Super marine city

Where else could the title reference but my adopted home, and that of Supermarine in days of yore, Southampton.  The city has been overflowing with cultural delights this week just gone – even I have only been able to capture a taste of the events which I shall ‘review’ in my inimitable (because, frankly, who would want to imitate it?) style.

Thursday was press night for the first production in the brand new NST City theatre and I was invited.  Not, as you can readily imagine, as a result of the press credentials granted by dint of writing this blog but as a friend of the NST.  I’ve chucked a few quid their way over the years (and bought a lot of tickets and warmed a lot of seats with my buttocks) but have also become friends with several of the people who work there.  As a result, it was quite a nerve-wracking evening as the brand new building and brand new play really had to shine to the full house of the great and good (and, in my case, the bad and the ugly).

The evening started with drinks – always critical for we members of the fourth estate – in the bar.  For me this was an excellent start as I knew the jazz trio playing and bumped into friends from many aspects of my life in Southampton – which does leave a chap wondering if they should be permitted to compare notes?  We then all filed – only slightly sloshed on fizz – to the auditorium for the play: in my case, just behind David Suchet.  I am holding this fact responsible for the somewhat surreal, Poirot-based dreams I had later that night (nothing to do with any alcoholic beverages I may have subsequently consumed).

The play, the Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton, tells a story I hadn’t known of how, after the Supermarine factory in Woolston was bombed in early Autumn 1940, buildings right across the city were requisitioned to be used for Spitfire construction.  This complex of buildings were known as the Shadow Factory: what a brilliant piece of naming, I can’t believe an urban fantasy novel hasn’t used it!  This episode was critical to the Battle of Britain but is hardly known.  Indeed, I happened to find myself in the Imperial War Museum yesterday and couldn’t find a single book about the Second World War which mentioned it – it was hard enough to find mention of Southampton, despite its importance as a port, production site for fighter aircraft and how heavily it was bombed.

The play was absolutely brilliant and totally rooted in Southampton.  It is gloriously funny at times with many of the jokes hinging on local knowledge: I have never been to a theatrical production with such a feeling of the place in which it is being performed before.  It also presents a far more nuanced picture of people’s response to the war and the impact on the home front of the need of the government and military to prosecute the war than is almost ever heard.  I’d had no idea that people moved to camp on the Common, rather than face continued air-raids, or thought about the impact of the general populace when their homes and businesses were taken for the war effort.  The play had a professional cost of seven (I think, sorry if I’ve missed someone) and a community chorus of twenty-five locals who play an important series of roles.  They are the people of Southampton (on stage as well as IRL), staff in Whitehall and Fighter Command and in sung numbers give an outlet to the emotions of the populace without the need for clunky exposition.  I’ve never seen this done before, but it was really effective.  The chorus were also an important element of making the play personal for me as I knew two of the lads, who carried the 40s look rather well: perhaps it is due a comeback…

The new theatre also deployed some amazing technology with plans of the city and Whitehall, landscape, blueprints, rooms and carpet being projected onto the stage in lieu of set: it was really effective seeing a bomber’s eye view of the city with the shadow factory sites marked.  This play also marked the first use in a UK theatre of nano-winches – NST are nothing if not ambitious – rows of which, in groups of three, held coloured lighting strips which sketched out buildings in light, but also represented bombers swooping and squadrons of Spitfires taking of in defense.  At one point, they even demonstrated the basic aerodynamic principles of flight.  It was beautiful and really well integrated into the play, but I could also see it would be amazing for kinetic artworks made of light.

Everything went like a charm and, so far as I could tell, a good time was had by all: certainly, the play has garnered good reviews in the national press.  One of the highlights for me was seeing Mac, someone I know as we both drink in the Guide Dog, at the press night: he is roughly 95 and was a Spitfire pilot.  This is a link to WW2 which we won’t have for much longer and it was good to see it recognised

Friday night then marked the official opening of Studio 144: the pair of two new buildings which house NST City (North) and the John Hansard Gallery and City Eye (South).  These new cultural spaces have been a long time coming, the councillor currently responsible for culture noted that she was 12 when the project started.  Southampton City Council may not have necessarily moved quickly (but I’m probably on dodgy ground given my tendency to allow projects to lie fallow for a couple of decades), but across multiple administrations and financial crises they did stick with their plans for a cultural quarter for which they deserve credit.  The buildings seem really well designed and it was lovely to see both of them full of people on Friday – indeed, to see people queuing to get in!  Whilst I’d seen the North building before (the night before, for a start) it was my first time seeing inside the new John Hansard Gallery.  I particularly loved some de-saturated grey-scale prints of small details of the building while it was being constructed: as with a lot of art, they found something extraordinary in the mundane that one normally wouldn’t give a second glance.

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Transformer: of the city’s cultural scene!

