The early bird

According to received wisdom, catches the worm.  I must admit that I am unaware of any research by vermicologists that would suggest worms are especially early risers – and it strikes me that the presence of early birds would place some evolutionary pressure on the worm massive to enjoy a lie-in.  I suppose it may be that worms love a rave and are returning to the earth in the early morn, fuddled by drugs and dance, and fall prey to their feathered foe – but again, evidence to support this hypothesis is scant (at best).

Still, I think that’s enough from ornithology corner as this post is less about birds (or even worms) and more about me: your feeble attempts to feign surprise are fooling no-one!

As July burst forth into 2017, I was in London to enjoy the Actually Rather Good Comedy Festival (or ARGCOMFEST as it is more punchily known).  This offers me the chance to see 16 Edinburgh previews (from a set of 48) over the course of a single a weekend (and without eating into the mornings).  I think I am growing in maturity when it comes to visiting such events: no longer do I attempt to make use of 100% of the opportunities on offer and leave exhausted with my brain reduced to a barely functional paste.  This year, I limited myself to a mere 11 previews and arrived back home in Southampton on the Sunday evening in a sufficiently viable state to enjoy some modern jazz in the latter part of the evening.  One of the joys of ARGCOMFEST is that of the 48 acts on offer over the weekend, exactly 50% can boast a substantially higher proportion of X-chromosomes than can the author – thus closely modelling the population as a whole.  Somehow, despite this highly unusual situation, the world failed to implode.  Still, it would clearly be dangerous to draw any conclusions from this one event and the industry (which doesn’t exist) should continue to apply the precautionary principles and treat female comedians like plutonium, i.e. enforce decent physical and temporal separation between them for fear of critical mass being achieved and dangerous amounts of energy (and/or laughter) being liberated.  I had a great time and my buttocks have almost recovered from the seating provided.

To make for a more relaxed experience, I stayed in London on the Saturday night and once again used my standard choice of accommodation when I’m paying (and sometimes when I’m not): student halls of residence.  This time, I stayed a stone’s throw from Waterloo in a shabby, but perfectly serviceable room which provide a decent night’s sleep, a hot and vigorous en-suite shower and even breakfast.  Having the morning to myself, I took the bus up to Piccadilly Circus to sample the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.  As I was the sole passenger, I viewed this journey as being chauffeur-driven in a particularly large, red limo.  Central London is surprisingly civilised before 10am on a Sunday morning!

So swift was my transport that I arrived at the RA a good 10 minutes before it opened.  This might have been considered slightly annoying, but as part of the exhibition the quad in front of the building was furnished with giant, ‘arty’ beanbags.  I have never been terribly impressed by the beanbag as furniture in the past, but I have now realised the error of my ways.  I had several giant, stripy beanbags to myself and reclining in the summer sunshine surrounded by beautiful architecture, with arts and comedy on the cards, may well have been the highlight of a very enjoyable weekend.

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The author’s skill with the selfie shows little sign of improvement!

Somehow, I did summon the energy to leave my perch – though it was oh-so tempting to stay – and enter the exhibition proper.  The RA was a revelation at 10am: I had the Summer Exhibition largely to myself – only a few other early risers had made it – which made for a much more relaxed viewing of the art.  It also struck me as delivering a particularly fine crop of artworks this year, particular snaps must go to the room hung by Yinka Shonibare for its many delights.  A giant photograph of three presumably Muslim women astride scooters with a couple of friends, all wearing niqab, is one of the most joyous images it has ever been my pleasure to encounter.  Even thinking about it to write this post, I can’t help smiling.

Leaving the RA, I wondered up towards the horrors of Oxford Street to catch my bus to Shoreditch for ARGCOMFEST part 2.  This would normally be a pain fighting past people and traffic, but it wasn’t.  Regent Street had been closed to traffic for some sort of street event – which involved fake grass and a gazebo (probably other things as well, but this is all I can attest to) – which also took out several side streets.  What a joy London is with the traffic removed!  That part of the city was in a state only normally glimpsed in post-apocalypse movies (but without the near mandatory zombies) or in car ads (the urban variety, rather than the empty twisty mountain road variety).  Surely, we can find some way to do this more often in more cities: think of the reduced stress and the happier city dwellers and visitors and the improvement in air quality and reduction is noise.

