Hamwic: Redux

Sad to say, this post will not be about the ignitable core of my new pork candle: not a euphemism!  That particular product remains stuck in development (and at odds with my mostly vegetarian lifestyle – I’m not sure ‘facon’ would work as well).

Hamwic (aka Hamtun) was the name of the original Saxon village which over time has migrated westwards but somehow gained the prefix ‘south’ to become Southampton.  The city has a surprising amount of surviving heritage – the Luftwaffe and subsequent town planners failed to destroy it all (though they deserve some sort of commendation for their efforts).  I must admit that I have only really discovered this ‘hidden’ heritage through the need to find somewhere novel to take visitors (once I’d exhausted the possibilities offered by the Common).

The city has a surprisingly complete and solid city wall: built, as you might imagine, to keep the dastardly French at bay (though they may have had some justification for their raids: dodgy, biased scales and the export of Plantagenet troops to reclaim their French holdings might have riled them, just a tad).  Until surprisingly recently, the western and southern walls gave out directly onto the sea (I’ve seen the painting to prove it!): today it overlooks the docks, an ugly dual-carriageway and a range of retail parks (I’m not entirely sure this is progress – but the cruise ships would have struggled to moor against the old quayside).

The city also contains some surprising survivals: including merchant’s houses from the 13th and 16th centuries – but has buildings (or sizeable fragments thereof) going back to the Normans.  The Medieval Merchant’s gaff was ‘revealed’ when the bombs cleared away many of its neighbours – though I couldn’t, in general, recommend aerial bombardment as an archeological tool (it lacks the discernment of hand trowel and brush).  Both contain museums and a variety of local artefacts of which my favourite was a hot cross bun in the Tudor House.  It was described as ‘very old’ by a visitor who visited when the museum opened in 1912, so it is now exceeding old and does look a little wan and rather hard: it certainly isn’t hot and has lost its cross (if ever it had one), but it is still clearly a bun (and has been preserved, incorruptible – which may make it a saint among buns).

Perhaps the city’s most distinctive (if most hidden) feature is the extensive vaults which lie beneath the old town.  In ye olden days, Southampton was the main centre for the import of wine for much of the country (at least as far north as Nottingham) and many properties had vaults beneath to keep the product fresh.  I believe twenty or so (from an original 50 ish) survive and I have now been to seven (and peered into the gloom of a couple more).  Five of these came on the excellent Vaults Tour which leaves from the Tudor Merchant’s House and provides a fascinating insight into the city’s past: I think these happen only rarely, but are well worth catching if you can.  Fascinatingly, many of the vaults came as the Medieval equivalent of a ‘flat-pack’ – though it must be said that not all the builders were of the best quality and the instructions have not always been followed to the letter (or at all).  One vault, and the one in which I have spent the most time, has clearly been recycled from an earlier vault and is decidedly gerry-built: though as it has outlived most of the rest of the city, one can’t be too critical.

Several of the vaults can be hired for events and, indeed, the upcoming Music in the City festival (OK, day: how many days make a festival, I wonder?) will use many as venues.  A chap with a significant anniversary on the horizon could consider using them for some sort of celebration (or wake), but they are unheated and lacking in anywhere to recline which might make them a challenge for less hardy celebrants in February (even in balmy West Hamwic).

A Musical Chain

Before we start, it seems worth noting that this far-from-august organ has been in existence for five years.  Who, back in 2010, would have thought it?  What pointless commitment to a rather foolish idea this demonstrates: if only I could generate the same long-term dedication to something more useful.  So, that little bit of admin over, let us proceed with post 675!

I should start by making clear that I have no intention of impinging on the copyright of Messrs Radcliffe and Maconie: rather than linking tracks, I shall be linking gigs through the interstitial medium of my own life.  Southampton has a surprisingly vibrant cultural scene, but does work quite hard to conceal this fact from the casual (or merely mildly determined) viewer.  I am becoming better connected, largely by using social media to stalk any individual, group or organisation that, by lucky chance, I discover – but this is a slow old process.  It would seem that most use social media to share images of themselves, their food or children and to shore-up their political beliefs and share videos of cats: I seem to mis-use it terribly by sharing bad jokes and attempting to find interesting gigs – but I don’t seem to be breaking any rules, so I shall continue with my slightly outré take on the virtual world.

