Friday, 29 June 2007

Strawberry Yoghurt - Pomona Thick and Creamy Yogurt (pasteurised)

From the little Costcutter supermarket in the Golden Lane building on the infant Goswell Road.

Delicious! But is it bad that it's pasteurised? Erm, dunno. Presumably M. Pasteur would say: mais non, espèce d'idiot! and point out that a sell-by date in September is a Good Thing. But I guess that does mean that on the dead-live spectrum it's hanging around the left-hand end, yes? Should I worry? It's such a nice yog ...

Very fruity, non-artificial looking colour (I mean, yes sure, it will have been faked up a bit, but it's not actually fluorescing). Ingredients list not too alarming in terms of fake-inosity, probably not incredibly good as a slimming aid though. I am not sure if it's meant to be that the list is in order of proportion (of added ingredients, it says) but I note that cream comes first. Tsk! Excellent non-slimy texture. Definitely a repeat-purchase item.


Rather a good'un

Yeah factor: 8

Astonishment: 5

Comfort: 9

Grelltt: 6

Sploorn: 7.5

Overall: 8

Party animal

Our 100th birthday party appears to have been a monster success, and people enjoyed themselves, and have been telling me so quite insistently ever since. I am surprised and pleased. Even more surprising and pleasing is that I enjoyed it. My word yes. Since the "kitchen at parties" song could have been written for me, this is little short of astonishing. (Note to self - find that song, it's quite good.)

I will write more on this utterly crucial and compelling topic some time but I just wanted to note these Amazing Facts before the working day caught up with me and turned me into a miserable ranting cynical old f*rt once more.

Can I get?

No, you bl**dy well can't!

"Can I get" sounds so dreadful coming from a British person. Certainly, if you are American then fine, please carry on. Over there it's standard usage - great, fair enough and jolly good: I have no argument with that.

Over here, however, it just sounds downright rude. We just don't say it: or rather, we did not. Now, however, we have been taught by American television to speak like this. Clearly we are easily influenced and believe that Americans are better people than we are, and cooler, and they have more fun and the cafe in Friends is nicer than your local cr*ppy Greasy Spoon. But, gosh. You can have some of that glamour, be sprinkled with lifestyle stardust, just by adapting your language. "Can I get" makes you sound so vigorous, so thrusting, so Chandler...

... Except it doesn't, not over here, not to me anyway. I'm not sure how to explain this because if you can't hear it you just can't. But to me it comes over as far too direct and demanding: it seems to carry with it the implication of untrustworthiness - can you get one? Gosh, I'm not sure, the coffee machines are a fair distance from the counter and the staff here look a bit flaky, so maybe not. Or maybe it's a request or threat that the speaker might just go and get their own - can I get it, that is, go and get it, because I'm not so sure you ever will?

At the root of this is perhaps some quite subtle difference in what is meant by ''get" in this context - to me, it has a distinct flavour of physically going off and fetching it, whereas the Central Perk meaning seems to have more to do with simply possessing or acquiring it. This is pretty much what you'd expect and doesn't really do much to frighten the horses: it's only a problem because the different uses clash.

So, if "can I get' makes me cringe so much then what am I advocating? Dunno really - what did you say previously, before Can I Get came along? How about:

  • Could I have ...
  • Can I have ...
  • May I have ...
  • I'd like ...

- or even just:

  • A/some [name of thing] ...

(The use of ''please" is assumed in all the above!) Like I said, I don't really know: there must have been a few dozen ways of asking for things before Can I Get made its pushy debut on the right-hand side of the Atlantic. Why not try some of them? Please?

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Gig-a-Blog™ (LBO, Richmond)

Due to the exciting, up-to-the-minute, frenetic, always-on world that I inhabit, ahem, yes indeed, I started writing this actually at the gig, just before the nonexistent curtain went, metaphorically, up on the second half of the concert. I used a portable computing device. My word.

On Sunday 10th June the Leeds Baroque Orchestra was in Richmond - the proper original one in Yorkshire, none of your namby-pamby southern nonsense - doing a gig at the utterly exquisite and delightful Georgian Theatre Royal. Its theme was Water Music and it featured various wet, or at least damp, works by Telemann, Vivaldi, Lalande and Handel. The oldest of my extensive team of daughters was playing the Viola of Baroqueness in this rather fine amateur original instruments band.

