An Augmented Verb

While I continue to doubt my credentials as a ‘writer’, I cannot deny that I have some sort of fetish for language.  Over the past weekend alone, I have found myself musing as to whether ‘rusticity’ and ‘vespine’ are words – or just word-like formulations of my own devising (as it transpires, I can lay claim to neither – despite the doubts of both WordPress and Google when it comes to ‘vespine’, Mr Collins is clear that they have existed for quite a while).

One of the many ways in which I indulge my fetish is by listening to The Verb via its podcast.  I was introduced to The Verb by its host: not directly, but via his Twitter feed (one of many introductions for which I must thank the blue bird of both happiness and truly hideous abuse).  In common with much of Radio 4 – or at least those parts I enjoy via podcast – The Verb is on holiday, but as a sop to those addicts among us is offering selected back-numbers to help us make it through the difficult, dog days of summer.

Usually, I listen to podcasts at home or on a train (or occasionally, a plane) but to celebrate what might have been the last gasp of summer (our canine friends will soon have to cede the temporal stage to another creature – the duck days of autumn?), yesterday I decided to indulge in a little al fresco consumption.  So I took my self, iPod, and a pair of headphones up to the Common to enjoy the sunshine and temperatures on the upper cusp of their teens.  After a pleasant walk around the Common, the obligatory soft ice cream (which, if I’m honest, was the primary reason for my excursion) and a little light butterfly stalking, I sat down on the grass and started a Verb from distant 2013 (before I became a regular consumer).

I rarely sit on the grass – perhaps an age- and height-related desire to avoid both the long way down and the even longer return journey – and I think I’ve been missing out.  The world looks surprisingly beautiful when observed from rather lower than my usual viewpoint – once again, being tall is revealed as massively over-rated.  Wearing my cloak of invisibility – OK, mirrored shades and a pair of headphones – I watched the (mostly) young people enjoying the Common in the sunshine.  As I people-watched, I couldn’t help feeling that I have had far too little fun with a frisbee in my life (though using one on my own would, I fear, look unutterably sad).

My tristesse was assuaged by the aural cosseting provided via my headphones.  The near-perfect line-up included Boo Hewerdine, the Listening Machine (who, with the help of the Britten Sinfonia, turn Twitter into audio gold) and David Sedaris.  Hearing Ian McMillan interviewing David Sedaris is almost too much: two such distinctive voices brought together in fascinating dialogue feels almost dangerous – like crossing the streams.

Some might imagine that these musings aspire to achieve the level of style and quality exhibited by Mr Sedaris’ work – but it wasn’t until yesterday that I had even considered making such a comparison (and then very hurriedly reversed away from it).  I feel an aspiration should at least have some vague hope of achievement, or at least offer the hope of reaching a destination in broadly the same time zone – and this would not be the case with Mr S.  In a similar vein, I recently spotted a competition to find a new comic writer – but this competition was named after P G Wodehouse.  Who would feel bold enough to enter a competition with the name of such a master attached?  When naming a competition, you need to find someone who has achieved greatness through obvious effort – rather than those blessed with an incondign mastery.

[BTW: Has anyone else noticed that WordPress seems to suffer from a diminishing vocabulary but imposes this with far greater vehemence on the unfortunate writer?  It frequently chooses to correct my writing after I’ve completed the proof-reading – which is less than helpful.]

Mr Sedaris was enthralling, with all manner of insights drawn out by Ian McMillan.  He keeps a diary in surprising detail (though still less than he finds he wants) and will keep material for years (the number seventeen was mentioned) waiting for other elements to arrive which will combine felicitously to form a ‘story’ (or ‘post’ if translated to my own life).  My poor brain can rarely retain an incident for more than a week or two – and so unless it finds a home in that time it is lost forever (or until a heavy night on the red wine which sometimes knocks old ideas loose).  This makes me realise that too many posts are rushed to press, when waiting a little (or a lot) longer would create a much improved product: less of a diary entry with mildly amusing asides and more of a proper piece of writing.  Still, I’m not convinced that I have the discipline to keep a diary or know what it should include – then again, that which goes unattempted must perforce remain impossible so perhaps I should venture in hope of some future gain.

If only this particular diary entry could properly capture the joy of people and nature watching in a sunny park whilst listening to The Verb – as close to the realm eternal as I am likely to manage in this life (or probably – subject to its existence – the next) – then I would be (temporarily) happy.