Still, the last ten days have been pretty fruitful when it comes to finding live music.  It started, as so much does, at the Arthouse Cafe with my first visit to a Three Monkeys gig.  This involves three, unrelated guitarists who each play a song.  This is repeated three times, followed by an interval and then another 3×3 set of songs.  This is a very entertaining format and occurs every month – so I’ve only missed 24 or so.  At the end, I discovered that an Oxjam gig was taking place the following day in a vault beneath Southampton High Street – not much notice, but better than the negative notice which often accompanies my discovery of local culture (which is less than helpful given that my best wormhole, to date, has only allowed a worm to move a short distance within space).

The Oxjam gig involved a series of ‘acts’ playing a ~30 minute set across the afternoon and evening.  A broad range of music was covered, though mostly involving stringed instruments and remaining within sight (albeit sometimes aided by binoculars) of the folk genre.  A lot of fun, if a lot of standing up, and a chance to see half-a-dozen acts before I was forced to retire (a wise decision as my walk home just managed to beat the start of the monsoon which has been such a major characteristic of the end of August 2015).  Most significantly, the gig introduced me to a local singer-songwriter called Jack Dale and another two CDs were added to my collection.  I also discovered that another charitable gig involving a line-up of local, musical talent was taking place the following Sunday (or ‘yesterday’ as I now like to call it – but only for another twelve hours or so) at a pub just a short walk from Fish Towers.

I rather enjoyed spending the afternoon in a dank vault as the last of the summer’s sun beat down on those foolish enough to be outside.  No need to worry about UV protection for me!  However, I can’t help feeling that Oxfam would have done a little better financially had the gig been more widely publicised: it was rather sparsely attended and I only found out about it by chance (and would like to view myself as fairly core, potential audience).

Yesterday (see above), the Big Gig at The Shooting Star – a pub with a bar billiards table (among other delights), a rare sight in these debased times – was huge fun (and, I was even able to spend much of it sitting down).  The three bands on the bill, included two fronted by soloists seen the previous week at Oxjam.  The Horse – fronted by the aforementioned Jack Dale – were particularly entertaining and meant that I ended the night with a smile on my face (and once again, a lucky return home just before the heavens opened: I feel I’m going to pay for this continuing good fortune at some stage).    Another two CDs also managed to sneak their way into my flat: this burgeoning habit might start becoming a storage issue if I’m not careful.

The chain of musical events will continue on 3 October, which I now know to be Music in the City: where live music fills all manner of odd spaces across Southampton (and of which I’ve only missed two through complete ignorance of their existence).  I can only hope that this in turn reveals more musical events which have so far been hidden from my insufficiently curious gaze…

Mastered by mortification

Today, for the first time and after a mere twenty-three month residence in the city, I finally visited the Southampton City Art Gallery.  I cannot claim that it lies in an especially remote location – it is little more than five minutes walk from my home and lies directly above a regular haunt of mine, the central library.  Entry is also free, and so I cannot blame my much lauded fiscal responsibility.  It does have somewhat limited opening hours – though I can only blame those for twenty-two hours of my delay in visiting.  I did attempt my first visit yesterday, but in my successful attempt to avoid school parties arrived too late for entry.

If I am to find a sink for my culpability in taking quite so long to make my first visit, then I fear I must look to human psychology – and mine in particular.  As a result of its ease of access, I can always tell myself that I will visit tomorrow – an internal monologue which would seem to have worked for some 700 tomorrows.   You may wonder what finally broke this long succession of unfulfilled internal promises and so it would seem churlish of me to deny you that knowledge.

A little while ago, I think at an event at the Nuffield,  I learned that the City of Southampton boasts a rather impressive collection of art – though only a fraction of this is on display at any one time.  As a result, I resolved to visit – and so the weeks passed but still my resolution remained stubbornly unresolved.  Then, earlier this week, I was asked to take part in a customer survey about the gallery as I left the library, and it was the crippling sense of guilt about my inability to answer any of the questions in a useful fashion that finally spurred me to act.  Oddly, I do seem quite a popular choice to proffer my opinion on subjects of which I have little or no knowledge: relatively recently I have also been quizzed (on camera) for my thoughts on the Premiership relegation battle and (on mike) about hip-hop (I had very few useful thoughts on either but was persuaded to make some up – after a short briefing – for the camera).  I don’t think I give off an art gallery-visiting, beautiful game loving, straight outta Compton vibe – but perhaps my subconscious or face have other ideas?  I do feel that my experiences help to illuminate the general pointlessness of vox populi and hope they might help encourage the media to quietly (and quickly) ditch the whole idiotic idea.  Whilst the number of people who are well-informed on a topic are clearly massively outnumbered by those who are not, I still feel it is worth making a little effort to seek out the former.

