X-Men

I should perhaps start with an apology to lovers of the work of Stan Lee and his Marvel colleagues and admit that I am no expert on their oeuvre.  Nevertheless, I can’t help observing that most of the X-Men seem to have mutant abilities with a decidedly martial bent.  All well and good for fending off existential threats to the earth and/or its occupants from megalomaniac foes but of less utility in navigating the humdrum vagaries of daily life.

I seem to recall one of the X-Men could convert his skin to the sheen and consistency of metal which I will admit would be handy when picking gooseberries, cutting back a bramble or retrieving a lost ball from a nettle patch.  Storm could control the weather which would be a boon for farmers, gardeners and those planning outdoor events in our unreliable climate – but I must admit that the chaotic nature of the weather system does lead me to worry about unintended consequences.  If a butterfly flapping its wings in one location can trigger a hurricane in a distant locale, I do worry what impact the use of Storm’s superpowers to water my brassicas would have on the wider world: just think of the potential lawsuits?  I suspect that a hosepipe or watering can might be the safer option.  Wolverine’s rapid healing would be very useful for the klutzier among us but I could do without foot long metal blades emerging from the back of my hands: I have a very sturdy pair of kitchen scissors (which can and does crack nuts too) and an 8.25″ cook’s knife for anything they can’t handle.

If I’m honest, most of the superpowers exhibited by the X-Men also seem to play fast-and-loose with the laws of thermodynamics with energy and matter being created, and complex nuclear and condensed matter physics being performed, with no clear power source.  I think one can “borrow” energy from the quantum vacuum, but it does expect very swift repayment even for the tiniest of loans.  I have a feeling its debt collection makes even the least forgiving and most violent of loan sharks seem the very height of patient forbearance.  It’s not even as if the X-Men have a big meal before a major session of world-saving, or enjoy a slap-up dinner when they get home.  I have to do little more than cycle over the Itchen Bridge to find myself in urgent need of a pretty substantial snack, while Magneto can hurl around whole armoured divisions without scarfing so much as a handful of raisins.  I feel that the Laws of Thermodynamics are there for everyone’s benefit and should not be flouted willy-nilly: it’s basically an invitation to the dread Anarch to let the curtain fall and allow universal darkness to cover all.

The stage now set and the impracticality of fictional superpowers being, I like to think, firmly established, I will now go on to discuss actual superpowers witnesses by the author.  Given the nature of my life, these will relate to the production of music – though I think there could be side benefits in other areas of life.

On Saturday I went up to London for my musical fix – though I will admit to taking in a little music (and poetry) in Winchester on my way thanks to the excellent FAP in the Attic at the Railway Inn: which, as its name suggests, nestles close to Winchester station making it a convenient point to break a journey.  Well, that would normally be true but we seem to be going through an extended phase of Southampton being cut off from the rest of the world by engineering works and so my “rail” journey was only marginally swifter than walking.  I don’t often go to London for music – I think I only did it twice in 2017 – as it is a relatively expensive and time-consuming option and because there is so much music available locally.  Indeed, I feel slightly like I am betraying my adopted home city by going to gigs in London.  On this occasion, I missed a number of interesting gigs within walking distance of my flat though, despite popular belief, I do not (and can not) go to every gig howsoever hard I may try.

I went up to London to see Marius Neset at King’s Place (Hall One)  – which is a rather fine venue, guarded by supercilious metal goats (which will be the name of my first heavy rock band).  I first saw him playing with the London Sinfonietta at Turner Sims back in 2016 and that concert really blew me away.  I decided then that if he were to return to these shores I would make a serious effort to see him and this excursion made good on that pledge.  This time he was playing as a quintet – three of whom had been with him in Southampton – but the vibraphone. marimba and chimes player was new to me (more on him later).

Marius is my first suggestion for an actual superhuman.  At times watching him play the saxophone reminded me of observing albatross off the Otago peninsular in New Zealand.  With the albatross I kept thinking that they would have to flap a wing soon, with Marius I thought that he must have to breathe at some stage in this extended virtuosic solo but, in both cases, I was disappointed.  The man has frankly inhuman breath control and/or lung capacity – though did have the decency to appear slightly out-of-breath when speaking between the extended pieces.  I am also convinced he was producing polyphony from the saxophone – something which I had assumed was impossible with a reeded instrument.  I suppose these skills may be of limited use outside of playing woodwind, though I suspect if he ever fancied a stint as a pearl diver he would be a natural: though my recollection of John Steinbeck’s take on that career is that Mr Neset is probably better off sticking with the music.