Yup that's what I said. Amazing, innit? When Ah were a lad (takes out pipe) there were only about nine people doing old instruments in the whole country and now you can hear an amateur group - a good amateur group - just like that. Cool.

I travelled up to Leeds on Saturday afternoon and met B just after they’d finished rehearsing, having walked up from the station while pausing every ten paces to give thanks for my new wheelie bag thing which is just so much easier than struggling and swearing one’s way around with the Bundu Bashers bag (which has now developed a coy and rather embarrassing squeak so it forever sounds as if it has just been goosed). The rehearsal venue is the Clothworkers Hall, of (and/or next to?) the Leeds University music department which moved into an interesting new building four years ago. Sadly I did not get to see inside (the train times didn’t really work – I would have had to be there much earlier) but it looked good. Another time perhaps.

We then went off and had a nice curry with some of the orchestra – a very pleasant group of people. I think there were about nine of us in all. Akmal's Tandoori Bistro is in Hyde Park, a couple of minutes from the university – a nice, peaceful setting and good food. The restaurant seems to have a building programme on to add some more space, and indeed the orchestra were saying it was wise to eat early: although it was quiet enough while we were there, it would be heaving later on.

After that we set off for Richmond, or rather for the very fine Elmfield House B&B about six miles south of Richmond. The drive up the A1 was uninspiring but once we got off the main roads, it was a very different story with an interesting road and pretty little villages.

Elmfield House is lovely! After a difficult period of trying to find a hotel or B&B that was nice, accessible and affordable, B ended up where we should have started, and asked for advice from the Tourist Information Centre in Richmond. I actually knew this from my touring opera days but had forgotten - TIC staff are usually wonderfully knowledgeable, and nice with it: they are often (but not always) middle-aged ladies of a motherly disposition and this is often exactly who I'd want to talk to! Anyway, they'd recommended to B that she try Elmfield House and they were not wrong.

It's a nice house, down a little lane. It's got lovely people, good access, comfy rooms with good facilities and an absolutely charming dog. B had the first room on the ground floor and I was almost vertically above her on the first floor. Once we'd sorted ourselves out a bit we went and sat outside on the lawn and watched it get darker.

We'd already met Astra when she welcomed us and now we met Ian and their very nice dog Ozzie. He's a black alsatian who was going to be a police dog, but failed because he was too unaggressive. Ah bless. He looks like Daisy's worst nightmare (he's quite a non-small dog too) but is actually a real sweetie. I was also quite impressed with the nice little bottles of Merlot which were supplied on a help-yourself, honesty-book basis in the dining room. By this time I was feeling - without a huge lot of justification - as if I'd had rather a long day so the whole garden/sunset/chat/wine/dog thing was all really rather welcome and pleasant.

When it got too dark and chilly outside, we moved to the massive conservatory and sat there for a while with hot drinks. By the time we knocked off and went to bed I was so relaxed you could have folded me up and posted me under my door. Elmfield House is a place I'd be very happy to stay in again: I'd go straight back there another time.

Sunday morning kicked off bright and early(ish) with a delicious cooked breakfast. Despite this excellent start we left a little later than was wise, then encountered navigational trouble in Richmond: the GPS did not have a perfectly accurate position for the theatre and the one-way system pretty much defeated me. Indeed I don't think the GPS was quite current on the road system, which probably didn't help. I felt really quite baffled by how difficult it was to get around in the town centre - though of course that is to an extent the point - they don't really want me driving round in the market square, thanks all the same. But blimey.

I remember an amusing piece that Alan Coren or someone wrote many years ago about some French town where he reckoned the Syndicat d'Initiative had constructed a traffic system such that tourists were guaranteed to get funnelled in only one direction, doomed to end up driving round and round the same small loop in some obscure area, gradually losing hope as they realize there's no way out. Yup, you're way ahead of me, that's how it was starting to feel. I could still not give you a coherent answer to a question such as: "how, pray, does one drive from alley-near-theatre-front to alley-near-theatre-back, a distance of some fifty yards as the knackered, jaded, moth-eaten crow flies?" although a few years of counselling might help. I mean, I seemed to mostly accomplish this by going via Darlington or somewhere. Tsk. Deploy the phase-shift booth, engineering chief, I will drive these roads no longer: bzzzt!