Anyway, having now seen off the amuse bouche we should probably move onto the meal proper.  I must say that the gallery was rather a pleasant surprise – with a modest but interesting collection of works spread over substantial and almost deserted gallery space (I did cunningly arrived just after two parties of primary school children departed, which I suspect improved my experience).  I rather enjoyed the paintings of Southampton through the ages – and I now have oil-painted evidence that the city was once a Georgian architectural theme park, before the Luftwaffe and post-war town planners had their wicked way with it.  Pleasingly, in one such painting I’m pretty sure I could see my flat (a first for me – I don’t think I’ve ever seen my primary domicile portrayed in proper art before) – though in those days it probably hadn’t been subdivided.  Green as the city is today, it once boasted even more parkland in the centre and its suburbs were – as recently as the nineteenth century –  rather beautiful downland.  Seeing images of the city, painted over the course some three hundred years, does incline a chap of a slightly romantic disposition to see ghosts wherever he treads.  Still, knocked about a bit though it is, I have grown oddly fond of modern day Southampton over my tenure and find myself keen not to leave just yet.

Among the gallery’s temporary delights, I was rather taken with Spatial Objects by Dan Holdsworth (I fear the lighting in the linked photo does not do them justice) – though I’m not sure I have a home for them (even if I could have sneaked one out under my jacket).  My highlight was a photograph taken by an HND Photography student from Brockenhurst College (one Isabelle Orman) as part of her coursework.  It was of a rather mundane industrial-looking scene, but captured in a quite extraordinary light.  It took a view that most of us would have dismissed as rather ugly and made it truly beautiful.  If that’s not Art, I don’t know what is – the latter may, sadly, be true but I am trying to slowly educate myself.

I shall try and avoid waiting another two years before the difficult sophomore visit – but I’ve made unkept promises on GofaDM before, so I’d recommend you judge me on results rather than good intentions (which I believe make decent pavers for an express route to Mount Avernus).  Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the promise of seeing more of the gallery’s rotating collection (from which, were I a company, I could hire examples at a very reasonable rate) may help me to stay true to my once avowed intent.

Trip hazard

For those expecting me to hold up a dark mirror to Trip Advisor, or to take on Lonely Planet, I see only disappointment in your immediate future (1 star).  Equally, if you are hoping for some insight into the issues which arise from the dropping of acid, you will find little here to help.  All I will say is that if you are carrying anything much stronger than a decent white wine vinegar you should really be using a fume cupboard and wearing appropriate PPE (gloves, safety specs et al).  If the balloon really does go up, and the flask down, my best advice is to use some ground carbonate: baking powder might be a good choice in the domestic realm.

When we are small, by which I mean lacking in years rather than just height, it is not uncommon to avoid walking on the cracks between the paving stones (NB: may not be real stones).  Often, stepping on the cracks is associated with some form of existential peril – mostly commonly (I believe) bear attack.  This risk has even been immortalised in song by Carly Simon: a woman with a broad advisory remit: safe, bear-free use of the pavement and dress-etiquette when embarking a yacht.

This fear of ursine assault puzzles me.  The last wild bear on these Isles shuffled off its mortal coil (or, more likely, had it shuffled off by a hostile biped) around 500 AD (or CE for the theistically challenged).  As a result, the risk of encountering a bear would seem low, barring some sort of zoo-based containment issue.  I am aware that in the quantum world, it is possible for a lepton-antilepton pair to be “borrowed” from the universe – and thus appear to be created spontaneously – as long as it (the universe) is paid back pretty darned quick.  However, the instantiation of a bear (and matching anti-bear) via this sort of loan arrangement seems both very unlikely and exceedingly dangerous in a built-up area.  Frankly, the antimatter comprising the anti-bear is going to be a far bigger issue than the teeth or claws of the bear itself.

