but worth a look) at the flicks last weekend that I was happy – not just at that moment, but in general.  Obviously life still has its frustrations and annoyances, but I think I may essentially be happy – so previous-mes are off the hook for the moment, I could wish they had done things differently but can’t complain too much about where their efforts (or lack thereof) have delivered me.  So, I find I am inclined to continue without any sort of life plan and just allow muddling-through coupled with the pursuit of reasonably-priced divertissement to continue and hope it carries-on delivering me to somewhere pleasing.  I think this might be quite a Buddhist and/or Jedi approach with its almost complete lack of striving – but given that neither religion made an appearance in my Religious Studies O-level (which rarely left the shallows of St Luke’s gospel), I could well be mis-representing their teachings.  Maybe, in later times, this post will be considered the foundation text of my own eponymous faith – my first analect – though given my verbosity and tendency to go off at a tangent, I do fear there will be enormous scope for schisms among my future followers: it might be important to write a post about the importance of tolerance, the evils of dogma and my love for the heretic before too long…

Moving to the Hamptons

An aspiration, I believe, for many a New Yorker though my own move was not to Long Island (though I do remain resident on a much longer island).  Whilst Southampton shares a name (and given the etymology of said name, can be considered the original) with one of the Hamptons most desirable villages, I doubt the folk of the four boroughs are queuing to move here.

After three months as a resident, I can say that Southampton is no Cambridge – the architecture would (on the whole) be considered less attractive and despite a river I have yet to see a punt.  Some of the dodgy architecture can be blamed on the Luftwaffe, though I fear the British must take the blame for the re-building.  It does, however, have some history – it claims it was from here that Cnut failed to command the sea (wisely eschewing use of the Illearth stone) – and has a long naval tradition.

When I moved from Crouch End to Cambridge, I noted the increased obesity of the residents in my new domicile.    This effect was repeated with my most recent move.  I believe this is a class (or socio-economic effect); it is extraordinary that within a century obesity has gone from being a signifier of extreme wealth to one of near poverty.

It is also quite astonishingly green in many parts with a very generous provision of parks surrounding the city centre and the Common just to the north.  My new demesne lies within a Georgian crescent (well, demi-crescent) facing a small park and the main law courts (so, I still see plenty of police action).  Whilst the frontage and hall floor are original, the rest is more recently-built and so offers the high ceilings and tall windows of the past but modern levels of sound and heat insulation.  It lies betwixt the soi-disant Cultural Quarter and the Common and the older of the two universities – so little that I might want to visit is more than a mile or two away (including those vital pillars of a chap’s life: Waitrose, John Lewis, the main library and the railway station).

Talking of the universities, my new gym is associated with the johnny-come-lately uni (made famous as the seat of John Lloyd’s professor of ignorance in this latest series of the Museum of Curiosity).  This gains over previous gymnasia in its cheapness and proximity, but mostly in that it has both a tower and crenellations!  As the building seems less than a century old, I presume these are a decorative flourish and have never been used to repel an attack but do make a pleasant change from the retail “barns” which house so many modern fitness (and other) facilities.

The old university is comprised of modern buildings but in rather fine, tree-filled grounds.  It also house an excellent music facility in the Turner Sims and a decent theatre in the Nuffield.  I may talk more of these anon, but they do boast a very fine range of both ice cream and beer at very competitive prices!

Southampton provides a river and the sea at close hand, though I have yet to actually see the briny (however, I have seen some very large boats dominating the skyline – my first being the Queen Mary 2).  It lies within easy cycling distance of the New Forest: yet another trip I have yet to make.  What it also offers is very, direct good rail links to a surprisingly wide area of the UK – though Network Rail is contriving to make weekend or evening trips to London rather undesirable unless one wishes to invest an awful lot of time (and probably a bus journey) to return home.  As a result, I have visited Oxford, Salisbury and Chichester for weekend fun since my move – all take less time than going to London from Cambridge and by avoiding going via London are a surprisingly cheap option (even without booking months in advance).

More of Oxford and Chichester another time, but I shall mention Salisbury now.  I used to go there when but a lad, but the city now seemed very unfamiliar – even the cathedral.  However, I did find Reeves the Baker (fitted with somewhat different signage than in the 70s) and they still offered lardy cake.  Proust had his madeleine, for me the first mouthful of lardy cake and my temps perdu flooded back like soapy water to a badly-plumbed washing machine.  The city costs only pennies more to visit than the cost of visiting Cambridge by bus from Sawston – and takes less time to reach despite the substantially greater distance.

Perhaps Salisbury’s greatest asset (or at least one of the greats) is the Playhouse.  I have seen a truly excellent production of 1984 (which will soon drive me back to the book, which I last read when 12 – which might have been a tad precocious , or merely premature) and my first taste of Ibsen with Ghosts (the hammer-blow ending of which reminded me of Katya Kabanova – pretentious, moi?).  Even better, it is amazingly cheap for a matinée seat at a mere £15 and offers a decent interval refreshment.

So, all-in-all, the move is proving a success – though I do miss Cambridge – and my plan to see the UK by living in its various parts (so much better than being a mere tourist) proceeds apace.

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?)