I think my forthcoming dictatorship (my bid for world domination will start with the UK, taking advantage of Brexit chaos and the clear incompetence of both government and opposition) has a new objective.  Traffic-free city centres!  I might sweeten the pill by providing free urban beanbags, in lieu of the rather hostile benches which tend to be provided by the current authorities.

Stiff awakening

You may suggest that this is an occupational hazard, given my “choice” to be a boy or, for that matter, my advanced age.  However, GofaDM is not at home to innuendo or ageism – so we will all pretend you didn’t suggest any such thing.

Nevertheless, this morning I awoke with all the flexibility of the geriatric love-child of DFS and a King Edward.  I don’k think that I have to look very far for an explanation: only as far as my combination of activities yesterday – and so, in line with the public service remit of GofaDM, I felt I should issue a warning to any readers who might be similarly disposed.

Friday morning was, as is traditional, devoted to gymnastics and to various ring and bar based activities that younger (and wiser) men would baulk at.  Still, foolishness can carry a chap quite a long way and I continue to make astonishing progress towards my ludicrous goals.  I then returned home for a quick shower and some lunch before heading to London.

My afternoon and evening were spend in galleries, with friends, looking at a pretty broad range of art.  We started at the British Museum with its exhibition on Germany.  This ties in with Neil McGregor’s excellent recent Radio 4 series, Germany: Memories of a Nation.  It was fascinating, especially the more recent years which were surprising (to me at least – but then my O level history did stop in 1914) and hold a number of lessons for today’s UK (the parallels with 1930s Germany were alarming).  The series made reference to a number of objects, many of which graced the exhibition.  From this I learned that, despite Neil’s excellent verbal descriptions, my ability to visualise anything from the radio is truly awful.  The exhibition also tied in to some recent reading, Simon Winder’s Danubia, which also covered some of the German speaking world.  It is amazing how much a little background can add to the experience of such an exhibition.

After a brief break for refreshments, we took a look at a smaller exhibition of prints featuring witches – which did very strongly suggest artists through the ages have become worryingly overwrought when thinking about powerful women.  This space led naturally into the Japanese collections of the BM.  This covered two areas of particular interest to me – very old earthenware which was not at all as one imagines Japanese art and very recent ceramics.  Some of the current ceramics were absolutely stunning – elegant forms, beautiful decoration and amazing use of colour.  I was pleased to see that a number of the makers had been officially recognised as Living National Treasures.  Something we might like to consider here, where national treasures tend only to be unofficial and usually need a substantial presence on television for even that.  I suspect Grayson Perry is our closest analogue.

We then moved to the Royal Academy and started with some more serious bodily fortification in the calming space of the Keeper’s House.  The RA is a splendid place to get away from the hustle (and even the bustle: though the bustle is much less fashionable than it was – surely only a matter of time before some Hoxton hipster adopts it once more?) of London and the Keeper’s House, as well as providing sustenance (both liquid and solid), also provides some great people-watching opportunities.

We went to the RA to visit the Anselm Kiefer exhibition (not just for its cafe).  I had no interest in Herr Kiefer – and a slightly negative, if almost entirely uninformed, view of his work – but my friend loves him and her recommendations have never led me astray.  Added to this, as a Friend on the RA there was no cost to risking a modest expansion of my artistic horizons.  The exhibition was incredible and so well curated.  I don’t love all of his work, but almost all is thought provoking and much is very moving.  Ages of the World, a new work commissioned for this exhibition was my favourite – but probably a dozen pieces can add themselves to my (non-existent) list of favourite works of art.  Totally contradicting my earlier pronouncement, arriving with (almost) no preconceived ideas made for a thrilling and emotional evening.  However, our earlier art experiences did feed very well into the Kiefer – especially Germany and the importance of the forest, but also some of the Japanese painting.  Going to the RA in the evening (as it opens late on a Friday) was a revelation – somehow it feels a more natural time than when it is daylight outside – and the galleries were very thinly attended giving lots of opportunity to get up-close and personal with the paintings (though not too close – some used tiny diamonds and if you lean too close to look, alarms go off).

