Preceding North Utsire

I have recently finished reading Thomas Williams’ rather splendid book on Viking Britain. This was a fascinating and very readable history of the often (but not always) violent interactions between the various kingdoms of the British Isles and the peoples of Scandinavia (and probably beyond). I think I most treasured it for the translated quotation of a work from my Welsh roots, the Armes Prydein Vawr, which appears towards the top of page 284 in my paperback edition. The 10th Century description of the English given in this work as “the shitheads of Thanet”, for some reason, rather struck a chord with me in these troubled political times. Lest this should appear gratuitously rude, I should point out that, as my last ancestor born in Wales was my great-great-grandfather, I am at best one-sixteenth Welsh, with my remaining blood having been sourced from England (mostly from within the Danelaw), and that I spent many happy childhood hours on the beaches and sea defenses of the Isle of Thanet.

These days, their work building the concept of England done, the Scandinavians visit these isles in a more benign guise. In fact, it is the Swedes (and the Dutch) that I feel sorry for if we carry out our nebulous intention to leave the EU and finally come to terms with our much diminished role in the world, as they shall be cast adrift with the rest of Europe without the dry humour of, at least some of, the British contingent to brighten the more tedious committee meetings. However, it is their, perhaps unlikely, embrace of jazz that shall detain us here.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed Phronesis at the Cambridge Jazz Festival back in November, whose members hail from the UK, Denmark and Sweden. I’m really looking forward to seeing them with the Southampton Jazz Orchestra in early May: a rendezvous which I shall be making despite being in Bristol on the day of their gig and in Cheltenham the day after necessitating a frankly ridiculous journey back to Southampton (but as I am frankly ridiculous, this is entirely “on brand”). However, it is Norway which seems to provide an extraordinarily rich seam of jazz musicians, especially relative to its modest population. Perhaps I need to move nearer to the Arctic Circle to achieve my full musical potential?

It was a couple of month’s ago that I made one of my increasingly rare visits to London to see Marius Neset – saxophonist extraordinaire – give a performance in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. This was everything that I’d come to expect, though I still don’t know how he manages to maintain that level of performance across a 100 minute set without an interval: it was exhausting enough to watch! The gig was also surprisingly good value, for London (and even Southampton) at only £18 and the Purcell Room made a very fine setting for jazz: and is very handy for Waterloo where my trains arrive into the city.

Back in March, I took a chance and went to see Trygve Seim at Turner Sims, knowing nothing about him other than that he was a Norwegian jazz musician – and I was willing to fork out £20 and an evening of my life on that fact alone. This gig took place while I was deep in Viking Britain and when Trygve walked out onto stage, with his flowing blond locks and plaited beard he could have stepped straight from a longboat. Fortunately, he came bearing a sax, rather than an ax, and no Anglo-Saxon blood was shed that night (or at least not at the gig). The gig was astoundingly good: the jazz reputation of the Kingdom of Norway was, if anything, enhanced. It was one of those extraordinary gigs where the music caused me to lose all contact with time and enter a somewhat trance-like state: when it finished I had no idea whether a few minutes or an hour or more had passed. Well, almost no idea: the seating at Turner Sims starts to interact painfully with my buttocks after much more than 45 minutes. My exercise regimen does not seem to be adding much in the way of padding to my backside: if anything, it seems to be reducing the limited cushioning they once offered. This is one side-effect of attempting to stay fit that is rarely mentioned in its advocacy.

About ten days ago, I was back at Turner Sims to see another Norwegian, Daniel Herskedal. This chap has a lot to answer for, as it was taking a chance by going to see him three years ago that launched my current love of jazz. On that occasion, he was joined by SYJO and so that was also the first time I will have seen musicians who have subsequently become friends. All of which suggests that my slightly random decision in 2016, has had much wider ranging implications on my life than I could possibly have imagined. Going out to see live music can change your life: in my case, immeasurably for the better!

