… and release

In my younger days, I showed very little promise when it came to physical prowess.  When sports teams were picked at school, I could reliably expect to be chosen second (or, on a good day, third) from last: yes, I didn’t even reign supreme when it came to sporting uselessness.  In consequence, my rather tardy choice to attempt gymnastics, when few would be foolish enough to hazard such a course of action, delivers a regular stream of surprises and minor epiphanies.

When hard at work hanging from the rings or the bar, I often find that I don’t recognise my own body – it seems weirdly swollen, deformed or corded by the effort expended.  On the plus side, I do give very good “vein” which is much appreciated by the National Blood Service, but seems to have few other practical applications.  Over time, the once impossible becomes merely very difficult and ultimately can even feel quite restful (compared to the new impossible now being attempted).  There seem to be a number of components to making progress as a geriatric gymnast – though these only become apparent in retrospect.  A chap (or at least this chap) needs the following:

  • To develop a certain amount of strength and stamina – often in the most unlikely of places – before an action can be attempted.  Once the attempt is possible, the necessary anatomy does then start to adapt more rapidly to the demands placed upon it.
  • To gain sufficient confidence that a manoeuvre will not result in sustaining a terrible injury – which often comes down to working out how to safely exit an unwanted position in a hurry.
  • To work out how to lock parts of my body together (and to work out what they are doing when out of eyeshot) as most gymnasts seem to go for clean body lines and a minimum of flail.
  • The final element is to work out how to release the parts of my body which shouldn’t be locked.  This is usually the last part of any given progression to be mastered – it can take a long time to work out how to unlock just the muscles I want (and indeed to work out which ones these are).

As each activity is mastered, another harder one becomes available to try – and I have the impression that there is likely to be no end to this process.  As I achieve each new summit, a whole range of much higher peaks suddenly becomes visible.  Whilst this could be off-putting, I find it rather encouraging and pleasingly the continuing ascent requires very little equipment (though does benefit from high ceilings and a minimum of breakables within a nine foot radius). I don’t need to keep find heavier weights, just moving the dead-weight provided by my body slightly differently offers all the challenge I could ever need.

As the most discerning of regular readers might (perhaps) have realised (but don’t feel bad if the fact had passed you by), I am mildly obsessed by my trek through the foothills of gymnastics.  I have started looking for opportunities to see more advanced students in action – though I’m looking more for something impressive (that I might one day be able to try) than anything which would score 6.0 points in a formal setting.  In pursuit of this interest, I stopped off on the Southbank on my way home from Cambridge to visit the interior of a giant, inverted purple cow.  I was slightly disappointed to find the interior of the cow was even less anatomically accurate than its exterior, but still like to think of myself as being seated in the rumen (which is more roomy(rumy?) than the reticulum, omasum or abomasum).  This visit was not just to critique the veterinary research carried out by the Udderbelly Festival, but to see a show called Bromance.  This involved three young chaps of the sort of varying heights which that most famous of house-breakers, Goldilocks, would have found familiar (I think she would have plumped for Beren as the baby-bear analogue: I feel the dead hand of JRR Tolkein at his naming).  The piece involved the confluence of physical theatre, dance and circus-style gymnastics and was very entertaining (and daunting, if inspiring, for me).  I strongly suspect the theatre and dance elements existed (at least in part) to allow the cast to recuperate for/from the gymnastic elements – especially, as on the day I saw them they were onto their second performance by 18:00).  On the plus side, none of the lads seemed vastly more hench than me (and I could check as by the end they were down to their boxers – always handy for the audience member looking for training tips) which offers some hope – though all did seem more generously buttocked than I (something for me to work on, perhaps).  I also noticed that two of them sported bandaged knees, and one had some sort of shoulder support – so their mastery (and performative frequency) had not come without cost.  In addition to their far greater mastery of the art, I particularly noticed their skill with dynamic activities – whereas my strengths (such as they are) lie with the hold (it is more than enough challenge to achieve a hold, little resource remains to move around).  My own increased dynamism will have to await an increase in confidence: at the moment I have little faith that my body in motion will perform as desired (and the spatial volume which may be affected by failures will also increase significantly).

