Sepulchral over-tread

This post will be relatively light on jokes (aren’t they all?) but may provide some entirely unwanted insight in to the author.

As I started to make my lunch, I also started the podcast version of The Verb (several mentions of which on GofaDM have so far failed to produce lucrative sponsorship from either BBC Radio 3 or Ian McMillan) as I find it usually makes an excellent accompaniment to meal preparation – somehow both the hands and mind are busy, but not in conflict.  Virtually at the opening, the Mexican poet Pedro Serrano read a few lines of his work in his (and its) native tongue.  Immediately, all the hairs on my arms stood to attention, followed by a manly tear (or two) gracing my cheeks (well, two of them at any rate) and my legs being reduced to jelly.  I had to hold on to the work surface for support and ultimately had to abandon lunch for a little while and have a sit-down.  I can’t really explain why it had such a powerful effect on me: my Spanish – once described as “lower operational” – is really very rusty and I’ve never tried it up against poetry (mostly up against electricity market regulations, which are as far from poetry as one is likely to find – but were at least in Castilian Spanish).  Perhaps it was the combination of his voice and the sonic shape of the words?  Poems later in the programme had a similar impact, though only when read in Spanish – which was sadly faded out for the English translation.  I suppose that Mexican poetry fans are not a core demographic for Radio 3, but given its rather modest listenership it really can’t afford to alienate them.  I think I need to acquire some of Pedro’s work in Spanish and reclaim my two-volume Spanish dictionary (en tapas blandas) from storage and see if I can recreate the experience at home.  I would certainly pay good money to hear him reading his own work – but not in translation, it needs to be the original.

Having already felt that someone had walked over my grave, I was then knocked further from my axis by hearing Suzanne Andrade reading from her play Golem – what incredible and unsettling words.  A play it would seem I shall now have to take in – or at least acquire the play script (assuming it exists).  The show ended in emotionally safer – but no less fascinating – territory, with airline pilot Mark Vanoenacker and the story of waypoints and their sometimes surprising names.

For those of you worrying, I did (in due course) resume creation and then moved on to the demolition of my lunch – so my blood sugar levels are fine.  You needn’t rush out to bring my a snack – though, I wouldn’t say no.

Oddly, this feeds into a realisation I had yesterday sitting in the baseball court-like performance space of the Winchester Discovery Centre – well, it has the same flooring and even folding “bleachers” like a US high school sports hall – whilst enjoying a little chamber music.  It struck me that if we remove physical fuelling of the self, and the basics required for maintenance of the aforementioned self and his modest home, almost all of my economic activity is linked to the Arts (well, if we ignore the costs associated with my foolish plan to become a gymnast dreadfully late in life).  Most of my travel and eating (and drinking) out are because I’m off to see a play, some music, a little comedy or the like.  Even my trips to visit friends have as an ulterior (or at least bonus) motive of their being a chance to take in something (or preferably several somethings) cultural.  Frankly, I would be at a complete dead-loss without the Arts: I’d have to manufacture an interest in sport or cars or girls (or boys); and nobody wants to see that.

Culture vulture

The “Arts” worry about being elitist and how to attract the young and/or ethnic (in particular) to partake of their wares.  I was once young, though never very ethnic or elite (and two of these three things haven’t changed), but do now partake of quite a wide range of the Arts – so if I knew how this came to pass (and if – a very big if – my “journey” is a guide to that of others) I could be in line to make a decent living providing advice to the aforementioned “Arts”.  Sadly, I’m not really sure how it happened – as a child my primary activities were reading and listening to radio comedy (though never both, it just doesn’t work).  Pleasingly, both could be done in the warm, dryness of indoors and while prone on my bed.  I do recall occasional visits to local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan – but that was all I can remember of the Arts from my formative years.  Perhaps I just formed unusually late?  It could explain why I remain rather childish…

Actually, not all the Arts worry about being either elitist or attracting the young – or at least, they save any hand-wringing on this score to be performed behind firmly closed doors.  Current popular music (in its widest sense: which seems to be music that is neither classical or jazz and which is of a style once aimed at teenagers) seems unconcerned – and makes few concession to attracting the grey, or even middle-aged, pound.  I feel far more out of place when I go to see such music than I do when I go to soi-disant “high” culture – despite the age gap between me and the more typical audience member being roughly the same (albeit in the opposite direction).  I don’t know why – perhaps it is easier to be the youngest person in the audience than the oldest?  This sounds worryingly ageist – and as we older folk do most of the voting around here, something should be done about it!  Mosh seating, anyone?