The ceremony climaxed in a huge dance number performed by children (some in parent’s arms) and young people from across the city under the aegis of Zoielogic.  This was seriously good and unexpectedly acrobatic, particularly as they’d only had a day or two to practice as a full ensemble on-site.  There was a huge crowd in Guildhall Square to watch the dancing and see the new buildings lit-up initially with floodlights and later, as the dance reached its finale, by fireworks launched from the roof of NST City.  There was the strongest sense of a community coming together that I have ever felt in Southampton (and possibly anywhere) and I found myself becoming quite emotional.

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Friendly bombs light up the sky!

I followed all this culture with a music gig at the Talking Heads.  I felt it was important on this day celebrating new cultural facilities and multi-million pound investments to spend time in the deeper, long-standing cultural roots of the city.  Fewer speeches and no sign of the national press, but three stunning local bands playing acoustic sets – Reawaken, A Formal Horse and Our Propaganda – in one of the city’s vital grassroots venues.  In the case of Our Propaganda, it was the first (but I trust not the last) time translating their electric rock vibe to the acoustic stage.

Saturday I spent in London of which more in another post, but rest assured that there was a Southampton connection.  Today, I wandered into the city’s shopping centre – not to shop (though I did snag some reduced celery) – but for yet more culture.  The centre was hosting events to mark the recent start of the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Dog – and I’m ashamed to admit it was the first time I have ever been to such an event.  It was a glorious mix of the UK and China, with hints of the village fete in the speeches and prizegiving but also dragon dancing and martial arts demonstrations.  It may only have been a two-man dragon, but it was very impressive combining dance, puppetry, acrobatics and drumming in ways I’ve never seen before.  I was also rather taken with the Chinese dragon itself with its demurely fluttering eyelashes and taste for cabbage.

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Any geopolitical symbolism is purely accidental…

The next couple of night’s will be gig free as I’m away for work in a cultural Atacama (not everywhere is as lucky as Southampton), but I suspect after the last four days of overload I could probably use the break!

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Feast time for little lambs?

Well, it has been IV Week and according to a rather odd song while mares and does prefer oats, young sheep are gluttons for Genus Hedera.  I have often worried about the accuracy of these lyrics, but in researching this post I have discovered that our ovine friends, of all ages, love to eat ivy.  The internet is less unanimous on whether such consumption is wise.

However, while interesting the title and opening paragraph are merely be way of an amuse bouche to today’s more hearty fare.  The IV refers to Independent Venue Week which comes to a close today.   This describes itself as a celebration of small music venues – though does seem to have its focus away from classical and jazz music and more on the sort of fare which might feed BBC Radios 1, 2 and 6.  This event recognises the importance of small venues as a critical launchpad for new talent and promises to bring small venues together with a range of people including bloggers and tastemakers – into which categories I like to imagine I fall (the former isn’t much of a stretch).  Oddly, it fails to mention audiences – of which more later…

Southampton has four venues which were taking part in the scheme and so I decided to try and visit all of them during the week: I do like a pointless, self-imposed objective!  In a fruitless attempt to avoid going on too much, I shall attempt to say a few words about each.

The Talking Heads is the venue I visit most often.  This is partly because it is very closes, but also because it offers a range of regular events of interest including the Southampton Modern Jazz Club and the Maple Leaf Lounge Sessions which are well-curated and have introduced me to a huge range of new music.  It also provides the widest range of musical genres of any venue I know, including classical and experimental music.  This week I took in a couple of jazz gigs, a friend’s band and a particularly entertaining, and downright funny, Maple Leaf Lounge Session.  I don’t think any of these gigs actually operated under the banner of IVW.

The Joiners is a venue I find myself growing increasingly positive about.   I think it appeals to my feeling that a lot of proper culture should take place in slightly down-at-heel, cramped, dark, sweaty spaces.  The addition of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale to its limited range of ales has not done it any harm either.  Like so many venues, I think it struggles financially and had to launch an appeal to repair the structure of the building in 2017.  This prompted me to visit more often and I have always had a good time.  It holds the honour of hosting the most packed gig I have ever attended in Southampton, when This is the Kit visited in January.  I’d only vaguely heard of the band, but it was a really excellent gig.  This week I went to see the launch of Southampton Sampler Vol. 1, a curated vinyl album of some of the best local bands.  This was a lot of fun, but I can’t help feeling could have been better publicised and – perhaps – organised.  However, it did bring more significant media voices than mine to the city’s music scene which can only be a good thing.

The Brook is probably the venue I visit least often, partly because of its slightly remote location but mostly because it leans very heavily towards programming tribute bands.  My musical taste tends not to be especially nostalgic and so I’ve only tended to go to gigs when new bands are playing.  It is, perhaps, the most beautiful performance space in the city and I always enjoy going.  This week, I went to see Police Dog Hogan – a band I’d never heard of – who play a rather English take on Americana, Bluegrass and folk.  This was really enjoyable and I was glad my pointless project for the week had led me to attend.

