Some may worry that my trip to Cambridge was somewhat of a waste, given my shortfall in the haemoglobin department.  Fear not, dear reader, the letting of a surfeit of blood is the excuse rather than the reason for me to visit Cambridge.

Where else could I sit in a café having an emergency cake-based snack and discuss the difficulties of playing the trombone and the variation in the necks of double-basses whilst my interlocutor accompanied the conversation on an octave mandolin?  Many thanks to Jack at the Indigo Café for this excellent – and very Cambridge – experience.

Much of my other leisure time was spend in the pursuit of music.  Thursday night (after my traditional dinner trip to Fitzbillies) I spent in the chapel of King’s College listening to a curious concert.  Part renaissance mass (by Josquin) and part serialist (maybe – I am no expert) electronica from Karlheiz Stockhausen and others.  This latter segment was delivered through a series of speakers positioned around the chapel and, given the lowered lighting, did somewhat bring to mind a successful séance at which some very unquiet spirits came to call.  The final piece of electronica, Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco by Jonathan Harvey, was by far the most successful for me – it had definite hints of being music and I would not object to hearing it again.  I realise my difficult with Mr Stockhausen’s oeuvre may be a failing in me – but, the sound of inept DIY in action would be more musical to my ears than Gesang der Jünglinge.  However, well worth the very modest price of admission for an interesting evening of music and sound, including some beautiful singing.

However, the real musical treats of the visit were free – part of the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Chamber Music.  Obviously aimed at students and academics but they also let in the great unwashed (and even me).  The visiting “prof” was pianist Angela Hewitt and she was a revelation.  I made it to two sessions (sadly returning home before her chat with John Butt, of the Dunedin Consort, on the Art of Fugue): a lecture-recital on performing Bach and a masterclass with some of the university’s finest student musicians.

After the lecture-recital, I am even more impressed by concert soloists and the amount of work that has to go into preparing a piece for performance.  Bach really only gives you the notes, so the player has to worry about dynamics (volume) and tempo (speed) – as well as play the notes successfully as written (which is the part I largely fail to do).  The pianist also has to work out her own fingerings – rather than my approach which is to hope that a finger happens to be near the target when required (big hands can be a boon) – and split out all the voices in the piece and choose the force to apply to each finger to bring the right voice to the fore.  I am trying to play pieces where each hand is required to produce a different volume – and this is often more than my ageing brain can manage, let alone varying the force from multiple fingers on the same hand.  I have a very long way to go (even with the somewhat limited portion of the lecture that I can claim to have fully understood) – we can only hope that the heat death of the universe is rather further away than currently believed or I have no hope (even should I happen to be immortal).

A further vastening (a word denied by WordPress and Mr Collins, but I’m sticking with it) of my musical horizons came in the masterclass.  First we heard what seemed to be an excellent rendition of the piece to be studied by 1, 2 or 3 students – and then we saw Angela take it to a different level, even when sight-reading a piece she had never played before.  The most extraordinary session was with Liszt’s Dante sonata – on first playing by a very fine student pianist this seemed typical Liszt: see how hard and often you can bang the keys, very much an endurance exercise for the alpha-male pianist.  Then Angela played it, and it became so much more – the dynamic range and emotional content was on another level altogether, you could hear the souls crying out in Hell.  I may have to re-visit my thoughts on Liszt – but will need to find the right performance.

I was also rather captivated by her effortless erudition on matters musical and well beyond.  She brought so much historical and literary context to bear on her preparation for performance.  For the Liszt, she referred the student to a document which provided very extensive notes on the piece – then off-hand mentioned that she’d only seen it in French but was sure an English translation must exist.  Would that I could manage such a thing, in any field of knowledge, but I am far too much the dilettante to ever acquire the necessary depth.  I fear I shall have to continue my attempts to dazzle from the shallows.  Within the last fortnight alone, I’ve wanted to study music (see above), microbiology and group theory to at least a post-grad level – but sadly have failed to make a start on any and by tomorrow I will, no doubt, have a new obsession.  I am too much the (lazy) intellectual butterfly – but perhaps the world of MOOCs may rescue me from my superficiality (or just broaden it even further).  Watch this space for further attempts at intellectual showing off:  look at me!  Look at me!


The Roma lifestyle (though without a caravan or Channel 4 film crew in sight) that dominated May has now come to an end and I am able to spend a little more time at home.  Whilst my peripatetic life was great fun, it does play havoc with provisioning and the laundry and left quite a backlog of radio to listen to and BBC4 documentaries to watch.  It did also leave me waking in the morning and finding that my first coherent thought was “where am I?”.

Back in South Cambs, and with winter finally in abeyance, I am reminded how much fun it is to be at home.  A couple of weeks back, in that time I fondly like to remember as Summer 2013, the sun shone and it was even warm (well, as long as you could find some protection from the north wind).  By luck or skill, this coincided with not one, but both Harrises visiting Cambridge: as an event, very much on a par with a State visit, though – perhaps surprisingly – not accompanied by quite the same frenzy of attention from our sadly diminished Fourth Estate.

The plan was to have a pub crawl, though given damage to Harris’ foot (Harris, was fine) a suitably short route was needed.  Despite the constraints, Cambridge can offer a very fine collection of hostelries located in pretty Victorian back streets.  The Free Press and Elm Tree offered some very fine pints, enjoyed amid the sunny peace and quiet of a Cambridge afternoon.    We ended the afternoon at the more touristy (and famous) Eagle in the city centre.  I’m afraid that despite the venue, and the inspiration previously consumed, no major breakthroughs in genetics or biochemistry were forthcoming.  Harris did expound a number of theories to make hat-wearing more compatible with the positioning of the human ear and these may later be recognised as scientifically significant (though perhaps not up there with the double-helix).

As befitting men of our advanced years, there was no descent into public drunkenness and festivities were done by late afternoon with no-one breaching their RDA of ethanol.  The Harrises purchased the elements of a picnic to be consumed on the train home while I headed to the Indigo Café to enjoy its excellent bagels, cake and hot chocolate.  It really is a wonderful institution and I’d missed its victuals and friendly staff while I’d been gallavanting around these Isles.

It’s not just cafes and beer: on my first night back, Cambridge offered me an excellent concert by the Britten Sinfonia.  The return home has also allowed cooking, singing lessons, cycling , gym-going and sleeping in my own bed to resume.  So after a month of enforced dissipation (well, perhaps I may have contributed a little) I am now returning to that most desirable condition of “mens sana in corpore sano“.  All-in-all, Cambridge and environs conspire to remind of the splendid place I live – or maybe just to highlight that I’m not cut-out to be an international playboy, but do make a half-decent, if somewhat prosaic, homebody.