Right, that’s the preamble over – let us settle down to the diary-based meat (or TVP) of this post.  As last week drew to its inevitable, but nonetheless welcome, conclusion I spent three successive nights enjoying culture – and this was all at some remove from the science fiction, radio comedy and G&S of my youth.

I started with cinema and Fyodor Dostoyevsky – or at least an adaptation of The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade.  This was my third attempt at Mr D’s oeuvre: a previous reading of Crime and Punishment and an Estonian cinematic-take on The Idiot had gone down rather poorly, not to say painfully (though I did stick with both until the bitter and depressing end).  The Double was rather good – and even contained actual laughs – and at no stage did I wish to leave or be overtaken by the sweet bliss of unconsciousness.

Day two, and we moved west from Russia to Germany and from cinema to the theatre.  An adaptation of Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind at the Nuffield.  This was jolly good, if rather under-attended, and continued the mix of fun and depression.  Whilst the adaptation had clearly updated the play – I doubt mobile phones and laptops figured in the 1906 original unless Herr W was a much better forecaster than I – the themes remained all too relevant after more than a century.  As a species, we seem rather better at technological progress than social.

Day three, and I stayed with Germany – though adding something closer to home to the mix – and moved from the theatre to choral music.  A concert by the Esterhazy Chamber Choir of Parry’s Songs of Farewell followed by Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem.  I’d been meaning to go to a concert of the Brahms for 20+ years – sometimes I can take a while to implement my plans (so if you’re still waiting, do not despair) – but despite the decades of anticipation the piece did not disappoint.  What a stunning piece of music – and well worth the wait to ensure that my first experience was of a live performance!

After this triumvirate of events, I realised that like a true vulture of culture I had surrounded myself – at least thematically – with death (apologies to any readers for which this comes as somewhat of a spoiler, but I feel that after a century I’m allowed to give away vague plot details).  I have become a consumer of cultural carrion.  I think it must be time for some culture with a sunnier disposition, less I become sucked into a black slough (or nearby Eton) of despond.

Ill-prepared for wealth

Listening to the radio earlier in the week, I chanced on reports of gift giving from Angelina Jolie to her husband, Brad Pitt.  They are both rather rich, and frankly could buy anything they might need – or even want – themselves, but I suppose the exchanging of gifts is an important piece of human social bonding.  I would have thought a small token would suffice, but apparently not.

For his 50th, apparently Mr Pitt is to receive (or perhaps already has) a heart-shaped island from his wife.  All I could think was that this would be a nightmare to wrap and then a pain to maintain going forward.  Apparently, for his 48th his partner bought him a waterfall so that he could build a home above it which would constantly resound to the noise of rushing water: I presume wrapping this was entirely impossible.  I can only hope that the house has plenty of bathrooms as the sound of constant rushing water is no friend to the bladder.  My 48th is not far away, and I would like to make clear now that I will not welcome the gift of any significant geographical or geomorphological features – despite my love of geomorphology.

Luckily this is unlikely, as my family operates a system for both birthdays and Christmas where the potential recipient is required to provide a list of presents that might meet with some degree of approbation if received.  Obtaining these lists is usually difficult and for the upcoming festive season I may yet have to resort to thumbscrews.  Basically, with the honourable exception of my nephew (who has youth on his side), we don’t really want anything.

I am reasonably well-paid, though nowhere near the level of a half-decent footballer, banker or Hollywood star, and have for some time failed to spend my salary during the year.  Whilst there are many things which I can’t afford to do, none of them are a terribly high priority in my life.  Perhaps if the human lifespan were much greater I’d get around to owning a yacht, buying a pointlessly fast car or flying first class round the world (to pluck but three examples from the air) – but I find there are plenty of much cheaper sources of fun and/or enlightenment which remain unattempted to try first.  I’m also trying not to acquire new stuff that needs to be stored – though my recent house move indicated that I am not quite as good at this as I liked to imagine.  Supporting the arts and eating out both work well as I only have to store the memories.  However, I only have the energy to do so much – so I’m now trying to increase the range of charities I support as well, particularly as successive governments seem to be leaving more and more things I think of as important to the vagaries of charitable donation for their continued existence.