Anyway: we got there a bit late, which was suboptimal for various reasons, but eventually B was on stage and playing and I was - well, all over the place, frankly. Thanks to the magical powers of the camera and my being semi-officially sanctioned to take photos I was allowed, nay encouraged, to wander all over the front of house. I'd have got better photos (and of course looked cooler) with the monster digital SLR which I would one day like, but it was fun

Later, they laid on a tour for the LBO Friends who had turned up so I tagged along. It was led by a nice and entertaining man, an ex-Stage Manager from the theatre, and was more than worth the modest three quid they ask for. It was a very comprehensive tour with lots of interesting information - a highly pleasant way to spend a half-hour.

The theatre is really, really gorgeous. It's minute - I think it only seats a couple of hundred. Certainly, many rows in the pit (=stalls, essentially) had only five seats across, and I had a very strong feeling that from my box (of which more later) I could almost reach across and shake hands with my neighbours on the opposite side. About half the floor plan is stage - they told us this as if it's unusual so I guess it's the small size of the theatre that makes it so. It was certainly very noticeable what a small site it's on, and to what lengths they'd gone in order to use the greatest possible space for the theatre itself at the expense of all the ancillary stuff. On the tour we saw the amazingly cramped original stairs and the tiny box office, cunningly positioned so that no-one escaped the eagle eye of the proprietor's wife.

Obviously this has all come home to roost a bit in latter years when you're required to treat your audience a bit better, observe safety and access rules, and all that stuff. A few years ago they took the bull by the horns and built a brilliant new extension next door. This provides the whole lot - lift, loos, access, cafe and bar - and does so in an excellent and most sympathetic way. From the front it's about the same size and shape as the original theatre, but it is not an attempt to copy it - it's clear that it is a modern building. It's just that the materials and proportions complement the theatre without trying to steal its show. I guess that William Morris would have approved. It's also rather good to be in one of the bars, pleasant rooms with big windows overlooking the street. Very nice indeed, clever project, well done those people. At the same time the theatre itself had a substantial refurbishment, and looks very well on it.

When the rehearsal was over we zoomed off to find lunch. Acting on instinct I opted for the market-place but this wasn't a wildly good idea. Don't go here looking for Sunday lunch with a vegetarian wheelchair-user: you are not in for a happy experience. Combine the slopes and cobbles with the fact that in many places it's a roast dinner or nothing and you have an excellent stress recipe. We were almost settled into one hopeful-seeming place when the waitresses suddenly told us they had stopped serving, only about one hour earlier than their sign outside claimed: nice.

We did in the end find an almost-accessible pub and B had the roast-with-no-roast option, though she did at least get a rather good Yorkshire pudding. The pub also boasted a nice and apparently resident dog, which I always feel is a Good Thing. So it was a perfectly pleasant lunchtime in the end despite the somewhat elongated process by which we reached it.

Afterwards I realized that a little research or local knowledge would have done the trick just as it did with the B&B. Heading for the market place, probably the oldest part of the town, was a mistake. Turning the other way along the alley would have brought us to a slightly younger and flatter area with broader streets and bigger buildings. Even the small bit of it nearest to the theatre boasted a couple of semiposh chain restaurants like Café Rouge or whatever, which under the circumstances would have been pretty gosh-darned perfect. I somehow don't think they make you eat Sunday roast. (Though nor do they have nice doggies for you to chat to.) Oh well, and ho hum: you live and learn.