The Alex is a pub and so a representative of a very important class of venues for music.  I think that by far the largest volume of opportunities for musicians to perform in and around Southampton is in its pubs.  I don’t know how many of these gigs are paid and the quality of the spaces and the audiences is very variable, but pubs must be the first chance to play in public for a significant majority of musicians.  The Alex has the advantage that it has a raised area for musicians to perform and does have proper lighting and a sound system (though I suspect it a relatively basic one).  It also does not require the audience to stand in what is basically a corridor connecting the pub to the toilets an/or smoking area.  It is probably the closest venue to my flat and I made it to two IVW-branded gigs during the week: headlined by Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets and by SK Shlomo.  I had a vague recollection of the Inspiral Carpets, but no strong memories or feeling about the band, but really enjoyed Tom Hingley’s set.  I saw Shlomo (before the SK – but what a fine set of initials to adorn any name!) in Edinburgh a few years back and have been hoping to see him again very since.  His set at the Alex was less about building up the beatboxing and looping as it was at the Fringe and more  pre-written songs but was an amazing musical and sonic experience in a pub a couple of minutes walk from home.  It was like a bit of underground Berlin had moved in next door for the evening!

I had a lot of fun touring the IVW venues in the city over the week, but none of the gigs struck me as particularly well attended.  The mid-week gigs might have had a few more people than usual, but there didn’t seem much of an attempt to bring new audiences to small venues.  BBC 6 Music does talk about IVW during the week, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any obvious additional marketing push.  Nor did there seem to be any obvious attempt to stress that small venues are not just for the first week in February, but, like a dog, are for life.

This raises the broader issue of the marketing of gigs – an issue which probably applies more broadly to the arts.  I follow a lot of local (and some less local) bands and venues on various social media platforms.  I also actively search local venue websites and Facebook Events in an attempt to find out what is happening in and around the city to maintain my gig guide (which grew from a merely personal interest).  I have even taken to visiting venues and scouring their walls for posters in the hope of finding clues about upcoming gigs.  This is a very time consuming project as most venues and bands do not make it easy to find out what’s on: this is particularly true as each month comes to an end as a lot of venue websites are loath to show any gigs occurring in a future month (even if that is a mere 24 hours away!).  Even if discover an event is happening, most venues give little or no detail about the band playing – so often I struggle to work out if a grouping of words is the name of the band, the name of its tour or genre (or is a band at all).  This places a lot of the onus for going out on the audience to seek out events and then research the bands.  I’m not sure that many people rely on the curatorial skills of the bookers at small venues or just take a punt on the “how bad can it be principle”, especially when it is so easy to slump at home in front of the TV and its alarmingly vast range of content.

Venues do carry out a degree of cross promotion and I do have a friend whose progress through the city I can trace by the presence of posters and brochures where he has been.  Bands – particularly if they have some fame – may be able to attract their own audience.  However, it strikes me that both of these approaches tend to draw from an existing pool of audience members or, especially in the case of newer bands, the friends and relatives of the band members.  This thesis certainly has anecdotal support from my own experiences at gigs.  This is exploiting a wasting asset unless the continuous generation of new bands can, like a Ponzi-scheme, bring enough new people to gigs to replace those lost.  (Not) A Trusted Music Guide is my attempt to at least create awareness of the existence of gigs, even if I don’t have time (or the skill) to write a bio for every band playing.  However, I don’t think this is a sustainable business model for the industry as I am probably a bit of an outlier audience-wise: in terms of my adventurous spirit, willingness to go out night-after-night and prepare listings for a wider public.

I must admit that I don’t have an answer to the issues raised in this blog and nor have I provided a number to call if you have been affected by any of them.  Nevertheless, I fondly like to think that there must be better options than are currently being used.  Maybe this needs greater co-operation between venues or with whatever remains of the cultural arms of local authorities, which may not be much after years of reducing the funding for soi-disant non-essential activities.  Perhaps it needs targetted funding by Arts Council England or similar body – but I suspect it will need to cover more than one week per year.  Or is it down to us as audience members to come together to physically drag people from their sofas to come out and have fun?  I reckon every four audience members could between them frog-march a fifth to a venue and force them to have a good time.  I’m hoping this would only need to be done a few times before they become a convert and start proselytising themselves. There may be minor legal issues with this approach, but there is a greater good involved!  Perhaps Public Health England would be interested?  Leaving the settee, walking to a venue and some bopping, moshing or grooving once there would all surely be some help to the beleaguered NHS – though the associated drinking might be a downside.

Talking of drinking, my liver may well be wilting under the consumption of beer purchased to maximise my support for venues, which obtain most of their revenue from bar sales.  Given the high level of duty on beer, I do find myself wondering if this is the best drinking option from the venue’s perspective.  Should I be switching to spirits, or does tea or a soft drink have greater margins?  I, and my hard-worked liver, need answers!  Sticking to session ales can only take a chap so far…

The word limit lies in tatters, but my chest feels a good deal lighter and this blog is written for my benefit not yours.  Still, for those feeling in need of an insincere apology please feel free to infer one here.