It is often said that the best things in life are free, which is probably not entirely true and almost certainly requires you to ignore some element of sunk cost.  However, many pleasures can be very cheap at the time of experience.  This past Sunday, I decided to attempt a whole new (to me, not the world) piece of music via the medium of song.  My chosen piece was “Arm, Arm, ye brave!” from Mr Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus.  Despite my stumbling (née bumbling) attempts to sing the notes while accompanying myself with only the melody line on the old Joanna this was a glorious experience (though anyone who overheard it would probably have taken a very different view).  This was free (well, I already had the music, piano and voice) and way better than any number of luxury yachts.  Plus, to paraphrase D:Ream, its performance can only get better!

In summary, I shall continue to eschew the national lottery – this both saves me money on a weekly basis and significantly reduces the risk that extreme wealth will ever be thrust upon me.

Parenting the self

They do say that the child is father to the man, or if they don’t I just have. There might just be more in this than first meets the eye…

I don’t work full time as some years ago I decided that rather than upgrading my “life” to have bigger and better examples of stuff like houses, cars, etc I would rather work less and have more free time.  I was lucky enough to be able to make this particular choice, and so now work down to a salary – if you pay me more per hour, I will work fewer hours.  I’d like to claim this came about as a result of some stunning, Damascene insight but it can, in fact, be explained by laziness.  I refused to register for VAT – if the government wants me to collect tax on its behalf, it can pay the going rate (something it seems reluctant to do) – and so this capped my maximum income for the year.  Having found this income  plenty to fund my fairly modest lifestyle I saw no reason to change when I returned to working directly for “the man”.

As a result, I should have heaps of free time and a very relaxed and restful life – but somehow this doesn’t seem to have happened.  I seem to spend my whole life racing around like a maniac trying to “get things done”.   Some loss of time can be explained by my voluntary work for a local music festival, but for all the rest the only person to blame must be yours truly.

My obsession with travelling by public transport or bike and trying to buy local or somewhat ethical goods uses up a chunk of time.  This is getting out of hand, and is probably based on self-delusion, but despite owning a pretty fuel-efficient car I still feel guilty using it – all the more since seeing a cyclist wearing shorts in blizzard conditions in Edinburgh yesterday (I couldn’t help but be impressed and now feel that I should be trying harder).

I also like to cook two square meals a day – well, if I’m honest, what I really like is consuming the results of this process with the cooking being a necessary precursor (well, until the replicator makes it from Star Trek to reality) – and that takes a little longer than the “prick lid and microwave for 2 mins” school of dining.  The cycling (and gym visiting) means that I can eat these two cooked meals and the myriad other “snacks” that feature in a typical day without worrying about my figure (well, other than the risk of wasting away) but probably means that all the money I save on petrol, I eat (but surely that’s a lot more fun!).

Like many in today’s world, the internet and its various offspring waste quite a lot of my time – you’d be amazed how long these posts take to write: trust me the correlation between time employed and quality is very weak.  However, this is mostly the analogue of water one can still add to a vessel already “full” of sand.

No, I think the biggest consumer of my free time is my attempt to keep the Arts in this country going, single-hand if I must.  I’ve written about my addiction to theatre, but there are also the visual arts, music and comedy – even before we think about reading which provides one of the many reasons to use public transport: the Law takes rather a dim view of reading a book while sipping from a glass of red wine when driving (it’s health and safety gone mad!).

Last Monday, to help me copy with the loss of Being Human from our screens, I had a day off and took myself to London (obviously waiting for off-peak fares and my Network Card to kick in first – I’m not made of money).  This day illustrates rather nicely my slightly dysfunctional relationship with leisure.