Anyway, I had not really expected all this mid-life idiocy to have any positive benefits to the rest of my life – well, except, perhaps, from keeping me from the ever weakening grip of the NHS for a little longer.  It turns out that I was wrong, as I learned at my singing lesson last Thursday.  One of my many major challenges with my plan to become a singer is my very poor breathing skills: I’m not at any obvious risk of turning blue, but singing does require a chap to breathe beyond the level of mere subsistence.  I have always tended to breathe from my chest, and even towards the sunlit uplands thereof, which is far from ideal: I should be breathing from rather lower down.  Well, on Thursday, I suddenly found I was breathing from the correct portion of my body (a portion I could feel complaining at the work thanks to that morning’s training session) – finally I was able to release the relevant muscles to breathe properly.  I’m not sure my singing has ever been better – despite the challenges of the roulade (which is not just a tasty desert).  I owe it all to gymnastics!  Or so I think (though I’ll admit that there may be easier to routes to improved breath control).

s ∈ LME

I have, for some time, had to face the realisation that I would be considered by many to be a member of the much-maligned liberal metropolitan elite.

I am probably quite liberal – though also somewhat practical and so object to wishy-washy “thinking” – and am a firm believer that a working, if implicit, social contract is a very hard thing to create but really quite easy to damage or destroy.  As a result, in enlightened self-interest, if nothing else (and I like to believe there is “something else”), I feel that a society which mis-treats its weak, its disadvantaged and its outsiders is one storing up trouble for the future (as well as being a rather disagreeable place to live).

For the vast majority of my adult life, I have lived in or near to major centres of population – which does rather mark me as metropolitan (even without a purple line and immortalisation by Betjeman).  I’m very fond of the country, just not as a place to live.

For me the elite epithet is the hardest to claim.  Obviously, given my age and other proclivities, I did enjoy playing the space trading game on the BBC Micro back in the eighties – but that’s about as close to Elite as I feel I can realistically boast.  However, I suppose my hobbies (or how I fritter away my slack hours as I call them) which tend to revolve around the arts, science and culture might be considered to be of the elite by some.

However, I think my activities of yesterday evening may have put the tin-lid on my LME status for many.  As is not entirely uncommon, it was spent watching BBC4 – but the programming was unusual even for BBC4.  We started with a glorious hour of birdsong taken from the dawn chorus in three locations in southwest England – no voice-over, no background music just the sounds of nature (plus the occasional plane and a little traffic).  The odd caption assisted with the identification of which bird was singing – and to share a few other salient facts.  One of these other facts was that dawn singing (for the male bird) is a way of showing his fitness – an activity, were I to indulge in at this time of year, would illustrate both my insomnia (all to frequently real) and a complete disregard for my neighbours (something I try and avoid).  I would use an entirely different method to show my fitness – and would probably refrain even from doing that at dawn (well, the middle-aged body can be a trifle stiff at that time of the morning).  However, bird song was only the starter – the main course was even more nourishing.

We were fed with two half hour programmes each showing a skilled craftsman at work – again, without music or commentary.  First, a glass blower at work: showing the near miraculous creation of a jug from a chunk of glass broken off a larger rod in what seemed to be real-time.  The process was quite fascinating – and, for me at least, made glass seem even more magical.  The extraordinary plasticity of almost-molten glass coupled with its amazing cohesive properties does far more to make me believe in a creator god than the intricacies of the human eye (though does still fall a ways short).  However, I do still wonder how they get the glass to stick to the end of the metal blowing rod – I may have to re-watch the show to see if I blinked at this point.

The second showed a chap making what looked like a 9″ cook’s knife from a sheet of metal and a block of wood.  This was not in real-time as the process took 16 hours – and this was using power tools and a modern forge.  However, the time was well spent as the final product was a thing of true beauty – the blade and its patterning, in particular, was incredible.  I very much want one!

It made me realise that all craft, once it reaches a certain level, is Art.  All that labour and heat (and for the knife, violence) applied to such unprepossessing raw materials – what an astonishingly cunning species we can be!  I was also struck that without factory production of our kitchenware, it would a lot more expensive – though its cheapness and impersonal back-story might also help to explain our throw-away culture.  I start to think that I should only allow new things into the flat if they are well-made (though I’m not going the full Morris or Ruskin) – if nothing else, it would help to alleviate the storage issues created by my modest floor space as I suspect I could afford very few such things.