The only downside to all this culture is that gallery visiting is very hard on the body – or at least my body.  I usually try to limit it to an hour or so per day, and even then it makes my legs, back and neck ache.  I don’t know why this should be – but it has been the case for as long as I’ve been visiting galleries (so I don’t think I can blame it on my age).  Yesterday, I probably spend three or more hours doing “art” – and coupling that with the earlier gymnastics may not have been entirely wise.  I strikes me that I have never spotted an elite gymnast in an art gallery and I suspect that my aching body may explain this absence.

Now, I can only personally attest to the combination of gymnastics and then gallery, so it is possible that the reverse sequence leads to an ache-free existence (but I have my doubts).  The again, I had a wonderful day yesterday and a few aches this morning is a small price to pay.  So, readers should view this post as a warning rather than a prohibition.

In praise of sunk cost

Living on my tod, most things that happen in my life have been arranged be me.  I buy and cook all the food and plan all the nights out.  This can lead to a certain lack of surprise in life, which on the whole I view as a good thing.  Nonetheless, it is good to allow a little spontaneity into one’s world from time to time.

I am a member of a number of organisations – nothing too subversive (though in the current political climate, perhaps I’m being more subversive than I realise) – which support nature, heritage and a range of the Arts.  Membership has its privileges and in particular offers me free (or much reduced price) entry to a range of attractions (for want of a better word).  This makes it quite tempting to just try things which otherwise, if I had to pay, I might not bother with – but thanks to the costs being safely sunk, I have a free option.

I put my options to good use whilst out West, visiting a wide range of National Trust properties.  All of these had items of interest (and I’m not just talking about the cake, though that is, of course, always interesting) – and in some cases provided an opportunity to escape from torrential rain – and pleasingly none of the antiques on show were obviously from my own life time.  I’d particularly recommend Cotehele and also Lydford Gorge, which made for a much more exciting walk than anticipated and which had benefitted from the aforementioned heavy rain.

Last week, I had a free hour in London before dinner and some comedy (a very boutique live edition of the Comedian’s Comedian podcast), and so I nipped over to the Royal Academy to see what they had on offer.  The main galleries were closed while the Summer Exhibition is installed, but on the top floor there was an exhibition by an American chap by the name of George Bellows.  I’d never heard of him (and I believe he also speaks quite highly of me) but the exhibition blew me away (mild pun fully intended).  The paintings of Penn Station under construction and views of New York, particularly under snow, were incredible – as were some of his early pen-and-ink drawings of the less affluent areas of the city.  I had good reason to be glad of my sunk cost, as without my membership I would never have gone and my life would have been the poorer.

I wonder if I should be sinking some more costs? This both supports areas considered less than vital in these rather mercenary times and helps to broaden my own horizons.  Well, its either that or more to Lincolnshire or a bigger planet…

The Art of Recovery

My weekend was something of a cultural binge: taking in two (and a bit) art exhibitions and some 12 hours of theatrical extravaganza (though, so far as I know, there are no suggested government limits on the maximum safe volume of culture to be consumed in 24 hours).  You might ask why I chose to subject myself to quite so much culture over one weekend: go on, you know you want to!

Well, as you asked so nicely, I can tell you in a single word (or perhaps a single word with a definite article): the Olympics.  Shortly, travelling into, and to an even greater extent around, London is going to become a significantly more challenging and unpleasant experience as it will be full of folk hoping to take part in an orgy of corporate branding with the odd sporting event thrown-in.  Since I suffer from claustrophobia in crowds (and even more so in small spaces filled with a crowd: yes London Underground, I’m talking to you), I am trying to squeeze in as much London-based culture before the hordes descend.  There is also the need to catch plays and exhibitions that will be over by the time it is safe to return.  So, I had my own little cultural Olympiad over the weekend.

Talking of the Olympics, I wonder if the current flourishing of Shakespeare on the television and in theatres across the land is relying on a probable misunderstanding: that the Stratford of the games and of the Bard are the same place?  I do wonder how many disappointed visitors will be unable to find Anne Hathaway’s cottage in E15?

