Maiden Aunt

Not alas, the sister of a parent who can keep a batsman firmly pinned to his (or her) crease – though surely such folk must exist – but instead a rumination on my role (or one of them) in life.

This blog has noted before that I would make someone (or ones) an excellent maiden aunt despite my total lack of ability at cricket and my possession of a volume of Y-chromosomes that would normally lead to instant disqualification.    For a start, I use far more allusions to the game of bridge in everyday conversation than is normal – especially as I haven’t played the game in more than a decade.  Of late, my inner aunt seems to have been moving ever closer to the surface and it can only be a short while before she is engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight with my inner child for mastery of my declining years.

In my cultural outings, I often find myself able to observe young people “up close” and often for substantial periods of time.  This is not just my inate voyeuristic tendencies, but the fact that they are often performing on a stage (or where one should imagine a stage, though technically one does not exist) directly in front of me and it seems rude not to watch.

As a brief digression, this brings me to another one of my ragtag collection of unusual and not wholly utilitarian super-powers.  I seem unable to attend any theatrical production without at least one member of the cast getting their top (and often more) off.  To answer the naysayers who may think the old fool has wandered into a gentleman’s club (a place where I suspect one is very unlikely to encounter a gentleman, or at least one meeting my definition thereof) while not wearing his glasses, I can assure you that these are excursions to the proper theatre and not to venues where dancing takes place on the sort of surfaces normally used to rest a tray or mobile computer.  It may be that theatre is hoping that torso-based nudity will bring the punters in or that I am subconsciously choosing productions where stripping is required, however, I am assuming that something about my prescence must be causal.  Perhaps fortunately, this power only rarely shows itself outside the theatre, for now at least…

This leads us neatly to the first aspect of my maiden aunthood: the young and theatrically inclined really need to be eating more.  Every man-Jack (or woman-Jill) of them, almost without exception, seems worryingly close to emaciation.  They make me look overweight, something which would only be medically viable if I lost around a foot in height (I’ve tried just eating or drinking more, but it doesn’t seem to work).  We are told there is an obesity crisis afflicting the young (and the not so young), but most of my test subjects give the lie to this idea.  My other sample of young people, who could probably be described as music/jazz geeks, share this tendency to a willowy lack of physical substance.  I had even less flesh when younger than I do now – training as a middle-aged gymnast has helped place some minimal meat on my bones (though I fear I’d still make more of a low-fat starter than a main) – but I don’t remember being this skinny, even in my famine poster-child days.  I find myself worrying that these youths may inadvertently snap a limb live on stage should they be struck by a falling leaf or flying athropod.  I’ve started to wonder if I should be bringing a good square meal or two with me to each gig: or would this be viewed as odd?

The second indicator of my changing status relates to the idea of “feeling the benefit”.  I first noticed this at the Joiners – a rather famous local music venue which I’ve started visiting in 2017.  I have even used the gents, despite strong warnings not to (they really aren’t that bad, I’ve seen much worse).  During the cold January evenings, I noticed young people in the audience – and indeed on stage – continuing to wear their full outdoor clothing long after they had transitioned into the relative warmth of the venue.  My inner aunt was very concerned that when the music ends and they are cast back out into the frosty external air they wouldn’t feel the benefit of their warm(ish) clothing – an issue likely to be exacerbated by their general lack of adipose insulation.  I have, to-date, resisted tendering any advice in this direction (but it’s not been easy).

The third indicator came at an open-mike might at the Talking Heads.  By some distance the best performer on the night was a young lad sporting several haircuts, what I would consider an unwise volume and distribution of tattoos and lobe deforming ear ornamentation.  You might have thought that one of these aspects of his appearance might have brought auntie Stuart to the fore, but no, (s)he was far more worried that he didn’t seem to be getting enough sleep.  As an insomniac myself, I fear there was little advice I could offer the chap but still feel I should perhaps have given him a quick talk on sleep hygiene (not that this knowledge has ever done me much good).