The Jazz (w)Age

For me, in many ways, last weekend both started and ended with sax.  That is not a typo, I was fully intending to reference Adolphe Sax’s invention for use in military bands as my weekend was bracketed by jazz gigs.  While thinking of M. Sax, I find myself wondering whatever happened to the ophicleide?  I feel it is time for it to make a comeback!

This seemed a good opportunity to fritter away some words on the subject of jazz (and me, obvs) as this marks the first anniversary of my regular going to jazz gigs.  Before January last year, I had occasionally been to jazz gigs both in London when I first lived there in the early 90s and at the Preservation Jazz Hall in New Orleans when I briefly visited that city back in 1990: an encounter which brought an end to my exploration of the Vieux Carré as I lost the desire to move on (I also had a frozen daiquiri, which may have contributed).  However, since that time I had largely ignored – and at times actively avoided – jazz.

An attempt to diversify my musical experience had tempted me to a few Nordic jazz gigs at Turner Sims in 2016.  However, it was on the evening of a dismal Sunday in January 2017 (not unlike today) that I decided I fancied some live music.  A quick search revealed that the Southampton Modern Jazz Club (SMJC) had a free entry gig on at the Talking Heads and as it was both close and free, I figured “what’s the worst that can happen?”.  As Dr Pepper (a self-claimed title rather than a formal qualification, I think) has been trying to warn me in a series of harrowing public information films since the late 2000s, there can be serious consequences from apparently harmless, trivial even, choices.

Since that fateful day, I have (on average) consumed more than one jazz gig a week and I have even indulged my filthy habit while away from home in both Cambridge and Edinburgh.  Indeed, I visited Edinburgh with the express purpose of attending its Jazz and Blues Festival.  It has gone even further and I have started indulging in jazz chords at home, using my piano and only my lack of skill has spared the guitar and clarinet.

At the start of last weekend, I went to see Binker and Moses (and friends) at Turner Sims.  After a while, I was able to stop speculating as to whether Binker’s mother was a big fan of the poetry of A A Milne (does he have a sibling roughly six years his senior?) and really enjoy the music.  I was sufficiently close to the stage and at a suitable angle to see some of how the sax is played and it looks tractable at some level as it seems to share basic fingering with one of the descant or treble recorders (both of which I played back in the 70s).  This gig also highlighted what a great jazz instrument the tabla is (are?).

At the weekend’s close on Sunday night, the SMJC gig was billed as Ted Carrasco and Friends, though as it transpired it was very much Gilad Atzmon‘s show.  As so often with the SMJC, it was a truly incredible gig with some amazing jazz music and Gilad’s entertaining patter between.  On more than one occasion, he paid two saxes at the same time – which smacks of showing off!  Young Marius Neset is going to have to bring his A game when I see him in a couple of weeks in London: though, I’m quietly confident he is up to the challenge…

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Double the fun!  Two reeds and no sign of Victoria Coren-Mitchell!

The very high standard of (often international) jazz musicians which Southampton manages to attract is a source of constant amazement to me.  Turner Sims stages formal gigs with tickets priced at around £20 and can seat a few hundred punters and has support from the Arts Council (among others).  The SMJC on the other hand relies on donations from at most a 30 or 40 attendees to pay the artists with bar receipts paying for the space and (perhaps) topping up the donations.

I will admit that I am scarred by my time as the treasurer of a musical festival in Cambridge and still count empty seats at paid gigs and worry about how the economics of the event are stacking-up.  My experience of gigs funded by donation was that the contribution averages £2-£3 which, given the modest size of the Maple Leaf Lounge, wouldn’t cover petrol money let alone a fee for the musicians. The creative world does seem to be afflicted by those who believe that exposure has a much higher value than can conceivably be justified.  I think the level of over-valuation can perhaps be illustrated by how rarely one sees an accountant, lawyer or CEO working solely for the exposure.

I hope that Southampton jazz patrons are more generous than classical music aficionados in Cambridge and I always try and pay as I would for a normal gig at the Heads (and often buy a CD – yes, I am very old).  Ted is the force behind the SMJC and I must assume that he must be very persuasive – or has a very impressive collection of blackmail material.  He is not from around these parts – or spent way too much time in front of US TV at a formative time – but he adds immeasurably to the richness of Southampton music by staging such great gigs every week of the year.  He is one of several folk this city would do well to appreciate and support.

During the week, I was in Belfast and looking for something to do on Wednesday evening.  The city has almost three times the population of Southampton (based on official stats), but it is often a struggle to find a gig to attend.  This may reflect my lack of knowledge of the local scene, but I compile a local Gig Guide, which graces this blog, using the same tricks with which I research Belfast.  The guide shows that most nights Southampton can offer multiple gigs within walking distance of my home.  There is rarely nothing to do, more often than not there are far too many options: some nights we are into double figures (more if you go deeper into the suburbs).  I’m not sure that the city recognises its great good fortune and I’m sure it makes far too little of its riches when selling itself to the wider world.