Bread and circuses

Before we proceed with the main agenda of today’s post, I felt it was time to inject a little, much-needed structure into the madcap anarchy that usually typifies GofaDM.  So, let’s start with Matters Arising from the last post.

Having boasted of my skill and perspicacity in organising a rather successful trip to the Athens of the North, I feel I should perhaps give a little credit to mother nature (you really don’t want to end up on the wrong side of Gaia).  The weather in Edinburgh was unusually clement – so much so that I began to regret my failure to pack sunscreen (or a parasol).  According to the natives, this was not typical of summer 2015 as a whole and, in my brief visit, I estimate that I experienced more than 40% of the actual summer.  The sun is not always a friend to the Fringe-goer as the venues have a tendency to become rather toasty (and, indeed, sweaty) if the mercury rises by even a modest degree.  Here again, years of practice came to my aid and I chose to spend my whole Festival in shorts, thus gifting the general public with 360° views of my all-too-rarely exposed calves and shins (despite the potential provocation, swooning was, fortunately, kept to a minimum).  This additional exposed flesh seemed to work wonders for my body’s temperature regulation – well, either that or the Fringe have become better at venue cooling.  And now, that little piece of business out of the way, we can return to the main agenda.

Despite the title, I should prepare any lovers of the baker’s art for disappointment now.  Loaf-lovers will find little succour for their obsession here as I shall be concentrating on the expanse of title lying to the right of its conjunction.  At this year’s Fringe, I took in twenty-five shows over my six-and-a-half day visit – but this included four that might be considered to fall within the genre of circus.  This might not seem that many to you, but it exceeds in number all the circus-based entertainment I had attended in my adult life prior to that point.

When I say circus, you can keep your jugglers, fire-eaters, clowns and any animals whose participation remains morally viable: I’m really just interested in the gymnastic and/or acrobatic elements of the modern circus, basically, I’m looking for inspiration or tips.  The four shows were all very different, with a wide range of feats performed and a variety of approaches taken to link the physical feats together (and give the performers a brief opportunity to rest).  I could thoroughly recommend them all.

Something – a curious name for a show (does one go to the box office and ask for an hour of something?) – was the most approachable of the four shows, i.e. a few of the feats I can almost do and rather more I can imagine one day attempting.  It used the floor, tables and a ring or chain suspended from above.  The more physical elements were linked by slapstick and comedy and there were lots of costume changes – it definitely provided the most laughs of the four shows.

La Meute – used a lot of props, and in particular a lethal looking all-metal swing (constructed of something akin to scaffold poles).  This involved the cast being flung scarily into the air before summersaulting back down to a landing pad.  It also included some comedy (albeit of a slightly curious, French nature) and the male cast performed the whole show wearing only towels (which miraculously did not fall off – I can’t even keep a towel on whilst shaving).  I will not be attempting any of this in the near – or even distant – future: far too much need for split-second timing and risk of being smacked with extreme force somewhere painful (or worse) by a scaffold pole.  Irritatingly, most of the cast demonstrated that they could also sing or play a range of musical instruments as well as perform such extraordinary acts of physical derring-do.  I had thought that I was unique in trying to learn to sing and be a gymnast at the same time.

You – another oddly named show – had a single performer, ex of the Cirque du Soleil (which I know only via an episode of The Simpsons).  He used more limited equipment – a Swiss ball, some books and a frame with some long straps hanging down.  He maintained quite an odd monologue through most of the show – which given that I can barely speak having performed much more basic activities was rather impressive (even if the content revealed some substantial gaps in his understanding of nuclear physics and genetics).  He did do a few things which I might aim towards (and many far more impressive ones which may have to await my reincarnation into a more flexible form) – but he will not be invited to use my library given his treatment of his own books.  The show was good, but rather strange with a finale involving a lot of pudding rice and the audience being invited to throw it around on stage.

Limbo – was the last, and most expensive, of the shows I saw.  It also had the largest cast and set and included sword swallowing and fire-eating – which I will admit is quite impressive (and very hot) when you are seeing it from the second row.  It covered almost all the physical feats I have seen in previous circus acts, but generally added at least one little extra twist.  There was an extraordinary section where five of the cast were atop flexible poles swinging together and out into the audience which I have never seen before (and won’t be trying at home).  However, by far the most impressive element of the show was the most flexible man I have ever seen in my life.  I can only assume he must live a dairy-free life (an existence I am not willing to copy) and has no bones at all.  Not only flexible but incredibly strong in what seem impossible and unstable positions.  His acrobatics manoeuvres were the most impressive to me as they started without momentum – and I don’t feel the audience gave him the credit he deserved (showier colleagues gained the greater plaudits).