Having lunched we returned to the theatre, a manoeuvre which led me, via a nice coffee in one of the aforementioned bars, to my seat in the box where I began writing this. A "box" sounds perhaps rather grand, if you think of the Royal Albert Hall, and room for you, your friends, and a bit of space to serve food and drink: this isn't quite like that. It has room only for two chairs, and even that is a terrible, budget-airline squeeze. If the nice bloke next to me had been taller or less co-operative I'd have been in real difficulties. Really the only thing that makes it a box is a little waist-height partition between pairs of seats: in every other respect it's a row of chairs on a very narrow shelf. Turning your seat to face the stage is compulsory: otherwise there's no leg room at all and you literally couldn't even sit down. Behind and a touch above the boxes is a very narrow walkway by the wall, with bench seats along it, so that when everyone is seated, the row behind pretty much have their knees in your ears. Getting the audience in and out requires a good deal of co-operation and common sense. I hate to think what would happen if someone shouted fire, let alone the far more potent eek, a mouse! It's extraordinary. Were Georgian people really so much smaller?

Although it's all a bit squashed in, none of this detracted from my enjoyment of a really terrific concert. With the theatre being so tiny there's an incredible intimacy between orchestra and audience: it was like a chamber music gig. The orchestra played very well and the balance was great. Naturally I was seriously locked into Proud Parent Mode for most of the time, but I was also pleased to see and hear the trumpets and horns for the Handel. Yes indeedy doody. All good stuff. I did wonder about going and schmoozing the trumpets and doing the secret handshake an ting but thought better of it as it can kind of have Sad Old F*rt implications. They were in a hurry to leave (another gig, or just the journey - or the pub?) but I did glean that the first player was using a Webb.

Afterwards we made a fairly leisurely departure and chugged off with vaguely southwestern intent. Heading for Manchester, neither of us was desperate to take the M62 so a combination of B's flying fingers and the GPS found us an alternative, along a rather gorgeous A-road with nice moors, valleys and all that scenic bit: most satisfactory. The Micra is such fun to drive and this road was a gift.

On arrival in the City Of Mighty Rains we were greeted by B's nice friend Alex who is a PGCE stringy-type person and who'd been cat-sitting while we were swanning around up North. The said cats performed an elaborate dance of welcome in many acts, involving (from the younger two) much blasting round the room on full throttle. It's quite impressive (and possibly alarming) having your hair parted by a furry projectile doing Mach 1, especially if its final approach takes place below your radar. Stealthmog.

The other important features of the evening were Dr Who and takeaway pizza, a truly excellent combination. The Dr Who episode, Blink, though somewhat light on the Doctor himself, was nevertheless a particularly good one, with some fine behind-sofa moments. (Weeping Angel statues are not to be trusted, it turns out.) Seriously enjoyable.

And that's pretty much it. In the morning I got the train back to Euston - not too early, cost being a factor, as well as the desire for a civilized time of rising: the early trains must be only for those travelling on serious expenses! I went straight to work and was there around lunchtime. It seemed odd to sit at my desk and think through how far I'd been and what I'd done since leaving on Friday. So, this was a pretty busy weekend but rather a good one.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Avoiding scaffolding (ah ah ah ah stayin' alive)

Coming back from the lunchtime concert the other day I decided to take the scenic route, that is, back through the Barbican rather than along the streets. It's quicker in some ways (for example no road crossings and no crowds) and slower in others (no straight line route - you zig, then zag, then zig again!); it's also nicer. To do the cop-out edition I descend back to reality at Barbican tube and walk round through the square, but the luxury version has me come down the steps and/or ramp which make a sort of triumphal way (map) between there and the Golden Lane estate corner, and then I re-enter our site from Clerkenwell Road.

The trouble is that the ramp spooks me a little - three years back I was walking there on a very windy day. There was scaffolding all over the building which spans the ramp, up to about eight stories high. Just after I walked through under it there was the most horrendous noise and things started falling off. It sounded major but in fact it was only three scaff poles, albeit full-length ones that must be, I don't know, maybe three or four times my height. These fell from around the eighth floor to the ramp: one smashed right through a wooden safety floor at the bottom of the scaffold bridge and the other two fell directly. All fell aligned straight up and down, presumably in the same orientation as that in which they had been being handled, so they were like spears. One actually penetrated the tiled floor of the ramp and ended up standing upright, having stuck itself deep enough into the surface to do so. I remember it was swaying a bit. Quite impressive really.