So, if any readers find themselves at a loose end in Southampton on a Sunday night – and feel they will be able to cope with an escalating jazz habit – they should hie themselves to the Talking Heads and support the SMJC!

Mumm’s the word

My life since moving to Southampton a little more than 4 years ago has moved, and continues to lurch, in unexpected directions.  I would like to claim that this is not my doing and that it has just “happened” but, in my more honest moments (catch them while you can), I might admit that I have at least (unintentionally) facilitated some of the change.  Much blame may adhere to my willingness to talk to people and (far worse) occasionally listen to them as well.  Further fault may lie with my use of “going out” as a defence against the acquisition of more physical “stuff” which I do not have the room to store.

I shall use my day to illustrate the curious nature of my life, lest any readers be tempted to follow in my footsteps.  The snow may indeed there lay dinted, subject to its availability (I struggle to dint the rain, deep and damp and even though it may lie), but my goodness is debatable (at best) and I lack crown or eponymous square in Prague (I’m sure these last two are mere oversights and will shortly be brought to a satisfactory resolution).

I woke – always a plus at my age – and having hawked up the worst of the fluid to have collected in my lungs overnight (I’m a martyr to cattarh at the moment) dressed, performed my ablutions and tidied away the laundry.  So far, so mundane I think we can agree.  I then put in a solid stint practicing at the piano and like to feel some progress was made.  Adding in the trills to my Scarlatti did have the useful effect of forcing me to assume the correct fingering at several points: it’s also a lot of fun to trill.

I then went off to have brunch with a friend at Mettricks Guildhall.  Yes, I have become someone who brunches: something I never saw coming, as while I have often inserted meals in the long stretch between breakfast and lunch I have always done so somewhat surreptitiously and left them unnamed.  However, this has become a roughly monthly Sunday ritual which is great fun – who could complain at the felicitous conjunction of good conversation and good food?  Given the nature of the vegetarian options on the menu, I generally find myself enjoying avocado toast which also offers the vague chance of being mistaken for a millennial (albeit one with a long paper round).  The concept of the millennial seems a flexible one, but including me within it would move beyond flexibility into bursting.  However, I may be having some success as in the last couple of weeks I have been described as both forty and a handsome young man.  As a result, I am expecting to be appointed as ambassador plenipotentiary for SpecSavers at any moment.

Usually, I follow my millennial toast (grilled bread is all to ready to see an imminent apocalypse) with some cake but today Mettricks was woefully short of cake, so I returned to an old habit and had a toasted teacake.  This used to be my cafe staple and after today, I believe abandonment of the earthy virtues of the teacake for the flight charms of cake may have been a mistake.  My teacake my have been bifurcated inexpertly (or at least asymmetrically) but it was buttery deliciousness incarnate.  The teacake revival starts here! (Though, I shall not be giving up cake – merely augmenting its consumption with yeasty treats).

From brunch I flew – or at least walked briskly – to St Michael’s Square to a Mummer’s Play.  This was an enormous amount of fun with modern references blending seamlessly into ancient tradition.  A decent crowd could almost forget the biting wind as St George, Father Christmas, Jack Finney(?) and all played out scenes of battle, death and resurrection and the ability of folk of good spirit to put Beelzebub and his dripping pan to flight.  In fact, the devil was not the only thing put to flight – a new £5 note was tugged free of the dripping pan and danced around the square in the gusting wind – watched by all (who needs fireworks?).  At one point, it looked to be seeking sanctuary in the church but at the last minute the age-old enmity twixt God and Mammon saw it leap salmon-like back up into the air.  It was finally caught with extraordinary (one might say cat-like!) grace by a friend of mine to cheers from the assembled throng: it seemed somehow to bode well for the year to come!

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The crowd tries not to see a stricken St George in need of urgent medical attention as a metaphor!

It is a tradition of the Mummer’s to retire to the Old Red Lion pub in the High Street after their labours and it seemed churlish not to join them.  I had never visited this particular hostelry before, though I have now learned it is the oldest pub in the city.  It is a very Southampton historic building in that (a) you would never know it was there (I must have walked past it dozens of time) and (b) whilst it has an amazingly historic interior this is counter-balanced by a giant screen showing Sky Sports obscucing a goodly chunk of it.  If one ascends the stairs to the gallery area, one can peep behind the screen to see a full suit of armour ‘displayed’ for almost none to see.  This seems a metaphor for Southampton and its cultural jewels – of which it has a myriad – in that unlike, other brahser cities, we do not boast about them but instead often do our best to hide them.  The city gives up its cultural bounty reluctantly and only to the determined.

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Hidden heritage, crouching armour (not shown, the reader must discover it for themselves)!