I rather fear that I am becoming obsessed by the circus: so many new feats to try (one day) or at least at which to take (very distant) aim.  If nothing else, I will be rather more diligent at working on my flexibility and stretching in the weeks to come.  I also found that the circus shows made an excellent counterpoint to the wordier fare which made up my other Fringe-going (and this very blog).  Should I be adding a more physical element to GofaDM, do you think?

Instanding fusion reaction

Just in case the English language were to be considered to have come up a trifle short lexically, I have invented my own word to launch the title.  I have decided that the antonym for outstanding must be instanding – I rejected outsitting as ugly and outlying is already in use.

In fact, I am being overly harsh to the fusion reaction in question: the churning maelstrom that constitutes our local star.  Without its efforts (though I’d question whether the unalive can be considered to be putting in effort), my own paltry existence would not be possible.  Indeed, without the work of its predecessors over some thirteen (and a chunk of change) billion years, many of the elements would not exist which have been brought together in the occasionally harmonious conjunction I like to call my body.  So, I think I can admit that I’m pleased that stellar fusion is a part of my universe – though if you want me to be impressed, you will have to move beyond slave-like adherence to the laws of physics (which, by definition I think, is impossible).  Shania Twain and I are as one in this (and probably only this) one area.

My objection is to the annoying tilting of my life towards the great celestial gasbag which occurs at this time of the year.  In common, I assume, with many others, I find myself, during the long dark months of winter, eagerly anticipating the return of summer.  Why?  I’ve seen fifty examples of summer by now – surely, given such an extensive catalogue of disappointment to draw from, I should have preserved some memories to insulate me against such expectations?  Apparently not.

Readers who share these soggy isles with the author may expect me to denounce the frequent rain and disappointingly low temperatures: instead, and ever the contrarian, I shall object to those summery conditions which are assumed to be a cause of universal delight.  I speak, of course, of that over-praised combination of a peerless blue sky, strong sunshine and temperatures rising well above 20ºC.

I don’t object to the vault of heaven being suffused by a universally cerulean hue, but one can fairly quickly have too much of a good thing and better people than I (Gavin Pretor-Pinney for one) have explained the vital interest that clouds can bring to the sky. I could point to the fact that aircraft contrails rarely offer the imagination the fecund raw material provided by a single healthy puff of cumulus.  Or we could consider the magical beauty of a sun-illumined land- or cityscape “popping” against the backdrop of threatening charcoal storm clouds.  As my final example in support of our unfairly maligned vaporous friends, just think of the glorious canvas they provide to the long-wavelengthed palette of the sun as its light encounters the horizon.

I have nothing against sunshine when its photons catch me with a suitably glancing blow.  For three seasons of the year, the over-excited ultraviolet rays (whether A or B) cast out by the sun are attenuated by a hefty thickness of atmosphere.  As a result, my ravaged epidermis and I can go outside without fear of further damage or precipitating uncontrolled cellular reproduction.  However, during the summer I am forced to coat any exposed flesh with greasy, titanium dioxide based gunk to avoid providing some free marketing for Messrs Farrow and Ball and the sort of wall-colouring they would recommend for rectory or “eating room” (their rather sinister words, not mine).  Use of this gunk is not without expense and it is inevitably transferred to my clothing and certainly encourages me to perspire more vigorously: a triple whammy of unwanted outcomes.

This brings me to the temperature itself.  As I have aged (it seemed the best available option), I find that life is at its best when the mercury is resting somewhere in the sixties, as defined by Mr Fahrenheit.  It can peep into the low seventies (just for a quick look, but no loitering), but anything above that seems to encourage my fellow bipeds to expose excessive swathes of their flesh (and sight of such flesh rarely rewards the viewer).  It also places severe restrictions on my own clothing choices, if I am to minimise my discomfort, and usually leads to a shortage of pockets.  In this country, any warmth above my optimum level seems to be accompanied by excessive humidity, further increasing the discomfort.  To strengthen my case still more, I would note that very little of the built or transport infrastructure of this country seems to have been designed or constructed with such warmth in mind – as with snow, it seems to come as a dreadful shock every time.  I’m not sure precisely how much DNA we share with the humble (and probably apocryphal) goldfish but, when it comes to engrammatic efficacy, it may be more than is commonly realised.

