Channelling Gogol: Escape into fantasy…

It seems to have been a while since the internet was last graced with my long form musings about the ever changing ‘new normal’.  I suspect this may be because I have found a new outlet for my excess stupidity: a subject which I intend to form the meat of this post (only time will tell whether I prove capable of delivering on this threat).

I think we are well into month five of the lockdown, though I am starting to lose my belief in the reality of the before times and also seem to have increasing difficulty navigating verb tenses successfully.  Many years ago, there was a radio comedy called the Million Pound Radio Show and its most famous product was the pirate sketch.  This has much to recommend it but, relevant to our current situation, it did raise the issue that pirates only speaks in the present tense and that use of the pluperfect was a planking offence.  If this hypothesis is true, I am becoming increasingly piratical: though have yet to handle being home alone by acquiring a parrot companion or seeking to stockpile pieces of eight.

With the easing of lockdown, the pubs have re-opened and I have been to a pub.  The only pub I have visited since March is the Guide Dog (which, in no coincidence whatsoever, was the last pub I visited in the before times), though I have visited it on multiple occasions since 14 July.  It is a place that I still feel safe (and not just because it is my second home) and their systems around social distancing and the “plus” element of current guidance seem very well thought out. I’m sure other pubs are also excellent but I am focusing my economic and hepatic energies and increased risk profile on supporting my favourite.  On Wednesday, a couple of my diaspora of friends returned to the city and the Guide Dog and it was lovely to see them in the flesh, rather than via my (very decent) desktop screen at home, and a slight excess of support may have occurred.

Talking of the flesh, last weekend I managed to catch some live music, courtesy of the spacing and reduced contagion offered by the great outdoors, on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  At one point, I did get quite wet but it was worth it to reclaim another little portion of my old life.  I am having to re-learn the etiquette of live music as, unlike a live stream, people can hear and see what you are doing and joining in is not always appropriate!

The main new novelty in my life, and the sponge which is absorbing most of my creative juices, is Generic Fantasy Landia™.  I feel that I have mentioned that in the run up to lock down, in addition to stacks of books I also bought a Dungeons and Dragons Starter Kit: I was fully aware of the dangers of being stuck with my own company for an extended period.  Sadly, this does not permit me to grow either my own dungeons or dragons: both of which would have been interesting projects in their own right.  What it does provide is five pre-baked characters, a set of dice with various numbers of faces, some basic instructions for play and a fully written adventure.

Using this Starter Kit and Zoom, I and three friends (recently increased to four) have been learning to play D&D.  I have taken the role of Dungeon Master and my friends are playing the part of itinerant adventurers who can, eventually, be tempted out of the virtual pub and onto a quest.

The first adventure, I ‘borrowed’ lock-stock-and-barrel from a YouTube video on how to be a Dungeon Master.  We had very little idea what we were doing, but had just enough of the rules broadly understood to make it work and establish that it was something we could have fun doing.  We also established some of the ‘features’ of our version of D&D which I’m fairly sure are not part of the traditional game and would horrify purists.  The subsequent two adventures, I have ‘written’ from scratch raiding my memories for ideas.  This means that our adventures are set in a somewhat generic fantasy world, based only loosely on the Forgotten Realms of the D&D 5e canon (I’m not sure the Forgotten Realms have an Ikea or a proto GoApe): it started out being called Generic Fantasy Land but this very quickly morphed to its enduring name of Generic Fantasy Landia.

D&D is a very open-ended form of game, which means that monsters and non-player characters (NPCs) are not stuck with a fixed range of activities but can do anything they (meaning I) want and I can convince myself is in character.  The adventurers can (and regularly do) go off piste in unexpected – often suicidal – ways: which can require some quick thinking on my part (which does not always occur quickly).  As time goes on, we are getting through fewer resurrection potions than at the start, though some monsters do have to pull their punches (and I may have to fake the odd low dice throw) from time to time to avoid an unplanned massacre.

Given that I am writing the adventures and given the nature of my friends, our version of D&D (named D and Franken D) has rather more of the Carry On! franchise about it than I suspect is wholly authentic.  When a new adventurer joined the party a couple of weeks ago, I was concerned that they might struggle to fit into the innuendo-ridden world of GFL and my sometimes creative interpretation of the rules: I needn’t have worried, they fitted right in!  They are not yet fully into expecting trapdoors everywhere  and vandalising everything in sight, but given the company they are now keeping this can only be a matter of time…

To counter some of the more reprehensible features of GFL, I am quite hot on geological accuracy and am trying to do some consistent world building.  All settlements in GFL are named after European power stations and the only mountain range (so far) is named after a painter (I am reminded that I need to name a river).  Early in the first adventure I wrote, the team find a notebook and I felt it wasn’t enough just to describe it: so I drew the necessary map and wrote some terrible riddle-based poetry to provide some clues as to how to proceed with the adventure.  I learned the important lesson not to create a map which requires drawing quite so many trees in future but really enjoyed the ‘art’ aspect of the project.  So, for later in the adventure I drew a geologically realistic limestone cavern and a room using single point perspective (casting my mind back to my last technical drawing lesson from 1979).  I now find myself regularly buying new art supplies to improve the quality (debatable) of the visual aids I’m providing to make each adventure more immersive.  I have since drawn a pub, a further map and a town surrounded by a wooden palisade with a castle above.  I am currently working on a town plan and have experimented with 2-point perspective: luckily standard D&D does have cubical monsters!

