A new light

As the last post revealed, Southampton has recently been covered by a blanket of snow.  The combination of rising temperatures and (a bumper crop of) falling rain have cleared it from even the best protected of natural pockets (though, for all I know, some may have been preserved in the freezers of the city’s more eccentric residents).  While it lasts, and before it is transformed to filthy black slush by the action of salt and tyres, it rather transforms the landscape. Many of the city’s imperfections and the litter and detritus of daily life are hidden from view. Larger objects, and especially buildings, that remain unburied are garnished with snow: highlighting features that the eye might fail to notice under more normal conditions.

A good layer of snow changes the soundscape of the city too.  Traffic was much lighter than usual, leading me to wonder if there was a snow-related boost in local air quality: though, oddly, it made my sneeze more than normal (my natural cussedness revealing itself once again!).  The traffic which remains leaves a very different sonic trace as do pedestrians with their footsteps crunching through the crystalline white.  Snow acts as the city’s soft furnishings, smoothing the harsh edges off sounds.  I feel someone should have developed a filter or effect to apply to electronically reproduced sound, so that music (or anything else) gives the acoustic impression of being listened to while surrounded by snow.  A project for any sound engineers with time on their hands…

A covering of snow also presents everything in a more literal new light, with objects lit from both above and below.  I suspect this is a great time for those with a double chin to capture an al fresco selfie: though as a man with barely one chin, I have been unable to test this theory myself.  Also, I’m not sure any lighting (other than total darkness) would overcome the terribly awkward appearance that overtakes my face whenever I attempt to capture a selfie.

Having now justified the title in a literal (as opposite to literate or literary) sense, I can now neatly segue into the land of metaphor (or, if you prefer, wander off topic).  The past few days have caused me to see a few other things in a new light.  Even as I sit here, I can see that my music stand is branded “Tiger”: nothing unusual there (if any animal springs to mind when seeing a music stand, it is clearly the tiger) except that I have owned this music stand for many years but only noticed its link to Frosties  about 48 hours ago.  I would make a terrible eye witness!

There was something of a dearth of gigs while the snow lay deep and thick and even (well, lay at least) at the end of last week.  This was bad news for me, I had to fall back on Netflix and staying in, but also for a lot of musicians and music venues (and I suspect other small businesses) that lost out on expected revenue and, which given the generally parlous financial state of such bodies, could be catastrophic.

As well as offering my couch some unplanned quality time with my buttocks, I used some of the time released for an especially long piano lesson.  In general, the hour-long length of my lessons is more of a notional concept than a reality but even by our standards this was a marathon session.  I’ll admit that I did arrive a few minutes late as I was distracted by a pair of long-tailed tits playing in a tree on the way over (I think the long-tailed tit is the most charming of all the local wildlife and it is always comedically pleasing seeing a brace of them).  There is something of the mountain climb (or more hike – I’m not using ropes and pitons) about learning the piano.  At each stage when I feel I am approaching mastery of a set of skills, I discover that what I have been seen laboriously ascending is not the main peak but a very minor foothill and a whole vista of far higher peaks is suddenly revealed.  This happened again on Friday and I am now trying to play a series of chords in a more legato fashion, involving exceeding cunning application of different amounts of pressure and speed of movement from adjacent fingers on the same hand.  I may also wish to start ‘feathering’ the pedal.  The acquisition of these skills is complicated by the relative poor haptic simulacrum of a grand piano which I use for practice while at home.  I am contemplating applying my gymnastic skills to the career of a cat burglar: however, rather than stealing jewels I will use my ability to slip into buildings containing a grand piano for a little practice.  Juxtaposing my hobbies, if you will.

Saturday afternoon, witnessing three virtuoso guitarists in action at the Art House, also suggested that my hard fought ability to mostly play the chord sequence G C Am G D G broadly correctly (if not necessarily quickly) has left me mere millimetres above the valley floor.  Will McNicol, Steve Picken and Clive Carroll were doing things with their fingers that I’m not convinced mine will ever be able to replicate.  Nevertheless, and in common with improving on the piano, it is going to be a lot of fun trying and if recent years have taught my anything it is that an old dog can (eventually) learn new tricks.