A new superhero is born

Yes, it’s me!

A superhero very much in the Batman mould: made through a combination of serious gym-time plus cool, but expensive, gadgets.  I have not, to the best of my knowledge, been bitten by a radioactive animal or exposed to a hefty dose of gamma radiation.  Though, come to think about it, this shirt is feeling a little tight – but I’m sure that’s down to my recent Scottish diet and there is little physical risk if you were to make me angry (though I cannot guarantee an absence of withering sarcasm).

As reference to my shirt helps to attest, my acquisition of superpowers (well, a superpower) has not been accompanied by the desire to wear lycra, bright colours, a mask or any of the other standard accoutrements of the modern superhero.  This post will also completely destroy any chance of a secret identity – though, given the likely readership, I suspect the secret will still hold for over 6 billion people.

For years, the ivy and hawthorn which lie just beyond the eastern boundary of the extensive parklands which surround Fish Towers have mocked me (and I don’t even have a ha-ha).  They have been able to keep light and precipitation from my currants and berries, secure in the knowledge that my secateurs are unable either to reach them or to sever such thick branches.  They’ve stopped laughing now!  It’s hard to laugh when you are reduced to 6″ lengths and languishing in a green bin.

How has this desirable state of affairs come to pass?  Well, my gym-built body has now been augmented with an anvil tree lopper supplied by Wolf Garten – as you will all be aware, the wolf is the most horticulturallly-inclined of all God’s creatures.  This attaches to a handle which I have previously used for raking and hoeing.  In combination, my reach is significantly extended and major mechanical advantage can be applied to the cutting blades.  No mere branch can now withstand me – and the resultant feeling of power is quite intoxicating!

I suppose I should remember that with great power comes great responsibility – but to be honest, all I want to do is lop things (any potential visitors beware!).  Sadly, further lopping will have to wait as I now find myself in need of a second superpower.  The exercise of my first has filled my green bin to the brim in well under an hour and sadly, I can’t think of any of Stan Lee’s creations able to change the date of rubbish collection on a bank holiday week (perhaps this was considered a superpower too far – just too unbelievable).

I suppose I ought to think of a new superpower name to go with my new status.  The Tree Anvillain perhaps?

Locker Room Tales

As I have mentioned in the past, I spend a certain chunk of my time at the gymnasium. Before entering the business end of the gym, the visitor must navigate reception and then the locker room to change from my cycling gear (probably much lighter on the lycra front than the more fevered imaginings of some readers would suppose) into my work-out kit.

On one rare occasion in the distant past, the male and female changing rooms in the gym I was then using were swapped for a short period of time (due to maintenance).  As a result, we mere men were able to survey the palatial surroundings in which the ladies change – while it is dangerous to generalise from a single example, I must admit I continue to imagine that the distaff changing facilities put those of the weaker sex to shame.

However, that was very much the exception and my normal experience is of the male locker room, an experience which has always been shared with my fellow Y-chromosome carriers.  One does see some extraordinary sights in the mens’ locker room, but normally I am able to recover from the trauma with only relatively modest psychiatric intervention.  I would perhaps suggest to my fellow lads that if your keks were black when new, and are now off-white and more hole than fabric, then perhaps its time to consider replacement?  I would cautiously extend the same advice to other articles of clothing – even if it is your favourite T-shirt, sometimes you just have to let it go to the great laundry basket in the sky (assuming it’s been good – otherwise, send it to the fires below).

I have belonged to several gymnasia in my time in Cambridge and the locker rooms of all have exhibited the same slightly mysterious behaviour.  There are many scores of lockers, and at the times I tend to visit barely a dozen men in the gymnasium.  We could perhaps add another dozen using the pool or showers – but there should be a huge number of free lockers available when I arrive to change.  However, I often struggle to find a single free locker – though I must admit that I do spurn the floor-level lockers as I am now of an age where I try and avoid unnecessary bending down.  Who is using the all the lockers?  Have people confused the gym with Big Yellow Storage?  What is a Big Yellow and why does it need storing?  Or do the apparently used lockers conceal entrances to Narnia or other fairy-tale realms?  The gym claims it empties the lockers every night, so are the denizens of Cambridge getting up at the crack of dawn to store something in the lockers during the day and then retrieving it every evening?  What could it possibly be?  I know I’m intrigued.

The other thing which often puzzles me is the clothing people choose to wear in the gym. I find that a work-out is quite warming and so tend to wear a vest and shorts – and even then, I tend to get rather too hot on most occasions but modesty forbids any further reduction in my habilement.  However, I have seen others wearing thick, fleecy tracksuit bottoms and matching top and even a woolly hat whilst training.  How do they cope?  I know my years in the north-east may have thickened my blood, but how thin would your blood have to be – or dilatory your workout – to need clothing that warm in a well- (to my taste, over-) heated gym?  Still, I suppose I prefer those needlessly warmly covered up to those choosing to wear little more than a Y-shaped piece of string over their torso coupled with shorts that could only be described as minuscule – and I’m just talking about the fellas.  For my money, almost everyone looks better covered up (even those generally accepted to be beautiful) and in most cases, the more that’s covered the better. I like to think this is one cover-up we can all agree on!