So far, I have manage to resist spitting on my hankie and scrubbing a smut or simlar mark off the face of a stranger, but I feel it can only be a matter of time.  Is there some sort of Aunts Anonymous with a 12-step programme that I can join?  Or am I doomed?

 

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Dad 321

It had to happen eventually (it didn’t), I have finally experienced the joys of fatherhood (true, but misleading).  And now I shall just leave matters there, in an attempt to build some dramatic tension…

I spent last week in Edinburgh, at the famous Fringe and its much smaller cousin, the International Festival.  As usual, I attempted to fit way too much culture into a week, but as last year I attempted to manage my addiction by refusing to attend any show starting after 22:00.  I may have been massively over-stimulated, but at least I was tucked up in bed before midnight!  Effectively my ego was acting as a rather laissez-faire parent to my id, but did at least impose some boundaries (okay, one boundary – but you have to start somewhere).

As I headed north for my annual cultural overload, the weather was set fair – or so the Met Office claimed, erroneously as it transpired.  So damp and totally unlike the forecast was the actual weather that a lesser man might suspect the Met Office to be in the pay of an unscrupulous cabal of Scots mackintosh and umbrella vendors, attempting to lure gullible Sassenachs north with insufficient wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, years of childhood holidays in Wales mean that I am not so easily fooled.

As is traditional, my Fringe had an underlying bedrock of comedy, but this made up the smallest proportion of my gigs yet. Before going I had left myself a note to see a chap called Tom Ballard, though I no longer had any idea why.  Trusting in the judgment of past-me I dutifully went to see the youth – and was surprised to find he was Australian.  Despite this handicap, I had a great time at his gig and current-me can thoroughly recommend the lad: however, I still have absolutely no idea why past-me had made a note of his name.  Does this suggest that my work in temporal mechanics will shortly bear fruit and that I use the breakthrough to provide gig recommendations to my past selves?

In a further nod to tradition, several mornings were spend at the Queens Hall soaking up some classical music.  Mark Padmore made a vastly better fist of An die ferne Geliebte than I ever have – and I was watching him (and listening) very closely for tips.   Despite this hawk-like observation, I still cannot say how he filled the whole venue while also singing piano and even pianissimo.  Other musical highlights were the Dunedin Consort playing Handel, accompanied by the stunning voice of Louise Alder (where required, she sat out the concerti grossi) and a concert of piano, viola and clarinet centred around György Kurtág.  This is a very fine grouping of instruments and the works by Mark Simpson, Marco Stroppa and Robert Schumann have opened a whole new area of music to me, though I may need a little more time to fully embrace Mr Kurtág himself.

Circus also played a big part in my week, once again demonstrating that I have a long way to go before running away to the big top is a viable career plan.  Most of the circus seemed to originate from Australia, perhaps indicating greater legal protection for French-Canadians (who, like elephants, can no longer be exploited to thrill an audience), and was very good.  My two avourites were A Simple Space and Elixir which both combined amazing skills with a lot of fun – and, in the case of the latter, the first time I have seen a man actually steam.   In fact, every circus I saw was good and introduced some new physical feat or new way of approaching an old idea which suggests that there is life in the form for some time to come: which is good new for my long term career planning.

For the first time in Edinburgh, I branched out into dance and saw an amazing piece called Smother.  This claimed to be hip-hop dance, though given my limited (okay, non-existent) knowledge of the genre I wouldn’t have guessed, and the 55 minutes flew past.  It would seem that hip-hop embraces rather more than a rap-based musical style: you live and learn!  I am now more keen then ever to extend my limited gymnastic skills into  b-boying – though was distressed to discover that even in this apparently free form of dance, one is still expected to keep in time with the beat (or at least the young performers clearly acted as though this were required).  Do evening classes still exist, or are we supposed to leaen everything from YouTube videos now? Music-wise I also went to see the Melbourne Ska Orchestra which was a great experience, though unlike much of the audience I did resist the urge to dance (too early in the day for my blood-alcohol levels to have reached the threshold required for dancing), but I’ll admit it was a close-run thing and had the seating been a little less cramped I might have “cut a rug” (as I believe the young people say).  My other favourite musical piece is harder to describe, it was a combination of fairly thin spoken autobiography, a music lesson and some virtuoso piano playing by Will Pickvance (a chap I had heard on The Verb, purveyor of many good things).  This, in a place where animals were once dissected, was a thing of total joy and a complete contrast to everything else I saw.  It somehow seemed to recharge my cultural batteries.