The final use of the shoehorn to fit an ugly sister’s foot of an idea into the glass slipper of the title will turn to my blood.  Just before the snow descended, I cycled the steep hill to the General Hospital to give of my corpuscles (and associated fluids) for the greater good (and a mint Club).  In the last year or so, NHS Blood and Transport have begun to text me a few days after each donation to say where my blood had been used.  It is always interesting to imagine a little bit of me living a new life in another town or city, but the text over the weekend was particularly exciting.  My armful has been issued to Birmingham Women’s Hospital and so a small part of me is now living as a woman!  This may have happened before, but this is the first time I can be certain that some of my cells are properly in touch with their feminine side.  In our unequal society, their earning potential and life opportunities have probably taken a bit of a hit, but they will probably feel this to be a small price to pay for escaping my company.  Some of me is experiencing the world in a new light (at least for a few weeks until it is replaced by the new host’s own cells) which is lovely reminder of how much we have in common.  It is oddly miraculous that we can share such an essential (personal, even) part of ourselves to help another – and be rewarded with biscuits from my childhood for the privilege.  It’s nice to know I have some vague utility in this world, even if it is provided by the entirely autonomous operation of my body.

A quick pre-lunch pint and its reward!

Miss Smilla, no! We do not want this snow!

As snow angles past my window, I return to what I do, if not best, then at least fairly often: a bit of juxtaposing.  Today’s title brings Peter Høeg and Bohemian Rhapsody together in unlikely conjunction to comment on the unwanted blanket of white which is covering much of the UK.

With much work and travel (and many) gigs suspended, we find ourselves in an odd, liminal time.  Trapped – or holed up – in places we did not intend and with our plans in disarray.  I feel I should be making the most of this time, detached from the normal flow – a sort of temporal ox-bow lake –  but, instead, find myself writing a blog post.  It would seem that old habits – like vampire counts – die hard!

I was tempted to do some baking, if only for the boost in warmth, but have initially returned to an earlier project.  Given that the form of the sestina is quite the challenge, I have looked to the world of running for clues as to a training regimen.  I believe that before people tackle a full marathon, they will often attempt to test their mettle over shorter distances: a 5K or 10K perhaps or a half-marathon.  I feel I need to loosen up my tight metaphors and toughen up my imagery before I tackle the big one.  I wonder if I should also be looking for sponsorship?  Should I be versifying in fancy dress?

I have discovered that there is an analogue for the half-marathon available to the sestina wannabe.  Some wise (or lazy) troubadour of old devised the tritina with a mere three tercets and a one line envoy: half the workload of the full sestina and as a result a more tractable form for a chap still in his poetical novitiate.  The other piece of good news (for me, not you!) with both the tritina, and its bigger sister, is that puns and wordplay are not so much permitted as encouraged!

I have taken as my subject the current weather: adhering to both the ‘say what you see’ school of poesy (or was that Catchphrase?  Do I mean ‘write what you know’?) and the national stereotype: below are my neophytic fumblings:

St David should bring promise of fresh warmth

As fecund spring brings colour to our lives:

Instead, an Eastern beast delivers snow.

Transport fails: each traveller cries no!

Trapped far from longed-for hearth and homely warmth.

Cold hexagons care not for ruined lives!

Boreas’ spite proves that he yet lives

As sixty-three is echoed in the snow:

Resurgent winter holds back vernal warmth.

Yet, warmth still lives to triumph over snow.



Exit lion, stage left…

Just savour that 123, 312, 231 patterning: all that time studying group theory was not spent in vain!  I’ve even stuck in a classical allusion for you to enjoy!  You will also notice that I have stuck with the decasyllabic form: very much based on the number of fingers I have available for counting (using the most basic method possible).  I somehow don’t imagine the Bard of Avon madly enumerating using his digits as he was pulling together Hamlet – or it would have had a much shorter running time!

Until warmth returns victorious (for a little while), keep yourselves warm and safe and try to find enjoyment, becalmed in this oxbow lake of time!