This all seemed quite dangerous and I felt quite lucky that I had not been five seconds slower: narrow escape and so on. When you think about it this isn't too logical really - lots of people that day were not hit by falling scaffolding, and neither was I or anyone else there. So maybe it's not so much that I had a lucky escape, but that to be hit by it I would have to have had a very, very unlucky non-escape by failing to walk under there during any of the millions of moments when no scaff poles were falling. Even so, despite the logic, I felt a bit shaken.

One thing that amused me in the aftermath was when there were a few people on the far side of the scaffolding thinking about coming through. I indicated to them very clearly that they should not, as I did not feel sure that nothing else would fall. One young man on a bike, looking like a courier, seemed particularly keen to come through and I rather firmly told him, in word and gesture, to stay put, which he did for a while. He then cautiously and sensibly picked his way along the extreme western edge of the ramp - where a concrete overhang (please see the photo) makes you a bit safer from projectiles - and came over to join me. At this point I realized that the cyclist I'd been bossing around was actually a City cop, of the particularly cool shades-and-lycra variety. Oops. But he was perfectly nice about it, presumably recognizing that I was trying to avoid him being skewered, rather than trying to cause a societal breakdown by challenging his authority. Ho hum.

Anyway, that's why that particular corner of the Barbican gives me a little frisson as I pass it; and why I now try to make sure whether or not someone is a rozzer before I start being bossy at them; and why I am a bit cautious about scaffolding in high winds; and why avoiding the same is a sort of vogelistic code-phrase for trying to stay alive (and ... cue the Bee Gees!)

Helping Dad

Tonight I'm helping Dad.

I never got to help my Dad with anything.

Touring the house at an adagio shuffle, we check the back door is locked, the front door. Is the kitchen alright? The dog settled? We will attend to these things.

At seventeen I was a longhaired smartarse, not that you'd have used the word.

In the hall we discuss and investigate, with dignified thoroughness, the lights and locks. I'm not sure you know just who I am but you know each of these bolts, this chain, the four switches: each must be just so, as it always has been. There'll be no rest till the house is straight.

You're hardly fifty. You don't ask me for anything: maybe this is fortunate for it seems I have nothing to offer. I use hippy jargon: you don't like my friends.

We've reached the landing. You draw the curtains: they near each other with tectonic slowness, but we are in no rush.

You'd started teaching me to drive. It didn't lead to perfect father-son bonding moments. The old Rover was more forgiving than the people inside it.

Upstairs at last we continue our unhurried progress. You're not sure which is your toothbrush: I'm not either. Oh well.

Three decades later my ignorance about you still makes me cringe. You were baffled by me, what, six days out of seven? Worse, some weeks.

I haven't done up someone else's pyjama buttons since the kids were small.

I was away from home when you died.

I tuck you up, say goodnight and go out to listen. My heart is breaking.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Damnable Rotten Machinations

This on a file which I own, because I bought it, with my very own money, and I would like to play it on my computer please:

Media usage rights:
  • You do not have the rights to play this file
  • Collaborative play for this file is not allowed
  • This file cannot be burned
  • This file cannot be synchronized
  • The media usage rights for this file cannot be backed up
Oh right, well, er, thanks. Can I put it where the monkey puts his nuts perhaps? Oh, not that either, I see, sorry.

Why all this? Oh yes, I've had to move PCs a few times. New PC at work several times, new PC at home - and there's your license gorn.

This can't be right.

And yes, of course I backed it up, by making an audio CD, and yes I can therefore get it back onto my PC by ripping the said CD. But honestly, who would want to go to that hassle? It's a nonsense. And I am not someone who approves of illegal copying and so on but, good grief, this cannot be the way to do it - it just makes me think I'd rather do (almost) anything than go again through this hassle.

In case you are wondering the track in question is 2nd line from the Wynton Marsalis album "Live at the House of Tribes". But, sadly, there are plenty of other tracks which it could have been.


Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Live and let jive

I do wish that people, no matter how kind and well-meaning, would refrain from trying to get me to dance at parties. It doesn't work and its only effect is to upset me. Honest. Yes it's a problem and a far-from-desirable situation, but, as it's taken me forty or forty-five years to get myself this badly screwed up, it's not that likely that it can be sorted out in fifteen seconds. Unless you know a really good hypnotist perhaps?