In the first couple of adventures, other than bar staff there were no NPCs for the team to talk to, just monsters to fight.  However, for the current adventure I am attempting to create a range of characters for people to interact with other than at sword, bow or wand-tip.  This is really pushing my very limited ability to produce viably different accents for different characters: as it is, characters’ accents wander very widely even within a sentence and I have a tendency to forget what accent they had last week (I need to take better notes!).  I am not (yet) able to draw the characters: another potential project to see me through lockdown!

The existence of GFL has really made Sunday nights something special, if exceedingly silly, and a highlight of my lockdown weeks.  It is also now giving me lots to do during the week and a reason to play with the visual arts for the first time since the 1970s.  I now understand loads of nerd-references from film and TV that somewhat passed me by at the time.  I do worry that I am becoming slightly obsessed and I am starting to un-ironically use such references: I did find myself bemoaning my -2 Dexterity when attempting to perform a task earlier in the week.

I feel I’ve rambled for long enough and GFL prep calls: NPCs won’t name themselves or prepare their own clues, so I must step into the breach…



I am long past the age when I am likely to be considered a prodigy in any field, though I suppose hope never entirely dies while breath remains.  I am now of an age where I find that the people who claim to be in charge and seem to be engaged in a project to drive the country off a cliff of (still) unknown height, through some combination of dogma, hoped-for personal gain and a failure to learn much (if anything) from GCSE History, are younger than I am.

Yesterday, for some reason now forgotten, I happened to encounter a photograph of the leader of Southampton City Council and, frankly, couldn’t help wondering how he was managing to cope with such a senior position while revising for his A Levels.  I suspect the only reason that High Court Judges haven’t begun to look surprisingly youthful is that I haven’t knowingly seen one in many years, well that and their tendency to wear wigs when on the clock.

To compensate for my impending dotage and rather pedestrian skills and their even more commonplace process of the acquisition (which, in many cases, still represents active projects), I seem to be filling my life with much more talented, much younger people.  While this has largely happened by accident (and time does make it increasingly easy to be surrounded by younger folk), I am still counting it as one of my better ‘plans’.

Given this background, I felt I was reasonably insulated against astonishment at the abilities of those born close to the turning of the millenium: as so often, I was wrong…

Last night I cycled through copious surface water to Turner Sims to see, among others, a young jazz guitarist and composer by the name of Rob Luft.  The chap had been highly recommended to me by a number of friends but even this had not fully prepared me for his extraordinary performance.  As far as I could see (and I was in the front row), he was possessed of only the usual human complement of five fingers per hand, each with the traditional number of joints.  I’ll admit that they were somewhat younger and more slender than my own rather agricultural digits (at least I’ve inherited something from the great tranche of my ancestry who laboured on the land) but were otherwise nothing apparently out of the ordinary.  However, their ability to dance across the neck and body of his Gibson and fiddle with the many dials on his well-stocked pedal board was nothing short of miraculous.  What an incredible performance and one which seemed to go down very well with the whole audience (not just the author), a surprising number of whom were yet to draw their pensions!

He also gave a good impression of being a very modest young chap who was slightly surprised to be allowed to do this and that anyone had come to watch and, as a result, was having an absolute ball.  He did let slip that the Ford Fusion which had brought him and at least some of the band to the gig (I don’t think it could have fitted the whole band, let alone their equipment) was in need of some modest investment to make it fully roadworthy.  I was struck by the gulf between on the one hand the level of skill evinced by many musicians, the effort needed to acquire that skill and the joy they can bring to a room (yes, it does need to be quite a big hand) and on the other (smaller hand) the level of remuneration that the vast majority receive.  A tiny few, not wholly correlated with their talent, make huge sums but for many life is a struggle – and one suspects is growing harder.  The substitution of the streaming of music for its purchase must have a negative impact on the income of most musicians and this is coupled with the number of venues to perform live being in decline.  I do my best to attend gigs and buy music but these efforts can feel like a very small drop in all too large an ocean.  Perhaps I should attempt, on my modest salary, to maintain an in-house musician – as Prince Esterházy did with Haydn, though we can hope that I would provide less oppressive working conditions (I’m not looking for 106 symphonies any time soon, for a start).  Young Luft was a chap of modest build and in no way excessive height, so I could probably find a berth from him somewhere.  I do worry that I would also have to house a substantial collection of guitars, amps, pedals and other paraphernalia which may be more of an issue, given the far from ample proportions of my garret.  To sweeten the deal, I could the offer use of an entirely roadworthy Fiesta, at least most of the time…

