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…

 

Channelling Gogol: Weak Too

The release of this post into the wild indicates that the author has survived a second week of being locked-down. So far as I can tell, my tenuous grasp on sanity has not suffered to any significant degree.  Or perhaps I am locked in some sort of fugue state, hallucinating the writing of this post.  If so, I trust that my jacket is securely fastened at the back and that I am located in a room with nice soft, sound-proof walls.

In fact, for the seven days that my cold took to run through its main-sequence course, I only left the flat once for the very short walk to the dustbin: otherwise, at no stage did my feet touch the ground (for the avoidance of doubt, they did touch the floor of my flat as I have yet to master hovering – or, some would say, hoovering).   Prior to the last fortnight, I would have assumed that being trapped in the flat for a whole week with only myself (and briefly a wasp) for company would have had a seriously deleterious effect on my mental health: not so much pushing me over the edge, as firing me over it with the aid of some serious rocketry.  It would seem that my hastily cobbled-together coping mechanisms have been an unexpected triumph (or at least a disciplined strategic retreat).

I will admit that alcohol has played its role, with some very fine local beers helping to allow the evenings so pass more (subjectively) swiftly.  It also helps that for most evenings I am attending, albeit without leaving the flat, multiple gigs which provides a degree of continuity with my previous life.  I think I am also becoming better at attending virtually, nattering with friends in the Comments field (where permitted) definitely boosts the experience of being “there” together.  The music gigs I attended at the end of last week had a proper live feel of friends coming together to have a good time, despite being separated in space.

I’ve also enjoyed to a couple of storytelling gigs via Zoom which worked really well as the host can see the audience reaction and again I really feel part of a shared experience.

Since we can’t actually spend time “with” friends and family any more – though, there is some hope that one day the current period of physical isolation will end – I find we are all making more of an effort to come together in both dodgy sound and glorious technicolor [sic] through a variety of video conferencing platforms.  None of these are ideal, but they are better than both nothing and anything that has gone before and I fear that holodeck technology still lies some way in the future.  Plus, it must be noted, that holodecks do not have the best safety record: I fear that the powers of the Health and Safety Executive have become rather seriously eroded by the 24th Century.

As previously noted, a video conference can serve as a virtual pub and forum for jigsaw critique: subject, number of pieces and ‘playa’ style were all up for debate.  On Monday, some friends and I participated in our own virtual pub quiz which was a very silly and drunken success: Tuesday was something of a write-off as a result as lockdown seems to intensify the strength and impact of a hangover (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).  This is due to become a regular feature of Monday’s (meaning the quiz, but I strongly suspect that the foolish- and drunken-ness may be entangled at the quantum level) and in a couple of weeks I shall be Quizmaster.  I need to start channelling my inner Waley-Cohen and/or McGaughey to devise some suitably fiendish questions.  I should possibly also prepare some suggestive opening or closing remarks involving Michael Portillo, or an alternative, slightly improbable, celebrity of my own choosing.  Following my quiz-based excess, I did ‘enjoy’ my first dry day of the lockdown which I seem to have survived without major issues.  It seems I can, if absolutely necessary, function without the psychological crutch of alcohol: though I would not recommend it!

Communal music playing is still proving a challenge, though the Steam Town acoustic session has moved online with a degree of success.  I have even been encouraged (virtually bullied) to massacre a piece on the piano in each of the last two weeks.  While my pool playing does improve after a couple of pints, I don’t think we can say the same for my ability at the piano: I suspect knowing there is an audience may also adversely impact my stress levels which are already somewhat elevated by the current circumstances and my chronic insomnia.  In a fit of insanity, I have just agreed to take part in a recital on Monday with two work colleagues using a Hangouts Meet: I believe one of them is rather a good pianist, so my Easter weekend may be (certainly should be) spent in a feverish whirl of practice!