Having toasted my discovery with a little ale, I returned home to attempt to move my corporate email over to its new server.  This should be simple enough: export the old emails from Outlook, connect to the new server and import the old emails.  A doodle one might think, well one might think that if one had spent the last 50 years in a coma and had never experienced the work of Microsoft and its ilk.  I exported my old emails, all 2GB worth: fine.  I changed server: fine.  I imported my old emails: not so fine.   When I attempt to look at my old emails Outlook just says, “nothing to see here, move along” (I paraphrase).  This must count as the last efficient storage of nothing in the history of computing, using 2GB to store the sweetest of Fanny Adams!  It is as well I am not possessed of god-like powers, or the entire western seaboard of North America would have been destroyed in an expression of my divine wrath that would make the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah look like a walk in the park (nothing mentioned in the news, so far)….  Still, I have two half-solutions which might eventually form a whole – and can now view long millennia in Purgatory as a well-deserved rest.

I am shortly off to enjoy some keyboard-based jazz, which should bring my blood pressure back to the sort of levels which preclude diamond formation, and so shall bid you, dear reader, adieu!

Fly-tipping

A “sport” many might consider easier than the traditional(?) cow-tipping, but I would beg to differ.  Some might imagine that the fly’s lower mass would make the task easier, but I would point out that your typical fly has its centre of gravity (and mass, for that matter) much nearer the ground than its bovine counterpart.  The fly further enhances its stablity relative to its mooing rival by dint of its two additional legs.  Perhaps most importantly, not only can the fly see the potential tipper coming from a much wider range of angles but also has the option of taking to the air: not something the earth-bound Fresian or Hereford can manage (without some sort of powered exoskeleton, which I think would be against the spirit – if not the rules – of the sport).

Why, you might ask, have you been subjected to the previous paragraph?  Well, it is because the author was tempted to indulge in a little fly-tipping of late (based on its more common definition).  Actually, to be honest, he was more tempted to arrange a burial at sea (it is somehow a more romantic end), but as a species we have used the oceans as a dumping ground for far too long (presumably on the basis that out-of-sight equals out-of-mind which in turn banishes the unwanted matter from existence: something which even disposal in black hole may struggle to guarantee) and I felt it would be poor form on my part to add to their burden.

Following the emptying of the storage unit, I had some stuff that needed disposal.  This stuff could not be placed into the bin, nor was it substantial enough to count as bulky waste, and so it was up to me to take it to the tip (or recyling centre as I believe we should now call them – though that description would hold more water in South Cambs than it does in South Ampton).  In common with most municipal tips, my nearest one is not located or laid out in a manner which is friendly to the pedestrian or cyclist with rubbish in need of the last rites (but wishing to avoid them his- or her-self).   However, the city council is clearly worried that its traffic-friendly policies are not attracting enough precious vehicles into the city and hopes that the additional traffic generated by the tip will bring its dream of gridlock a little closer.  Having given my car away some time ago, I was forced to hazard my disposal trip on my bicycle.

On a positive note, the disposal process worked – my rubbish is gone and I am still walking (or cycling) through the shadow of the valley of death.  On the downside, I may be unable to have children: which, should perhaps be counted as part of the upside.  Does anyone really want these genes to be propogated?

I have been mountain biking though, in the interests of full disclosure, I should clarify that no mountain was involved.  BUT, I have ridden a mountain bike, off-road, on unprepared surfaces in terrain with closely grouped contour lines.  Technically, the areas involved in North Yorshire and the North Pennines did not involve mountains, just hills, but I think the principles of the activity were fully covered (including a sudden, unplanned dismount into a stream).  I thought this – and 3.5 years living in Southampton – had prepared me for cycling on uneven road surfaces: but I was wrong.

The route between my tiny home and the tip contains quite the worst surface (whilst metalled, I fear I cannot call it a “road” for fear of being called before an OED Board of Enquiry) I have ever had the misfortune to experience from a bike.  If anyone wishes to dislodge a loose tooth, sheep tick or unwanted limb or spouse, could I recommend cycling along Third Avenue (in either direction): it will do the trick.  I do seem to have retained most of my body’s vital appurtenances (and several of my fillings) – but the frequent, heavy impact between the saddle and my nether regions may have destroyed any residual hope for further grandchildren that my parents might have been nurturing.

I think I can say that the Romans would despair of what we have made of their legacy, at least in terms of their transport infrastructure.  Next time (if there is a next time), let’s just say that I shall be wearing a lot more padding “down there”, or should I embrace a future as a soprano?

Three Nights in Southampton

I have, of course, spent rather more than a trilogy of nights in Southampton – despite my regular excursions across the water to Hibernia – but in the interest of brevity will limit the scope of this post to the a recent run of three.  This post is both a response to a lot of recent fun and to the discovery (indirect) that some of the more priviledged indigenes of the Chichester area seem to view Southampton as a Hampshire based dystopia, a south-coast Somalia if you will (a reference which may be a tad dated).