Transcending flightlessness

As this blog has observed before, I have to cross the Irish Sea on a regular basis for work.  Despite being in possession of a number of unwanted (and, if I’m honest, fairly useless) superpowers, I have yet to master unaided flight and so I am forced to rely on commercial airlines – and mostly FlyBe – to effect these journeys.  For the first year or so of my migrations, this process worked improbably smoothly but more recently delays, cancellations and unexpected visits to Cardiff (only its airport, so far…) have become a more regular feature of my life.

On Tuesday evening, I headed out into the torrential rain to catch the bus to the airport.  All was well as my bus arrived at the airport, but by the time I had dashed the few tens of yards from the bus stop to the terminal FlyBe had cancelled my flight.  This late decision-making is not unusual, it is almost a trope that they will wait until I have arrived at the airport to cancel my flight – though I strongly suspect that the decision is made much earlier.  On Tuesday, while no reason was given I suspect it was down the heavy snow that was alleged to be coating the whole of Northern Ireland.

Having re-booked on a flight the following morning, I decided that my evening, and at least some of my journey to the airport, should not be wasted.  My ride home takes my past the Turner Sims concert hall, so I stopped off there to enjoy an evening of piano mastery by Marc-André Hamelin.  This was a great deal more enjoyable than a flight in a Dash 8 Q400 – though unlike the flight, there were no announcements telling me to sit back and enjoy the experience.  The Dash 8 is basically a rather cramped bus with wings and any enjoyment I find in the experience will have been provided by myself: in the form of a book, some music or some iPlayer content.  I will admit that on the rare occasions when I am not in a seat from which the view of the outside world is largely obscured by the aircraft itself, and when spared heavy cloud cover or darkness, there is some enjoyment from looking out of the window – but again, I feel FlyBe have made only modest contributions to the beauty of the British countryside.

The programme of music was particularly fine and my favourite was probably the 4th Sonata (in E flat Minor/G flat Major) by Samuil Feinberg – a composer entirely new to me.  However, the concert was perhaps most significant for a change in the author.  I have for many years (>20) attempted to sit on the left-hand side of concert halls for piano music, so that I can see the pianist’s hands.  I’m not entirely sure what insights I have been expecting to obtain from this observation, but I think my piano playing makes clear that few, if any, have arisen.  However, on Tuesday I found myself – for the first time – devoting significant CPU time observing his feet!  Truly, I have started to integrate use of the pedals into my core identity.

My observations that evening led me to two new insights.  The first is that I am excessively lead-footed when using the sustaining pedal: for me it is a very binary option – no shades of grey.  The second followed from the first and is that I find that I am – or at least can imagine being – better than my digital piano.  This was not a situation in which I ever expected to find myself. I know that the piano sound is sampled and so not entirely like that of a real piano.  I also know that the keys are only pretending to have the haptic feedback of hammers striking strings.  However, I never expecting that my own dull senses would ever become aware of these compromises for the sake of convenience (and cost and space).  I lay the blame for the unanticipated discernment of my ears and hands on my piano teacher: he it was who let me loose on a grand piano.  It may represent a continuing, serious risk of head injury and not be particularly grand – but it has opened my senses to a bigger (dare I say, grander) world.  The grand still manages to shock me whenever I use the una corda pedal and the entire keyboard shifts slightly to the side.  However, the main issue is that the sustaining pedal on my instrument seems to be either off or on, but I want to play with more nuance.  I also think I’m reaching the point when playing Scarlatti where I want better feedback from the keys to improve the musicality of my performance.  This is particularly true when playing the same note multiple times, especially when responsibility has to shift from one hand to t’other.

It comes as something of a shock at my advanced age to find that I am rather less lumpen than I had always believed: it feels quite late in the day to start editing my self-image.  However, after returning from another gig last night where the Steinway D was in action, I did find myself searching on-line for digital pianos with more convincing keys and pedals and a better soundscape than the Kawai CA65 can provide.  What has happened to me?  Am I turning into an audiophile?  Am I about to start buying vinyl?  I’d assumed at this point I could focus my efforts on settling into the slow decline to the grave, but instead I seem to be wallowing in the new and acquiring unexpected skills.  Maybe there is still hope for unaided flight!