Most importantly, this was television which did not condescend to the viewer and could not have been done better on the radio or with a book.  None of the programmes felt like n minutes of content had been stretched to fill mn (for m≥2) minutes of schedule time.  All three programmes would have been weakened by being interrupted by messages from our sponsors.  I suspect that despite the vast cast of people who worked on the programmes, as revealed by the closing credits, this was even relatively cheap content to produce.  You wouldn’t want to spend every night this way, but perhaps more than once in 49 years could be an achievable objective for the future.

Lucky numbers

In our part of the world, the number seven is considered lucky whereas thirteen has largely negative associations.  As a lapsed pure mathematician, I view both as being irreducible in the ring of integers – and did learn the times table for both when in Mr Oliver’s class, back in 1976 (this, at a time, when you were only expected to go as far as twelve – so I was clearly showing off even then).

This last weekend I turned seven-squared and perhaps it was this which had me musing on my good fortune.  (I assume when I reach the ripe old age of 169 I shall be posting on the topic of my ill-starred life or, as seems more likely, my ill-starred death and continuing decomposition.)  I do generally consider myself to be pretty lucky (even beyond the relative good fortune of my birth in terms of timing, location, sex, class et al) though suspect to some extent I am “making” my own luck.  This does not mean that I have suddenly started believing in cosmic ordering (or some similar hokum) nor that I have found (or inherited) some mysterious magical artefact, the use of which generates good fortune.  No my good luck seems to stem from being vaguely polite and helpful to others, talking to people (whether they want it or not), being somewhat open to trying new things and making modest attempts to enjoy what happens and what is around you.  Writing that last sentence, I realise I now sound like some sort of Pollyanna with a mis-understanding of the meaning of the work luck – still, even Mr Collins is willing to admit that one definition of luck is “good fortune” and I have already established that I have out-lived my shame so I shall plough on.

I shall be illustrating today’s lecture with incidents from my birthday weekend, which was spend in the East Anglian city of Cambridge.  To the extent readers are using this blog as some sort of self-help resource (and if any readers are using it thus, would they please note that no warranty – express or implied – is offered and that they may wish to consider visiting a mental health care professional), they should feel free to generalise from the particular herein described to the specifics of their own drab, wretchèd lives.

I started my anniversary festivities with a good long massage – to prepare my flesh for the activities which were to come.  I believe many of those being massaged enjoy the experience in silence or to the strains of some sort of pseudo-Eastern pseudo-music or a Jive Bunny style mix of whale song.  I spend the time having oddly surreal and rambling conversations with my therapist – which certainly makes the time fly and usually provides some good, solid material for GofaDM (even at rest, I am always thinking about you: my audience).  This time we firmly established the comedy value of the word “weasel” and laid the basis for a future (and quite risqué) future post – but before the fruits of that particular conversation are laid before you I do need to acquire a few props.  The same conversation may also soon be responsible for the launch of my improv comedy career – all I need to remember is “Yes and…”.

Now suitably relaxed, I went to the world premier of a comic, chamber opera based on an F Scott Fitzgerald short story.  I think that younger versions of me would be appalled by the implications of that last sentence – but current me (who knows the producer) had rather a good time.  I feel Douglas Adams would also have approved as one character spent the entire opera in the bath whilst another spent substantial stage-time clad in a dressing-gown.

On the day itself, I took my traditional breakfast at the Indigo Cafe – where I sat next to operatic bass (and so potential role model for your author as singing student) John Tomlinson.  Sadly, he didn’t sing for his breakfast (next time I shall have to contrive to bump into him at supper time) but his speaking voice is very impressive – though I was pretending to read my book, I spent the whole of breakfast eavesdropping on the great man.

I popped into Fitzbillies to buy some breakfast provisions for Sunday (I feel breakfasting at the Travelodge is only for the truly desperate).  For some reason, perhaps because I didn’t want coffee or am a regular in the evening, half my breakfast (the nordic half, rather than the famous Chelsea bun) came free – a definite result!  After a visit to the cinema to see Love is Strange, which was rather enjoyable, I went to the ADC Theatre to see the Footlights’ Spring Revue.  I’d seen several Footlights shows while living in Cambridge, but this was in a whole different league: properly funny throughout.  This is what the radio comedy listener in me had been expecting from the Footlights all these years, but had always previously been disappointed.  The ADC also still offers the cheapest interval ice cream in Cambridge.