I've just decided not to publish a massive, angry, mad, 1700-word rant, which has taken me an age to write, on this topic. It certainly said a load of stuff but, having read and re-read it a number of times, I've realised that it makes me sound even angrier and madder than I actually am, and is perhaps actually a bit much for the sensitive reader. (Or indeed any normal human being.) Hence this shorter and somewhat calmer version.

I should probably stop right now, before I end up recreating the unpublishable one. Vogel out.

Bl**dy stupid queueing arrangements and other Irritants of that Ilk

So ... you turn up in good time at Kings Cross Station or some similar resort of leisure and pleasure. You'd quite like to just go and find your seat on the train to Leeds and, you know, sit in it. Sounds like a good plan. Unfortunately that isn't going to work because the train isn't ready, because, well, it never is. Instead the nice LED sign says "Join QB" or something, so you do, and it all seems quite well-organized and reassuring, and they even have corridors marked on the floor to show where the queue goes, and this is largely observed, and it's all terribly British and organized.

This lasts right up to the moment when they put up the platform number. And in that very second the queue quite simply vanishes as if it had never been there, replaced by a ruthless stampede across the station concourse. Pity the poor, innocent naive traveller who was just standing there going "hello trees, hello sky' when this kicked off. They are probably still looking for bits of him.

And what, pray (I hear you enquire), has become of Queue B? It is gorn, quite simply gorn my dear.

Permit me a tiny digression. In the excellent science fiction film The Abyss there's a sequence wherein a ''water tentacle" explores the underwater drilling rig Deep Core. This tentacle consists only of water and is made coherent and controllable by the almost-magic technology of Them Down There in the said abyss, who are using it as a reconnaissance tool just as the humans have the remote mini-sub Little Geek. Anyway, it is a good special effect and clever and nice an ting and all is going swimmingly (aha) until the Navy Seals, led by our anti-hero Paranoid Depth-Psychosis Bonkers Boy, Lieutenant Tw*tbrains (this is not an entirely pro-military film, by the way), get a bit miffed about it, not having been trained to deal with peaceful aliens, sort of thing. Are you still following me, by the way? We get back to Kings Cross quite soon, l promise.

So the Navy, in a tizzy, slam the door on the tentacle, with immediate truncatory effect. Deprived of its link with - er - whatever, the water tentacle stops being magicaloid and reverts to being just water. One moment it's there and looks very real and structured, and the next moment: well, it's just gorn, with a bit of a sploosh.

All of which brings me back, as promised, to the lovely Kings Cross. Readers with massively enhanced perceptual skills may have seen this coming but please don't shout it out and wake up the others. Yes Colin, it's one of those sine nomines or perhaps a metallophone: the train queue is like the water tentacle, only a bit dryer and less tentacular. Platform announcement is to queue as door is to ... ? Very good Tamsin!

I don't want to get all hypertensive over this but it really is cr*p. Queueing was actually a Great British Skill, like making motorbicycles or moaning about the weather. The disgraceful anarchy which replaced the queue at Kings Cross is fine if you're mobile, fast and ruthless, but I hate to think what it's like for someone who is only two, one or none of those things, but has turned up in good time, queued in good faith, and has had some kind of expectation that some kind of fairness or civilization would prevail. I don't see why it has to be so cr*p. If they can't sort it out so the queue works fairly (and yes, I can see how this could be difficult but you'd not think it impossible, would you?) then maybe it would be better to abandon the lie which it embodies. Instead of "Join QB" the sign could say "we can't organize this place so just mill around randomly then do the 100m push'n'dash" which would at least keep expectations realistically low. At the moment what goes on there is not good, nice or civilized and is rather more worthy of Lieutenant Fargledbrains than of the rest of us, who are still meant to be a bit nicer than that.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

An unusual lunchtime

Having left the office, after a busy and stressful morning, too late to make it to the lunchtime concert yesterday, I ended up sitting on a bench in a quiet and pretty comer of the Barbican, near a fountain. Having first had some delicious fruito-yogo-matic drink I was planning then to do some writing but it was lovely and warm, and doziness soon got the better of me. I slept for ages, only waking up when a few drops of rain fell on my face.