To finish this tale, I should report that the following morning FlyBe did manage to successfully transport me to Belfast.  I was disappointed to find the city snow free – though there was a dusting on the surrounding hills – and no need to attach tennis rackets to my feet so that I could yomp into the city.  To be honest, I needed a boat more than snow shoes given the torrential rain that afflicted the city for much of my stay.  I did finally directly encounter snow on the Thursday – though this was in the car park of the Banbridge Outlet shopping centre which, to the best of my knowledge, does not double as a regional airport.


Actual snow! Sadly, no time to fashion a graven image.  And you doubted the romance of business travel!

The heat is on

As exclusively revealed in the last post (and a couple of postcards) I have been in bonny Scotland, staying with friends in Edinburgh.  These friends, in respect of their response to the ambient temperature at least, are substantially closer to societal norms than am I.  As a consequence, they were actually running their central heating and had supplied a duvet with a TOG rating well into double figures (unlike the 4.5 TOG summer version which I am using at my unheated home).  Despite my hosts pandering to my more obscure temperature response curve by turning off the radiator in my room, for my first night I was kept from sleep by the oppressive heat.  I gradually discarded sleep-wear and progressively uncovered more of my unsleeping form from neath the duvet until I was completely exposed.  However, ultimately I was forced to open the windows in order to achieve the sort of temperature which my body has come to associate with sleep.  Luckily, my body did adapt to the conditions and so by night two I was able to sleep with the windows closed and any frost confined to the world outside.

Whilst north of the border, I did indulge in some reasonably typical leisure activities: a little alcohol was consumed, I ate out several times and took in a spectrum of the Arts: cinema, chamber music and painting (as audience, rather than a more active participant).  I also partook of some less widely enjoyed activities, including a couple of sessions analysing the functioning of a central heating system and a little freelance IT support.  I find that I am oddly accomplished when it comes to understanding the functioning of central heating systems and their foibles, despite rarely using them myself and how totally useless I would be if I were required to implement the fruits of my analysis.  I fear that I am very much an armchair plumber/electrician – but, if such you need, I am available at a very reasonable rate.

On Friday, I decided it was time to explore Scotland outside of the region served by Lothian Buses.  My original thought was perhaps to sample the nearby delights of North Berwick, but somehow this plan morphed into a visit to the Cairngorms – perhaps, subconsciously, I was still seeking the cold?  Aviemore is really quite accessible from Edinburgh by train with a roughly hourly service taking 3 hours (±15 mins).  I can thoroughly recommend the journey, especially north of Perth where the scenery grows increasingly wild with first forest and the moorland and mountain to see as the train trundles along.  Being mid-February there was also copious snow to be seen – often between the tracks, not just on the hills.  The route rises for much of the journey to reach the highest spot on the UK’s mainline rail network, before dropping down into Aviemore itself.  Despite taking such a “classic” rail journey, I eschewed the brightly coloured, stripy blazer and tried to minimise my condescension to the locals.

Once in Aviemore, we took the short trip to the funicular railway which takes one up the Cairngorm (to some 3600 feet).  Even the foot of the railway is pretty high and offered some very fine views – the summit is even higher, but offered no views whatsoever as the clouds descended and stayed.

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

This was the first time I had been to a ski resort during the “season”.  What a lot of gubbins you need to go skiing!   So much special equipment and clothing, so little of it flattering.  It quite put me off the whole idea – and I did (once) learn to ski, just outside Tunbridge Wells (justly famed for its mountains and powder) – and if that hadn’t, the lacerations and bruising which covered any exposed part of the snow sports folks bodies (as glimpsed by the author) would have convinced me.  However, while skiing looks nothing special, snow-boarding does look quite cool – an aura which seems to attach to all board sports (with the possible exception of shuffleboard), though (oddly) not to board games.  Perhaps I should try the skateboard, it seems to need less extreme clothing than its cousins and significantly less specificity on the geography where it is practised.

I was, of course, dressed for the “slopes” in exactly the same clothing I had used on the previous day to wander round art galleries in Edinburgh.  Weather is like a wild animal, it can smell your fear so you must show no weakness in its presence.  Wandering around at the base of the funicular railway to capture the views, I will admit that the air was both fresh (some of the freshest I have ever had the pleasure to inhale) and bracing:  I even did up one button on my jacket, but there was no need to fish the (thin, summer) cardigan from my bag.

