Right Thoughts, Right Words, …

Fans of Franz Ferdinand, the populat beat combo rather than the assassinated Austrian Archduke, will know the ellipsis covers Right Action – the relevance of which may become somewhat less occluded as the text of this post unfurls.

I am now almost two months into my career as a guitarist.  OK, career may be over-playing my hand (and current level of mastery) so let’s just say “since I started learning to play” instead.  It is proving enormous fun and the fingers on my left hand are callousing up nicely and I seem to be growing use to the loss of feeling (or at least I seem to be dropping stuff less often).  Occasionally, brief snatches of something which might almost pass for music are emerging from my guitar: though these are soon smothered beneath a cacophany of notes (or approximations thereto) that even the most extreme proponents of atonal music would have rejected at an early stage of composition.  Maybe it is time to start the Third Vienna School – and, to the surprise of many, do it in Southampton.

As I slowly come to grips with my latest self-improvement project (it remains unclear who or what I may be improving myself for), I am discovering the very wide range of jargon that surrounds the guitar: jargon which seems to have been plundered, indiscriminately from many walks of life without any thought to an over-arching theme.

We might start with the size of the instrument.  Some guitars are dreadnoughts, but there is no battleship, cruiser or minesweeper.  No, as guitars grow smaller they are named after model railway gauges and so an OO and O make an appearance (though on the wron gorder, size-wise).  There is no N-gauge, but smaller guitars are named for the parlour in a nod to historic reception rooms.  Somewhere in this strange pantheon there also lies the jumbo and the OM (though how the stalwarts of La Ligue came to be associated with the instrument is anyone’s guess).

The fingers of the left hand are numbered, though for the guitarist the thumb doesn’t count, so the numbers are one smaller than for the pianist.  The finger of the right hand (where the thumb does count, but the little finger is discarded) are labelled using the first letter of the Spanish name for the digit in question.  And why not?

The parts of the instrument are also named in an eccentric manner, ripe for double-entendres (even without venturing into the sound hole).  The neck and body seem sensible enough, but the bridge holds the saddle and between the neck and head lies the nut.  For the avoidance of doubt, neither saddle nor nut look anything like any of the real world objects for which they might be named. The top string is, in normal (gravitional potential enery based) parlance at the bottom and vice versa: though this does make sense if one considers the pitch rather than position (or stands on one’s head).  The clearance of the strings over the fingerboard (which lies atop the neck) and frets is called “the action”.  My ancient instrument has a very high action.  This means that when attempting to hold the strings down near the nut (required for all my current playing), a prodigious amount of force is necessary: the whites of my knuckles have rarely been on such public display!  This has been wearing out my hand and shredding my finger tips: it has also rendered barre chords (where the index finger holds all the strings down at the same time) a distant dream.

To attempt to resolve this issue, and lower its action, I have undertaken surgery on my guitar – and in particular on its nut.  This was necessary as my guitar lacks an adjustable truss rod – the metal spine (or cervical portion thereof) that runs through the neck.  There were a number of possibilities for modifying the nut, but lacking a specialist set of nut files (yes these really do exist, and they are not cheap) I removed the nut all together and sanded a few millimetres of its substance from its bottom.  I can tell you that the unit is question was surprisingly soft and this took but a moment.  As you might imagine, given the ever-present nature of my inner child, I found this all terribly amusing.  The nut has now been reinstalled and the guitar is almost ready to go.  The only complication arising from the surgery was that the top string snapped at the bridge end (not, for the avoidance of doubt, in South Wales).  So, I now need to extend the surgery to cover re-stringing.  In theory this should be straightforward: I have mastered removal of the bridge pin but have not yet plucked (pun fully intended) up the courage to attempt the re-stringing as the instructions seem surprisingly complicated.  Maybe later today I shall screw my courage to the sticking place and see how it goes.

Having obtained the right action for my guitar, all I now need to deal with is the unexpected degree of previously unused flexibility required by my left hand and the fact that when playing my eyes need to simultaneously monitor the actions of my left and right hands and read the music.  Having only two eyes, that tend to track together, this is proving a challenge which is so far being resolved by memorising the music and moving my head from side-to-side as though watching a very small tennis match.  I’m hoping that better proprioception will come in time, as watching better guitarists they seem capable of playing while their hands go entirely unobserved.  Mine cannot, at this early stage, by trusted unsupervised: frankly, they seem to need to be micro-managed.  To be honest, I think something went very wrong at the recruitment stage – heads will roll in HR!