I also looked at some art and discovered that 10am is rather to early to face the full onslaught of surrealism.  It also became clear that Bridget Riley’s work is not ideal for the sufferer of astigmatism: though staring at some of her works does function as a suprisingly effective legal high!  I can fully recommend Inspiring Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery which opened my eyes to the the role of Daubigny in so much of the impressionist art – and indeed beyond – I have seen over the years.  The exhibition ends with a wonderful, if heart-breaking and very late, painting by Vincent Van Gogh: it would seem I now cry at paintings too.

The final category of fun was theatrical.  My favourite piece came from Belgium and had the unpromising start time of 10am and subject matter of the terrorist massacre at the high school in Beslan.  Despite this unholy trinity of issues, Us/Them was an amazing piece of work and made the whole week in Edinbugh worthwhile on its own.  In fact, Summerhall was awash with interesting Belgian theatre (mostly Flemish) – of which I had time to see far too little – so I think I may have to spend some quality time in Brussels.

Right, I suppose I’ve kept you waiting long enough, I should explain my recent fatherhood and introduce my new son (who has a bushy beard and probably out-weighs his father).  My second favourite piece of theatre was Every Brilliant Thing, which I wanted to see last year but was sold-out and so this year I got myself organised (just a little bit, to quote that sage of life planning, Gina G).  It was worth the wait, though I did blub a little (well, I was more involved than usual in the plot) having made it through Us/Them with (almost) dry eyes.  The play stars one half of Jonny and the Baptists (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal it is not “the Baptists” and that one should never trust a swan) and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the audience.  Many people are handed a slip of paper to declaim at the appropriate moment: mine was numbered 321 (not, so far as I know, in tribute to the late Ted Rogers).  However, a few of us had larger roles and I had to play Jonny’s father (and to an extent Jonny).  This seemed a fairly modest obligation at first, safely discharged from my seat with only a minimum of speaking (just the one word, albeit delivered several times) or acting required (so very much pitched at my level of skill).  This contrasted with one member of the audience who had a lot more work to do while wearing only one shoe: and in my performance she was so good at her part I still wonder if she had been practising.  However, just when I thought it was safe to rest on my laurels (or cushion, no laurels were provided) I was dragged centre-stage and required to give an impromptu wedding speech as the father of the groom.  I’m sure my readers would not have been caught napping, but I had come woefully unprepared with not so much as a best man’s speech on me.  Luckily the discovery that Jonny (my son) was very much shorter than me provided an “in”(by way of reference to his tiny mother) and I managed to extremporise a small speech which went down suprisingly well.   It is rather nice being applauded by an entire theatre, if also a tad embarrassing, and I rather fear a monster has been created.  In future, I shall expect a round of applause for any impromptu declaration exceeding a couple of sentences.

Gosh, that was a long one – and such a range of references, if I were a better chap I’d provide footnotes.  Suffice to say, I had a splendid holiday but very little (if any) of a rest.

Bit’ a Schubert. [The] guy was a dude.

It is a little more than two years ago that I started going to the theatre regularly, some might say obsessively.  Over time, I have moved from classics and comedies and, indeed, the intersection of the two (I’ll leave readers to construct their own Venn diagram), into darker territory.  I do begin to wonder if I may (unbeknownst to myself) be a comic book hero, as they all seem to be heading in the same direction – with Batman very much in the vanguard.

The first theatrical experience I can remember was a somewhat terrifying pantomime in Canterbury – this wasn’t (so far as I can recall) a bunch of current pop hints linked together by someone off of Emmerdale as tends to be the current vogue – with a very angry (and frightening) Christmas pudding as the villain (or so I remember, but this may not be 100% accurate as it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger).  Despite this trauma, I have not developed any sort of phobia about plum duff in later life (though I suppose there is still time).