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

Despite my lack of interest in many of the traditional activities that take place there, I can thoroughly recommend the Cairngorms for a day trip (or longer).  (Based on my experience, I’d definitely recommend reserving a seat on the train, as both were surprisingly (to me) busy for a winter, school day).   I was able to post a very reasonably-priced postcard to my nephew from the UK’s highest post box – and enjoy a cheeky mulled wine (or two).  The train journey back, as night fell, also offered a wild beauty: as the sun set, the colour was slowly leached from the countryside leaving a rather haunting monochrome landscape.  All in all, I had a wonderful day out in what felt like a very different world from the one I’d left that morning – and all without leaving the country!

Snow day…

like show day.  Like snow day I know?

Today I awoke to see snow from my bedroom window and while I downed my breakfast porridge the skies poured forth their white, flaky bounty with some vigour.  “So what?”, I imagine those of you living at higher altitudes or latitudes shouting at your screens.  Well, I’ve been in Southampton for 18 months now and this is the first time I have seen snow – so my inner 8 year old was quite excited.  If I’m honest, it was pretty weak snow – only a few millimetres worth and it was more air than snow, a sort of snow mousse – but the weather has to be given some credit for trying.  It struggled to lay, though away from tarmac-covered surfaces it had a go – but by early afternoon it was all gone.  I feel that there is a metaphor for life somewhere in that last sentence, but I shall leave its extraction as an exercise for the reader.

The snow was accompanied by quite chilly conditions (for the jewel of the Solent that is, but obviously very toasty compared to 99+% of the universe).  It struck me that if these conditions continue much longer I may have to turn on the heating and eschew the shorts as I cycle to the gym – but not today, my legs once again did their best to make a little vitamin D in the weak winter sunlight.  In lieu of heating, I am currently cooking a raw (golden) beetroot – quite a slow and energy expensive process.  Perhaps foolishly, after cooking I shall allow it to cool (like a sort of vegetable storage heater) and then use it in a salad: nothing says salad like sub-zero temperatures and a mini-blizzard!

Lest readers are left with an image of the author as some sort of hard-as-nails, macho stereotype I can reveal that my other main task today has been sewing missing buttons back onto some shirts.  I wouldn’t want to suggest I’m about to take the world of tapestry by storm, but I am a somewhat competent seamstress (seamster?) in this very limited area.  I may not be quick or elegant, but buttons I have reattached tend to stay attached.  Oh yes ladies (and/or gents), I’m the complete package!

Meeting in Milan

Business travel is much less romantic than is often imagined by those bound to these shores by their employ.  One sees little of foreign lands: except for their airports, dual carriageways, international hotels and office blocks – most of which lack much in the way of local flavour or charm.

Earlier this month, business took me to Milan for a couple of days.  The trip had a poor start, as freezing fog cancelled all flights (including mine) from London and I had to wait nearly nine hours before I could head to Lombardy.  Such a hefty delay meant I could return home – despite a two hour journey each way – which seemed preferable to spending the whole time at the airport.  I’m slightly surprised with all of our technology that fog is sufficient to stop all flights (it is hardly a volcano – or even rare) but in partial compensation, the countryside on my return home through Essex looked magical as the sun came out and the thickest, whitest rime I have ever seen bedizening every twig and branch.

Eventually, I did reach Milan and was able to enjoy their efficient and astoundingly cheap metro (less than a third of the price of its London counterpart for the casual user) to trundle around the city.  Still, it wasn’t entirely unlike home as there were huge problems on the mainline trains while I was there (though luckily, this didn’t affect me).

Lunch was in the staff canteen of the organisation I was visiting, but this being Italy coffee was an important epilogue to lunch.  For this we all went to a small, apparently unremarkable, little coffee shop around the corner.  In this country, coffee is now a much more involved process than it was when I was young – much banging, hissing and frothing accompanies the production and it all takes quite a while.  Much the same is true in Italy (though they did some rather quicker and more efficient) but the attention to detail goes one step further than it does at home.  If your chosen beverage includes whipped cream this is produced from an aerosol can in the UK, even in relatively upmarket venues, whereas my modest Italian venue used fresh whipped cream piped using a bag onto your drink.  Here is something we could definitely learn from our Italian cousins!  Sadly, I don’t drink coffee (which marks me out as much more abnormal than was once the case.  Coffee shops fill our high street and shopping centres in the way that Douglas Adams once imagined shoe shops would) – and even I am not yet decadent enough to have whipped cream on my tea.

