Seasonal traditions

The current time of year is rich in traditions: I presume because we, like our ancestors before us, need something to help us through the short, dark days of winter.  One such tradition is to bemoan how early Christmas now starts – a tradition which predates Christmas itself, though in ancient Rome it was Saturnalia which seem to start earlier each year.  It seems that if you steal a festival and re-brand it for your aggressively proselytising  new religion, you may also acquire its problems along with the (perhaps) more desirable feasting and gift-giving elements.

Since I was first brought forth upon this verdant globe, I have spent Christmas with my family.  Initially, I was offered little choice in the matter – precocious indeed is the baby or toddler who is able to make and execute alternative arrangements – but I have continued in this manner long after I could do something else.  Partly this must be force of habit, partly my complete failure to come up with an alternative but I think mostly because it is good to come together as a family with a common purpose from time-to-time.  Since my nephew arrived on the scene, we are joined by someone who understands (one of) the true meaning(s) of Christmas.  Was I really ever that excited about the contents of a parcel?  Or about the idea of a cracker?  From this distance in time, it is hard to believe that I was ever so excitable (well, at such modest provocation, anyway) – but then again, was I really such an odd child that I viewed December 25 with cool detachment?  I’m guessing not, though I did used to respond to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the unhelpful and somewhat unambitious response “Alive” – so perhaps I was.

As well as the Saturnalian feasting and gift-giving, we also usually try and fit in some sort of family game on Christmas Day.  This year we played Articulate! (for Kids) which was great fun.  I had my worries given the age-range of the participants and the noun-blindness which afflicts older members, but it was surprisingly close fought.  As folk try to describe a word against the clock (or mini egg timer, for the avoidance of doubt the timer was mini, rather than the egg), secrets can inadvertently be blurted out – let’s just say that my brother-in-law would appear to use a rather unexpected item of bathroom furniture for washing.  Actually, a number of recent events have reminded me how much fun board (and similar) games can be – one was remembering Fluxx, a card game I one saw played and which my nephew is now old enough to play. I think this is enormous fun as the game changes itself as you play, and as we all know I love a bit of recursion (me and Alonzo Church).  An article in The Guardian led me back to Will Wheaton and his YouTube channel where he and chums play tabletop games and it would seem that there are lot of rather entertaining games out there, including an even more complicated version of Fluxx called Star(r) Fluxx – which we may tackle once we have mastered the basic version.  It looks like the Art House cafe here in Southampton has a board games night and I think I may have to start going – as it can be quite tricky to play these games alone (or against a wall).

On Boxing Day, weather permitting, some sort of modest walk is called for – to burn off a few tens of the many thousands of recently consumed calories.  In recent years this has tended to involve the bracing promenade at Bexhill.  I like to include the consumption of a sea-front ice-cream as part of this ritual – though this year, no other promenader seemed willing to join me.  Lightweights!

As I don’t live with my family – for that way lies madness (or more madness at any rate) – tradition requires me to travel.  In my many carless years, this was done by train – but as recent users of Kings Cross have found, this is not without its problems – so in recent years I have used my car.  In fact, nearly 50% of my current vehicle’s road miles have come from the last four years of Christmas-based driving.  Driving home for Christmas isn’t too bad (despite what Chris Rea would have you believe) as the roads are very quiet which makes the experience as close to pleasant as driving gets in these traffic-afflicted Isles.  The driving also necessitates my annual purchase of petrol, which traditionally falls on Boxing Day as I journey homeward, and involves me guessing on which side of my car the petrol filler cap lies (this year I guessed correctly, it is on the passenger’s side and so no embarrassing repositioning of the car or desperate stretching of the hose was required for once).

To help the journey pass more pleasantly, I listen to the radio (some of it previously preserved in the form of podcasts).  Shaun Keaveny delivered me to my family and a combination of items from Radio 4 took me home – we had comedy, history and semiotics.  I also had the latest edition of In Our Time, entitled “Truth” – nothing like a little late night philosophy to make the miles just fly by.  This programme demonstrated that though Melvin can appear several sheets to the wind on occasion, he is still a more responsible broadcaster than me: I would have been unable to resist uttering the words, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth” at some point during the show had I been at the helm.

Being away for Christmas means that it does end rather abruptly when you return home, there are none of the traditional seasonal leftovers to gorge on in the lull before the New Year.  What I do have to gorge on after my return home are the televisual and radio treats I missed while away – and this year, as so often, the majority of the treats were on the wireless.  Not only the triumphant end to John Finnemore’s brilliant Cabin Pressure (I know he is probably a tad young for this, but I’m starting the campaign for JF as National Treasure now) but also a dramatisation of Good Omens along with a whole stack of other seasonal Radio 4 treats.