Perhaps the house musician idea needs more work and/or a larger house.  In the interim, I should perhaps work on a more practical support mechanism to support live music – or push forward with my illegal cloning experiments.  My current attempt to ‘clone’ bread is going alarmingly well, though at its current rate of growth it may force me out of the house before the end of the month.  Surely, as a fairly simple chap, I can’t be too much harder than some sourdough?  Wheat (and probably rye) definitely has a lot more genes…

This morning, after breakfast, I diligently went about my piano practice and then my guitar practice: refusing to be phased by the unachievable exemplars I had witnessed the previous night.  I have even started a little jazz work on the guitar, having discovered that just because a guitar has six strings you don’t have to use all of them (or even an adjacent set of them) to form a chord.  The novelty of 3 or 4 voice chords – some of which can, chameleon-like, represent multiple real world chords – has just entered my repertoire (albeit currently very slowly) as have the arcane mysteries of 1-6-2-5.  I did diligently try and listen out for this progression at last night’s gig but didn’t spot it: it is early days yet for my ‘jazz ear’ (and it may not have occurred)…

To better enjoy last night’s CD acquisition while preparing lunch (and in the future while out and about) , I spent a few minutes both reducing the audio quality and increasing the convenience of my consumption of Riser.  As I like to retain the album artwork for CDs that have been thus transformed, and am too lazy to use my scanner, I resorted to an internet search.  As well as finding the visuals I sought, I also discovered that the lad is a mere 23 years old.  I’ll admit that my thoughts did stray in the direction of the infant Mozart (or Gauss, well I am a lapsed mathematician) and my own rather limited achievements at 23 (or, indeed today, knocking on the door of 53 – and running away).  I have literally spent this afternoon walking around the New Forest in boots older than Rob Luft!  I would note that in addition to the broader cognitive dissonance this fact has brought about, my feet are none too happy about this either.  I think they may have changed shape somewhat since I bought the boots in the mid 90s: a shift that the boots have failed to mirror.

Replacing my boots with something more comfy seems an achievable objective; providing brilliant musicians with a viable career and a decent salary feels like a bigger project but I’ll stick it on my notional to-do list….

Losing our Heads

Humans are a sentimental lot, easily acquiring attachments to places and things which the objects of our sentiments cannot return: short of a greater belief in animism than I can usually muster.  Such feelings can become twisted  to generate dark emotions and worse actions, though mostly just lead to a slight resistance to change and life marinated in a vague brine of nostalgia.

I am as prone to these sentiments as any, though do try to remember that if carried too far would mean our distant ancestors never having left the savannah or cave: a bit of change is probably more healthy than the stagnant alternatives.  Much that is considered beautiful or beloved was once an eye-sore (or worse).  Places that don’t change can feel rather eerie: I remember wandering around the largely unchanged streets of Oxford a few years back being haunted by the ghost of my much younger self walking those same streets.

Some places smuggle themselves deep into our hearts surprisingly swiftly.  I think these delvers, swift and deep, are able to do so thanks to associations that accrete in nacreous layers around the raw grit of the place to create a treasured pearl.  In my experience, these associations are always linked to the realm of the living and are, perhaps, strongest when they involve other people: though nature more broadly creates powerful ties.

As the proceeding directions which set my stage suggest, I am going to talk about a particular place – now forever lost in one of the trickier to navigate dimensions – which only existed for a brief span of a human life but became very important to me.  Those for whom prolonged exposure to this blog has provided some unwanted insight into the way my brain “works”, may have guessed from the title that this post is about The Talking Heads of fond memory.

For those who do not know it, the Talking Heads – hereinafter “The Heads” – was an independent music venue in Southampton.  The Heads has existed for several years, but while I visited its Portswood home on a few occasions it was only once it moved to the Polygon that it unexpectedly became such an integral part of my life.  Initially, it was not any particular virtue of the venue that took me to its doors but rather its proximity to my home.  Being only half-a-mile away, I had to expend very little effort to go there and see what was on.  It also gained from staging a number of gigs that were free entry (often with the opportunity to donate to support the musicians) or pretty low cost.  It also had two rooms, generally with contrasting gigs, and hosted it least one event (often two) every night of the week.  This heady cocktail of convenience meant it was always an easy option if I fancied doing something of an evening on which I had nothing planned: there would usually be something on that would at least tickle my fancy enough to take a look.  It also meant that if another event finished early, it would usually be worth checking The Heads on the walking home to catch a second gig there.

Once I started visiting more regularly, my mysterious (to me) memorability meant that I came to know the people that worked at The Heads and many of its regulars.  This added an additional incentive to go out, as I would probably bump into a friend – or at least a proto-friend – which would make the short walk all the more worthwhile.  It was the The Heads which started my continuing project to try and go to at least one cultural event in Southampton every night – the place made it easy: if ever there was a gap in my diary, I could generally rely on The Heads to fill it for me.  Going out became almost addictive – things happen when you go out that never do when you sit at home in front of the idiot box or laptop (however much “content” is thrown at us)  – and has led to a situation where I have far more friends now that at any previous point in my life and have stronger connections to Southampton than to any other place I have ever lived.  In more ways than one, The Heads was a key progenitor of this process and acted as a place to meet people.  Since it’s gone, I less reliably bump into friends on a regular basis: I need to establish a new “club house”, albeit for a club that no-one knew they were joining – maybe “common room” is a better metaphor.