Buy why am I suddenly obsessed with being assailed by bears (or their anti-matter equivalents)?  Well, let me explain…

This blog has previously mentioned the rather poor quality of road surface in the Southampton area and the concomitant impact on the contents of a chap’s unmentionables.  Well, a similar issue also affects the footpaths of the city, with many paving slabs being very poorly bedded into the underlying substrate.  As a result, if one treads too near (or on) the cracks one’s foot can be swamped in the muddy water that had, until that moment, lain concealed ‘neath the concrete slab.  Perhaps worse, if one is even slightly uncertain of balance, you can be pitched into a passerby or item of street furniture (or, in the case of a tallboy: both).  Now, I will admit that this could be a handy excuse for a bit of highly desirable physical contact with a fancied (and physically proximate) fellow pedestrian – though I think it would take some practise (and a little finesse) to make the “accident” appear fully convincing.  I’m also fairly certain that institutional apathy (or inefficiency), rather than the provision of imaginative flirting opportunities, is behind the poor state of our footpaths.  I am often surprised at how few of the elderly or blind I encounter littering the pavements around my inner-city garret: could it be that the local ambulance service is particularly efficient?  (or is the tidying up down to the street sweepers?)  Still, good to know that my local authority is doing its bit to keep the cost of welfare down – even if some of this saving is transferred to the already strained budget of the NHS.

Pint of Science

And finally, the promised and – I assume – highly anticipated post about my experiences with Pint of Science.  However, before the post proper, can we all take a few moments out from our busy lives to read a few words from our sponsor.

I was sitting at my desk staring vacantly out of the window the other day when I saw a table go past on the road outside.  Exactly seven-an-a-half minutes later I saw it again (or a table that could have passed for its twin).  Then, after a further demi-quarter hour had passed, the table traversed my field of view once more.  This continued at the same regular interval until I grew bored and went to do something more productive (this last bit might be stretching the truth just a little).  It wasn’t until some time later that I realise what it was that I had seen.  Clearly, I had sighted the Periodic Table.

I could apologise for that last paragraph, but we both know that I wouldn’t mean it.

The Pint of Science “festival” took place over three nights at the beginning of the week.  It occurred in several university cities, but I shall confine this post to the Southampton experience.  I only learned of its existence a few days before it started and was already promised to another on Monday evening, so I chose the only events not already fully booked on Tuesday and Wednesday (which spared me the agony of decision-making).  Events took place across four pubs in the city – of which more later.

On Tuesday, I learned about some of the technology behind fibre optics and the internet.  These talks had some great demos and I now feel I understand the principles behind non-linear light, following an analogy to an over-amplified electric guitar, and how to prevent my aircraft being shot-down by heat-seeking missile (so, practical too).  There was also a quiz, out of which I won a number of goodies – including the t-shirt I am now wearing.  It was a really fun evening and more than repaid its £3 cost.

Wednesday’s talk was (full of grace and) about regenerative medicine and covered stem cells and 3D printing.  The audience profile was a little older than the previous night – not sure if this was a coincidence or a motivated audience in search of some regeneration.  The talks here were (if anything) even better than the previous night.  I shall never view hip replacement in quite the same way again, having seen the force with which the new hip attachment is hammered into the existing bone to ensure a tight fit (less effort would have been needed to sculpt granite and using much the same tools).  The speaker on 3D printing brought along some amazing models in plaster-of-paris, including one of his own kidney and its associated stone.  This was produced from his CT scans at the cost of £123 and cut 30 minutes off his operation and saved the NHS thousands of pounds.  The potential to make surgeons’ jobs easier for a whole range of operations, improve patient outcomes and save money seems enormous – being able to actually hold and manipulate the problem area in 3D is so much better than a photo or screen view when planning.  However, I do worry that scanning capacity may become a limiting factor in making this a reality more broadly.

As well as this medical use, apparently we can already 3D print in plastic, metal, sugar, chocolate and pasta (which I feel offers a fascinating insight into the 3D printing community, or their corporate sponsors).  Referring back to a post from last year’s Edinburgh Science Festival, the speaker clearly saw the 3D printer as a sewing machine rather than a lathe.  Companies would no longer have to keep stacks of spare parts, e.g. to replace the battery cover on your remote control, consumers could download a file and print the replacement at home.  No longer will I find myself without the right pasta shape for a recipe, I can just print my own! (Though, for now, this might be a little slow if one is really hungry).  I can see the day when you can print your own alphabetti spaghetti, with your own choice for letter frequencies (for a more adult meal, perhaps, or to provision a visiting Polish child).