My first “adult” experiences of theatre were visiting the Oxford Playhouse when at university.   I can still remember a rather young Helena Bonham-Carter playing a somewhat unconvincing Ariel in a student version of the Tempest, a very funny melodrama entitled Black Eyed Susan and an amazing performance of Oklahoma! by the local operatic society (for the avoidance of doubt, caused by the limits of English punctuation, HB-C as Ariel appeared in only one of these performances).  On one of my visits back to my alma mater over the summer, I revisited the Playhouse to see Dunsinane – a sort of “what happened next?” for Macbeth.  The play was excellent, but the Playhouse interior was entirely unrecognisable from my student days (down, I think, to refurbishment rather than amnesia).

But, enough of the nostalgia already, yesterday I took the train up to London for an afternoon and evening of quite dark theatre (though not without its laughs), with both plays owing something to the topic of child abuse.  My first was in the West End: a place I usually avoid as a result of the high prices, poor sightlines and poor quality ice cream offerings.  However, Mojo was very well reviewed, boasted a stellar cast (half of which I had previously seen on stage) and a famous auteur.  The play was excellent, very funny at times and at others pitch black.  The cast were brilliant – and must be exhausted playing eight shows a week as it is fairly physical play and has a lot of words, often spoken very quickly and at volume (my voice wouldn’t survive a single performance in at least 4 of the 6 roles).  Daniel Mays, in particular, must have had quite the vocal training to survive his performance.  I am still amazed when I see actors that I have seen before – whether on stage or screen – how unlike their previous roles they are (well, except Sean Connery – but I’ve never seen him on the stage).  I realise this is a fairly critical part of the job, but it remains somehow magical to me.

As seems fairly common with my theatrical “picks”, we do see quite a lot of the cast and so I can say that stage acting does seem to keep the weight off quite effectively (at least for those in their 20s).  I wonder if Sport England or the Department for Health should be promoting Amateur Dramatics more assiduously to tackle the obesity crisis?

The play also provided a celebrity spotting moment, as at half-time I discovered the elderly head which very occasionally blocked my view of part of the stage, belonged to Peter Bowles.

After pit stops at Foyles and 10 Greek Street, I headed to the Finborough Theatre.  This is a place I’ve been planning to visit for ages, but somehow never managed to do until yesterday.  Their website warns you to allow plenty of time for your journey as latecomers are not admitted (and I could see why, as to reach my seat I had to cross the “stage”) and they were right – the Piccadilly line was jiggered and I had to find an alternative route to Earls Court (hiking at speed to Westminster followed by the District Line).  The Finborough is on the top (I think – I didn’t count the stairs and compare against the height of the building – pure laziness I’ll freely admit) floor of what was once a pub, but is now a wine bar, and is a very intimate venue – which I much prefer.  The whole theatre – stage and “auditorium” was little (if any) larger than my lounge – so you are definitely close to the action.

The play Unscorched was about a man who starts a job requiring him to view on-line child pornography as part of the effort to shut-down the websites, rescue the children and prosecute those involved.  It follows how this affects him over a three month period.  This sounds awful, but the play was incredible – funny at times, moving, thought-provoking and one of those that will stick with me.  The two main actors Ronan Raftery and John Hodgkinson were both excellent and there was great support from the rest of the cast.  I think it might be the best play I have seen yet – and I have seen quite a few, all good and many really excellent.  It was also less than one third of the price of Mojo: I really don’t know how they get the economics to work (and I do worry about such things).  The staging was also very clever which may have helped, requiring little more than some carpentry, some carpet tiles and a little ironmongery (hinges et al).  I caught the final performance, and I’m pretty sure held the door open on the way downstairs for the playwright – Luke Owen (who was irritatingly youthful).  It won a prize (judged I’m sure by those far more qualified than I) – the Papa Tango prize.  This is a fairly new prize for new writers and its first winner was Dominic Mitchell, who later wrote In the Flesh which has already been praised on this very blog.  I shall have to keep a very careful eye out for the winner in 2014 as the Papa Tango panel and I seem have some serious commonality in taste.