Back to Fitzbillies for dinner and my last glass of Sipian, a red wine from the Médoc which has been my tipple of choice for nearly two years now.  The cupboard is now bare, and there wan’t even enough for a full glass – though it looked a pretty decent glassful to me – so my last glass was enjoyed FOC.  Definitely a glass more than half-full rather than half-empty!  The restaurant was on a new menu and so for some reason (though as a regular haunt, I do know many of the staff quite well now), I was offered a second and quite delicious smoked salmon-based starter as a free bonus (sometimes, being only mostly vegetarian is a boon!).  I left quite nicely stuffed to head off to the West Road concert hall.

The CUCO concert at West Road was the primary reason for being in Cambridge for the weekend, my favourite orchestra playing one of my favourite pieces (Beethoven’s 7th Symphony) in a very strong programme which included Stephen Kovacevich playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor.  Not only excellent music, but I bumped into a friend in the lobby and was invited for a free glass of interval wine where I managed to have my second conversation in six months with someone who has been trained to handle an attacking polar bear.

I finished my birthday in the pub – The Punter – with a friend from my tennis club days.  A more perfect day would be hard to imagine – if I must get older (and apparently I must) then this is the way to do it.

The following day I had an early morning singing lesson (where I made a start on the Trill – or Trilly as Mr Vaccai delightfully calls it in the Peters Edition) – following a windswept stroll along the River Cam – before going to a Masterclass run by Stephen Kovacevich.  My piano playing is dire, but its always interesting to see much better players being given insights into improving further (I think at some level I hope something will rub-off on me).  I have been playing longer than most of the students had been alive – though I suspect they had put in more hours, or certainly more effective hours, at the keyboard.  Mr K makes an excellent teacher and you could really see the young players gaining from his experience.  The undoubted highlight was a young chap called Julien Cohen who was working on the Allegro Agitato from Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.  He was good to start with, but after Mr K’s insights he was quite extraordinary – his playing made me fall in love with the piece of music (it even bought a tear to my jaded eye).  He seemed so much better than the recording I have of  Joanna McGregor and the LSO, which always leaves me rather cold.  I am really disappointed that I can’t make it to the performance on Thursday: CUMS really ought to start recording their concerts and sticking them on Bandcamp (or similar).  I would certainly be willing to pay to hear them, and I cannot be the only person who can’t always make it to West Road on the day.

All that then remained for my birthday weekend was the rail journey home – but at least engineering works on the line to Southampton have finally finished.  A wonderfully lucky weekend, though I’m sure nothing that happened to me would be even in the top thousand wishes of most people given access to a genie.

What would Emma do?

As you will discover, in due course, this sentence will be the only reference to the work of Jane Austen – so put Ms Woodhouse from your mind.

Back in January, I spent a long weekend in Cambridge – which does not indicate that it was dull, far from it!  Over this weekend, the teaching of music became a major theme which this post will probably explore (or that is the plan at this early stage).

The theme started with a viewing of the film Whiplash, in which the music tuition is very fierce indeed.  By comparison with the trainee drummer portrayed, my commitment to anything in life would scarcely even be considered half-hearted – despite what I may have thought was serious application on my part.  I have also been spared any teacher even remotely so psychotic – which may perhaps explain my dilettantism, but for which I am suitably grateful,  I’m sure real drummers and jazz aficionados will find much to criticise in the film and others will object to the lack of female characters and rather limited characterisation, but the film is very powerful and gripping and I’d recommend it despite its (no doubt) numerous shortcomings.

At the end of the weekend, I saw Murray Perahia giving a masterclass with the Doric String Quartet.  In contrast with Angela Hewitt last year, Murray is not a natural teacher and much went completely over my head – but there were still some nuggets of interest which I might try and use in my own musical life.