Given the impact he unwittingly had on me, I felt I owed it to the lad to catch his return to the city. I was not disappointed, if anything he was, with his quartet this time, even better than I’d remembered. His performance proves how criminally neglected the tuba has been as a musical instrument and what a stunning pairing it makes with the, also neglected, viola. There was a magical moment when the valves of the tuba were cycling rhythmically and the instrument took on the visual guise of an exquisite, model Victorian steam engine: the tuba was a treat for the eyes as well as the ears in such skilled hands. I love the piano and violin as much as any man, but they already have stacks of repertoire: were I a composer, I’d be writing for the tuba and the other seemingly unloved members of the orchestra.

I have described Mr Herskedal as “the lad” above, but on trying (and so far, failing) to identify his instrument and its dimensions, I have discovered he is 37. I am starting to wonder if life as a tubist also has rejuvenating properties – or is it something to do with Norway? Daniel’s tuba seemed to be of a more manageable size than some: though that may have been down to the concert hall and it might look massive in my flat (as most things do, ooh err!) I have been told that I have the right sort of embouchure for the tuba (which I don’t think was – only – a more oblique of saying that I have a big mouth) and I’m feeling somewhat inspired to put this to the test: my neighbours may wish to put their flats onto the market now…

In addition to a desire to re-train as a tubist, I think the time has come to blow all my savings and go to a jazz festival in Norway: seeking out the wellspring of these musical marvels. Depending on how things are going back home, I may seek asylum while there:Farvel mine venner

Stepping in the same river

It’s always nice to start with a classical allusion, it sets a level of intellectual rigour that the rest of the post will entirely fail to sustain.  Today’s title is “borrowed” from Heraclitus though I don’t think he was specifically referencing the River Cam…

My allusion is very much to the river that flows through Cambridge and provides the root of its name as, for this past weekend, I returned to my old stomping ground for 36 hours of fun.  I feel that I either do leisure really well or very badly: depending on how you view leisure.  As this post will go on to demonstrate – at tedious length – I fitted a frankly ridiculous number of activities into my brief sojourn.  This meant I had a great time but did leave me a tad drained on Monday and my weekend could not really be classed as relaxing: not for me lying insensate by pool or shore for a week or two under a blazing sun.  If I have travelled, then I will attempt to maximise the “benefit” obtained from the cost of my journeying and night(s) away from home by doing as much as physically possible (and sometimes more).

It has been rather more than a year since I was last in Cambridge and I had been searching for a weekend when I was not otherwise committed to activities in Southampton.  As a bonus, this last weekend also played host to the city’s Jazz and Literary Festivals – which may have acted as something of a metaphorical china shop to my cultural bull.

The journey north seemed rather long.  A rail strike for the segment to London meant my train was attempting (and failing) to carry the passengers of three normal services – but with no additional coaches.  I then discovered that since leaving Cambridge the rail service from Kings Cross has effectively halved in frequency, so there is now only one fast train an hour (and the two slow trains are cunningly timed to be entirely useless).  So, a fair wait for a train and once again passengers were standing all the way.  It was like living in the north, albeit with much newer rolling stock!  As the train drew into Cambridge, I noted that Addenbrooke’s has continued to grow since my last visit and the fields I used to cycle across – home to buntings, yellowhammers and stoats – have almost completely vanished under new buildings.  Around the station itself, the city is unrecognisable – swamped in new “development” – but once you escape its immediate vicinity, and nostalgia for the relative beauty of the old Focus DIY store, more familiar sights return.

My first stop, it being lunchtime, was at Dulcedo: a new Patisserie which had been recommended to me.  A dangerous first stop in many ways and I was only saved from blowing the whole year’s patisserie budget by my limited carrying capacity.  They provide one of the finest sandwiches I have ever consumed – the toasted sourdough bread was particularly heavenly – and a very fine hot chocolate (in addition to more traditional patisserie).  Thus fortified, I snuck round the Backs to avoid the city centre en route to check out the refurbished Kettle’s Yard Gallery.  This housed an interesting exhibition of very varied works by Richard Poussette-Dart and was a lovely calming interlude in the helter-skelter of my day.

