Who am I?

Fear not, I am not going to get all existential “on yo ass” (a much less successful restaurant concept than the superficially similar Yo! Sushi).  This is largely down to the extreme superficiality of my knowledge of the subject, not so much a veneer as a monomolecular layer laid down through some form of knowledge-based epitaxy.

Nor shall I dwell for too long on the flaws in the whole concept of identity which neuroscience seems to feel duty-bound to expose.  I have read a fair bit of neuroscience (as opposed to no Kierkegaard whatsoever), but feel they rather miss the target when attacking either the sense of self or of free will.  The seem to demolish places where I had never believed either of these things resided, as even a moment’s self-reflection should surely have made obvious (without the need for surrounding folk with incredibly powerful magnets to excite some cranial hydrogen atoms before watching them being slowly overcome by boredom once more).

No,  I shall – very much in keeping with the raison d’être of this blog (now on its 450th post) – stick to more trivial matters.

The nature of identity does seem to obsess both those who govern us (or would like to) and those who bring us the soi-disant news.  There have been two major areas of identity-based uncertainty that I have noticed in recent weeks – those of being British and being a man.  As I can personally tick both boxes, I felt at least somewhat qualified to comment – though, frankly neither of these particular areas of identity have ever caused me the slightest anxiety.

Our politicos do seem very keen to define what it means to be British – which I often feel is more of an attempt to define what isn’t so that those lacking this apparently vital essence can be blamed, disparaged or deported (preferably at enormous cost).  It does seem to be very much of a piece with the Manichean nature of so much public discourse – everything is either good or bad, left or right wing, causes or cures cancer (to name but three examples).  I’m pretty convinced life isn’t like this.  I like to think that all my qualities, both good and ill, at best exist somewhere on a scale between their best and worst possibilities – and, worse, move around on that scale over time.  Whilst I am clearly generalising from a sample of one, I suspect other people are much the same.  I’m sure we all have elements of Britishness – wheresoe’er we might happen to hale from – and elements of things not British.  This is probably true for almost any even remotely sensible definition of what it is to be British – not that a government is ever likely to produce such a definition.

The need to define being British seems to have gained additional zest with the potential departure of the Scots from the union of 1707.  So far as I know, I lack any Scottish roots and so no-one will ask me – which is just as well as I have no real idea which option is the better.  I suspect disentangling a union which has persisted for 307 years will be an extremely non-trivial (and so expensive and painful) exercise – but merely because something is tricky does not mean it should not be attempted if it is the right thing to do.  On the other hand, I suspect more local government is a good thing – if only from the frustrating experience of working for a vast multinational where the seat of “government” seems impossibly remote from my day-to-day working life.  Still, this blog is not trying to persuade folk north of the border to vote one way or the other.  Our politicians, of course, do not take this approach and campaign with some vigour either for or against divorce.  Living a long way south of the border, I tend to see significantly more of the NO campaign – which does seem to have been successfully infiltrated by the YES campaign and is basically doing their work for them.  Certainly, if I were Scottish I would find the work of the NO campaign a pretty convincing reason to leave.  I like to imagine that the YES campaign has a similar impact on boosting the desire to stay.  If so, perhaps both campaigns could agree to shut-up and save their money and allow people to make their own decisions.  Or perhaps the money could be invested in an independent body which would dispassionately lay out the pros and cons of leaving in the hope of producing a better informed electorate.  I believe flying pigs are very good at this sort of analysis.

There also seems to be a continuing debate about what it means to be a man.  Apparently, my fellow holders of a Y-chromosome are suffering an identity crisis.  It would seem that treating women slightly less disgracefully than heretofore cuts right to the heart of masculinity.  Or maybe it’s the ready availability of power steering and parking sensors?  I’ve never really felt defined by my ability to treat those of the distaff gender as second class citizens and I certainly hope I’m not defined by my ability to parallel park (as this ability, if it ever existed, has almost totally atrophied – actually, I did once do it astonishingly well but I’m pretty sure that was a fluke as it was more than 20 years ago and has never been repeated).  Then again, I may not be great example of manhood: I have very limited interest in sport, regularly cry in public (though, fortunately, usually in conditions of poor lighting) and have eaten (and enjoyed) quiche.  Still, I am pretty clearly a man – biologically speaking at least.  For example, I can count to 21 when naked (though these days I do need my glasses to make accurate use of my toes) – so I reckon how I live must be at least one representation of masculinity.  So, if any possessors of a Y-chromosome are reading this post in a state of gender crisis I am more than happy to share my tips on how to be a man in 2014.  They are also welcome to read this post’s 449 siblings for some evidence of my life as a man in the early 21st century – though this does create the worrying prospect of my mimetic clones slowly spreading through the population.