Having arrived in town, I grabbed a quick bite of lunch and a particularly fine  hot chocolate (it may have lacked the marshmallows and whipped cream of some, but few could touch it for taste or beauty of presentation) at the Workshop Coffee Company in Wigmore Lane.  It was then only a short stroll to the Wigmore Hall for a couple of lunchtime string quartet courtesy of the Arcanto Quartet.

After that, a quick Jubilee line dash took me to the Hayward Gallery for the Light Show exhibition.  This is absolutely stunning – it brought out both my inner child (never far away) and my inner super-hero (rather more elusive) and I’d rather like several of the exhibits (albeit a little scaled down) for my home – it certainly makes you think about how drab and mundane most of our lighting is. It was the only exhibition which I have seen small children enjoying (some of them very small) and I would thoroughly recommend it to parents (though it wasn’t cheap – and I only had to pay half-price).

Cunning use of the tube delivered me (with a minimum of troglodyte meandering) to 10 Greek Street for dinner and tips on where my roasted celeriac patties had gone wrong.  They tasted fine, but lacked structural integrity as I’d missed out the need to double-crumb them.  I am turning into the Norm Peterson of 10GS – and am trying to view that as a good thing.

A quick tube dash then took me back to the South Bank and to the National theatre to see This House.  The play has received glowing reviews, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be my cup of tea – I find journalists are generally more interested in the world of politics (or celebrity, depending on the paper) than am I.  It is set in the Whips’ Offices during the Labour government of 1974-9 – and I am not hugely fascinated by politics and was a small boy during the period in question (though I do remember they had the audacity to hold a general election on my birthday which, in those dark days, meant no children’s television).  I needn’t have worried, like all good writing, whilst politics provided the context, the play was about people and their thoughts, actions and interactions.  It was fascinating, entertaining and unexpectedly moving – and three hours is soon gone (though that may just be my age talking).

I finally made it home at 01:15 having left at 10:00 the previous morning and filled almost every point in between with incident and moment.  No wonder I am generally exhausted – if this is how I spend my day off, a day in the office can only be restful by comparison.  I am forcibly reminded of the time, some 10 years ago, that I was given responsibility for a friend’s 10 year old son for the day in London (** spoiler alert **  no-one died).  Having no parenting experience or skills, I planned an incredibly full day – which nearly culminated in me buying the lad a long island iced tea to accompany his dinner (I did mention I lacked experience, such a purchase was fine for my normal dinner companions).  The following day I was totally exhausted – but so, I discovered, was he.  As a result I learned an important lesson in parenting – it is good for both parties if a parent (or supply parent, in my case) allows their children some time to be bored.  I think it may be time I applied this important lesson to self-parenting!

A stage I’m going through…

As I set hands to keyboard, I see it is a good six weeks since I last posted.  Well, ‘good’ if you view the arrival of a new post from GofaDM in much the same way as a zebra greets the tender, watery embrace of a peckish crocodile.

This period of neglect follows a rather heavy period of work (something the regular reader will know that I usually try to avoid) which has left me with little time or energy to render my musings in electronic type.  Despite, or perhaps as a result of, this lack of new material visitors continue to come to my shop door and this has shamed me into returning to my laptop.  I also have whole heaps of plans for posts, s many that they are now keeping me awake at night and the only way to exorcise them is to send them out into the unfeeling world (or at least the only way I am currently going to try).

In a, probably vain, attempt to retain my somewhat tenuous grasp on sanity I have been turning to the Arts over these difficult early weeks of 2013.  Little do the philistines in charge of this country’s purse-strings realise what a vital role the Arts play in the continued economic viability of the UK (or at least in my part thereof).  Still, on the basis that most government policy is decided on the basis of anecdotes – at best (certainly evidence seems to be largely ignored)  – I hope this may have a salutary effect on future funding.  Whilst books, music, comedy, television and cinema are all important – the main plank of my strategy to keep the “men in white coats” (with their vans with such nicely tinted windows) from my door has been the theatre.  This would have astounded the me of little more than 18 months ago who had barely been in a theatre for more than a decade.  It would seem that the theatre is rather more addictive than is generally realised – maybe it’s the smell of the grease paint?