I talk not of any candidates for the substance of dark matter – though I have been reading about them recently – but of your electronic interlocutor.  Whilst I may be weakly interacting, that is down to my limited social skills rather than any inability to affect electromagnetic radiation – I am, in fact, reflecting, absorbing and scattering it even as I type (and they say men can’t multi-task!).  Nor am I a particle (and so have no fear of the triangle – and there may be a small prize for anyone who – without the aid of internet search – (a) understands that allusion and (b) is willing to admit it) and I do not consider myself especially massive – though I realise the later is very much a matter of your point of view.

No, I refer to my rather limited panoply of the more traditional manly attributes.  I have previously alluded to my need to dash away a less than manly tear at the cinema or theatre – and now admit that this weakness extends to the opera (only once, and La Traviata is quite sad) and the radio, television and books.

However, I don’t, in general, consider myself to be especially squeamish – to be honest, I don’t even know what a squeam is.  I tend not to watch the myriad of hospital dramas that infest our screen not out of any fear of the sight of blood – I’ve seen my own often enough, gushing out of my arm into a small plastic bag – but due to a lack of interest in the genre.  So, when I sat down on Sunday night to watch Michael Mosley’s new 2-part series “Frontline Medicine” I had no reason to fear.  I’ve watched his medical series before – and even made it through his excellent “History of Surgery” with barely a qualm.

Truly, pride cometh before a fall.  Within five minutes I was forced to the adult equivalent of hiding behind the couch – in my case, standing behind the bookcase concentrating on the ironing (the couch is too low, and it backs directly onto the wall).  Even “watching” thus insulated from any sight of the screen, the sound track alone was sufficient to make me decidedly queasy on more than one occasion.  In fact, I seemed decidedly more queasy than a lad whose foot had been mostly blown off by an IED.  Despite my rather eccentric mode of viewing the programme was fascinating and horrifying, depressing and uplifting in equal measure.  Some of the injured required 150 units of blood – nearly 50 years of normal donation for a chap like me – which does make me wonder where they obtain so much blood?  For the interested, O neg is the most useful as it can be given to anyone – my own A pos satisfies only a rather more limited market.

The physical injuries that the quality of medical care rendered survivable was truly extraordinary.  The injured (and, as yet, uninjured) did seem to be uniformly young: the sort of age I normally see wandering around the university or wowing me with their musical prowess – and I suspect the same is true for the enemy combatants as well, though I doubt they are offered much in the way of medical care by their “sponsors”.  I fear it is all too easy for the idealism of the young to be used by their elders – and not always for very laudable ends.  Sadly, it remains far easier – and oft seems more popular – to injure and maim than it does to heal.

Still, as I said the programme was far from unremittingly depressing, in many ways it was a story of heroism, quiet determination and great skill – and as so often with war, lessons are learned that will benefit “normal” life.  It would just be so much better if we could learn these lessons via less pain and suffering.  Next week, will be looking at rehabilitation – so I hope I may be able to return from behind the bookcase to a more typical viewing position (for a start, I’ve not got an hour of ironing – and, before you ask, I’m not offering to take any in!).

Sir Jerry?

Then again, I don’t think you can knight a mouse – and as a US-citizen (or, occasionally French), it could at best be an honorary title.  Still, perhaps more chance here than with my earlier attempts to beatify one.

But no, it’s only a feeble pun – so no surprise there.  Yesterday, I was due to undergo a little minor surgery (Sir Jerry?) – not, I should make clear, to remove a trapped child.  No, my planned surgery had more to do with miners than minors.

I have a cluster of moles in the small of my back, and a few weeks ago one of them decided to bleed.  The location made it virtually impossible for me – even with a complex arrangement of mirrors – to see what was going on.  Bleeding moles are generally considered a warning (or a garden pest), so I went to see the doctor – though Humboldt squid have been exposed to more sunlight than this mole.