Talking of clones, on Friday night I went to the Nuffield Theatre to see A Number by Caryl Churchill.  An interesting and pleasingly brief play about cloning and what it might mean to have genetic copies of yourself wandering around.  The protagonists seemed to find this quite a disturbing prospect – but I would relish meeting a clone (of myself, obviously): (A) to see how path-dependent this version of me is and, much more importantly, (B) to find someone who would understand and laugh at my jokes.

So, send in the clones!

Token man

I did also consider “Five women and me” as a title, but felt this sounded rather like a first-person, adult update of an E Nesbit classic (a woman who very wisely did not assume her husband’s name for her writing: E Bland on the cover is never going to help sales).  As both titles may suggest, yesterday I had a long lunch in town (by which I mean London) with some friends and provided the sole Y chromosome in a sea of Xs (well, 11 of them – is that enough for a sea?  Perhaps merely a small bowl of poorly mixed alphabetti spaghetti?).

Despite the apparent belief of most TV executives, this grouping of the distaff did not precipitate Armageddon or the end of days (no sign of a trumpet or even a single horseman, though there was one horsewoman).  Nor was my fragile masculinity crushed – though I did spend much of the afternoon wearing a rather fetching golden bangle on my right arm.  Then again, even at the best of times, I’m really a very long way from the vanguard in the struggle to find a role for the masculine in the 21st century – even the generals are nearer the front than I.

I had an excellent time with wide ranging, if slightly frivolous, conversation enjoyed by all – and lunch did continue for somewhat over six hours (which I believe is a new personal best).  The event was held at Brasserie Zédel (and later the adjacent Bar Américain) which lies in a substantial, art deco cavern ranged deep beneath the northern side of Piccadilly Circus.  I would recommend the venue as the food was good, the décor pleasing and the service both good and unobtrusive.  It also has rather fine facilities for the gentleman to relieve himself of surplus fluid – which, via the magic of smartphone photography and an absence of shame, we were able to establish were rather better than the equivalent facilities provided for the fairer sex (the soap dispensers were also rather fine when illuminated by flash!).  They definitely rate in the top 10 of urinals I have ever used (not abused I would like to make clear, my use of gents has always been consensual).IMG_0238

 

IMG_0239In the interests of full disclosure in the context of my recommendation, I should perhaps mention that I managed to consume more champagne yesterday than in the whole of the current decade put together – so my critical faculties may have been slightly dulled.  I am also considering a whole new photographic strand in this blog for particularly attractive or striking gents I have used – what do you think?

After four hours we were moved-on from our lunch table and gravitated to the bar for a post-prandial cocktail.  I was drawn to the French Aperatif – largely because it contained orgeat which I know of through one of the finest sketches from A Bit of Fry and Laurie (sadly no hyssop or cherry for each of my blue, blue eyes).  Subsequent enquiry to Bing (yes, the late Mr Crosby is my spirit guide – boom, boom! I sometimes wonder if this blog is just too good for you) indicate that this is a syrup made from almonds, sugar water and rose water.  The cocktail also contained the rather mysterious ingredient “Byrrh”.  This was not, as I first assumed, a gift for a baby Messiah delivered by a wise man with a cold (well, the Nativity was well before Tunes were invented) but a spirit made of red wine, mistelle (“almost” wine mixed with brandy) and quinine – so I should be good against malaria for a while.  Discussion of Byrrh did lead to brief mention of matters seasonal, and for reasons I no longer quite recall, we were able to establish that if the second coming were to be in Kettering, all the basics of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” would still be fine with the simple substitution of place names.  Not sure if this will be an important part of the decision-making process, but its nice to know should Northamptonshire be so blessed.

All-in-all a quite excellent day, finished off with a comic play about Scott’s fatal quest for the South Pole at the Southwark Playhouse (another London fringe theatre ticked) – with a surprising amount of Norwegian (which did make me quite misty-eyed for BBC4 Scandi-drama).  On my journey home I was entertained by an episode of QI XL stored on my laptop via the miracle of iPlayer (making the unmissable live up to its name, as long as it isn’t on the radio – grrr!).  I think they may have discovered the optimal panel of guests: Victoria Coren-Mitchell, Sue Perkins and Reverend Richard Coles – and once again, having more than one woman in the room lead to hilarity rather than disaster.  I really feel there must be a lesson (or nine) in here somewhere – if only I could see it.

Yawn free?

My Fringe binge is drawing towards its close and I have this morning “off”, except for a modicum of IT support (which is the currency that I exchange for my accommodation), so I felt it was time to bring my readership up to date with my “doings”.