Virtually, I have been able to join in on the guitar when someone else is playing as long as my microphone is muted: this avoids the issues of latency which otherwise bedevil the dispersed band of musicians.  It also removes the embarrassment that arises when I “guess” the wrong chord from the usual folk/pop choices of I, IV or V: you’d think I’d have a one-in-three chance of being right (higher if I stick with I) but this theory does not seem to hold in the real world.  Musician friends still have hope that the right app and a direct Ethernet connection might make a proper session or gig a reality but I have my doubts and success would expose my secret incompetence.

To add to my hand-balancing in the lounge and occasional excursions into the terrifying wasteland of “the outside” for victuals, I have added skipping into my fitness regime.  I did start this before the cold but managed to break my old skipping rope in the first five minutes.  A new skipping rope has now been delivered and I have started skipping in the little garden area behind the flat.  I am not one of nature’s natural skippers and my style is decidedly pedestrian (or, to be more accurate, clumsy).  Despite my lack of style, it does raise the heart-rate while allowing me to remain suitably distant from others: if they get too close, they receive a skipping rope in the mazzard!  Yesterday, I managed 300 skips and so today my calves are taking their revenge for this maltreatment.  I think I need to re-learn how to skip as I don’t recall these issues at primary school, then again I was somewhat lighter back then…

The foolishness of friends on-line has also been regular source of filips to the old mental health: as has creating my own foolishness to share.  I would particular recommend the rather odd, daily Bring Out Your Dead updates from Here in Spirit (which also provides some very fine fiddle tunes and some liquor) for a few minutes of diversion in your day: “May the blessings of Bob, and all in this house, be upon you“.  You may need to watch them at least somewhat in sequence to follow the narrative arc…

Some days do prove more difficult than others – last night in particular the long-term lack of physical contact with others (which had just hit three weeks) became something of a challenge: I had the inexplicable desire to hug a particular friend who I have never hugged and it would definitely be weird were we ever to hug as we are neither of us natural huggers, though do both regularly find ourselves the object of the verb to hug (in its transitive guise).  However, the writing of this post seems to have boosted morale (well, it’s boosted mine, I can offer no warranty – express or implied – for its impact on yours) and there is fun stuff to look forward to later in the day.  I still find myself mildly frustrated by my lack of productivity – I am yet to become an acrobat, professional musician or even the possessor of a clean and tidy home – but I have the impression that everyone (bar a few outliers, or nutjobs as I shall call then) is in a broadly similar ocean-going vessel, so I shall try and cut myself some slack.  I should note that I am ‘the boss of me’ both literally and metaphorically, but have yet to seriously consider either furloughing myself or letting myself go: well, I have somewhat let myself go, I haven’t worn trousers for more than a fortnight but I do still dress for the day and shave regularly.  We will see whether I can still make this boast in my next post…

 

The Spirit of Frankenmas

While it would seem that I am writing as we enjoy a brief interlude, perhaps while the celestial cistern is refilled (frankly, I think the directing deity should probably be looking at the ballcock), I find myself living through a period of permanent precipitation.  As the waters rise around me, it is proving a little tricky to manoeuvre my mind into some semblance of the appropriate festive spirit.  The default faith of these isles does seem to lack a suitably watery festival: its key books do mention that a small sea was parted and a stormy lake quieted, but I don’t recall much mention of rain or broader climatic change in my Religious Studies O Level syllabus.  I can’t help feeling that there is a gap in the market here for any worshippers of Tlaloc to fill…

A week today, I shall be driving east to spend the statutory days with my family: and this year it will be nice to be to do this without a medical emergency as the inciting incident.  So, I have roughly 168 hours left to complete my welcome of the three Christmas spirits into my life (and sober up afterwards to enable safe and legal command of a motor vehicle).

One of my attempts has involved my continued creation of a range of chilli-infused Frankenfoods.  I am now on the third incarnation of my Frankenballs (or Frankenkugeln, for the more Teutonic reader) which are my hot-take on the chocolate truffle: I like to imagine that these would be a suitable offering to Tlaloc (though should perhaps be more cartioid in form to satisfy his particular predilections).  In order to retain the childish joy of offering people my balls, it has been important that I should be able to form my ganache into broadly spherical sweetmeats.  This has proven quite the challenge!