Choosing new, or newish, plays with edgier content but that are either well-reviewed or have potentially interesting content really seems to be paying off for me.  This is not something the me of even three years ago would ever have expected to say (or even type) – I’d always assumed that new plays were a form of penance for the audience (and perhaps some are and I’ve been lucky to miss them).

The day held only two disappointments: (i) Southwest Trains – of which more another time and (ii) the shortage of women – two plays, eleven actors and only one who could boast a pair of X chromosomes.

Oh, the title you ask: that is a direct quite from Unscorched and is almost the last line of the play.  Rarely has a truer phrase been spoken on stage!

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).

Rodent athletics: revisited

As those that know the way my mind works will already have realised, I am back from my sojourn in Edinburgh and am back to the rat race.

It was great living the life of the flâneur for a whole week, albeit one with rather limited exposure to green vegetables coupled with not insubstantial consumption of fried food and alcohol.  When in Rome as they say…    Normal service has very much had to resume, since my return I have completed my tax return for 2011/2 and finished my latest assignment for the Open University.  This was the dreaded “reflective essay” where I have to talk about myself as a student and despite what you may have inferred from this blog, I really don’t like writing about myself in any serious way.  I realise that I should in theory know far more about the Fish than I do about the art of Benin or the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich – but somehow it never feels that way.  Still, it’s done now – so my navel can go back to accumulating fluff unobserved by its owner.

My return has also meant the need to return to the day job.  As if this were not horrifying enough, I shall have to spend two days (and the night they encompass) in Woking.  I have another thrill unpacked day in Surrey next week as well.  Woe, woe and thrice woe king, to paraphrase the soothsayer of Up Pompeii!  Truly, I am the monarch of dolor.

I also find myself missing the heady mix of comedy, poetry and theatre that filled my time among the Picts.  The combination of Luke Wright and Dirty Great Love Story – which had significant chunks in verse – reminded me of how little use I have made of my rhyming dictionary.  Before I doze off of at night, I have been trying to construct poetry to fill this void but with little success.  For some reason my wind wanders either to work – be it paid, voluntary or OU – or to construct poor quality jokes.  As an example of this latter, I present “Exhibit A”:

Q: Why do Balladeers make very poor surveyors.

A: Because they constantly vacillate between three and four feet to their meter.  (The correct value is 3.28 feet).

I did warn you it was poor and should probably have mentioned that it requires knowledge of the metrical form of the ballad.  It would work better with a verse form entirely in trimeter, but I was unable to find any in English and I thought Greek verse would be needlessly obscure (even for GofaDM).

My yearning for the theatre was partially satisfied by BBC2 on Sunday night with Murder: Joint Endeavour.  Not a cheery piece this, definite hints of Scandi-noir (not too surprising as it was directed by a chap who cut his teeth on The Killing), but an absolutely brilliant piece of television and really quite theatrical (I could see it working as a play without too much difficulty)- if none too kind to my birthplace. I think all this theatre-going is expanding my taste in drama: to continue the good work, I wonder if I can sneak in a  visit to the stalls on one of my journeys back from Woking?  Must be worth a try…

Yawn free?

My Fringe binge is drawing towards its close and I have this morning “off”, except for a modicum of IT support (which is the currency that I exchange for my accommodation), so I felt it was time to bring my readership up to date with my “doings”.

Booking later and to a less rigid plan, coupled with fewer late night gigs, has definitely been a success – though, perhaps oddly, has failed to result in my aged limbs finding the duvet’s embrace any earlier.  My gig choices have generally been sufficiently obscure (or, indeed, unpopular) that I have failed to obtain tickets to very few of my original selections – and the resulting need to explore more interesting alternatives has resulted in some excellent choices.

This is the first year I have tried Fringe theatre and my two examples so far have been excellent – with my third to come just after lunch.  I can thoroughly recommend Blink! at the Traverse and Oh the humanity… at St Stephen’s: both combined small casts and minimal sets but still provoked real laughs and some serious thinking, as already established it is much easier to sneak a “message” past my defences if it is accompanied by a good sprinkling of jokes (though whether I’m thinking the “intended” thoughts I’m never wholly convinced).