However, soon I needed to nip the short distance to my digs for the weekend.  In an unexpected development, I was spending the night with (and indeed at) Jesus: and what an excellent host he was!  I was staying at the newly revamped West Court of Jesus College which was, by a country mile, the finest student accommodation it has ever been my pleasure to stay in.  I could quite happily move in and just stay, though sadly while it was an economic option for staying in Cambridge for the night my budget would not permit more permanent residency.

Sadly, there wasn’t time to linger as I had a gig looming on the horizon.  Jesus is much more handily positioned than I had expected and I made it to my gig in plenty of time, despite an unplanned excursion on the way.  Taking a back route (the joys of local knowledge) I spotted an unexpected dome through a narrow window.  Investigating a little further, I found this was the ceiling of the banking hall of the city centre Lloyd’s Bank.  I must have walked and cycled past this building hundreds of times but had never noticed what a stunning interior it has (and the outside isn’t too shabby): inherited from its earlier life as Fosters Bank.  It is the work of the same architects who created the Natural History Museum in London and while on a smaller scale is very much the equal of its bigger brother.

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After gawping at this temple of mammon, I was back to matters more sacred with a pair of jazz gigs in St Andrew’s Baptist Church: one of the few city centre churches in which I had never previously seen live music.  Two very good and different jazz acts in the form of the Daphna Sadeh Quartet and Bahla meant the rest of my afternoon flew by in fine style: the one common theme being a vague hint of the middle-east.  By the time the music finished, I had less than an hour to get across time to my next gig and try and fit in some dinner.  Pre-visit research had thrown up Calverley’s Brewery as an option that was – more-or-less – on my way.  It is not the easiest place to find even when you know the street it is on really well and have very good directions – but it was well worth it.  An excellent pint of home brewed beer consumed in the brewery and a truly excellent pizza from the Pizza Mondo van parked nearby (the providers of the food van do rotate from week-to-week).  I’m not sure if it was the location or the occasion but despite being slightly hurried it was one of my best ever suppers. I am a man of simple tastes in many ways and a fairly cheap date: should any reader wish to chance their arm.

I made it to the Mumford Theatre for my next gig with almost 4 minutes in hand, though a part of me can’t help feeling that I could gave fitted something else into those wasted minutes…  This was to see Phronesis who had provided the spur to visit Cambridge last weekend after I spotted their name in the Jazz Festival Programme.  I have seen them before as part of Marius Neset’s band but never on their own.  They are an odd looking trio: Ivo (piano) always seems to be wearing a very fine shirt but rendering it dishevelled, Jesper (bass) could easily find a part (probably as a killer) in any Scandi-Noir drama and has the look of an etiolated Willem Dafoe while Anton (drums) had the look of a psychotic mid-ranking SS Officer which his extraordinary facial expressions while playing and chosen wardrobe did little to dispel (bar his rather exciting socks).  Despite appearances they are all lovely, and I can speak personally to the charm of Anton as, at the Mumford, the talent are forced to queue up with the audience and pay if they want an interval drink – the queue took pity on the chap and bought him a beer.  Clearly being a musician is not all huge riders, blue M&Ms and baskets of fresh kittens!  Phronesis were everything I might have hoped for musically, including a lovely line in dry wit from Jesper.  I’m looking forward to seeing them again next spring when they visit Turner Sims with the Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra.

I fancied a pint as part of my comedown from such an exciting day and so stopped off at the St Radegund on my way back to my room.  This is technically a sports bar, but the sport is rowing and it has never had the vibe of a sports bar when I’ve visited.  For the first time in many years (many many years, many many many years), I was able to enjoy a pint of local cask ale in a decent pub for the princely sum of £2.