I will start with Thursday and a stroll to the wilds of Shirley.  The evening proper began with a stiffener at the Overdraft: a craft ale bar which brings a hint of Brooklyn to the south coast (as long as you don’t look out of the windows).  Despite being a craft ale bar, it is usually easy to “keep it session” (as we PCDs say) from the ever changing selection of cask ales.  So the author retained the vast majority of his sobriety for the short stroll up to the Santo Lounge.  The Lounge is a sort of bar-cum-cafe, but on Thursday night played host to a little corrner of Spain.  Jero Ferec, guitarrista of this parish (or at least with links to one nearby) was peforming: with three female colleagues from Spain providing the bulk of the cante and baile.  It was an incredible night of music, complex rhythms and energetic dance: by the second half it seemd the whole cafe was enrapt.  I was left with a strong desire to go back to Iberia and brush up my horribly rusty Spanish (though I fear I will still struggle with the pressure to eat very late at night).  In case you were worrying, the evening – in common with all three I shall be describing – also offered some excellent cake: it is, after all, thirsty work watching people exert themselves for my entertainment and it is very dangerous to partake of liquids without the natural safety harness we find in cake.  Also, with the gig being free, I felt it was encumbent on me to support a local venue via the method of cake consumption (it’s not that I wanted to, more that I felt an obligation, you should understand).

The photo above I have “borrowed” from my Facebook feed as it appears to have been captured by a vastly more competent student of the photgraphic arts than I (he or she may also have brought better equipment – not that doing the same would necessarily have improved my own efforts by much, merely weaken this particular workman’s tool-related attempts to shift the blame).

Friday evening brought another free gig, this time at the Notes Cafe with the folk-inflected trio Tenderlore, who I had always assumed were local.  However, researching this post indicates that while they met at university here, they hail from across the south: Rob from the traumatic (to me) site of my driving test(s).  If I slept at night, I would no doubt still be haunted by nighmare visions of the hills and junctions of Herne Bay.  A totally different musical vibe to Thursday night, but the blending of voices and strings (and the occasional ‘ting’ from a glockenspiel) with music both complex and catchy made for a really enjoyable night.  It was also my first encounter with the U-bass, which is a bass for the player with limited carrying capacity – basically a ukelele with massively thick rubber strings – which is suprisingly effective (and I imagine, comfy on the fingers).  One of the best things about the modest gigs I go to in Southampton (other than the intimacy of the experience) is that not only the audience, but also the band are usually clearing having a really good time.  Even Rob was unusually smiley (not that I’m an expert on the effusiveness of his facial expressions, but I was under the impression he was known for his poker-face).  On this occasion, my cake served to protect me from the risk of an unaccompanied rosé: well, it is summer and I’m confident in my almost complete lack of sexuality (plus it was on special offer – and my momma didn’t raise no fool!).

On Saturday evening, for the first time in this post, I had to part with money (though not very much) to go to a gig: this time at the Art House Cafe.  This was the most unknown of the week’s musical offerings: an Italian group called Armonite who play violin-rock (not a concept of whose existence I was previously aware) with influences from the prog-rock of my youth.  They were amazing – and by some distance the loudest thing I’ve heard at the Art House.  Their set alternated between their own compositions and violin-rock versions of film scores.  Having heard the latter, this is definitely the best way to score a film (well, perhaps not during the quiet bits).  I (and the lucky few in the audience) had a ridiculous amount of fun and will have no cause to count our manhood cheap: as some 7 billion of the rest of you might.  Below is a ‘selfie’ taken by the band of themselves (the 4 youthful Italian-looking chaps in the foreground) and the audience (general older, less Latin in apppearance and further away).  For the avoidance of doubt (and anyone who knows what the author looks like), the expression on the face of the chap standing to my immediate right has nothing to do with me: I suspect he may have a medical condition (or have imbibed not wisely, but too well).

I feel the violin, at least in its electric form coupled to a Pod HD500X (which is the coolest looking set of effects pedals I’ve ever seen) , may have missed its métier.  It’s all very well en-masse in an orchestra, but perhaps its natural home is fronting some hard rock.  The bass was also rather an impressive beast: 5-strings and the biggest head I’ve ever seen on a guitar-derived instrument.  It looked like it weighed a ton.

In my recent gig-going, I have seen a wide range of stringed instruments wired for sound, even a viola: though that was an acoustic instrument with a mike.  I have never seen even a partially electrified viola da gamba: let alone a fully electric version.  And don’t get me started on the theorbo or the violone.  I think I’ve identified a gap in the market and will be going into production, just soon as I can clear my current to-do list and get myself vaguely organised (so, don’t hold your breath or anything fragile, folks).

Three nights, three great gigs, three totally different styles of music, musicians from three countries.  To paraphrase a local musician, Southampton “is not a shit-hole”, though this is not (as yet) the city’s motto.  (I apologise for the language, but I’ve heard worse of Radio 4 at 18:30, so it can’t be that shocking).  Sometime it almost has too much culture: on Friday there were at least two other gigs I was tempted by in the city:  I need to work on my tele-prescence (or cloning – though I refuse to live with any of my clones, one of me is quite enough).

Orange megaphone

“Where is he going with this title?” you may wonder.  The thought “Why has he been so poor at updating the blog of late?” might also have crossed your mind.  At most one of these questions will receive an answer (though not necessarily a satisfactory one) in the text that inevitably follows.