Booking later and to a less rigid plan, coupled with fewer late night gigs, has definitely been a success – though, perhaps oddly, has failed to result in my aged limbs finding the duvet’s embrace any earlier.  My gig choices have generally been sufficiently obscure (or, indeed, unpopular) that I have failed to obtain tickets to very few of my original selections – and the resulting need to explore more interesting alternatives has resulted in some excellent choices.

This is the first year I have tried Fringe theatre and my two examples so far have been excellent – with my third to come just after lunch.  I can thoroughly recommend Blink! at the Traverse and Oh the humanity… at St Stephen’s: both combined small casts and minimal sets but still provoked real laughs and some serious thinking, as already established it is much easier to sneak a “message” past my defences if it is accompanied by a good sprinkling of jokes (though whether I’m thinking the “intended” thoughts I’m never wholly convinced).

With the exception of the theatre, none of my Fringe choices have cost more than a tenner (obscurity is your friend), and even those have been some of my cheapest theatre going experiences of the past year.  As treasurer of an arts charity, I now found myself counting seats and worrying about the financial viability of the artists who have been entertaining me over the course of this last week.  Even if the venues are very cheap to hire (which I suspect may not be the case, despite their rather ad-hoc nature), the costs of a month in the Athens of the North (which given the collapse of the RBS and Bank of Scotland may be a more appropriate choice of alias than in days of yore) are going to make break-even little more than a dream for most.  Laundry costs alone must be substantial given the small and very sweaty nature of most of the performance spaces.  If I were ever to perform at the Fringe, the music played while the audience are waiting for my (not-so-grand) entry would be a recording of me playing a piece of 100+ year-old music on the piano or recorder to save on PRS costs, though oddly no-one has gone this route, yet…

Most stand-up is just the one person, but I’ve been to see a couple of sketch groups – which must have higher accommodation costs or else be very close.  Both Jigsaw and the Three Englishmen (Spoiler Alert: ** contains four men **) were very good (and extremely silly) and far more hit than miss (unless you count Nat Luurtsema as a miss).  Both shows may provide fodder for future nightmares: in the case of Jigsaw relating to fellation of Tom Craine (one of the risks of sitting in the front row) and for the “beef” Englishmen (ask Tom Goodliffe) I shall never be able to watch Nigella again.  I think sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my late night Radio 4 listening when a lad (for some reason it seemed to be banished to the post 23:00 slot), may be having a bit of resurgence.

Perhaps my biggest insight from this year has been the joys of the Free Fringe.  These events have no tickets or entry cost, you make a donation on exit, and the artists don’t pay for the venue – which I think is funded through bar sales (as they seem to take place in pub basements, usually of establishments offering a rather better range of beer than the paid Fringe).  I am wondering if this can be a funding model for classical music?  I’ve been to three FF (and now I abbreviate it, it is obviously my natural home) events so far: all have been excellent and include my two top Fringe shows of 2012.  Domestic Science was good fun, and properly educational: I shall never look at turmeric in quite the same way again and now want a stick dulcimer.  Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD was hysterical and I’ve now booked to see his new show this evening.  However, this year’s winner of the comedy Fringe is Nick Doody and his soi-disant Massive Face.  Most shows have been good for 50-55 minutes – a few with material for only around 40 – but have reached a conclusion after an hour and I’m happy to leave. I reckon Nick did a good 70 minutes and I would have been happy to stay all night.  I’ve only really seen him once before, also in Edinburgh, and he was brilliant then as well (a show I still remember bits of years later) – this man ought to be properly famous and not just to those of us who haunt late night Radio 4 and listen to the full list of writers at the end of the show to pick their choices for next year’s Fringe.

I know readers worry about the level of my calorific intake, so let me put your minds at rest.  I am now so well-known in Bonsai, that they know my usual – not bad in a bar-bistro more than 300 miles from my home.  Yesterday I also discovered the Edinburgh Larder – which provided quite the finest takeaway sandwich I can ever remember consuming and the accompanying brownie was pretty special too.  I may have to return in around 90 minutes time… (assuming I can hold out that long).

I have also learned some stuff about myself – and not just that I am now obsessed about the financing of the arts.  I have now reached an age where I am no longer afraid to sit in the front row – it usually has the best leg room, and that is way more important than the risk of being “picked on”.  I have also let go of yet another element of my masculinity.  I used to find the individual rooms at some of the larger venues using my own skill (or an exhaustive search): now I just ask some child employee (there seems to be almost no-one employed who would have had their own door key in my youth) or, at a pinch, anyone wearing a lanyard.  It is so liberating – and quick – I think the rest of my masculinity may not be long for this world (if only I had a feminine side to fall back on).  Or is this just the last of my shame finally departing for a less challenging assignment?