As well as the friends I first met at The Heads, or the friendships that deepened there, the place is also full of memories for events I saw.  It provided most of my education in modern jazz and experimental music and hugely broadened my musical taste in many other areas: it just made the “how bad can it be?” attitude to going out so viable.  It played host to so many of my best nights out over the last couple of years.  So many neurons are devoted to time spent there.

As well as the associations, the physical venue had a lot in its favour.  It was the only music venue in Southampton with two spaces for gigs – and each room had a very different vibe.  The main space was perhaps a more traditional venue but was much wider than it was deep which I find works well: it helps to bring the audience closer to the music and each other and improves sight-lines.  It had a decent dance floor – for those so inclined – and always had somewhere to sit down – which is lovely for my ageing and often tired lower limbs.  So many venues have little or no room to sit down which is great for the young with a desire to mosh, perhaps, and does create a specific feel but I think puts some potential audience off: it can have an impact on my own decision-making if I’m feeling particularly enervated or foot-sore.  It also leaves one with little incentive to arrive early or stick around after a gig – which must have an impact on drink sales and so venue economics.

The Maple Leaf Lounge was a thing of unique and eccentric beauty.  The owner has a serious penchant for an auction and an antique or several and so the front bar was adorned with an eclectic mix of antiques, pictures and some truly strange objects and graced with a mix of elderly, often wobbly (but interesting ) furniture.  The range on offer and their positioning would also slowly mutate over time.  No hipster theme bar would ever have chosen the medley of “stuff” that decorated that lounge: in a world often rendered increasingly bland with reproductions of the currently (or recently) hip everywhere – even in banks – it had a real personality and sense of place.  Despite its oddly positioned pillars and slight dilapidation, for so much music – especially acoustic and jazz – I think it will always be the standard against which I measure any music venue.

It always had friendly staff – many of which I now count as friends – who cared about the venue, the quality of its sound and its survival but, alas, it was not to be.  It was the only dedicated music venue to have a range of decent and well-kept cask ales (for most of its life – we don’t mention the Palmers, while recognising that it probably helped fund the venue) – which is a sine qua non for the middle-aged beer snob and a terrible loss given that the venues that survive it tend to focus on children’s drinks (lager, cocktails and the like).

Despite its many virtues, and just a few very modest vices which need not detain us here, The Heads closed its doors for the last time at the end of September.  A victim of costs – particularly business rates and rents – which the volume of people willing to go out to enjoy live music did not cover (and I definitely tried as my liver can – no doubt – attest).  Sadly, other venues in the city still struggle to square that particular circle and I am forced to wonder how setting business rates at a level which eliminates business can possible be economically rational behaviour.  I have deliberately not walked passed the building since it closed but my suspicion is that it will be replaced by student flats, as this seems to be the fate of all vacant buildings these days.  I’m always slightly worried when I leave the flat for more than a couple of hours, in case I return to find it replaced with shoddily built accommodation with super-fast wifi to tempt the young to part with some of their student loan.

Other places have had to fill the hole in my life, and the expanded programme at NST City has certainly helped to ensure I have very few evenings stuck at home with my own thoughts for company, but hole there is and will remain for some time yet.  Remember to love and support your local music venues, if not they will continue to disappear – whereas your couch TV and streaming service are going nowhere.  Without local venues there will be nowhere for fresh talent to get a start and we’ll all have to travel to a small number of big cities to see live music – and that’s both expensive and inconvenient.  Listen local!

Before the closing Haiku, I though I’d share images from four of my favourite gigs from the final month, including the final day.


Silence fills music’s sphere

Recent grief renders heads dumb

A maple leaf falls

Music in the city

Strap in people, this is going to be a long one!

I have found Southampton to be a surprisingly musical city, since I made my fateful move here a little more than 4 years ago.  I knew there would be some music as the presence of the Turner Sims concert hall was one of the factors which led me to choose Southampton as my domicile.  I had imagined it as the local equivalent of West Road in Cambridge – but now know that it is a fish of an altogether different feather: with a broader range of music of higher quality, but fewer student orchestras and classical ensembles that its East Anglian counterpart.

I suppose the omens were good.  On my first evening in the city, staying in the most budget of the city’s Ibis hotels, I came across live music sheltering against the side of The Cellar (as it then was) and sat a while and forgot about the stresses of moving.  In that same first week, my neighbours and friends staged some live music in the little courtyard garden behind my flat.