The one key thing in summer’s favour is the wealth of tasty local fruit and vegetables that it grants: either directly or by putting in the preparatory work for an autumn harvest.  However, I’m fairly sure this bounty could still be delivered with a few more clouds and less exuberant use of temperature.  For this writer, spring and autumn are the pick of the seasons: summer with its myriad flaws trails in a very distant third or fourth.  With a little luck, the mere creation of this post will spare me (and possibly you, dear reader) from fostering unrealistic hopes (how sad is it that so many hopes are abandoned by their parents?) in the short, chilly days of the coming winter.  It is as well to be prepared as the current scientific consensus suggests that summers (as rated by me) will be growing worse, rather than better, as the century ages (and us along with it).  Time to learn some Norwegian?

The heat is on

Not, I should make clear, the heating.  That hasn’t been on for months – I am either very green or cheap, take your pick!

No, South Cambs (and much of the rest of the UK) has been basking in what I think we used to call a “summer”.  This is a season I vaguely remember from my distant youth, but haven’t seem much of in recent years.  So long has it been, that I have had to dig out long forgotten clothing, from the places I had squirrelled it away, appropriate for temperatures touching the eighties (Fahrenheit).

I must admit that I’m not terribly keen on hot weather – and hot, sunny weather even less.  I’m fine up to around 70°F, but much above that I grow rapidly less keen – though with very low humidity it can be acceptable in a holiday destination.  As a result, beach holidays do not appeal – I can spend about 5 minutes on a beach before I’m bored, you can’t even comfortably read a book because of the glare, and what something else to do.

I realise this is not a common view in the current era, where we are all assumed to want hot, sunny weather.  I have no particular aesthetic objection to acquiring a modest tan – though recognise this view is very much of my time, a few years back I’d no doubt have been coating myself in white lead to appear as pallid as possible.  Whilst exposure to sunshine is probably less deadly than lead-based cosmetics, it still isn’t terribly good for one – even ignoring the potential cellular and DNA-damage, it is terribly ageing and I’m looking quite aged enough already thank you very much.  As a result, I feel I have to coat myself in foul, titanium dioxide based gunk to protect my alabaster limbs and face from the sun’s ultry violet rays (I know, I’m not a proper Englishmen – must be my Welsh roots showing, we of the Principality are much better in rain than sun).  As this blog may have mentioned before, I hate getting my hands dirty (literally, I’m fine with figurative filth) and suntan lotion makes me feel dirty.  Roll on MAA-based lotions – well, it works for coral and seem much less objectionable (well, at least according to the late lamented Material World).

Cycling in hot, sunny weather is also a terribly sweaty experience – one is relatively fine while moving as a result of the natural, forced-air conditioning.  However, as soon as you stop at a junction, one is instantly rendered rather wet (and not in a nice way).  This is not the ideal state of arrival at a concert or theatre – few of which provide showering facilities for their patrons (or probably their performers in some cases!).  As the government seems to have money (ours) to burn on infrastructure projects, can I suggest public showers in our major towns and cities?

So, all-in-all, if we are going to be changing this climate (and we seem very keen to do so) could I put in a request that we cap the temperatures for the southern half of the UK at around room temperature with light winds and easily forecasted rain.  Otherwise, I may have to defect to Alex Salmond’s new kingdom.

A Paean to Plants

It is all too easy for those of us belonging to the Animal Kingdom to look down on plants.  They seem a pretty static form of life and don’t seem to have mastered even basic tool use, let alone any of the trappings of civilisation.  However, this ‘summer’ has suggested to me that we shouldn’t underestimate them.

The weather in recent months has been erratic at best: it has apparently been the wettest summer in a century and the dullest in thirty years (I think this latter statistic relates to lack of sunshine rather than an oppressive degree of ennui engulfing the country).  Not ideal growing conditions for plants one might imagine but an extremely productive time for their enemies: slugs and snails (though not, to the best of my knowledge, puppy dog tails).  Despite these apparently unfavourable conditions, most of the plants in my garden have gone beserk with new growth over the summer.  The vine and the beech hedge in particular have produced truly prodigious volumes of foliage, so much so, that when returning from my sojourn in Edinburgh I feared that Fish Towers would resemble the castle of Sleeping Beauty and I would need a machete to break through the undergrowth (well, I’m no prince).  It’s not just my garden, the hedgerows and verges of South Cambs have also been growing at an amazing pace, though this has raised one question in what remains of my mind: why do the fastest growing plants all possess either vicious thorns or stings?  They all reach out from the verges to snag the unwary cyclist, especially those of us foolish enough to wear shorts.