In between these lessons for others, I tried to fit in a singing lesson for myself.  The observant reader may object that this coincided with the time of “the cough” and they would be right – however, the cough seemed to be somewhat in abeyance so I thought it was worth a try.  My voice was not at its best and the cough not as quiescent as hoped.  Under such circumstances finding pitch is quite a challenge as notes tend to be produced much lower down the octave than expected, my breath control (poor at the best of times) was completely shot and even having found a note I had great difficulty maintaining it.  Notes towards the top of my range were particularly problematic.  My performance was not unlike a teenager’s, with the pitch breaking up and down uncontrollably (so my voice, mental age and self-image were in alignment for once).  To help me obtain the best from my damaged voice, my teacher referred me to the advice of Emma Kirkby – famous soprano – as to how to manage under these circumstances.  It seems natural (to me at least) to be somewhat tentative when singing with a cough (or similar), but this makes things worse.  By maintaining good airflow over the old vocal chords, I found that production of the desired note stabilised and my voice sounded pretty good – though I did then run out of air much too soon.  Now, I had been told this many times before, but this was the first time I actually “learned” the lesson – it was instantly obvious the difference that having proper airflow made to my singing.  Today, was the first time I had tried singing since and, old dogs being hard of learning when it comes to new tricks, I started off somewhat tentatively – this is also partly to avoid frightening the neighbours or any nearby cetaceans (well I am a bass living near the coast).  This did not go so well, so I remembered Emma’s advice and went for it (airflow-wise) and my voice worked very nicely thank you.

All I need to do now is sort out my breathing – a skill which, despite having almost reached 49 (not out), still rather eludes me on an all too frequent basis.  That same weekend in Cambridge, the soprano soloist at the Deutsches Requiem was (a) very close to me and (b) wearing a dress that was tight around the lower trunk which made it very clear that she was breathing from the diaphragm (or even below) – rather than (as I do) noisily snatching breaths from the area of the pecs.  My lower trunk is rather too rigid – which is great for the gentleman gymnast and the six-pack, but not so good for proper breathing.  Somehow I need to learn to relax “down there” – something I do automatically when laughing, but can’t do on command.  If only there were more (or indeed any) middle-aged singer-gymnasts I could turn to for advice or inspiration…  Now, what would Emma do?

Never go back

Today’s title is oft given advice, though I have not checked how frequently it is taken (this can be safely left as an exercise for the reader).  In most cases, I presume it is an attempt to forestall disappointment or a recognition of the rather short span of a human life and the resultant need to avoid repeats (so, we must assume that Dave – at least – has not taken the advice to heart).  In at least one case, that of a previously lit firework, there is a clear health and safety angle – which I like to imagine would be obtuse or even reflex to minimise the risk of cuts.  As a (further) small digression, surely “minimise” should be a musical term for converting notes to a length of exactly two crochets?

In the Bible, that go-to work for zoological insight, dogs are supposed to ignore this advice in respect of their own vomit – though I can’t say I have particularly noticed this as an issue.  I too have ignored this advice: for a start, as a fool I keep returning to the folly of this blog but, and more relevant to the meat of this post, I recently returned to Cambridge in whose environs I was, until recently, resident.

I had a whale of a time whilst there: catching up with old friends, haunting old haunts and singing old songs.  In respect of the last of these, I realised that there exist a substantial body of carols completely unknown to me (I speak of the seasonal song-form, rather than the girl’s name – though in both cases, the range of my ignorance is wide).  I also discovered that reading choral music is much harder than music prepared for soloists – you have to fish your musical line out of two lines of song, avoiding muddling the bass with the tenor, and after each printed line is finished there comes the desperate search for where your next line begins (generally further away than expected).  I’m also used to my words appearing below the music rather than above.  All of which led to a vocal performance on my part that could best described as faltering (and more accurately described as awful).  Still, it was great fun and not taken too seriously by anyone – and did provide an excuse to partake of a restorative mulled wine and mince pie (or several).

Whilst in Cambridge, I also took in the cinema, a singing lesson – as a result of which Arm, arm, ye brave! is rhythmically rather more sound (I am now dotting where Mr Handel intended) – and live music from the Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra.  Dmitri Shostakovich still has the strange ability to wrest control of parts of my autonomous nervous system away from me, especially in the more motivic sections of Symphony No. 11 – I think it may be the snare drum that does it.