However, initially the city’s musical offerings seemed rather weak compared to Cambridge.  As I now know my focus was far too narrow in terms of both venues and genres.  Before coming to the city, almost all my experience of live music had been classical – with just very rare forays off-piste in a somewhat desultory attempt to broaden my musical palate.  With classical music, I knew what I was doing: you get a named seat and a start time which will be pretty rigidly adhered to.  During the concert itself, you sit down and shut up and applaud only when a piece has come to a complete stop and any batons or bows have clearly moved out of use.  I am led to believe that this somewhat rigid regime puts off many folk – and is considered elitist – whereas, the lapsed mathematician in me appreciates the order provided.  Other genres with their less structured approach to attendance and applause, their patchy provision of chairs and somewhat medieval approach to time-keeping (I presume most favour sundial, candle or clepsydra rather the piezoelectric qualities of quartz) always seemed rather daunting.  I think we can safely say that I have mostly overcome any diffidence I may once have felt about turning up at a venue for some live music and now just brazen it out: the broad principle of finding someone who seems to know what they are doing and generalising from their behaviour seems to work fine.  It also helps to bring a good book and some way to read it in poor light (or a friend) to cope with the rather optimistic approach to timing employed by many music venues.

Southampton seems to has been fortunate to retain, for now at least, a decent number of dedicated mid–scale music venues along with a number of spaces, pubs and cafes, which stage regular smaller scale gigs. My experience has been with live music, but I get the impression that the student population also supports a range of venues offering dead (or recorded) music with DJs and the like – though cannot speak to the range of musical tastes these cater to.

The city itself seems to have a rather ambivalent approach to its musical riches.  I feel that at some level it does appreciate them, but does rather tend to the “all help short of actual assistance approach”.  It does hold intermittent, relatively major events which have music at their core or as a major component – but these always seem slightly divorced from the city’s music scene and I’m not convinced do much to strengthen that scene away from these flagship events.  There doesn’t seem any coherent attempt to sell the city both to its residents or the wider world as a truly great place for live (and/or other) music.

Over the summer, the city organised a major series of cultural events – including a range of gigs – in Guildhall Square under the tagline Summer in the Square.  I enjoyed a significant number of these, but I go to a lot of events anyway and am reasonably good at hunting out the cities cultural riches (however vast the bushel that may be concealing their light).  Most events I was at were rather thinly attended by the general public: a group I will define here as people I don’t recognise (which suggests they probably aren’t regular gig-goers – or are mistresses of disguise).  So, while it provided some musicians with a paid gig and a chance of a very modest new audience, I fear it may have left only a de minimis legacy for music in the city.

Last weekend was Music in the City, where multiple gigs take place in unusual places across the city on Saturday (and to a lesser extent, Sunday).  This is my third year going to MitC and it is a lot of fun and does seem to attract a significant audience.  It can be a joy going to a gig in a space which isn’t normally open to the public, and the city is lucky to have several vaults (from its days as a major wine importer, but I’m trying to cut down) and other historic spaces which make very atmospheric places to enjoy live music.  This year, I felt there was more focus on pubs and cafes as venues: often those which don’t host music for the rest of the year and which really didn’t make very successful venues due to layout or acoustics.  I worry that as much fun as MitC can be, it creates the impression that music in the city is something that only happens once (or perhaps half-a-dozen times) a year as part of some centrally-planned event.  It is also largely separate from the places where music actually occurs nearly 365 days of the year in the city – there may be some practical reasons for this given the dispersal of venues a little way from the central core of the city, but the event already runs free bus services between venues (one of which was at the docks) so this doesn’t feel like an insuperable obstacle.  I’m sure the commercial venues did decent business during MitC, but I suspect the musicians weren’t particularly well-paid (if paid at all) and I think that value of “exposure” is massively over-estimated by those offering it.  To paraphrase an old boss, “exposure and 50p will get you a cup of tea” (this was the 90s, so a chap could realistically expect a 50p cuppa): clearly, in those halcyon days, 50p would also get you a cup of builders without the exposure.

Over recent months it has become clear that many of the city’s music venues are struggling financially, needing to run crowd-funding appeals to carry out basic maintenance and just tide themselves over the quieter summer months, when the students are away.  I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, when I was treasurer for an organisation putting on classical music concerts in Cambridge we thought ourselves lucky if ticket sales covered 50% of our costs: and to reach 50% you had to have bums significantly outnumbering bum-less seats.  For classical music (and a lot of theatre), the shortfall is made up from grants, for example for Arts Council England or the Lottery, by corporate sponsorship or by fund raising.  Most music venues don’t seem to receive grants; ACE, for example, seems to have a somewhat narrow definition of the Arts and declining resources.  I suspect that all but the largest venues struggle to obtain significant corporate sponsorship: companies seem willing to splash more cash on taking clients to the opera or ballet than to see some live music in a more ‘spit-and-sawdust’ venue (this may be because the former are considered more high-brow, but more likely that they have better access to the traditional trappings of corporate hospitality).  Finally, I suspect that the donors answering fund-raising pleas from small-to-medium venues are not as wealthy as those supporting, say the Royal Opera House or Chichester Festival Theatre.  So, many venues rely on bar sales to square the impossible circle.  I know it’s tough and none of us want to do it, but I think we all have a civic duty to drink – and drink reasonably heavily – whenever we go to see live music.  I am selflessly sacrificing my liver that live music may live on!  (I suppose I could consume soft drinks, but whilst I am a monster I’m not an animal!)