Southampton is a city of hidden delights.  Before moving here, I checked to see that it had all of my vital needs covered: an art house cinema, a theatre, a classical music venue, a John Lewis, decent rail links (in theory at least) and a blood donor centre.  A slightly odd list of needs – and certainly one which suggests I see myself as some way from the foot of Mr Maslow’s triangular hierarchy.  This post will cover none of these key conditions precedent to my relocation, but a lucky find that has oft been mentioned before in this blog will now be thrust into the limelight.

On my first visit to Southampton (as an adult, I may have come here as a child), to reconnoitre the town and view my flat-to-be, my first stop after leaving the station was the Art House Cafe for a spot of lunch.  No-one wants to meet an estate agent on an empty stomach (or, indeed, at all).  The internet had pointed out the cafe to me as a likely spot to offer some cake-centred breaking of my relatively brief fast.  The internet had not been economical with the truth and I was suitably fortified before my rendezvous.

Time passed (as is its wont).

I then discovered that the Art House also staged events, and so went to a few comedy nights there – at this stage, all starring Andrew O’Neill who managed to bring three different shows in a year.  After this lengthy introduction to their first-floor ‘venue’ (fools may rush in, but I don’t like to be so easily typecast), I branched out and started to attend some of their fairly regular musical offerings.  These have now become the mainstay of the rapid recent growth in my CD collection.

Going to a gig at the Art House is not unlike having the music performed in your front room – except, their venue is a little larger than my deceptively-spacious (OK, small) lounge and has a vastly better sound system (indeed, for my money offers the best venue sound in Southampton other, perhaps, than Turner Sims).  I nearly almost always manage to sit in the front row – offering good leg-room and allowing my glasses to remain in their case – as others seem to fear the potential for audience participation (though this has only happened rarely, despite my obvious star quality).  They also book the ‘talent’ and deal with all the admin and set-up (and down) – which is a major boon.

As a cafe, they can also provide drinks to satisfy both the temperate and the dipsomaniac, which can be consumed during the gig from ceramic or vitreous vessels (no plastic beakers here), and a selection of food, including cake.  Somehow, the lack of an interval ice cream is much easier to bear if a thick slice of cake is available in its stead.  Their cake is vegan – not something I have ever attempted to make at home – and I have no idea what they use in lieu of eggs (and will perhaps be happier remaining in ignorance), but the results are delicious.  As I have discovered over the last week, they also make the best mince pies in Southampton (based on my slightly limited, but growing, experience).

I have enjoyed some wonderful music there: recent highlights include the folk and gypsy-jazz infused work of Kadia (unusual, perhaps, for having a cellist on lead vocal) and the more classically strung delights of the Stringbeans Quartet (who improvised not one but two pieces in a key and style of the audience’s choosing: apparently C# Major is quite the challenge).

However, due to a recent rather dilatory approach to this blog, this post has been hanging around as an unfinished draft for quite a while and so the inspiration for putting digits to keyboard was a Sunday afternoon gig way back in October.  This was even more intimate than usual with myself lounging on a comfy sofa with a truly massive chunk of cake (and a responsible pot of tea) to enjoy some Hungarian indie synth pop from The Kolin.  I had zero idea in advance what they might be like, but the gig was amazing fun: the only disappointment being that they did not sing in Hungarian. How the band came to be performing in my local cafe/venue, on their four date UK tour, I have no idea but I’m grateful for the improbable juxtaposition.

The band have a certain fame for the use of body paint, rather than more traditional habiliments.  However, on the day they were fully clothed though I fear the drummer may have taken his style tips from the Swingtown Lads (perhaps ironically).  However, painting was still much in evidence – with some incredible face and body painting going on to one side of the stage (the stuff you see on children was as nothing to this) and a mural being painted on the other.  An afternoon at the Art House can truly be a gesamtkunstwerk.

The lead singer (keyboard player and driving force) of The Kolin as well as using a normal-seeming mike also used the style of microphone I had previously associated with taxi drivers and policeman for some lyrics.  For one song, he even used an orange megaphone (see figure 1).

Orange Megaphone

Figure 1: The title explained!

As you will glimpse, they are also the first band I’ve seen at the Art House who brought their own neon signage!  (You can also see a corner of the Muriel and the artist hard at work).

This reminds me of another great thing about an Art House gig: the performers seem to enjoy themselves as much as the audience.  It is wonderful to see musicians clearly having a really good time: it makes for a special evening (or afternoon) out.  While many of my readers may not have the good fortune to be local to Above Bar Street (oddly, not famed for its subterranean drinking dens), I suspect many a town or city will have a decent, independent music (and more) venue and at a time of year when people are making new resolutions might I suggest people plan to check out their local ‘Art House’ in 2016.  You probably won’t regret it (and I’m sure they could use your support) – and I’m taking no responsibility even if you do.  The buck doesn’t even slow down here.