This year, as I have guests joining me in a modest consecration to the god Janus, the flat does have a mildly festive air with a few Pagan symbols festooning my “tree” (which at other times of the year holds postcards: in this house a I do like to “sweat” my assets!).  And given the Hatton blood (from my paternal grandmother’s family) that courses through my veins, the change of year should be massively over-catered – no-one leaves my home with soft arteries – so there is some hope of left-overs come the end of the week.   In the meantime, I must devote myself to menu planning, cooking and appeasing the Lares (or, if you prefer, overcoming local entropy) to ensure that all is ready for the new latty’s first overnighting guests – very bold!

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?

Promoting Mr Unger

I am, of course, not old enough to remember the Odd Couple – or at least, the play pre-dates me and the original movie was released (from durance vile, I assume) when I was only a toddler – but luckily I have race memory to fall back on.  OK, in the spirit of full disclosure, my knowledge may not have come from any hypothetical race memory but instead from an episode of the Burkiss Way: “Write Extremely Long Titles the Burkiss Way”, if anyone is interested.  In this excellent episode, the brothers Grimm are based on the Odd Couple and so one of them is both called Oscar and (allegedly) played by Walter Matthau.

This reminds me that, in the late 1970s, I managed to convince my mother that the school dinners were so poor that I was allowed to come home for lunch (it may have helped that school was a mere 3 minute walk from school, but I like to credit my powers of suasion).  My desire to come home for lunch had nothing to do with the quality of food, or the maternal company, but a desire to listen to Radio 4 comedy – which in those days was broadcast at 12:27.  Thus was I introduced not only to the Burkiss Way, but also to Hello Cheeky, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Many a Slip and Just a Minute.  I think this early exposure to radio comedy may have had a marked effect on my later life – of which this blog is but one aspect.  However, in an unprecedented move (note: move may have precedent), I seem to have digressed.

The original intention was that this post would give my entertaining spin (“Fat chance!”, I hear you cry) on the Oscar nominations which were announced earlier in the week; to the best of my knowledge, Mr Unger has no eponymous award.  In an unusual turn of events, I have seen several of the films that have been nominated – and most of those that have multiple nomination in the more prestigious categories.  The two big “winners” (in terms of nominations) were The Artist (10) and Hugo (11) which were both about the early days of film.  As a result, in 2012 I’m planning to make a black and white, 3D movie about the zoopraxiscope.  The sound track would be comprised only of white noise, or better still, a modern successor to Ligeti could compose the score – it would seem like noise, but still be in with a chance of winning the music gong.  To keep costs down, I’ll use only four actors – two lads and two lasses – as that is enough to maximise the possible actor-based nominations.  It would be a period piece, so I’m in with a shout for best costume design, and if I replace locations and scenery (more cost savings) with visual effects, that’s another nomination in the bag.  I can’t see how it can fail – it has everything!

Earlier in the week, I went to see a film that has not been nominated for a “Madison”.  I suspect our esteemed PM wouldn’t have approved either – not populist enough (though I am expecting him to release public funds to invest heavily in my Eadweard Muybridge biopic).  This was a small British movie, and wasn’t easy to see.  The Arts Picturehouse had only three screenings, all at rather odd times (mostly impossible for any but the unemployed or independently wealthy – and me – to attend) and there was no chance of a multiplex sighting.  I am not an expert on the economics of the film industry, but I suspect it is quite hard for films to make money if no-one can see them.  This is all the more disappointing given that both directors, both writers and one of the actors (only two people in total) are recent alumni of the local university – presumably, elsewhere in the UK it was even harder to see.

Black Pond was in two dimensions, in colour, with a traditional sound track set in the present day – so not much hope for Oscar success, I fear.  However, it was quirky, funny and different – and I much preferred it to the big winners nomination-wise.  I think it may be time to start my own awards, “The Felixes” perhaps (maybe I could get sponsorship from the cat food industry – well, the French have an award named after a dog food, so why not?), to honour all the good movies that are hard to find and forgotten by other award givers.  I could host the ceremony at Fish Towers (which should provide a much-needed boost to the profile of Sawston), and I could put on a spread so that no-one leaves hungry.  (Trust me, no-one ever leaves Fish Towers hungry (or sober) – over-catering is my middle name!).  I’m sure I could rent a short stretch of red carpet for the guests to be “papped” walking along (I can even do the papping, if required).   I think this blog has proven that I can make dodgy jokes in dubious taste, so I should be able to handle the hosting duties.  What more does an awards ceremony need?

Stand Up, Stand Up for Cheeses

I have rather a penchant for the fruits of the cheese maker’s art.  Such a huge variety of tastes and textures, even without leaving these shores – and even more once you cross la Manche.  Cheese seems to be one area in which the Old World remains immeasurably superior to the new – where, at least across the herring pond, all cheese seems to be called Jack.  Then again, lest I start to feel too superior to our one-time colonies, as a wee lad I did believe that ‘processed’ was a variety of cheese.