After a splendid night’s sleep in my double-bed (a first in student digs), Jesus offered me a truly first rate breakfast (loaves were on offer but no fishes) to prepare myself from the day ahead.  As a resident, I was able to wander the grounds of the college and found myself loitering for quite a while outside the chapel listening to the choir practising for the service to come: this is a very fine way to ease into a Sunday, though quite hard to replicate at home…

I had a proper wander along the Cam, catching it just before the punts start to convey convoys of Chinese in their ongoing attempt to film Cambridge from every conceivable angle and at every possible time of day and year.  I think they may be building a replica at home: though surely they must have the footage to support such a project by now.  I then made my way to Fitzbillies for the obligatory Chelsea bun and to meet a friend to catch up on gossip from the local music scene.  We then wandered to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see an exhibition of works inspired (some quite loosely I would suggest) by the work of Virginia Woolf as well as to catch up with some old favourites.  It was then a matter of nipping over the road to the Old Library at Pembroke College to catch a little Shostakovich and Beethoven thanks to the university’s instrumental award holders.  The library may not have the visual amenity on offer in Gallery 3 of the Museum, where these gigs are normally held, but the seating is so much more comfortable: I didn’t leave crippled!

It was then a quick stroll up Downing Street to my one visit to the Literary Festival to see Dan Snow talk about history: both his own and that in his new book.  This was in the Babbage Lecture theatre – which I remember as a rather shabby affair in quite the shabbiest quad in Cambridge.  Things had changed since my last visit: the quad is now much tidier and home to the new David Attenborough Building and the new Zoology Museum – including glass pavilion housing a whale skeleton – and the lecture theatre is really rather swanky.

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Only a flying visit, but I had a whale of a time!

It was then but a short stroll back to the river to visit The Mill, a pub I never visited while a local, to meet up with a friend from Southampton who has moved to Cambridge to take up the noble profession of an artisanal baker (perhaps other friends could consider career changes that would benefit me: does anyone fancy becoming a cheesemaker, brewer or patissier(e)?).  While baker is a fine career choice – the previous days’ sourdough toast came from his bakery (if not hands) – it does involve rather early mornings which I fear would put me off.  He brought a gift of a freshly baked loaf, made with 50% khorasan flour (so hints of the classical world), which I can report is delicious both fresh and toasted.  I now feel I need to be more adventurous with my own baking (and toasting) …

It was such a joy catching up with a friend over a number of good pints and, after a while, we repaired next door for my final jazz gig of the weekend at the University Centre Wine Bar.  This venue was much nicer than I’d imagined and the beer continued to flow: the Sam Smith’s Apricot Ale proved particularly moreish.  Music was provided the the Lydian Collective who were very good indeed – and like all the very diverse range of acts I’d seen at the Jazz Festival, basically new to me.   All the gigs were good value, but this final two hour gig for only £5 was perhaps the highlight of the weekend (against a very strong field).  I had wondered why I’d never made it to the Jazz Festival when I lived locally, but discovered at the Phronesis gig that it had only been going four years: they literally waited for me to leave town before launching.

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The Lydian Collective in a surprisingly good venue for jazz

With a bit of a wait for my train back to London, there was time to fit in a final Cambridge pint at the Flying Pig.  However, this was not to be my final pint of the evening as I discovered some friends playing a folk session at a pub right next to Waterloo station (thank you social media, sometimes you help a chap be properly social) which helped fill the wait for my very slow train home (but who wouldn’t want to visit Staines in the dark).

I had as much fun as I believe any middle-aged man could possibly have in a weekend (and without breaking any laws!) while re-acquainting myself with the city which was my home for several years.  I was reminded why I love Cambridge and am determined to return more regularly in future: the Jazz Festival is definitely going in my calendar for 2019.  However, it did take a day or two to recover from quite so many activities and then to commit the weekend to quite so much print to bore the wider public, so I may need to ration my visits a little…