This night also had a quiz, in which I learned that those of us with blue eyes (clearly the superior eye colour) have higher alcohol tolerance than those of you with less fashionable ocular tints (a fact which I had, frankly, always suspected).  Beer is also, apparently, good for your bones – so drink up!  Another excellent night of fun for £3 – they even threw in some pretty generous (if basic – they probably wouldn’t have passed muster at an ambassador’s reception) snacks.

The only weakness in the Pint of Science offering was with respect to the pints.  Neither pub I visited had a bitter or ale on tap, and one couldn’t even provide one in a bottle.  As a result I was forced to drink Newcastle Brown Ale and teach the bar staff that it should always be served with a half-pint glass.  However, I don’t think we can really blame the Festival for this: they were limited by the need for a pub with a function room to seat 40-50 people and with space for some experiments.

Not only did Pint of Science provide two really enjoyable and educational nights out, but I reckon I came away with more value in freebies and consumed snacks than the cost of entry.  I’m not sure how this is financially viable – but long may it continue!  Actually, the freebies were provided by a corporate sponsor (called Mendeley – I presume after Dmitiri Mendeleev hence the idea for the second paragraph striking me) who seem to be some sort of social medium for the research community.  Whilst I like to think that much of my life is spent in research, I’m not sure I am quite their target market – but, if they ask, I could always transition GofaDM (or some selected highlights) across to their platform.

The king across the water

When I moved to Southampton a little more than twenty months ago, one of the clear advantages of my new location was its proximity to the widely-admired (if inaccurately named) New Forest.  Given that it lies little more than half-a-dozen miles away (as the crow or drone flies), I could regularly partake of its arboreal delights.  Prior to last Wednesday, the number of trips I had taken to the Forest could be counted using the fingers of one foot (a foot, I should emphasise, unaffected by radiation-based mutation).

Finally, last Wednesday as the temperature soared in a series of events we may come to look back on as The Summer™, I decided the time had come to visit the hunting grounds of William the Bastard (or Conqueror as I believe he preferred).  So, packing up a few essentials into a spotted handkerchief (OK, a messenger bag) I cycled down to the Town Quay to seek passage across Southampton Water.   There is a regular ferry that will take the traveller over to Hythe, but as I discovered, it is very much a no-frills operation.  This lack of frills extends to an almost total lack of any signage (there was in fact one sign, but someone was standing in front of it, totally obscuring it).  The potential user will also be well-advised to carry a lot of change as one’s ticket is purchased from slightly modified parking machines which do not take credit cards, notes or even the current ten pence piece.  I lacked suitable change, but luckily the ferry company will exchange your notes for small bags of change acceptable to the machines – at a very competitive 1-1 exchange rate.  Such formalities out of the way, my cycle and I boarded the MV Great Expectations and made the short crossing over to one of this country’s many Hythes.

In Hythe, the cyclist can join NCN 2 which promises to transport you to the New Forest and thence to Brockenhurst and probably beyond.  I will admit that it does do this… eventually.  The routing through Hythe and Dibden has clearly not been optimised for either speed or distance and the signage is a little thin on the ground, but patience (coupled with a little luck, an A-Z and a 1:25,000 map from the Ordnance Survey) did eventually deliver me to the edge of the New Forest.  Entering the forest proper required my bicycle to make its first ever crossing of a cattle grid – which it handled like a pro (though it was less comfy for the rider).

The first thing you notice about the New Forest is the relative scarcity of trees – or at least on this eastern edge, where gorse-covered heathland dominates the scenery.  The second thing you notice is that New Forest ponies are not rare – there are loads of them, and (in common with most motorists, some cyclists and a few pedestrians) they clearly believe that they own the road.  I am generally quite nervous cycling near horses (or ponies – though the Shetland variety might be OK) given that they are larger and heavier than me and tend to the unpredictable – but luckily, most of the ponies seemed more interested in taking on four-wheeled opponents than a middle-aged cyclist.  Otherwise, cycling around the heathland in the balmy weather was really very pleasant (the scenery is of a type more associated – by me -with a holiday then a short troll from home).  Seeking refreshment I stopped off in the village of Beaulieu and eventually used the Montagu Arms Hotel as it seemed to be the sole provider of a stand to secure my bike (though the stands may have been provide to secure a four-footed form of transport).  This was a long way from the cheapest option for tea and cake, but I felt they should be rewarded for their bike (or horse) stands and they did provide a lovely garden for the refuelling.  They were also very generous with the quantity of tea (nearly enough to refloat the MV Great Expectations) and the parkin (the only cake on offer) was excellent – also very nice facilities to purge some of the tea before continuing on my way.