Yesterday evening, I was in old London town (or at least a modern take there on) and as is becoming traditional, spent some quality time in the work of the Gilbert Scott family. In this case, George’s splendid St Pancras Hotel as opposed to his grandson’s Bankside power station on my last visit.  In the rather fine restaurant there, I was able to enjoy a little of the wonderfully named Childwickbury goat’s cheese – from a small village just outside St Albans.  However, I don’t fancy my chances of finding even such a relatively local cheese in any nearby supermarket.

Whilst the grocery barons are keen that we should be able to sample some goods, however far out of season they may be here on the outskirts of Europe – for others, they seem rather less keen to offer choice.  Strawberries they will ship from the furthest flung reaches of this planet, but gooseberries not so much – I presume this reflects the rather limited international appeal of the gooseberry (though it is indigenous from here to the Himalayas, so many cultures should have had the opportunity to sample its deliciousness).  Perhaps, like another favourite of mine – rhubarb – it is considered too tart by a world locked in the saccharine embrace of enamel’s enemy, sugar.

Sadly, cheese is another area where the range on offer in most supermarkets does rather disappoint.  Beyond a dozen or so staples, the choices are quickly exhausted – though I have noticed that most do offer cheddar from a a growing number of ex-colonies, which I think they may have mistaken for offering a broad range of cheeses.  Cheddar is also pretty much the only cheese offered in a range of strengths – from the utterly tasteless to, what I believe our cousins from down-under would call, biting.  True biting cheese would obviate the need for the mousetrap, the lure itself would be sufficient unto the entire task, but I suspect only exists in the imagination of the more outré geneticist (and, as it transpires, yours truly).  Talk of which reminds me of the hot dog, the only dog which feeds the hand that bites it – but I digress.

Today, I strayed from my usual supermarket of choice and used a branch of Mr Sainsbury’s emporium to acquire some victuals.  Whilst searching the store for various products, I passed the cheese department – which was rather curiously segregated.  I first notice a section tagged as ‘healthier cheeses’ – but failed to find the complementary ‘unhealthy cheeses’ or ‘less healthy cheeses’ counter.  Instead, the remaining cheeses were divided between ‘sliced and grated cheese’ and ‘recipe cheeses’.  I presume that the process of slicing or grating must render cheese less wholesome in some way – it certainly renders it less whole.  As to what a ‘recipe cheese’ might be, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue (quick plug there for Radio 4’s finest).  Mr Collins (my semantic arbiter) offers three meanings for ‘recipe’ – two of which could be boiled down to the idea of a method and the third of which is a medical prescription.  Whilst, I love the idea of cheese on prescription, it often makes me feel better, I really can’t see it happening given current belt-tightening in the NHS.  I wonder if perhaps ‘recipe cheese’ is an analogue of ‘cooking sherry’ or ‘cooking chocolate’ – foodstuffs you would not want to consume in their own right, but which are fine for putting into a cooked dish.  If so, this seems to be setting very low expectations for the quality of a good third of their cheese department.  (It does get worse: whilst researching this ‘article’ using their website, I found that this same supermarket under the heading of British Regional Cheeses offers up that most well-known of varieties, ‘Red Cheese’).

Generally, I do not buy my cheese from a supermarket – preferring instead to purchase it from my local butcher.  They don’t have a bad range for a village butcher – and despite being mostly vegetarian (though, I do classify fish and anything lacking a backbone as a vegetable), I feel it is very important to support my local butcher.  I suspect I am, by a long way, their most valuable vegetarian customer – especially as I also buy all of my eggs and honey there (I have nothing against animal exploitation, per se) and my oil (of the eating as opposed to the lubricatory variety), in whose production, so far as I know, no animals are harmed – though, as previously mentioned some are deprived of their perches.

So, brie good to yourself!  Discover gouda have more fun! (some Dutch pronunciation may be required).   Y fenni opportunity presents itself, try something new from the world of cheese – and not just cheddar from a new country!   You won’t raclette it!

Class Act

Having recently finished reading “Watching the English” by Kate Fox – a very entertaining, if sometimes worrying, read – I seem to have become slightly obsessed by class.  As a result, I was interested when strolling round Waitrose to see that one aisle proudly boasted that it contained napkins – very upper-middle class (or above).  I now know that only the denizens of Pardonia would use the word serviette in a futile attempt at social climbing, even though both words come to us from Old French (I’ve always felt this blog could do with a little more etymology!).

My own class indicators are somewhat confused – varying from upper middle class to deep into the working class (though I am very obviously not upper class – this blog alone would provide proof, as an earlier post used the word posh where a toff would have used smart).  I blame the parents (mostly mine, obviously, who came from different social classes), Radio 4 listening and my magpie-like tendency to gather up any particularly shiny word or pronunciation and add it to my repertoire for this rather weak class anchoring.  I suspect my factory-setting would be lower middle class – but I can often pass for rather higher up the social scale among the anthropologically ill-informed.