Almost my final act in Cambridge – just before a rapid march to the station – was to pop into the Fitzwilliam Museum for 20 minutes.  I asked what I could sensibly do in that rather brief period (I had rather dawdled over lunch and the purchase of Christmas cards), and was recommended the John Craxton exhibition.  It was brilliant, his pictures (in various media) of (mostly) Greek shepherds and reapers from the 1940s were particularly fine.  I intend to return (look what I did there, the theme within the theme!) before the exhibition ends so I can spend a little more time.

I have a theory about why going back is so much fun.  When you live somewhere, you tend to have responsibilities tied to that place and to your nearby home – and so there is usually something else you should be doing.  When you return as a visitor, hedonism can be given free rein – you can eat out or have a quick nap in the afternoon without any guilt attaching as you can’t cook for yourself and there really is nothing more important you should be getting on with.  I think this may also explain why I think of Edinburgh as “home” as I only go there for fun: perhaps living there would destroy the relationship (like sleeping with your best friend allegedly does?).  Nevertheless, I remain tempted by the Athens of the North – and shall be visiting it shortly – and always have the option of returning to Cambridge at some stage as I still own property there (not through design, but as a result of lack of legal competence on the part of Laing Homes).  Still, for now there is plenty to occupy me on the south coast: I have yet to see the local sea or the New Forest to name but two items yet to be ticked off in my I-Spy book of Southampton.

Not the centre of the universe?

Clever folk, both before and after Copernicus, have worked hard to demonstrate that I am not the centre of the universe.  Indeed, the whole concept of the universe having a physical centre is looking a little shaky since relativity and the growth of the dark.  Oh yes, as Susan Cooper warned us, in modern physics the dark is truly rising.

Nonetheless, contrary to my book-learning, Dame Nature and her handmaiden Coincidence do seem determined to convince me that everything does revolve around me.  Before I illustrate with a couple (of hundred) recent examples, I feel we should all take a moment to consider a quotation a wise, old friend of mine used to trot out whenever coincidence was in the air.  “How often didn’t that happen?” he would ask – and those around would cease their foolish prating.

My first example comes from my recent arrival in Cambridge.  Having travelled up from the south coast in dry sunshine, the moment my train arrive in Cambridge it started to rain.  I manage to catch my bus down to Addenbrooke’s only slightly moistened, but as I disembarked the wrath of God was loosed upon the earth.  By the time I had made it the 200 yards from the bus stop to the Blood Donor Centre, I was soaked through and my umbrella had been reduced to a useless wreck.  As I checked-in with reception, I noticed that my right hand was dipping with blood – my own as it transpired (perhaps from an umbrella disintegration-related injury?) – so I looked more like I was making a withdrawal than a deposit.  Fortunately, my injury was not severe and did not prevent my donation (or the ensuing biscuit-based mini-feast).  The Lord may have been wrathful, but it didn’t last long (is Our Father by any chance strawberry blonde, I wonder? – or at least was before he was stricken by old age).  A rampant egomaniac (like, for example, myself – well, just consider this blog you are reading) might feel he was being singled out by Fate for some payback.  Of course, subsequent viewing of the news suggests that most of the divine, weather-based retribution was aimed at Scotland and the east coast – so, I should be grateful that he could spare a small part of his bounty of rain and wind for me.

You will be pleased to know that my blood loss, both planned and otherwise, was soon made good through the medically recommended combination of mulled wine and mince pies.  However, these weather-related coincidences are not uncommon: oft rain will start just as I go outside and cease as soon as I regain cover.  I have even been to Florida when it snowed – first time in 80 years!  But not all coincidence is ill-favoured, which brings me nicely on to incident number two.

On Friday afternoon, I made it to the tail-end of a Christmas party at Hughes Hall college.  I am able to sneak into such events and enjoy a tepid glass of mulled wine and a mince pie as it was with Hughes Hall that I left my piano when I departed Cambridge to live in more southerly climes.  At this “do”, I was introduced to only three people – one of whom, it was soon revealed, had a penchant for musical theatre and had made much use of my piano (probably rather better use than I ever managed).  This same chap, it transpired, had been an undergraduate at Southampton University and so was perfectly placed to introduce me to a singing teacher near my new home.  What are the chances that one of an effectively random group of three people would prove to be so useful?  Then again, I did meet my current singing teacher in a rather similar fashion – so perhaps this is the established way to find vocal tutelage.