Art-wise, on Saturday I took in the Master Drawings at the Courtauld and on Sunday “A taste of Impressionism” from Paris via the US to the Royal Academy.  I would thoroughly recommend both – some truly beautiful works.  The tragedy, as always, is that they are already fading from my useless visual memory – I shall have to return.  Luckily, I will be able to go back to both for nowt – thanks to my (paid) friendships with the National Art Fund and Royal Academy (so not entirely free, but sunk cost at least).  While at the RA, I was also able to see the contents of the John Madejski Fine Rooms.  I’ve known of the existence of these rooms for some time, but they had never been open on all my many previous visits – and I assumed they were like Brigadoon and only accessible once a century (so elusive are they, that I couldn’t even access the relevant part of the RA website when researching this post to check the spelling).  The rooms contained works by Academicians – and all held at least some interest, and a couple were real stunners (for me at least).

Theatrically, I saw Last of the Hausmanns at the National and Diplomacy at the Old Vic on Saturday – both plays well worth two-and-a-half hours of anyone’s time (I even managed to learn some relatively recent European history).  But, on Sunday I went to see Gatz which starts at 14:30 and doesn’t finish until 22:45.  They do offer you three intervals – two of 15 minutes and one of over an hour to have dinner – but it’s still a very long time to be folded up in a theatre seat.  The “play” is quite extraordinary and well-worth seeing:  The concept is an amazing idea for anyone to have come up with, and perhaps even more incredible that they managed to convince enough others to enable it to actually happen.  However, by the end I did wonder if my lower body would ever work again and most of my upper body was none too pleased with me either.  It also seemed that all that concentrated culture had turned my brain to mush: perhaps HMG should have a suggested limit for culture after all.  Miraculously, given my age, I do seem to have recovered pretty rapidly – or so I thought until I went to the cinema this afternoon.  After a couple of hours in the usually comfortable embrace of the Arts Cinema’s seating, I was having flashbacks to Sunday night.  I think I will have to start rationing my culture in future: perhaps limit myself to no more than 6 hours per weekend.  Either that or find a personal trainer who can prepare my body for the ordeal of sustaining the arts in this country: oddly, most seem more obsessed with helping me lose weight (and here’s me struggling to retain what little weight I have) than preparing me for the theatre or gallery.  This seems to be a rather serious gap in the market, if you ask me…

Every action has an equal and opposite distraction

Which could well stand as a motto for this blog, or indeed my life.  Many will recognise that I am mis-quoting Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion – though that assumes I am referring to Sir Isaac rather than Kirsty when I mention Newton.  Am I right in thinking that Sir Isaac is the only physicist with a biscuit named after him?  I recognise that the Chocolate Cox could be problematic, but the Lord Kelvin Crunch sounds rather good.

Tuesday night I was in London with what remains of Mitch Benn at the monthly Distraction Club – perhaps a dangerous choice of event for me, given my existing proclivities in that direction.  However, to make the most of my One Day Travelcard before heading towards music and comedy (and, dare I say it, their juxtaposition) I took in some art at the Royal Academy.  I do find that a mixture of Degas, Russian Constructivism and John Maine RA is the perfect aperatif to a night with Mitch and friends, don’t you?

I failed to spot any celebs at the RA this time, but thereafter went to an Italian restaurant, used as the venue for an interview in the RA Magazine, and I think I may have struck pay dirt there.  I say ‘may’ as the chap sitting next to me at the bar (not an alcoholic one nor, as the Degas reference may have suggested, a barre), watching the very ordered running of the kitchen at Bucco di Lupo, seemed very familiar.  Now, that could just mean I’ve seen him in Waitrose or the gym – but I was in Soho and he was intermittently reading a script, so I think he was probably a famous young actor (though I have no idea as to his name).  Still, I think it counts in my attempts to capture some of the Heat “readership” for GofaDM.  You will be pleased to know that the food was excellent – and I believe both very authentic and well-reviewed by the professionals – and suitable fortification for the comedy that was to come.