Such superhuman skills would certainly inspire a degree of awe in me, but these were applied to a series of glorious jazz compositions and with incredible musicality.  He even continued the work that Gilad Atzmon had started a couple of weeks ago and has left me convinced that the soprano sax is a sensible musical instrument and not, as I had previously thought, a terrible, squeaky mistake by Adolphe Sax.  I may not be an expert on the saxophone, but a friend who was also at the gig is a very fine sax player and also rated the playing as the best he’d ever seen.  It is early in 2018, but I am taking little risk in saying that Saturday night will be on my list of the best of the year – possibly even the decade.

The whole quintet were of the standard you’d need to support such stunning sax playing, but it was Jim Hart, the vibraphone and marimba player, who is my second superhuman of the evening.  My longest finger is some 3.5″ from base to tip (I know as I have literally just measured it: my guess had been longer, but then I am a man).  My attempt to play Scarlatti requires me to play a note on the piano with a finger in my left-hand and then immediately play the same note with a finger from my right hand.  This relative minor crossing of my longish (for a human) fingers in a relatively confined space is proving quite the challenge to make work.  The risk of a finger-jam is never very distant and all the notes do not yet reliably sound in the right order.  (Does the melodeon have a more QWERTY-style keyboard to reduce the risk of finger-jams, I wonder?)  Mr Hart was playing using a pair of 18″ (my guesstimate) long sticks (probably not the technical term) in each hand, hitting up to four notes on his “keyboards” simultaneously with the sticks in the left and right hands crossing each other in a blur of movement and not the slightest hint that a collision was even the remotest of outside possibilities.  I still can’t entirely believe the evidence of my own eyes, but if I was going to “gift” anyone with Wolverine-style blades I think Jim would be the least likely to become a danger to himself and others.

So good was the gig, that I even stuck around afterwards to get a CD signed by the great man himself (as shown above).  Unusually, I seem to find myself in agreement with the Daily Telegraph who gave the concert it 5 out of 5: which doesn’t leave the lad much room to improve but I’d still be reluctant to bet against him managing it.  Should he return to these shores, I’m certainly keen to go see him give it a try!

Based on the gig, I have been inspired to try and learn circular breathing, though fear this may end up looking more like an impression of an asthmatic squirrel in the midst of an attack.  Certainly, the omens so far are less than encouraging.  Perhaps more practically, I feel it is time for my first clarinet lesson – so expect a post in about 20 years revealing how it went!

Vmail

Of the species is deadlier etc?  No?  Oh well, back to the original plan…

I may have hinted that the weather over the last few months has been a immodestly moist and bracingly breezy.  I shall now go even deeper into the territory of the Daily Heil and form a tenuous link to the frequency of refuse collection.  Fear not, I shall continue to avoid blaming foreigners and or the young for everything at variance with my increasingly narrow world-view and shall make no claims as to which objects or concepts might cause or cure cancer.

As a result of recent climatic conditions, in front of the bike store where my modest selection of velocipedes shelter from the elements (spoiler: the store provides little protection from gaseous molecular nitrogen or oxygen) there is a definite strand-line.  At present, this pseudo-beach is mostly covered by drift wood – I have yet to spot a mermaid’s purse or beached jellyfish, but I’m not much more than a mile from the sea so it’s probably only a matter of time before one finds its way here.

For reasons best known to itself, the city council has not collected our glass recycling for a good six weeks now.  If they leave it much longer (given the bottle-rich time of year), I should have enough raw material to establish my own glass recycling business!  As a result of the build-up, I have been sorely tempted to put one of the many uncollected bottles to use.  My plan is to place a written message within the bottle and leave it, under cover of darkness, on the nearby strand-line for some child or gullible adult to discover.  I think I shall distress the message using some cold tea to give the feeling of antiquity and will write in a foreign language and include a cry for help – but beyond this basic conceit I’m struggling for killer content.  Any ideas will be gratefully received and may appear as a story in The Echo is weeks to come (if my plan is a success).

Oh, the title?  Well, it struck me that a message-in-a-bottle could be considered vitreous mail.

 

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?

The heat is on

As exclusively revealed in the last post (and a couple of postcards) I have been in bonny Scotland, staying with friends in Edinburgh.  These friends, in respect of their response to the ambient temperature at least, are substantially closer to societal norms than am I.  As a consequence, they were actually running their central heating and had supplied a duvet with a TOG rating well into double figures (unlike the 4.5 TOG summer version which I am using at my unheated home).  Despite my hosts pandering to my more obscure temperature response curve by turning off the radiator in my room, for my first night I was kept from sleep by the oppressive heat.  I gradually discarded sleep-wear and progressively uncovered more of my unsleeping form from neath the duvet until I was completely exposed.  However, ultimately I was forced to open the windows in order to achieve the sort of temperature which my body has come to associate with sleep.  Luckily, my body did adapt to the conditions and so by night two I was able to sleep with the windows closed and any frost confined to the world outside.