Last Sunday, I found myself at King’s College Chapel listening to Verdi’s Requiem (this was not as a result of blacking-out earlier, but is merely a rhetorical flourish).  I was ‘comped’ into this concert (my first comp anywhere – isn’t free stuff nice!) and was seated right at the front, only three seats from the Mayor and only one seat from the Principal ‘Cello.  Indeed, as I was led to my seat, I did worry that I would be expected to sing (luckily, for all concerned, my fears were groundless).  I have previously mentioned my reservations about the acoustics of KCC, however, these are significantly improved when one is sitting almost in the orchestra and the music packs the sonic punch of the Verdi Requiem.

Over the course of the evening (which did extend rather beyond the concert and involved quite a lot of red wine), I kept encountering the same chap who seemed very insistent that my name was Sebastian.  I kept correcting him, but to no avail – eventually, he accepted that this wasn’t my name, but felt that it should be and so continued to use it.

Now, I can understand his position as I have been known to rename people myself (and not just by the more normal substitution of a nickname for the one recorded by the State).  When I first entered the world of full-time employment, I worked with a chap whose name I can no longer (and mostly never could) recall – to me he was (and always will be) an Ian and I fail to understand how his parents could have chosen any other name for him.  As a result of this certainty, I could never remember his soi-disant real name – as it would just be over-written with Ian every time I heard it.  At around the same time, I provided mathematical support to a pair of apprentices who were named Julian and Gavin by their respective parents – though I always called the latter, Sandy.  Luckily for me, he was far too young to understand the allusion (as, of course, am I) and so I never felt the rough end of his nunchucks (he was heavily into one of the more violent martial arts at the time).

Despite my own tendency to rename others, I’ve never really thought of myself as having another name (other than various nicknames) and had certainly never seen myself as a Sebastian (should I start carrying a teddy?  For the avoidance of doubt, I refer to the cuddly toy rather than the item of lingerie).  However, the name does have rather a nice, upper class ring to it (and re-uses my existing initials) so perhaps I will adopt it to ease my way into the upper echelons of society.  If nothing else, its application shows that I continue to punch above my weight class-wise, at least on the basis of a relatively brief encounter.  I suspect my true nature would start to bleed through should I ever have to go the distance…

The Missing Demographic

Continued issues somewhere in my digestive tract, coupled with meetings in London, have caused a brief (but, much appreciated by its readers) lacuna in the relentless stream of drivel emanating from this blog.  Seasoned Fish-watchers will know how serious matters had become if I admit that I have been off my food for several days – though normal (even enhanced) service has finally been resumed.

Prior to this haunting of my alimentary canal by a particularly vexèd poltergeist (or such is the diagnosis I am choosing to believe), there had been a brief alteration in my pattern of external, evening entertainment.  As you will know, most of my nights-out involve some sort of musical production (very much not of the form traditionally thought to be favoured by the Friends of Dorothy).  On the few occasions I go to see music for the young, I find myself feeling like some sort of revenant as the entire audience is under 25 (except for the few parents, or those acting in loco parentis, who still seem younger than me).  On the far more frequent occasions when I am enjoying (soi disant) classical music, the vast majority of the audience is over 70 (and usually well over) bar a few people in their late teens or early twenties that I assume (on the basis of almost no evidence) to be music students.  There has, as a result, been some mystery as to what the folk of Cambridge do of an evening in the long years between 25 and 70.  I know, in my (unelected) role as an uncle, that children can be quite time consuming, and anecdotal evidence suggests they can be quite reluctant to leave home these days, but 45 years stuck indoors “sitting” one’s issue does some rather a long time.   Where were the missing demographic?

Last Thursday, I finally found some of these missing generations when I went to see Punt and Dennis at the Corn Exchange.  I guess the audience were mostly Radio 4 listeners – though, perhaps oddly, no-one apparently over 70 and a surprisingly large scattering of the under 25s.   Perhaps the BBC Trust should take note, I suspect Radio 4’s reach into the allegedly all-important youth market may be larger than their “study” has indicated – though I note there was no corresponding push from the Trust to force Radio 1 Xtra to improve its offerings to the over 70s (which I, for one, think would be much more entertaining).  However, I seem to have digressed (again), the key matter of note was that the vast majority of the audience were from the missing demographic.  The middle-aged (and, I assume, middle-class) have little interest in music but are willing (and able) to push the boat out and pay for child-minding if Radio 4 stalwarts come to town.

Could this be a money spinner for the Beeb in these times of declining licence fee income? Some of its shows already tour the country – but others remain firmly fixed to their studios.  The PM Roadshow anyone?  And surely it is long past time for You and Yours to hit the road?  (And never come back).