As a result of the unique way in which our railways have been underfunded for decades, I only caught the first two-thirds of the Distraction Club.  Had I stayed any longer, my journey time back to Cambridgeshire would have extended from around an hour to nearly four – which I think would have made it slower than the days when horses were still the only form of traction  (I know Stagecoach provide the local buses, but I wasn’t expecting the name to be taken quite so literally).  It may be that the NXEA website was wrong, or perhaps we would be pushing the bus replacement from Bishops Stortford, but on a school night I decided against taking the risk.

Nevertheless, the DC was an excellent night out.  I must have seen at least 8 acts (which makes it less than a quid an act) combining music and comedy in the basement of a Cask-Marqued pub a few feet from Oxford Circus.  Even with the rail fare, it was still cheaper than going to see a comic at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge – and with better beer on offer!  And, of course, you get to see Mitch Benn and the Distractions – though I have never seen less of Mitch, not as a result of a pillar or any other obstruction but because he has managed to lose an impressive amount of weight.  He looked positively svelte!  The gig, with its seasonal theme, made even me, a man much taken with both bars and humbugs (though I could be tempted by a mint imperial too), feel a wee bit Christmassy!

But, is it art?

Yesterday I had a day off – a proper day off: no working and limited thinking about work, no running of errands or loafing around at home, but a day out in that London.

In the course of the day, I think I managed to cover the full pantheon of muses – I bagged the lot!  I took in two art galleries, serious(ish) theatre and chamber music.  My theatrical and musical experiences I will cover in later posts, so this post will just have to cover the art.

I started by visiting the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.  I’m a friend of the RA (not the cheapest of my friendships, I’ll admit) and so can get in for free – or at least at zero incremental cost.  At one point, I went to the Summer Exhibition previews every year – but stopped as I was (a) finding them very samey and (b) kept forgetting the date and/or mis-laying my ticket.  After a break, this year’s seemed rather different and significantly more interesting than before (to me at least).  There was the usual packed crowd in the Small Weston room viewing the non-threatening art (NTA) which always seems to sell the best (and would make excellent lid-art for a biscuit tin), but whilst often “pretty” isn’t all that interesting.  Elsewhere, there seemed rather more room to manoeuvre and more stimulating stuff than in previous years (perhaps my taste is coming into fashion?  Well, it could happen…), as well as the usual less explicable efforts (or complete messes as I would call them – or perhaps this is where the art crosses my NTA-threshold?).

In the occasional celebrity encounter thread for which this blog is justly famed, whilst at the RA I kept bumping into Andrew Marr (which I think is as close to Heat magazine as I’ve yet achieved).  In line with previous experience, he’s rather smaller than I expected and his ears were, frankly, a disappointment (I am forced to wonder if he wears false ears for his TV appearances).

After the excitement of the theatre, it was but a hop, a skip and a jump (though I walked, briskly) to pop into Tate Modern.  In the early nineties, I used to work in an office overlooking the Bankside power station (as it was then).  It would seem that Bankside House (or National Grid House as it was briefly known) is now student accommodation for the LSE but, out of term-time, the general public can stay there too (at very reasonable rates!).  Sadly, the facilities promised for guests no longer include the tube-stile that was such a feature of my time there.  Nevertheless, it would be quite amusing to spend the night at the site of my old desk, just to see if anything survives from the days of NGC Settlements and to wallow in nostalgia (pigs prefer mud, but give me nostalgia any day).

I’ve been to the power station a few times since the turbines left, and so am fairly familiar with the collection.  However, as a treat this time there was a new Kandinsky (new to me – though, as Kandinsky has been buried ‘neath the clay for a while, not new in any absolute sense ) and one from the period when you could still (just about) tell what he was trying to represent.  This makes me think it is an early painting, however, this does lead us to identify another type of expert with whom you should not confuse the writer: an art historian.  I also spotted rather an exciting painting of a corridor by a female Portuguese artist, with way too many names for me to remember, which I didn’t recall and which is well worth a peek.  However, the primary reason for the trip was to visit the Rothko room (which I find very calming – and got to myself for a couple of minutes, bliss) which I felt would help to cleanse my cultural palette before the evening’s concert.  I’m not sure Mr Rothko would be at all keen for his art to be viewed as a sort of cultural sorbet – but, that is the danger of placing your art out into the world, you can never control how it affects the audience – even if it is such a lowly artform as this blog…