I love the theatre and have visited the ballet this week and will be going to the opera next week, but the city and our culture will be hugely impoverished if we lose our live music venues.  They seem very vulnerable at the moment as arts funding and people’s budgets are squeezed and business rates for many are rising.  Many are at risk of being redeveloped (these days, it seems, to be replaced by student flats) or find their activities curtailed by noise complaints from nearby new developments which appeared long after the music started.  I worry that on-demand TV is meaning more people stay at home, slouched like a bag of spuds in front of haunted goldfish bowl or laptop.  So, live music is a pubic health issue!  Going to seem some music and enjoying a bit of moshing – or even more gentle swaying or foot-tapping – would boost activity levels and the health of the nation.

This has been rather longer than planned and a tad preachy – but I always felt I’d make rather a good vicar (and I think belief in God is largely optional in the modern Church of England) – but live music is important and is one of the few things we don’t yet import from China and where the human element is unlikely to be replaced by robots.  To keep (and maintain) a vibrant music scene you first need musicians – but I feel any even modestly-sized city will throw these up.  To develop they need a good range of paid, local gigs and this means we need venues and an audience.  Yes, we the audience, need to recognise the vital role we play in developing new musicians and music, in supporting venues and keeping them open.  You probably don’t have to go quite as far as I have: mostly people won’t have the time (or inclination) to attempt to spend “no evening in” or to try and fit multiple gigs into a night – though by all means feel free to follow in my footsteps, it is a huge amount of fun!  I also suspect relatively few readers will want to support their local music scene by hiring local talent to teach them how to play their previously neglected cache of musical instruments – though again, I can thoroughly recommend it.  Still, I think most of us can go to a gig a bit more often and try something new occasionally!  Drag a friend or relative (or enemy – we all know how critical it is to keep such people close) to join you!  Have a drink! Have several!  If you like the band, buy a record!  Chuck a couple of quid at a venue or band fundraiser!  Let’s keep the UK a great place for live music, and especially Southampton as I love being able to walk home from a gig with a smile on my face and music ringing in my ears (and I really can’t face dealing with estate agents for a while yet!).

Do we need a bombard?

I should start by preparing fans of medieval military history for disappointment: I shall not be talking about siege weapons.  Well, not in any conventional sense, though the Old Testament would like you to believe that city walls can be breached using only members of a modern orchestra’s wind section (though I believe some supernatural interference may also have been involved and the events portrayed are not supported by the archeological record).

In the modern world, music is rarely used in civil engineering and almost never for demolition.  However, it does have a strangely powerful effect on human emotion, if not on masonry.  It can intensify your current mood or transport you into a completely new one.  I’m guessing this is culturally conditioned – you learn the difference between major and minor – rather emerging from the womb with all the basics of the tonic scale pre-installed (the gin scale, I believe, has to wait for puberty).

Music can take us to quite dark places: I well remember a quote about the final movement of Shostakovich’ String Quartet #15 which I used in an Open University essay a few years back.  It was described as being able to “do no more than thumb disconsolately through the album leaves of a deranged life”.  At the time, I was in no position to check this statement, but now with Spotify I was able to listen to the movement as part of the research for this post.  I’ll agree that it isn’t a barrel of laughs, but I didn’t find it that depressing.  Then again, I was in a rather positive mood having re-read TMA04 (the essay in question) and been positively surprised by its quality (to the extent that I can’t really believe that I wrote it).

However, a mere 300 words in, I can exclusively reveal that this post will be about the ability of music to bring joy (of the unconfined kind) into my life.  This can come in many ways, for example a semi-competent vocal performance of a piece of serious music by the author works (though I suspect in this case that the joy is limited to the author), but I shall actually be talking about the fun to be had from the live musical performance of others (let’s face it, GofaDM is more than sufficiently me-centric already).

Of all the splendid musicians I have seen in recent months at the Art House café, two groups particularly stand out in the joy stakes: in that it is impossible to listen to either without my face being parted by a grin.  As it transpires they share a common drummer, though I don’t think he can claim all the credit.

The first would be The Madcap Ponderlings (previously known as The Skull Kids) who describe themselves as “waltzing a fine line between carnival cabaret, whimsical psychedelia and alternative rock” (which is far better than any description I could generate). The second, who I saw on Friday, are Threepenny Bit who are a folk/ceilidh band, though this description doesn’t entirely do them justice.  For a start, I’m not convinced that either the saxophone or the electric bass would count as traditional folk instruments – though I feel the accordion and fiddle are probably on much safer ground.  As so often, I nearly didn’t go: associating folk with sandals, beards and a degree of po-faced seriousness.  I’ll admit there was one very fine (and familiar) beard (I am slowly discovering how the bar staff of the Turner Sims spend their time off), but I didn’t spot a single sandal or any visage reminiscent of the gazunder (a word which seems to have been appropriated by the darkling world of estate agency, if Google is to be believed).  I find it hard to believe anyone else had more fun than me last Friday night.