My theatre-going began with classics from ages past – and this continues.  Among these classics, I’ve seen two plays this year (both farces) by Arthur Wing Pinero, a character I had previously assumed was a fictional creation from the late night Radio 4 show Date with Fate hosted by the splendid voice of Charles Gray in the guise of AWP.  Turns out he (AWP not CG)  was also a real playwright of the late nineteenth century and despite choosing The Magistrate on the basis of a complete misunderstanding, it was a scream and on the strength of this example I went on to see Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar Warehouse last week.  This was also good fun – though less farcical, but with more heart – and the interval ice cream whilst on the expensive side was rather larger than the usual theatre fare.  Interval snack mention: tick.

However, the most exciting theatre I’ve seen has been new (or at least recent) writing.  This often also has the benefit of being staged in smaller, more intimate venues.  I have come to realise that I am much more willing to take a chance on a play that may be outside my traditional “comfort zone” than I am with a film or a TV programme – rather an odd choice to make from a cost perspective as I’m taking chances with the most expensive option, but so far it has worked really well.  Most of my choices have proven to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Many I’ve chosen on the basis of proper, broadsheet reviews (which give me some idea of what I’m going to see) but some, as this past weekend, on much flimsier criteria.

My first was selected on the basis of a single actor (though it later transpired to include Meera Syal as well, so two actors).  The actor in question, Damian Molony, I think is quite excellent as Hal in Being Human and was also great in Travelling Light at the National last year.  However, more important than his acting chops was the fact that he is the man who introduced me, via the medium of Twitter, to 10 Greek Street – so I owed him one and the least I could go was go and see his latest play in partial recompense.  This play, if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep has the longest title of anything I’ve seen and was the most overtly political.  It has received mixed reviews – the Torygraph particularly took against it – but I found it darkly entertaining, if occasionally uncomfortable, and the most thought-provoking thing I’ve seen yet.  Criticism seem to fall into two camps: either that it would not be suitable as an undergraduate economics course (though something that was suitable would have made very poor theatre in the absence of a truly remarkable lecturer) or that it lacked character development.  This later would have been tricky to fix with more than 20 characters played by 8 actors across a mere 75 minutes.  I’d say it was highly successful at achieving the author’s aims in a very buttock and bladder friendly period of time.  The acting was also first rate and, as it turned out, I recognised fully half of the cast.  So successful was it that I went out and bought a book (from a flesh-and-blood bookshop) on economics directly afterwards – not something I ever saw myself doing.  I should perhaps note the stirling work of Tim Harford on More or Less and John Kay on a Point of View (both on BBC Radio 4) in rehabilitating the whole field of economics for me in the period prior to Saturday’s play and book purchase.  Expect the standard of economic discourse on GofaDM to improve markedly in the weeks to come (well, I say ‘expect’ but perhaps that may be building expectations too high , only time will tell).

Saturday’s second play was in the basement of the Hampstead Theatre which meant I visited Swiss Cottage tube station which is quite lovely (I’d recommend a visit), largely as it appears rather less “improved” than many of its brethren.  Another play with a long title, I know how I feel about Eve, this time chosen on the basis of a tweet by the stand-up comic Rob Rouse.  By the way, I have been to new plays with shorter titles – the previous week I went to see Port at the National (nothing to do with the delicious drink from Iberia, bur rather a reference to Stockport) which was also very good.  ikhIfaE was excellent, despite a subject matter I probably wouldn’t have chosen with greater advanced information, and in shades of the first (and best, for my money) of the latest series of Black Mirror raised interesting questions about the nature of identity when trying to replace the dead.  Again, in and out in a very reasonable 70 minutes – I find I’m rather liking these tighter plays, even though you do miss out on the interval ice cream.

Whilst I now find myself starting to becoming twitchy if I haven’t been to the theatre for more than a few days, even at my current (accelerating?) rate of consumption I cannot keep new (and old) British theatre going alone.  So, can I urge all GofaDM readers to make the effort to visit the theatre – it need not be that expensive (oddly new theatre is often cheaper than old, despite the works being stubbornly within copyright) – and they could use the money (as to be honest can the Arts more generally).  Why not try something new or just different to your normal fare?  It has certainly worked for me!  If it affects you as it has me, we can form a new take on AA – Audience Anonymous – to try and manage our condition (something Hal would certainly understand).