My first attempt involved rolling the chilled ganache in my hands.  To prevent sticking, my hands were pre-chilled (under the cold tap, rather than detached and placed in the freezer) and coated in cocoa: this was an abject failure.  For some reason, my body chooses to run my hands very hot (there would seem to be no major issues with my circulation: though it might explain my generally inability to gain weight) and so they quickly overcame any cooling and almost instantly melted the cocoa.  As a result, my balls were horribly amorphous and my hands became increasingly coated in melted cocoa and ganache.  As I dislike my hands getting dirty, this was not an enjoyable process and the balls grew ever larger as I attempted to bring the process to an earlier conclusion.  This would have been my last attempt to make Frankenballs had they not been so annoyingly moreish…

For the second attempt, I acquired a double-headed melon baller and dipped this in boiling water to improve its ability to cut through the cooled ganache.  This produced more even balls, though there is a definite knack to using the baller which became trickier as the remaining material became more distributed round the bowl.  However, the large problem was with the second head.  While head #1 struggled to cut through the chilled ganache, head #2 found it all too easy to cut through the flesh of my right hand.  I think I managed to keep my life blood from entering the ball-mix but they did come perilously close to going “full Aztec”.  I’ve also found that all the thinking about a baller that this project generated has left me with Skee-Lo‘s 1995 hip-hop hit stuck in my head.  Despite considerable thought, I remain unable to see how a rabbit in a hat, even one with a bat, fits into the broader life goals set out in his treatise.

Once again, after the second attempt, my thought was to leave ganache and move on with my life.   However, a chance pub conversation suggested that without a chilli-heavy starter, the Frankenballs could be a tad eye-watering and they could use an additional buffering agent.  Somehow, the idea of adding spiced rum to the ganache arose, in what passes for my mind, to creative a more festive set of balls.  I researched a range of alternative recipes to try and come up with a less stiff ganache and also acquired a single-headed baller with a thick, padded shaft.  And so we came to the Mark III: this used a different (butter-free) recipe and was chilled less severely which I think created a slightly looser ganache.  It might have been a smidge too loose, next time I shall chill it for longer, but the combination of a thicker shaft and my improving wrist action led to a very satisfactory conclusion.  I also feel that the addition of rum helped to tame the Frankenballs blood-lust: my hands even stayed mostly clean!  Having sampled the more deformed, early attempts with the baller, I can report that the Mark IIIs are dangerously delicious: people may find themselves unable to keep their hands off my balls (should I ever release them to a wider audience)…

However, it struck me that chocolate is more associated with a later festival and the current season is more about dried fruit.  (Well, that and Frankenscents – but my signature, chilli-based perfume will have to wait for next year.)  So I decided I should attempt a Frankenmas cake: this would be like the more traditional Christmas cake but the marzipan and icing would be replaced by chilli.  I feel this is a good time of year to celebrate Frankenmas as the original story by Mary Shelley is very much about a birth; though Easter could also work as it is, in many ways, also about a resurrection.

It must be a good 30 years since I last made a rich fruit cake but I found a plausible looking recipe to adapt and gave it a go.  The recipe was basically very simple, though did require the tin to be double-lined (rather annoyingly labour intensive) and to be wrapped in two layers of newspaper!  I haven’t taken a physical newspaper in years, so it had to make do with some A4 work print-outs awaiting shredding.  While the Frankenmas cake cooked, the flat was suffused with the most glorious aroma: it was like Father Frankenmas was in the room.  On its emergence from the oven, in its best business casual, the cake smelled divine: it was all I could do not to drool.  Instead, I allowed it to cool and fed it with spiced rum before wrapping it and putting it away to mature.  Only after a couple of weeks, on Tuesday, did I take it to the Swing Steady Session at the Guide Dog to be eaten and act as an interval refresher.  For me, it was everything I want in a cake – moist, chilli-infused and mostly alcoholic fruit – but it also seemed to go down well with the swingers.  I have already made a Bride of Frankenmas cake for later, but have also considered stockpiling Aldi’s Specially Selected Brandy Infused Fruit Mix – which I consider a key element of its success – to last me through the next eleven months…  Let’s face it, I think we are going to need all the brandy infused fruit we can lay our hands on!