It was during that Friday evening that I discovered the hybridisation of musical genres has gone even further than I could have imagined.  One of the group had spent time in France with a band that mixed Breton folk with death metal – and it seems such folk-metal crossovers (le metal celtique) are quite big over la Manche.  Among the more standard instrumentation of ‘death metal’, this band included the bombard: an instrument whose very existence could make one appreciate a neighbour who has taken up the drums or violin (because it could be so much worse).  If I did need to find a woodwind instrument that would give me a fighting chance of bringing down a city’s walls, I think the bombard might be my choice: if only because the city’s denizens may demolish their own walls to escape its plangent song.  Perhaps luckily, it requires a lot of puff and so it can only be played in short bursts: rather less luckily, this issue is resolved by pairing it with a form of the bagpipes.  This traditional bracing (known as Sonneurs de Couples) is, having sampled a short snatch, even worse than you are currently imagining.  This is weaponised folk music and a very good reason never to upset the good people of Brittany.  Despite this view (which you should feel free to check for yourselves, but don’t then come crying to me: you were warned!), today’s title was posed as a serious question with a view to augmenting the musical forces (very much in the sense of ‘armed’) available to Threepenny Bit.  The vast majority of the band, very wisely IMHO, demurred.

A Musical Chain

Before we start, it seems worth noting that this far-from-august organ has been in existence for five years.  Who, back in 2010, would have thought it?  What pointless commitment to a rather foolish idea this demonstrates: if only I could generate the same long-term dedication to something more useful.  So, that little bit of admin over, let us proceed with post 675!

I should start by making clear that I have no intention of impinging on the copyright of Messrs Radcliffe and Maconie: rather than linking tracks, I shall be linking gigs through the interstitial medium of my own life.  Southampton has a surprisingly vibrant cultural scene, but does work quite hard to conceal this fact from the casual (or merely mildly determined) viewer.  I am becoming better connected, largely by using social media to stalk any individual, group or organisation that, by lucky chance, I discover – but this is a slow old process.  It would seem that most use social media to share images of themselves, their food or children and to shore-up their political beliefs and share videos of cats: I seem to mis-use it terribly by sharing bad jokes and attempting to find interesting gigs – but I don’t seem to be breaking any rules, so I shall continue with my slightly outré take on the virtual world.

Still, the last ten days have been pretty fruitful when it comes to finding live music.  It started, as so much does, at the Arthouse Cafe with my first visit to a Three Monkeys gig.  This involves three, unrelated guitarists who each play a song.  This is repeated three times, followed by an interval and then another 3×3 set of songs.  This is a very entertaining format and occurs every month – so I’ve only missed 24 or so.  At the end, I discovered that an Oxjam gig was taking place the following day in a vault beneath Southampton High Street – not much notice, but better than the negative notice which often accompanies my discovery of local culture (which is less than helpful given that my best wormhole, to date, has only allowed a worm to move a short distance within space).

The Oxjam gig involved a series of ‘acts’ playing a ~30 minute set across the afternoon and evening.  A broad range of music was covered, though mostly involving stringed instruments and remaining within sight (albeit sometimes aided by binoculars) of the folk genre.  A lot of fun, if a lot of standing up, and a chance to see half-a-dozen acts before I was forced to retire (a wise decision as my walk home just managed to beat the start of the monsoon which has been such a major characteristic of the end of August 2015).  Most significantly, the gig introduced me to a local singer-songwriter called Jack Dale and another two CDs were added to my collection.  I also discovered that another charitable gig involving a line-up of local, musical talent was taking place the following Sunday (or ‘yesterday’ as I now like to call it – but only for another twelve hours or so) at a pub just a short walk from Fish Towers.

I rather enjoyed spending the afternoon in a dank vault as the last of the summer’s sun beat down on those foolish enough to be outside.  No need to worry about UV protection for me!  However, I can’t help feeling that Oxfam would have done a little better financially had the gig been more widely publicised: it was rather sparsely attended and I only found out about it by chance (and would like to view myself as fairly core, potential audience).

Yesterday (see above), the Big Gig at The Shooting Star – a pub with a bar billiards table (among other delights), a rare sight in these debased times – was huge fun (and, I was even able to spend much of it sitting down).  The three bands on the bill, included two fronted by soloists seen the previous week at Oxjam.  The Horse – fronted by the aforementioned Jack Dale – were particularly entertaining and meant that I ended the night with a smile on my face (and once again, a lucky return home just before the heavens opened: I feel I’m going to pay for this continuing good fortune at some stage).    Another two CDs also managed to sneak their way into my flat: this burgeoning habit might start becoming a storage issue if I’m not careful.