With the exception of the theatre, none of my Fringe choices have cost more than a tenner (obscurity is your friend), and even those have been some of my cheapest theatre going experiences of the past year.  As treasurer of an arts charity, I now found myself counting seats and worrying about the financial viability of the artists who have been entertaining me over the course of this last week.  Even if the venues are very cheap to hire (which I suspect may not be the case, despite their rather ad-hoc nature), the costs of a month in the Athens of the North (which given the collapse of the RBS and Bank of Scotland may be a more appropriate choice of alias than in days of yore) are going to make break-even little more than a dream for most.  Laundry costs alone must be substantial given the small and very sweaty nature of most of the performance spaces.  If I were ever to perform at the Fringe, the music played while the audience are waiting for my (not-so-grand) entry would be a recording of me playing a piece of 100+ year-old music on the piano or recorder to save on PRS costs, though oddly no-one has gone this route, yet…

Most stand-up is just the one person, but I’ve been to see a couple of sketch groups – which must have higher accommodation costs or else be very close.  Both Jigsaw and the Three Englishmen (Spoiler Alert: ** contains four men **) were very good (and extremely silly) and far more hit than miss (unless you count Nat Luurtsema as a miss).  Both shows may provide fodder for future nightmares: in the case of Jigsaw relating to fellation of Tom Craine (one of the risks of sitting in the front row) and for the “beef” Englishmen (ask Tom Goodliffe) I shall never be able to watch Nigella again.  I think sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my late night Radio 4 listening when a lad (for some reason it seemed to be banished to the post 23:00 slot), may be having a bit of resurgence.

Perhaps my biggest insight from this year has been the joys of the Free Fringe.  These events have no tickets or entry cost, you make a donation on exit, and the artists don’t pay for the venue – which I think is funded through bar sales (as they seem to take place in pub basements, usually of establishments offering a rather better range of beer than the paid Fringe).  I am wondering if this can be a funding model for classical music?  I’ve been to three FF (and now I abbreviate it, it is obviously my natural home) events so far: all have been excellent and include my two top Fringe shows of 2012.  Domestic Science was good fun, and properly educational: I shall never look at turmeric in quite the same way again and now want a stick dulcimer.  Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD was hysterical and I’ve now booked to see his new show this evening.  However, this year’s winner of the comedy Fringe is Nick Doody and his soi-disant Massive Face.  Most shows have been good for 50-55 minutes – a few with material for only around 40 – but have reached a conclusion after an hour and I’m happy to leave. I reckon Nick did a good 70 minutes and I would have been happy to stay all night.  I’ve only really seen him once before, also in Edinburgh, and he was brilliant then as well (a show I still remember bits of years later) – this man ought to be properly famous and not just to those of us who haunt late night Radio 4 and listen to the full list of writers at the end of the show to pick their choices for next year’s Fringe.

I know readers worry about the level of my calorific intake, so let me put your minds at rest.  I am now so well-known in Bonsai, that they know my usual – not bad in a bar-bistro more than 300 miles from my home.  Yesterday I also discovered the Edinburgh Larder – which provided quite the finest takeaway sandwich I can ever remember consuming and the accompanying brownie was pretty special too.  I may have to return in around 90 minutes time… (assuming I can hold out that long).

I have also learned some stuff about myself – and not just that I am now obsessed about the financing of the arts.  I have now reached an age where I am no longer afraid to sit in the front row – it usually has the best leg room, and that is way more important than the risk of being “picked on”.  I have also let go of yet another element of my masculinity.  I used to find the individual rooms at some of the larger venues using my own skill (or an exhaustive search): now I just ask some child employee (there seems to be almost no-one employed who would have had their own door key in my youth) or, at a pinch, anyone wearing a lanyard.  It is so liberating – and quick – I think the rest of my masculinity may not be long for this world (if only I had a feminine side to fall back on).  Or is this just the last of my shame finally departing for a less challenging assignment?