I have not just been relying on food to prepare for the twenty-fifth.  I’ve been to a couple of gigs with a seasonal flavour.  For example, last Friday I headed out to the edge of the land to the Lookout at Lepe – a very superior beach hut – for Sound Level Events‘ monthly residency.  On paper (or a screen), this was in many ways a dream line-up of local musicians for me: Tenderlore, Jack Francis and Bad Cat.  With some Christmas-infused numbers added into their usual repertoire and an appreciative audience, this has to go down as one of my top gigs of 2019.  It was a ridiculous amount of fun and I was sober(!) throughout.  I’d had to drive to the gig as Lepe is not accessible by public transport on a winter Friday evening and it was rather a long bike ride in torrential rain.  Still, it is good to know I can have musical fun without the aid of alcohol, I drank tea and ate cake to support the venue in lieu of my usual drunken excess…

Inspired by the message of the Muppet Christmas Carol, last night I took the bus to a very wet Bishopstoke for the festive Folk and Acoustic Session at Steam Town Brewery.   Despite the sad lack of West Coast IPA, I had loads of fun joining in with a bunch of seasonal songs and, coincidentally, discovering that the guitar chords for most lay well within my grasp (I just need to add a suitable G7 into my repertoire: which I vaguely remember Mr Owen teaching me back in 1978, that and English).  I may have to take my instrument east next Wednesday to ‘entertain’ my family: that’ll teach ’em!

I think after my traditional viewing of Arthur Christmas and, perhaps, of Die Hard, added to some more festive food and a few gallons of mulled wine, my festive spirit may be ready to peak in the middle of next week.  I shall aim to do Father Frankenmas and his monster proud!

Pint of Science

And finally, the promised and – I assume – highly anticipated post about my experiences with Pint of Science.  However, before the post proper, can we all take a few moments out from our busy lives to read a few words from our sponsor.

I was sitting at my desk staring vacantly out of the window the other day when I saw a table go past on the road outside.  Exactly seven-an-a-half minutes later I saw it again (or a table that could have passed for its twin).  Then, after a further demi-quarter hour had passed, the table traversed my field of view once more.  This continued at the same regular interval until I grew bored and went to do something more productive (this last bit might be stretching the truth just a little).  It wasn’t until some time later that I realise what it was that I had seen.  Clearly, I had sighted the Periodic Table.

I could apologise for that last paragraph, but we both know that I wouldn’t mean it.

The Pint of Science “festival” took place over three nights at the beginning of the week.  It occurred in several university cities, but I shall confine this post to the Southampton experience.  I only learned of its existence a few days before it started and was already promised to another on Monday evening, so I chose the only events not already fully booked on Tuesday and Wednesday (which spared me the agony of decision-making).  Events took place across four pubs in the city – of which more later.

On Tuesday, I learned about some of the technology behind fibre optics and the internet.  These talks had some great demos and I now feel I understand the principles behind non-linear light, following an analogy to an over-amplified electric guitar, and how to prevent my aircraft being shot-down by heat-seeking missile (so, practical too).  There was also a quiz, out of which I won a number of goodies – including the t-shirt I am now wearing.  It was a really fun evening and more than repaid its £3 cost.

Wednesday’s talk was (full of grace and) about regenerative medicine and covered stem cells and 3D printing.  The audience profile was a little older than the previous night – not sure if this was a coincidence or a motivated audience in search of some regeneration.  The talks here were (if anything) even better than the previous night.  I shall never view hip replacement in quite the same way again, having seen the force with which the new hip attachment is hammered into the existing bone to ensure a tight fit (less effort would have been needed to sculpt granite and using much the same tools).  The speaker on 3D printing brought along some amazing models in plaster-of-paris, including one of his own kidney and its associated stone.  This was produced from his CT scans at the cost of £123 and cut 30 minutes off his operation and saved the NHS thousands of pounds.  The potential to make surgeons’ jobs easier for a whole range of operations, improve patient outcomes and save money seems enormous – being able to actually hold and manipulate the problem area in 3D is so much better than a photo or screen view when planning.  However, I do worry that scanning capacity may become a limiting factor in making this a reality more broadly.