National stereotyping would suggest that the Italians are more passionate than they are efficient.  Added to which, they do keep re-electing Silvio Berlusconi to the amusement and exasperation of much of Europe (and, I suspect, Italy) which doesn’t do much for their reputation overseas.  My, admittedly limited, experience suggests that they are in fact a fair bit more efficient than we are.  When I woke on my final morning in Milan, a good foot or so of snow had fallen – and more was continuing to fall.  A week or so earlier, half-an-inch fell in East Anglia: so little that I could still cycle quite easily and safely but still enough to close Stansted Airport for some time.  So, I feared my return journey would be even worse delayed than the outbound leg,  but the people of Lombardy are made of sterner stuff than those of Essex and I needn’t have worried.  Despite being dusted in fresh snow as I walked across the tarmac at Linate to reach my plane, the only delay my return flight experienced was caused by a problem at snow-free Heathrow.

There has been much debate about the desperate need for an extra runway at Heathrow (or, indeed, a whole new airport in the Thames Estuary) if this country is to escape from recession.  I find this very puzzling – are there great queues of foreigners keen to spend money in the UK, but unable to land?  Surely, people leaving the country to spend their money abroad can’t be doing much for UK plc?  Or is the idea to pack the recession onto fleets of aircraft and deport it?

As a man of business (a sort of sub-lieutenant of industry), lack of runways at Heathrow has never been an issue.  An inability to keep them open certainly has been an issue as has the excessive cost of reaching the airport and the huge amount of time wasted both when departing and arriving.  Perhaps these issues could be prioritised first: I reckon they’d be cheaper and could be delivered before 2020 (unlike a new runway).  What we do already have at Heathrow is a computerised border – where a computer reads your passport and looks at your face and (eventually) decides to let you in.  I’m sure this is the future and demonstrates the marvels of modern technology.  The one caveat with this system is that it is appreciably slower than a human being carrying out the same process and can’t partake in even brief conversation.  I also fear the cost of each machine would pay a human salary for many, many years – still, that’s progress I suppose,

While the trip was tiring, it had its moments of fun and showed there is much we can still learn from the Italians.  I have been to Italy several times now, but always for business, and I think its time I visited for pleasure:: but perhaps I’ll wait until the weather is a tad warmer!  It might also be a good plan to refresh my rusty schoolboy Latin with something a little more current…

Tropical Paradise

I’ve made it north of the border, despite a few minor issues with rolling stock on the way up.   The heating failed on one carriage (fortunately not mine) of the DMU carrying me to Peterborough (and the boiler did not respond to a re-boot) and someone broke the door of coach D at Northallerton.  Apparently, they had put their foor in the door to stop it closing – now that’s what I call a pushy salesman (and rather a feeble door – or an unusually sturdy foot).

As hoped, it is a tropical paradise here in the southwestern ‘burbs of Edinburgh: 6°C people!  T-shirt and shorts weather!  The inside of my house hasn’t reached such a temperature for the last week, let alone the world beyond.  Even better, I am staying in a house where they run the heating for more than 10 minutes a day, so it is quite literally like summer (only warmer and drier).

My only disappointment is that home doesn’t seem to be under several feet of snow.  I can only find one webcam even slightly near Cambridge (in the Market Square) which does show snow, but no sign of woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger roaming CB1.  Even the (now Dutch) trains seem to be running more-or-less normally – which is more than can be said for their new Dutch website which is rather too red (I do hope this doesn’t extend to the trains which are currently rather restfully livered in white and grey) and decidedly erratic: unless HTTP Error 500 (Wrong kind of snow on the web?  Frozen points at the server?) is the look for which they’re aiming.  I trust their inability to run a website doesn’t bode ill for the future reliability of services to (and from) Whittlesford Parkway…