Traditions

For those of a certain vintage, tradition becomes increasingly important – if only as a bulwark against the ever-increasing rate of change.  I also find that I start to develop a growing number of traditions of my own – and the last couple of days has scored quite highly in the I-Spy Book of Fish Traditions (a book with a rather limited potential market I’ll admit – but that’s the joy of e-publishing, or so I’m told).

On Thursday I made my annual August pilgrimage to Edinburgh and, as is my wont, spent most of the journey stuffing my face with the nourishing largesse provide by East Coast to its first class passengers.  Unusually, my journey was routed via Kings Cross – as this offered the cheapest Advance fare at the time of booking (I may be first class, but I am still cheap and do manage to consume most of my fare in free food and drink, further boosting its value for money credentials) – so I was able to check out the newly revamped station.  This is a significant improvement on the old rather tatty concourse, and has even gained a platform – though those travelling with an owl will be disappointed to learn that it is numbered 0 (zero) rather than 9.75.  As part of the revamp, there has been a major boost to increase standards of customer care, evidenced by the announcements advising us to take care as we wandered around the terminal because of the “inclement weather”; this on one of this year’s all-too-rare warm, dry and sunny mornings.  If only other sections of our rail network aspired to – and better still delivered – such high standards.

Auld Reekie was bathed in glorious sunshine and in my first 24 hours in the city I managed to cover pretty much all of the traditional activities I have accreted over the last few years.

  • Seriously good classical music: Tick.  The Arcangelo consort and Iestyn Davies doing the honours at Greyfriars Kirk (no relation to James T, so far as I know).
  • Quirky comedy: double Tick.  Both Matthew Crosby and Stuart Goldsmith were huge fun.  I’m always puzzled where Mr G is not better known: I caught him as part of a triple bill of folk trying out their Edinburgh acts in Cambridge a few years ago (3 for £5) and discovered he was brilliant.  Yet another example of why it is important to try things you don;t yet know you like.  Push that envelope!  Lick that stamp!
  • Serious cake: Tick.  The Falko konditorei in Bruntsfield does provide some serious cake (or more accurately torte) action for the true connoisseur – and the hike across the Meadows from the Pleasance does significantly ameliorate any feelings of guilt that might otherwise be involved.
  • Bonsai: Tick.  On my first ever visit to the Fringe, I needed to find a decent eatery near the Pleasance – and the miracle of the interweb brought me to Bonsai.  This could be the best bit of browsing I’ve ever done as it is now my regular haunt whenever I’m in Edinburgh.  Japanese food is genuinely fast and sustaining, and so I can grab a quick “course” between gigs.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day – so often have I been, that the staff recognise me even though I’m only a customer for a single week each year.

The second 24 hours was pretty good too.  I can add Michael Legge and Lloyd Langford to my comedy recommendations – though I’d see the former sooner rather than later, as I’m not sure his heart will hold out much longer.  My plan to try and do a little bit less is working nicely – though doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of earlier nights yet.  Yesterday, it meant that I escaped from the rather limited (for which read, non-existent) cask ale offerings at the Fringe venues to visit the Regency splendour of the Cafe Royal.  Not a cafe, but a very fine pub which provided your truly with a brace of pints of Deuchars IPA at a significantly lower price than the nitro-kegged horrors on offer at the Assembly Rooms (though still at a price level that shocks those who fondly remember Joey Holt’s at 99p/pint in the Bluebell in Moston).  My visit also scored me another minor celebrity spotting to add to my list: the long-haired TV archeologist Neil Oliver.

Yesterday also yielded another traditional (and for the reader, tedious) trope with news reaching me of the official opinion on my latest OU essay.  It once again yielded 95 of your English marks (somehow I can never quite make it to 96): given the amount of blowing this particular trumpet is receiving at my hands, my embrasure must be coming along nicely.

Today I shall be breaking new ground, with my first visit to the theatre in Scotland – but first, back to tradition: the full Scottish breakfast.  So for the next hour or so, black pudding, bacon and sausages will be deemed to be vegetables (mostly).