The marvel of this vegetative growth is that it has been achieved with little more than rainfall (all too plentiful), carbon dioxide (a tad more plentiful than of late through man’s tireless burning of ancient plants), nitrogen and (rather limited) sunshine.  I’m beginning to wonder if my (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle is a rather riskier option than previously imagined.  If the plants manage to metabolise one more major molecule, I think we animals  could be in serious trouble and my habits may make me somewhat of a target for our new vegetable overlords.

By the way, shouldn’t the classification of life have moved on from patriarchal monarchy?  How about the democratic republic of the animals?  Or does that sound too like a brutal dictatorship?  The federal republic of fungi, anyone?

Pharos

Over this last weekend, there was a strange light in the sky over South Cambs.  Village elders claimed that this was called the “sun” and used to be a regular visitor – but I’m sceptical and suspect they were gently ribbing we younglings.  Some even claimed that the brief warming we experienced was an atavistic glimpse of something called a “summer” which apparently once lasted for many weeks, but that’s clearly fantasy.  Still, I did use the opportunity to sport both my panama hat and my fivefingers to considerable acclaim (well, the hat part anyway).  Luckily, the normal world order has now been restored and I have been zipped back into my waterproofs for the week.

As part of my efforts to keep the arts going in Cambridge going single-handed, I was out every evening last week from Monday to Saturday.  This did enable me to cover theatre, music, comedy and cinema – but also took its toll.  I’m not sure how my mind and body would have stood up to such exertions when my telomeres were rather longer – largely because I was not foolish enough to put matters to the test in my youth – but by yesterday I was really quite tired.  So, I scheduled an evening catching up on the output of BBC4 – that pharos of the mind – which I had missed during the week.

Between the cerebral delights of BBC4, my recording device chose to revert to Channel 4 for some reason and so I caught brief glimpses of one of the Twilight movies.  Young people today are often criticised for having very short attention spans, but many of them (I believe) enjoy these films despite the fact that this one, at least, was interminable.  I managed to watch an episode of the Bridge, a documentary on the Antikythera mechanism and hold a telephone conversation of reasonable length and yet still the film was continuing when I shut-up shop for the night.  The plot seemed to revolve around a miserable girl moping a lot, quite often in heavy rain.  She seemed to keep afflicting herself on some lad who initially had long hair and dressed relatively normally but later had clearly had a haircut and spent most of his time wandering around topless in shorts and heavy rain.  I presume he had been driven to this by the relentless melancholy of his female chum, perhaps in the hope that he would catch his death of cold and be spared her attentions?

Anyway, this lad (I think he may have been the J of the series’ very own Jedward) seemed to have a very healthy all-over tan for someone who spends quite so much time in the rain.  I do not seem to have been similarly blessed despite the recent precipitation – perhaps I should be cycling around topless?  If nothing else it would resolve the issues caused by my waterproofs (human skin, as recently reported, is waterproof thanks to some of the fats in the stratum corneum) and as a bonus could yield a healthy glow.  However, it was not the boy’s skin tone that caught my attention but his teeth.  Even in the screen-based “entertainments” from the land of the free, where the whiteness of one’s dentition is seen as strangely important, I have never seen such brilliantly white teeth before.  They were literally fluorescently white: positively glowing.  If his movie career doesn’t take off (and on the evidence of the clips I saw, acting may not be his strong suit), he could find work with Trinity House keeping ships safe from rocks (and other maritime hazards) around this country’s shoreline.

Naval gazing

As I cycled home, a little after noon (and the afternoons do seem to be getting noticeably littler by the day), I spotted a somewhat dishevelled red admiral (the butterfly, rather than a Soviet naval officer) sunning himself on the cycle path.  As I also saw (and heard) a skylark ascending, it would seem that summer’s lease has not yet expired – or, perhaps it has, and Autumn needs to get the bailiffs in to force the issue (or, at the very least, to change the locks).

Seeing the admiral led me to muse on the lack of any lower ranks – there are no butterflies named for the ratings, chief petty officers, lieutenants or even captains that a human navy needs to operate successfully.  It seems that in the butterfly navy, there are too many chiefs and not enough (or, indeed, any) native Americans.  I think this may explain why the lepidoptera have never been taken seriously as a naval power.