I then cycled back to Hythe, using my own route through Dibden Purlieu to the ferry terminal which was substantially more efficient then NCN 2 (though did require navigation of a rather busy roundabout).  With a few minutes to kill before the ferry (actually, more than a few as the timetable seems more a suggestion than a rigid commitment) I stumbled upon an excellent greengrocer which provided me with local tomatoes and rhubarb – if only I could find one nearer to home.

All-in-all an excellent afternoon out, and probably my longest cycle ride since moving to the south coast.  My body held up rather well to the rigours, though I was reminded why – when I used to cycle such distances daily – I wore padded boxer shorts.  Still, I have no real intention to pass on my genes and the contents of my under-crackers seem to be healing nicely.  I shall have to obtain a map of the cycle routes in the Forest and try and allow less than 20 months to elapse before my next visit – perhaps next time I shall take my bike on the train and delve deeper into the Nova Foresta (as the Domesday Book would have it).

Pump up (the jam?)

I’m no expert on the making of conserves – I haven’t made my own in a quarter of a century – but I’m pretty sure that pumping had no part to play in the home-made technique I practised back in the 1980s.  Perhaps Technotronic’s hit referred to the industrial process?  Talking of which, if you work in a jam factory do you get free access to the scum?  When I was a lad, this was a definite perk of hanging around the kitchen when jam was being made as the scum was always the best bit of the jam.  Are Tiptree hiring, I wonder?

However, this post is not about jam, or even marmalade or chutney, that whole digression arose from the need for a pump-based title.

My old track pump – not a euphemism – gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, and I’ve been having to keep my bicycle tyres inflated using a compact hand-pump (or, more accurately, lived with an ever decreasing tyre pressure) ever since.  As I read back that last sentence, I feel the ghost of Sid James hovering near – but I shall press on regardless.  The roads of Southampton are an unforgiving medium – more hole than surface in most places (returning home from the flicks in heavy rain one night, the surface was so bad that my rear brake light was riven in two by the force of the vibration from the much decayed surface) – and so with this afternoon’s sunshine I decided it was time to head over to the Hub Cycleworks for a new pump.

My new pump is a thing of beauty, née wonder.  It was the most expensive track pump in the shop (though there was only a choice of two models), but the Bontrager Turbocharger HP is the prince of pumps.  It is a good 3 inches taller than its predecessor: a boon for the tall but older chap looking to manage his bending down.  A further (related) boon is that the pressure gauge is sited at the top of the pump, not ¼” above the floor (where even the shortest of cyclists must struggle to read it).  I no longer have to fiddle around with adapters as I move from Presta to Schrader valves – the pump handles all that for me.  Oh, but the pumping force it generates is revelatory – there is a serous risk I could actual explode my tyres so powerful is it.  Nevermore (to quote the Raven) shall tyre inflation by a good 5 minute workout, the whole process is over in a few seconds.

So good is my new pump that I did not feel right leaving it outside in the bike store (where it might catch a chill or become lonely), but have brought it into the flat.  I think I may buy a special plinth for it, so that it can take pride of place in my parlour as a practical piece of modern, kinetic art.  For now, here it is in the hall (waiting for its plinth to come):

I'm like totally pumped, man!

I’m like totally pumped, man!


This year seems rather rich in anniversaries – or perhaps I’ve just noticed more of them – though I am still awaiting the JFK, Doctor Who and Benjamin Britten cross-over for which we are so obviously crying out.

Britten, of course, had a productive working relationship with W H Auden through much of the 1930s, so, it is perhaps not surprising that I encountered the pair of them twice over a (long) weekend.

The first encounter was at Turner Sims and covered rather a large number of my interests in a single gig.  We had Britten’s music, the Aurora Orchestra, Auden’s words and the films of the GPO Film Unit – all topped off by the wonderful voice of Samuel West.  I am far more likely to watch a TV documentary – regardless of subject matter – if Mr West is providing the voice over.  I’m not sure what it is about his voice – there’s nothing obviously showy, but it is truly one of the greats.  As a child of radio, I am a fan of a good voice – and that same weekend watching the final episodes of Fringe (a consistently entertaining, if barmy, series) reminded me of what a stunning voice Lance Reddick has (if I had such a voice, I’d be disappointed not to be ruling a significant portion of the earth’s surface).