As well as this medical use, apparently we can already 3D print in plastic, metal, sugar, chocolate and pasta (which I feel offers a fascinating insight into the 3D printing community, or their corporate sponsors).  Referring back to a post from last year’s Edinburgh Science Festival, the speaker clearly saw the 3D printer as a sewing machine rather than a lathe.  Companies would no longer have to keep stacks of spare parts, e.g. to replace the battery cover on your remote control, consumers could download a file and print the replacement at home.  No longer will I find myself without the right pasta shape for a recipe, I can just print my own! (Though, for now, this might be a little slow if one is really hungry).  I can see the day when you can print your own alphabetti spaghetti, with your own choice for letter frequencies (for a more adult meal, perhaps, or to provision a visiting Polish child).

This night also had a quiz, in which I learned that those of us with blue eyes (clearly the superior eye colour) have higher alcohol tolerance than those of you with less fashionable ocular tints (a fact which I had, frankly, always suspected).  Beer is also, apparently, good for your bones – so drink up!  Another excellent night of fun for £3 – they even threw in some pretty generous (if basic – they probably wouldn’t have passed muster at an ambassador’s reception) snacks.

The only weakness in the Pint of Science offering was with respect to the pints.  Neither pub I visited had a bitter or ale on tap, and one couldn’t even provide one in a bottle.  As a result I was forced to drink Newcastle Brown Ale and teach the bar staff that it should always be served with a half-pint glass.  However, I don’t think we can really blame the Festival for this: they were limited by the need for a pub with a function room to seat 40-50 people and with space for some experiments.

Not only did Pint of Science provide two really enjoyable and educational nights out, but I reckon I came away with more value in freebies and consumed snacks than the cost of entry.  I’m not sure how this is financially viable – but long may it continue!  Actually, the freebies were provided by a corporate sponsor (called Mendeley – I presume after Dmitiri Mendeleev hence the idea for the second paragraph striking me) who seem to be some sort of social medium for the research community.  Whilst I like to think that much of my life is spent in research, I’m not sure I am quite their target market – but, if they ask, I could always transition GofaDM (or some selected highlights) across to their platform.

Crushing the whimsy

Worry not, no small china ornaments were harmed in the making of this post.

It must have been some four summers ago – back in the days when we still had summers – that I first saw Stuart Goldsmith.  It was my first year attending the Cambridge Comedy Festival and he came as part of a triple bill of comics trying out their material for Edinburgh (so three shows of an hour each) and which cost a tenner in total (or it may only have been a fiver).    At the time, I know almost nothing about him – but as the marginal cost of his gig was basically zero I figured it was worth a punt (and let’s face it, he does have excellent choice in first names).  The gig nearly didn’t happen, as until 5 minutes before it was due to start I was the audience, but luckily followers of kanban arrived just-in-time to swell the audience to something slightly more respectable.  He was my big discovery from that year’s festival and definitely the best thing I saw – though, so far as I know, he has never returned to Cambridge in a professional capacity since.  As a result, I have had to take in his two later Edinburgh shows at source (i.e. Auld Reekie).  All three shows have been really entertaining and, somehow, just a bit different from the norm.