Whilst north of the border, I did indulge in some reasonably typical leisure activities: a little alcohol was consumed, I ate out several times and took in a spectrum of the Arts: cinema, chamber music and painting (as audience, rather than a more active participant).  I also partook of some less widely enjoyed activities, including a couple of sessions analysing the functioning of a central heating system and a little freelance IT support.  I find that I am oddly accomplished when it comes to understanding the functioning of central heating systems and their foibles, despite rarely using them myself and how totally useless I would be if I were required to implement the fruits of my analysis.  I fear that I am very much an armchair plumber/electrician – but, if such you need, I am available at a very reasonable rate.

On Friday, I decided it was time to explore Scotland outside of the region served by Lothian Buses.  My original thought was perhaps to sample the nearby delights of North Berwick, but somehow this plan morphed into a visit to the Cairngorms – perhaps, subconsciously, I was still seeking the cold?  Aviemore is really quite accessible from Edinburgh by train with a roughly hourly service taking 3 hours (±15 mins).  I can thoroughly recommend the journey, especially north of Perth where the scenery grows increasingly wild with first forest and the moorland and mountain to see as the train trundles along.  Being mid-February there was also copious snow to be seen – often between the tracks, not just on the hills.  The route rises for much of the journey to reach the highest spot on the UK’s mainline rail network, before dropping down into Aviemore itself.  Despite taking such a “classic” rail journey, I eschewed the brightly coloured, stripy blazer and tried to minimise my condescension to the locals.

Once in Aviemore, we took the short trip to the funicular railway which takes one up the Cairngorm (to some 3600 feet).  Even the foot of the railway is pretty high and offered some very fine views – the summit is even higher, but offered no views whatsoever as the clouds descended and stayed.

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

This was the first time I had been to a ski resort during the “season”.  What a lot of gubbins you need to go skiing!   So much special equipment and clothing, so little of it flattering.  It quite put me off the whole idea – and I did (once) learn to ski, just outside Tunbridge Wells (justly famed for its mountains and powder) – and if that hadn’t, the lacerations and bruising which covered any exposed part of the snow sports folks bodies (as glimpsed by the author) would have convinced me.  However, while skiing looks nothing special, snow-boarding does look quite cool – an aura which seems to attach to all board sports (with the possible exception of shuffleboard), though (oddly) not to board games.  Perhaps I should try the skateboard, it seems to need less extreme clothing than its cousins and significantly less specificity on the geography where it is practised.

I was, of course, dressed for the “slopes” in exactly the same clothing I had used on the previous day to wander round art galleries in Edinburgh.  Weather is like a wild animal, it can smell your fear so you must show no weakness in its presence.  Wandering around at the base of the funicular railway to capture the views, I will admit that the air was both fresh (some of the freshest I have ever had the pleasure to inhale) and bracing:  I even did up one button on my jacket, but there was no need to fish the (thin, summer) cardigan from my bag.

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

Despite my lack of interest in many of the traditional activities that take place there, I can thoroughly recommend the Cairngorms for a day trip (or longer).  (Based on my experience, I’d definitely recommend reserving a seat on the train, as both were surprisingly (to me) busy for a winter, school day).   I was able to post a very reasonably-priced postcard to my nephew from the UK’s highest post box – and enjoy a cheeky mulled wine (or two).  The train journey back, as night fell, also offered a wild beauty: as the sun set, the colour was slowly leached from the countryside leaving a rather haunting monochrome landscape.  All in all, I had a wonderful day out in what felt like a very different world from the one I’d left that morning – and all without leaving the country!

Baking

Whilst the title could be an allusion to some of the temperatures ‘enjoyed’ in the environs of Sawston over the last week (conditions that, according to our friends at the Met Office, will not continue to be enjoyed over the week that is to come), it is, in fact, a reference to the culinary arts.  Indeed, given the all too frequent downpours which were so much a part of the past week’s weather, a more apposite culinary reference to recent climatic events would have been to steaming or use of the bain marie.

Regular readers – as well as needing to get out more – may well be aware of my love of cake and other expressions of the baker’s art.  I refer here, of course, to the individual or artisan baker here – rather than to the mass produced rubbish that passes for cake in so many commercial outlets.  Now, I am more than capable of baking but, perhaps as a consequence of my inner puritan, tend to feel that making cakes for myself is rather louche – so usually only bake when I am entertaining (yes, I know you dear readers are still waiting for this circumstance to occur).

There are a couple of exceptions to my ascetic home life.  I do make a rather fine (and, to me at least, somewhat addictive) bread pudding – indeed, in my youth did so commercially on a very small scale – using store-bought bread made using the Chorleywood process.  I tend to use Hovis as the primary raw material because a) they use British wheat and b) it amuses me to think of a Yorkshire youth pushing his bicycle up a steep cobbled street to the accompaniment of Dvorák’s symphonic homage to the United States (now, there’s juxtaposition for you!).