Whilst Sawston has quite a large surgery, it does seem to possess but a single magnifying glass – so I had quite a long, and topless, wait while it was tracked down.  The considered opinions of two doctors (and one student – though he kept pretty quiet) were that there was no problem with my mole, but that it should be removed anyway.  Rather a dangerous precedent, thought I, as the rest of my body is problem-free and I don’t really fancy any precautionary amputations.  Still, I figured I should follow the medical advice – and I was duly booked in for minor surgery.  I should make clear that I had nothing against the mole, given its location I barely knew it was there – though I suppose the small piles of earth I found between the sheets each morning should have been a clue.

Anyway, cutting to the chase, yesterday I headed to the surgery to have my little velvet gentleman removed.  Once again, it was inspected by a further doctor and a nurse and they also decided it wasn’t an issue – and as a result, that it should stay.  The doctor seemed concerned that my skin was quite tight, and that stretching would be an issue for my healing.  However, I do think I will still have to see a further doctor (the 4th) who, as a dermatologist, will have the final say.

Given that the primary doctor on both my visits was female, and I spent considerable time topless on each occasion, I am beginning to wonder if this is all a ruse to cop a look at my ripped torso.  If the dermatologist is also of the distaff persuasion – then I shall be convinced that there is some Diet Coke lurking just out of shot.  Perhaps I should just tell them that I am more than willing to pose for a modest fee (or cake) – there is no need for the medical subterfuge.

My only disappointment with keeping my mole is that it cannot be sent off for biopsy – well not unless I go with it.  Biopsy is one of my favourite words, which along with almost and chintz, has the unusual feature that all their letters appear are in the correct alphabetical order (with no repetition – nor, for that matter, hesitation or deviation).  These may be the only three six-letter words to share this property – and certainly, despite rather more thought than it really warrants, I have failed to come up with an example beginning with D.  Unless readers can think of any…


I fear that after wearing a hat (which I do de temps en temps to protect myself from the blazing Cambridgeshire sun), my earlier use of the milliner’s art is obvious for quite some time.  This is not as a result of any disruption to the styling of my barnet (though this can happen), but down to the impression of the brim which remains etched into my forehead. Certainly, the mark left by the liner of my cycle shorts where they grip my sturdy thews can remain visible for well over an hour.  My belief is that this is caused by the declining elasticity of my ageing skin – though it’s possible that even in the first flush of my youth such marks might have endured for similar periods (sadly, our current understanding of temporal mechanics precludes the testing of this particular hypothesis).

I have also reached the stage where it is far more pleasing to shave without wearing my glasses – so many more illusions can remain un-shattered with the slightly softer focus that my uncorrected vision offers.

Whilst my vanity does run to dyeing my hair and a bit of exercise, I’m not letting members of the medical profession (and by extension, any other profession – it would be odd to forbid a surgeon but happily allow a milkman) near my body with a knife unless it is absolutely surgically necessary (and I will be demanding quite a high standard of proof).  As a result, the surgical facelift is not for me – so my face will slowly succumb to the ravages of time.

However, I think I may have found a short-term, non-surgical option.  As I have alluded to before, I enjoy (perhaps in a slightly masochistic sense) a massage on a semi-regular basis – and today my back was getting the “treatment”.  This involves the subject (me) lying face down on a padded bench, with my face resting above a small hole in the bench which permits breathing.  The hole is quite small and holds the edges of my face fairly fixed, while the weight of the head (plus any pressure being applied to the body by the masseur) presses down over the course of an hour.  This tautens the skin of the face very effectively – or so it feels – and this effect seems to endure for a while after release from durance vile.  Surely, a portable version could be developed for use before a close-up or other occasions when a wrinkle-free visage would be a boon?

Talking of wrinkles, during the week I read of research into the wrinkling which our fingers undergo when left immersed in water for an extended period.  Apparently, a scientist is proposing that this is an evolutionary adaptation to improve our grip in the wet (rather like the tread on a tyre).  The really interesting fact though, was that if the nerves to a finger are severed then it does not come to resemble a prune, however long it is left in the bath.  I’ve been trying to find a way to shoehorn this fact into a post for a while, but somehow just when I think I have a hold on it, it eludes my grasp.  Perhaps I just need a long soak in a hot tub…