However, possibly his greatest contribution to the sum total of human knowledge and happiness has been the Comedian’s Comedian podcast (follow @comcompod) – something I found through following him on Twitter (the acceptable face of stalking).  This has a simple premise: each time Stuart interviews another comedian about how they entered the business and their “process” and this is then edited down to around an hour for the edification of the listening millions.  These interviews are endlessly fascinating and absorbing, even with interviewees I don’t expect to like (and sometimes would probably find deeply irritating if I met them in person).  Whilst I have no huge interest in stand-up as a career – way too many late nights and far too much driving for my taste (it would seriously interfere with my theatre-going for a start) and at my advanced age standing for a whole hour would be a stretch – people’s explanations of their creative process have been amazingly interesting and frequently very funny.  Many of the issues stand-ups face creating material are the same one’s I faced writing essays for the OU or even the more prosaic writing I do in the day job – and some of their solutions are rather novel and I shall certainly be trying some of them in the future.  I have learnt a surprising amount about the human condition, creativity and even how to be happy from this series of podcasts (and quite a bit about the delicate mental state of the host – and I thought I was a worrier).  However, no warranty (express or implied) is offered that these insights will lead to any improvement in the quality of GofaDM.

In early February a live comcompod was staged in a modest room above a pub in a relatively glitter-free part of London’s famous West End.  Upstairs (or downstairs) at a pub is, for my money, where comedy should be staged; it just isn’t right for a stadium or huge theatre, it needs to have a degree of intimacy (and probably a slight excess of human perspiration).  I’d also say live comedy is, like live music, way better than the televised kind and so would encourage people to go out and see it for themselves – it is usually pretty cheap: comcompod was a mere £6 for a very full two hours of fun.  In exchange for our poorly cephalopod, we not only had compering from Mr Goldsmith but a set from Rob Sandling (who I’d not seen before, but would again) and one of new material from James Acaster before he was interviewed for the second half.  This was one of the best comedy gigs I’ve been to, with a lovely crowd – mostly listeners to the podcast (or those they’d dragged along for moral support) – and I shall certainly try and make any subsequent live performances.  It was a real great and novel way of consuming comedy.

It was James Acaster, in this interview, who provided the title for this post when describing how he writes new material.  As a phrase it was just too good not to use – and it could easily become the new strapline for GofaDM.

Edinburgh delights

There are many joys to being in Edinburgh – and not just the various arts related festivals at this time of the year.

Friday night, as I was waiting for my bus on Princes Street, the city staged a firework display to keep me entertained.  You don’t see that in Cambridge!  The buses, once they arrive, are also substantially cheaper than their Cambridge counterparts (and more frequent).  OK, I’ll admit that the fireworks might have been related to the Tattoo – but in my solipsistic world they seemed timed for my personal pleasure.

Whilst the south-east of England has been roasting in unpleasantly high temperatures (in my opinion), Edinburgh has been much more temperate – and surprisingly dry.  Yesterday afternoon, it did rain for a while but I managed to miss most of it filling my face with a truly prodigious volume of vegetarian fare at Henderson’s Bistro.  I seriously approve of their portion sizes: a starter for two which lives up to its name, rather than being a disappointingly small snack for one.  I also hope this single incident will cover two concerns for readers relating to previous coverage of this year’s Festival which apparently lacked sufficient references to food and rain.  No-one should fear that I am suffering any lack of sustenance.

But the best thing about Edinburgh is the drinking policy.  Down south, pubs throw you out at around 23:00 – but here they throw you in at 22:00.  It doesn’t seem to be that important if you were already drinking and are just choosing to enjoy the cool evening air, or are merely passing by.  I think the policy is that it is now 10pm and you are in Scotland, so you should be drinking.

I have also been introduced, for the first time, to the work of Messers Innis and Gunn – Edinburgh brewers to toffs and gentry (and me).  In those venues where the draft drinking options are limited to over-chilled, fizzy yellow muck, the work of I&G is available in bottles and very potable it is too.  Quite strong though – and I haven’t been brave enough to try the “Rum Finish” yet (though it does look a lovely colour and the tasting notes are tempting.  Actually, the whole Innis and Gunn website is rather fine, I particularly recommend their spider graphs!).  In conjunction with a rewed acquaintance with the fine folk of Brewdog, I fear my alcohol consumption might best be measured not so much in units but tens (assuming we are working in decimal).