So, whilst coincidence is my constant companion, more-often-than-not she smiles kindly upon me (if we ignore some of her weather and train punctuality-based work).  Indeed, late yesterday afternoon as I returned from my singing lesson to my (Trave)lodgings (oh yes, I know how to live the high life!), strolling along beside the oily blackness of the Cam under the merest sliver of crescent moon with a song in my heart, my ego soothed by a positive response to my last post, I couldn’t help feeling I was the luckiest chap alive.

Play Away!

Before I start on the meat, or perhaps I ought to say the tofu (as a, mainly, vegetarian), of this post I thought I should provide some content for those readers that view this blog as a soap opera.  Admittedly, it is rather shorter on sex and violence than the more popular soaps of today (and I have no plans to change this position) and does tend to focus on only one character – and as it is based on the truth, perhaps it is closer to the genre of reality programming – but on the plus side, it is free!

After some major re-writes on Friday, and some more tweaking yesterday, I have finally submitted my latest assignment (TMA03) to the OU for judgement.  I can’t say that either essay makes for a particularly gripping read (a fact with which subscribers to this blog will be all too familiar) but I think I have answered the questions in the appropriately dry academic style required.  TMA04 should be m0re fun: for a start I have 1200 words to play with, and I am able to choose the topic (from a list of two) – so goodbye Augustus Welby Pugin and hello dissent in the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (an artist whose work I very much admire).  The bad news is that I have to prepare an Essay Plan: anathema to we creatives who prefer the stream-of-consciousness approach.  I bet James Joyce didn’t have to prepare an essay plan for Ulysses (though, equally, he may not have acquired any sort of qualification from the OU).  Oh well…

My chores over with, I headed into town for my singing lesson.  It is a source of both joy and astonishment to me that I am now singing (however poorly) half of the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte by some cove called Beethoven.  It is a glorious experience and I am a very lucky chap to be enjoying it.  I do need to work on my facial expression though: I would seem to have almost no proprioception in this respect, and so have no idea what my face is doing while I sing.  I wonder if I ought to take some acting lessons, or just start spending more than the absolute minimum time in front of a mirror?  (The latter would certainly be cheaper, though probably less fun.)

Being too lazy to cycle home and then back into Cambridge later, I took my dinner in town.  As a result, I can thoroughly recommend the Oak Bistro – a slightly curious location for fine dining (though offering excellent views of one of Cambridge’s busiest road junctions) but offering excellent food and service.

However, it is time to put out more flags as I have finally reached the entry to this post’s much delayed theme.  My final activity for the day was to attend a Camerata Musica concert at the delightfully intimate (if rather too pink for my taste) theatre at Peterhouse.  This offered Arcangelo, conducted from the keyboard by Jonathan Cohen.  Now, I seem to recall that it was one Jonathan Cohen who used to act as the musical director for Play Away! – also from the keyboard.  I must say that he has aged very well, he looks younger now than he did in the seventies.  Or perhaps the title is an hereditary one, and has been handed down through the generations to reach the current incumbent.  Brian Cant was not on hand to sing, but was ably replaced (and comprehensively out-scored on the Scrabble board) by the American counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo.  He was also wearing a particularly fine pair of shoes (not something one sees very often on stage – or indeed, off it): I was tempted to ask at the stage door where he had obtained them, but felt this might mark me out as slightly odd.

The concert was stunning – and only the second time I’d seen a counter-tenor in action (the first had been in the Handel opera Agrippina where the head of the Roman navy was so portrayed to my significant surprise when he first opened his mouth).  As a bass, I do find the counter-tenor a truly miraculous thing – and somehow even more extraordinary now that I know a little about singing.  Among many highlights were the cantata La Gelosia by Nicola Porpora and a Lute concerto by Vivaldi (nice to hear the coolest of the Medieval stringed instruments – at least according to Hal from Being Human, and as a character he is old enough to remember the Medieval period) moving centre-stage.

Yesterday was truly a day to count my blessings: not only the joys described above, but I managed to spend significant chunks of the afternoon and evening outside without encountering more than the a couple of spots of precipitation, which might even count as a fully-fledged miracle.