I also have a bread maker (a machine, rather than a member of my household staff) and so make my own eating (as opposed to cooking) bread.  Recent scientific advances have led to the creation of a wholemeal spelt fruit loaf which is rapidly supplanting bread pudding in my affections.  This recipe was developed from a model provided by the Panasonic corporation but with a number of tweaks – the most significant of which was substantially upping the dried fruit content and adding nuts.  Nevertheless, I am always on the look out for a new cake emporium…

Last night I was in the packed chapel of Corpus Christi college, as part of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, listening to pianist Libor Novacek play a programme which (uniquely, in my limited experience) combined Brahms and Liszt.  You will be pleased to know that despite this provocation, I limited myself to a glass of elderflower pressé in the interval.  The concert was stunning – especially the closing Liszt piano sonata (in B minor), though I do feel sorry for the poor chap’s abused fingers.  Conversation with the lady sitting to my left during gaps in the programme yielded the secret of a local, and somewhat hidden, tea room which apparently serves a wide range of excellent, home-made cakes and scones.  Any sort of fine weather which may be delivered by the week ahead will definitely call for a ride out to Grantchester to investigate…

Drip, drip, drop

Today’s title would better describe the total rainfall for April 2011, rather than being part of the rather saccharine word picture for a little April shower (as is more traditional).  It would seem that April was the 11th driest month (of any flavour) in the last 100 years – it seems Cambridge has had less than 5mm of rain since the start of April.

This level of dryness takes me back to October 1978 which was similarly, astoundingly dry – and when I was the principal factotum for the Weather Club at the Kentish Secondary Modern school I was then attending.  I think this was partly because I lived very close to school – and thus our Stevenson screen – and perhaps also because I was the club’s only member (or only active one) other than Mr Woollard who ran it.  It was my daily checking of the school rain gauge that demonstrated the autumnal drought, and which led to the start of my media career.  Somehow, the story was picked up by BBC Radio Kent and I was subjected to an in-depth interview.  But this was such a major story that it was too big to stay in Kent, and later I was whisked from a biology lesson to be interviewed for BBC Radio 1.  This was long before Radio 1 was cool – if, indeed, it is now – and when it had a kid’s strand on a Saturday morning to which my exclusive meteorology-based piece belonged.

In subsequent years, my radio career has rather stalled.  I’ve had a few emails read out on Wake up to Wogan, and appeared on both 209 Radio and BBC Radio Cambridgeshire talking about tennis – I know, who’d have thought: me being interviewed about sport?!  In the latter of these live radio appearances (my earlier, pre-teen radio career was recorded), I correctly predicted the results of both the mens’ and ladies’ singles finals at Wimbledon – so if any readers are interested in my top betting tips, I am available at my normal consultancy rates.

However, that stroll down memory lane – pleasant though it may have been – is rather closely related to a digression (probably too closely to marry).  In fact, I was inspired to write about rainfall – or rather its absence – by a number of recent events.

Last night I was at a concert given by a piano and ‘cello combo (OK, given by their players – but without the stringed devices it would have been reduced to mime or humming).  A splendid programme included Estampes by Claude Debussy – which I am sure you know is divided (like Gaul – cis-Alpine, trans-Alpine and Unmitigated) into three parts, the last of which is entitled “Jardins sous la pluie”.  This reminded me of the recent severe lack of pluie which my garden has found itself beneath – so bad have things become that (a) I may have to retract a previous post and admit that Sawston does have a semi-arid climate and (b) actually pay for water to irrigate my crops.

The news yesterday reported that a European satellite, which goes by the rather dismal monicker of SOMS, can tell how much water there is in soils across Europe by examining microwave emissions – and apparently, they are dry (I know, I should have warned you before making such a shocking and unexpected assertion).  Apparently, the earth (in common with the ancient universe and a small box in my kitchen) emits microwaves – and the quantity varies depending on how moist my garden is.  Could there be some way to tie into this satellite, so that in my absence my tubs and cash crops could be watered automatically?  I feel ESA may have missed a trick here.

My final observation relates to the Met Office here in good ole Blighty.  In normal climatic (i.e. wet, grey and miserable) conditions, their five day forecast invariably shows the 5th day as dry and sunny.  The Met Office is part of the Ministry of Defence, and I think that in order to reduce civil unrest they have instructions to provide a beacon of hope as part of their forecast (they assume everyone will have forgotten the promised improvement by the time it fails to arrive).  Interestingly, in these drier times the 5th day of their forecast always seems to promise rain – though once again, it never seems to be delivered.  I can only assume that their instructions have been changed to reduce the risk of armed insurrection by worried gardeners and farmers… (These people have easy access to rakes, hoes and other sharp or pointed tools, and I doubt our ever diminishing army or police could hope to contain them if they rose in open rebellion).

However, as I’m on holiday next week – I’d quite like Wales (at least) to remain subject to drought conditions for a little while longer…