Some of the films were splendidly dated with some of the most stilted “acting” you will ever see, but others were wonderfully fresh: a silhouette animation to sell Post Office savings was glorious (current advertisements couldn’t hold a candle to it – though may well be more successful at selling stuff).  It was a truly great night out – it even offered a special Britten centenary beer in the interval – but provided almost too much to take in at a single sitting.  It was also rather bittersweet as one film was about the coal industry (now virtually gone, but once a huge employer of men), another about electrification of the line to Portsmouth (with many references to the shipyards which had just received their death notice) and Night Mail (when the post was delivered by train).

The GPO was once a staggering organisation – it was heavily involved in the development of radio and made films which commissioned some of the country’s finest artists in the 1930s.  When I was a boy, it still ran the phone service and a bank.  Gradually, successive governments have whittled it away until the current incumbents recently ended 173 years of public service by flogging it off (for well below its market value) – what an ignominious end to organisation which has brought us so much.  Monolithic organisations have their issues (the lack of a second stone, for one), but I wonder if we have thrown rather too much of the baby out with the bath water and will live to regret it (as we have following so many badly organised privatisations over the years).

My second encounter with the Auden-Britten axis was at the cinema, in my second play beamed “live” from the National Theatre.  This was Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art – provisionally titled AB – dating from 2010 with the late, great Richard Griffiths playing Auden and Alex Jennings playing Britten.  The aspect ratio seemed a little odd, but the play and performance more than justified the recommendation that had sparked my attendance.  This is the third play Bennett has written for the National which I have seen, and if he chooses to write any more I shall try and see those too.

Southampton may not have quite the cultural scene of Cambridge – though may be rather better served for the DJ scene (and other young people’s music, much of which is an arcane mystery to an old codger like myself) – but there is still a lot going on locally and it’s a joy when I can be home less than 15 minutes after the (often metaphorical) curtain comes down.

Where are you from?

Today’s title is a question I was asked earlier in the week, but to which I found I lack a good or ready answer.  I know where I was born and where I was brought up – but I don’t really feel I am “from” either of those.  This lack of belonging to my place of birth can be explained by my forced departure before I was even six months old.  I’m less sure where my lack of belonging to the location of my childhood originates – perhaps just prolonged absence?

I could – and did – list various of the places I’ve lived over the years since my body (though not my mind) reached adulthood.  However, this does not seem a terribly good answer to a perfectly banal question.  I am clearly from the UK, but this only works as an answer if the question is posed by Johnny Foreigner, so am I somehow rootless beyond my basic nationality?

The (relatively) recent house move had already led me to ponder the nature of home and where it lies.  For quite some time, I continued to view Cambridge as “home” – and I can still catch myself thinking in that way even now.  Still, since the arrival of the new sofa (the old one being too large to make the move), Southampton has been fairly securely established as “home”: hat location is surprisingly unimportant, despite what Paul Young would have you believe.  However, Southampton is not alone in holding this honour.  Cambridge is still “home”, particularly when I am there or I see it on the screen.  After an absence of 25 years, a couple of trips back to Oxford over the summer have made it clear that the city of dreaming spires is also still “home” – I suppose I did live there for three years (well, nearly half of three years – during term time – to be strictly accurate) but its continuing claim on me is a little surprising.  More surprising still is that Edinburgh also qualifies as “home” despite the fact that I have never lived there (or even owned so much as a deck chair there, let alone a settee) and only visited the city sporadically for the last 6 or 7 years – but I am quite familiar with the bus routes (or at least some of them).

I’m struggling to find any obvious common link between my various “homes”, which presumably means I must blame affect (or go the way of Dr Freud and blame my mother and/or a childhood trauma).

Do others have the same issue responding to the question “where are you from”?  Or, is it just me?