The chain of musical events will continue on 3 October, which I now know to be Music in the City: where live music fills all manner of odd spaces across Southampton (and of which I’ve only missed two through complete ignorance of their existence).  I can only hope that this in turn reveals more musical events which have so far been hidden from my insufficiently curious gaze…

Always talk to the bar staff

I am currently enjoying Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani channelling Neil McGregor and taking us through the history of India via 50 lives (rather than 100 objects).  I had previously read an overview of Indian history (many years ago, when there was less of it) but the series is full of surprises – in particular, how many supposedly modern ideas arose (or also arose) in India in the distant past.  We have reached the 15th century and the life of Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism.  I have had a soft spot for the Sikh faith for many years and this episode only added further reinforcement.  If I understand correctly, the Guru started a system of inviting people of all religions, castes and genders to come to the temple and sit down together for a free meal: which must be one of the finest ideas ever generated by a major religion.  I have a strong feeling this work continues to this day here in the UK, supplementing the role of food banks in these parlous time for many families.  I worry that society is becoming ever more segregated into groups that never meet each other which can’t be a positive for the future of the (only semi-mythical) social contract.  Perhaps we need to take this Sikh idea on board much more widely, tackling some of the worst aspects of deprivation and improving social cohesion at a stroke.

But what has this plug for Radio 4 and the Sikh faith to do with chatting to barmen?  Well, I was just coming to that – but feel it is important in this era, so often characterised by instant gratification, to allow for a more gradual unfolding of today’s thesis.

I have, for many years now, been the bane (OK, a bane – the long hours, poor salary and working conditions might also be considered banes) of those working in service industries by insisting on engaging them in conversation, normally against their will, during any face-to-face transaction.  I have just enough self-awareness to recognise this is probably all about me and my desperate need for human contact to fill the howling pit of loneliness at my core, but I also like to imagine that it might enliven the working days of those unfortunates I pick on.  It is also good to treat people as such, not as some sort of robot lackey.  Some (maybe most) fend off my conversational advances through some combination of disinterest, embarrassment and terror, but enough engage with the process that I keep on going.

Actually, proof-reading that last paragraph has led to a minor epiphany.  As previously established, what I most want in life is an audience and the poor folk serving me are (for a brief moment) a captive audience – constrained by their professionalism (or fear of disciplinary action) from fleeing my company (which would be the response of most right-thinking folk with a greater degree of freedom).

For most such audiences, my one-man-show is a fleeting, never-to-be-repeated experience and the trauma fades with time, but not for those working at my regular haunts.   The most frequent victims of my attempts at verbal intercourse are the staff at 10 Greek Street and at the bars of the Nuffield Theatre and Turner Sims – and it is the latter which will detain us here (and justify the title).  There are now a few staff with whom I have chatted on multiple occasions: not only providing me with some bonus pre-show (or even interval) entertainment but also some valuable information.  Most of the staff are (I assume, or by now know) students – which is very much my core demographic (I like to view the near 30 years since I left university as having been spent perfecting my student-hood) – and so have shared local cultural tips, including pubs!  This may have reached its peak on Sunday afternoon when I was given a hot tip for a combined CAMRA-recommended pub and music venue – and even an upcoming free gig.

So it was that yesterday evening I cycled down to the Talking Heads – just a little beyond Waitrose in the wilds of the Portswood Road – to watch (though not invigilate) an examination.  As part of their final exams, music students perform (no huge surprise there) and the public are allowed to watch for free.  For the jazz/pop students their ensemble exams took place in the backroom of a pub – which strikes me as excellent preparation for later life and provides a great deal more atmosphere than any of the exams of my own youth.  The Talking Heads seems to offer live music almost every night – so I shall definitely be adding it to my roster of local, cultural haunts.  Three ensembles performed across the evening, with the ensemble size growing as the evening went on – and with the final one borrowing some forces from both of its predecessors.  The evening was enormous fun (and did I mention, free!), though I did observe that no-one else in the audience or on stage seemed to have direct experience of the first half of the 1990s (I have no idea where the examiners were hiding).  I felt very old –  like someone’s dad (or worse) – but did re-learn the applause rules for jazz-inflected music (rather different from its classical counterpart) and was surrounded by music students (to copy off) when rhythmic clapping was required.  All three acts seemed pretty good, but my highlight (by a jazz mile – like a country mile, but less depressing and more freeform) was the evening’s final ensemble Muteight (snaps for the name!) – which did have eight members (we didn’t have to count the ship or computer) and at least one mute.  This was good news as my bar friend was the keys-man (if that be the phrase) for the band, so I can honestly say (next time we meet) that I loved them.  I have a significant birthday in the annoyingly near future and, if I mark this with some sort of “event” (other than sobbing alone into my beer), they would be an excellent choice to close the evening.   Last night, even I was tempted to dance: fear of being judged – and found wanting – by a large group of people nearly thirty years my junior stayed my dancing feet (the young can be so judgemental!).  Still, unlike the rest of the audience, I could remember the seventies influences that informed a fair chunk of their music and could wallow in a nostalgia denied my fellows: sometimes age does have its benefits!