Anyways, the originator of this question was much clearer about where she was from as she cut my hair.  She hailed from Middlesborough, or more accurately Great Ayton, and so my list-based answer of places inhabited was sufficient to spark lively conversation.  We chatted about the joys of a night out in the ‘Borough on the lash and the beauty of the Cleveland Hills with particular reference to Roseberry Topping (a hill rather than a dessert) and the simple pleasure to be gained from a beer and steak sandwich following its evening ascent.  So, despite my failure to properly answer the question and the subsequent soul-searching, the interrogative device served its purpose admirably.  I suspect there is a lesson here for me to learn…

Moving to the Hamptons

An aspiration, I believe, for many a New Yorker though my own move was not to Long Island (though I do remain resident on a much longer island).  Whilst Southampton shares a name (and given the etymology of said name, can be considered the original) with one of the Hamptons most desirable villages, I doubt the folk of the four boroughs are queuing to move here.

After three months as a resident, I can say that Southampton is no Cambridge – the architecture would (on the whole) be considered less attractive and despite a river I have yet to see a punt.  Some of the dodgy architecture can be blamed on the Luftwaffe, though I fear the British must take the blame for the re-building.  It does, however, have some history – it claims it was from here that Cnut failed to command the sea (wisely eschewing use of the Illearth stone) – and has a long naval tradition.

When I moved from Crouch End to Cambridge, I noted the increased obesity of the residents in my new domicile.    This effect was repeated with my most recent move.  I believe this is a class (or socio-economic effect); it is extraordinary that within a century obesity has gone from being a signifier of extreme wealth to one of near poverty.

It is also quite astonishingly green in many parts with a very generous provision of parks surrounding the city centre and the Common just to the north.  My new demesne lies within a Georgian crescent (well, demi-crescent) facing a small park and the main law courts (so, I still see plenty of police action).  Whilst the frontage and hall floor are original, the rest is more recently-built and so offers the high ceilings and tall windows of the past but modern levels of sound and heat insulation.  It lies betwixt the soi-disant Cultural Quarter and the Common and the older of the two universities – so little that I might want to visit is more than a mile or two away (including those vital pillars of a chap’s life: Waitrose, John Lewis, the main library and the railway station).

Talking of the universities, my new gym is associated with the johnny-come-lately uni (made famous as the seat of John Lloyd’s professor of ignorance in this latest series of the Museum of Curiosity).  This gains over previous gymnasia in its cheapness and proximity, but mostly in that it has both a tower and crenellations!  As the building seems less than a century old, I presume these are a decorative flourish and have never been used to repel an attack but do make a pleasant change from the retail “barns” which house so many modern fitness (and other) facilities.

The old university is comprised of modern buildings but in rather fine, tree-filled grounds.  It also house an excellent music facility in the Turner Sims and a decent theatre in the Nuffield.  I may talk more of these anon, but they do boast a very fine range of both ice cream and beer at very competitive prices!

Southampton provides a river and the sea at close hand, though I have yet to actually see the briny (however, I have seen some very large boats dominating the skyline – my first being the Queen Mary 2).  It lies within easy cycling distance of the New Forest: yet another trip I have yet to make.  What it also offers is very, direct good rail links to a surprisingly wide area of the UK – though Network Rail is contriving to make weekend or evening trips to London rather undesirable unless one wishes to invest an awful lot of time (and probably a bus journey) to return home.  As a result, I have visited Oxford, Salisbury and Chichester for weekend fun since my move – all take less time than going to London from Cambridge and by avoiding going via London are a surprisingly cheap option (even without booking months in advance).

More of Oxford and Chichester another time, but I shall mention Salisbury now.  I used to go there when but a lad, but the city now seemed very unfamiliar – even the cathedral.  However, I did find Reeves the Baker (fitted with somewhat different signage than in the 70s) and they still offered lardy cake.  Proust had his madeleine, for me the first mouthful of lardy cake and my temps perdu flooded back like soapy water to a badly-plumbed washing machine.  The city costs only pennies more to visit than the cost of visiting Cambridge by bus from Sawston – and takes less time to reach despite the substantially greater distance.

Perhaps Salisbury’s greatest asset (or at least one of the greats) is the Playhouse.  I have seen a truly excellent production of 1984 (which will soon drive me back to the book, which I last read when 12 – which might have been a tad precocious , or merely premature) and my first taste of Ibsen with Ghosts (the hammer-blow ending of which reminded me of Katya Kabanova – pretentious, moi?).  Even better, it is amazingly cheap for a matinée seat at a mere £15 and offers a decent interval refreshment.

So, all-in-all, the move is proving a success – though I do miss Cambridge – and my plan to see the UK by living in its various parts (so much better than being a mere tourist) proceeds apace.