When I stood up to leave, a phenomenally cute Yorkshire Terrier puppy came trundling up to say hello, at some length.

This lunchtime may not have been quite as culturally profitable as going to hear Bach at St Anne and St Agnes. It was, however, pretty jolly good in its own way.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Hurrah (Google Earth UK images)

At long last, Google Earth has high-resolution images of Northumberland and many other UK places which were previously languishing in low-res. This is excellent. They only did the (very large) update on June 2nd and I had not noticed till now. I feel as if I have been waiting for years for this to happen! Hurrah, and again hurrah.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Oops: the King of Timing strikes again

Oops silly old Vogel

  • I didn't realize that draft entries stay at the date you started them, rather than picking up the date you publish. So you might want to look at this new entry which has suffered from being drafted for quite a while and thinks it's in May.

  • Oh and I have added photos, which you may not have seen, to this story. Wasps' nest anyone? Tables on grass for picnic event? Yes, those ones.

Yes indeed. Thank you for reading this Editorial Flow Control announcement. Ahem. Yes.

It's ...

No, it's not Monty Python's Flying Circusuzuzuz, it's just a quick rant about its and it's.

  • You can only write it's - and indeed you must - if it is short for it is or it has. Otherwise, you need its.

Is this a Very Difficult Rule? I don't think so.

  • It's Monty Python etc (short for it is) .
  • Rome takes its revenge (possessive - look Mummy, no apostrophe).

Or am I missing the point here? And yes, I know it does not really matter, and there are lots of other sins you can commit, like starting a sentence with "and". And almost everything else what I ever wroted will have it's detractors. Im not claiming to be reelly good at this stuff. But - sheesh! Just this one thing, its easy enough to get right, and people dont. Maybe we should just not worry? I doubt that, somehow. Its annoying. Aaaargh!

Monday, 4 June 2007

Starting Orienteering at Forty-Something

Here is an article I wrote for my orienteering club's newsletter, Pacemaker. I am a member of the Hertfordshire Orienteering Club, also known as Happy Herts. Please apply all normal self-deprecatory caveats to this article, though I am also vaguely proud of it in a way despite its heavy weight in unhidden agenda and occasionally bad writing. It's also written for existing HH club members which means it uses some jargon and (to a lesser extent) feeble in-jokes: of these the only one of significance that might need clarifying is the reference to "the struggling and little-known Southdowns Orienteers", which is actually a massive, hugely successful and utterly brilliant club so my brother joining turned out to be a big boost to me. M45 and M50 are just age/sex classes and mean respectively male people 45-49 in the current calendar year and male people 50-54 in the ditto ditto ditto. This is what I was when I started (M45) and what I am now (M50). Now read on...

* * *

I discovered orienteering rather late in life. Well, discovered is a silly word for this context: it was there all the time, and all I had to do was stumble over it, or find it on a map, or some combination of the two. By the time you read this I’ll be an M50 and that’ll only be my fourth year in the sport: I do rather wish I’d started ten or twenty or plenty more years ago, but hey, I didn’t, so I’m making the best of it from M45 on.

I’m not exactly a sporting hero: far from it. I come from a seriously non-sporty background, but I love the outdoors and maps, and was taught to map-read, perhaps quite well, by the Air Training Corps when I was a teenager. Had the Russian hordes ever come screaming across the Elbe there’s no doubt that my ability to find the public footpaths around Goblin Combe would have been a serious setback to their plans. Apart from occasional country walks, the only regular exercise I usually get is swimming. At school I was a total games refusenik: I deeply hated the cricket and rugby sessions at the school field. Indeed, the only times I enjoyed school sports were the games lessons from which we escaped: due to seriously negligent supervision it was delightfully easy to sidle off the edge of the field and straight into a little wood, where we’d happily go exploring. Maybe this was fate trying to drop me a hint about approaches to sport but if so I was, sadly, too dim to notice it for about thirty years

Certainly, my school wasn’t, in those days, about to put a lot of effort into sports development for no-hopers like me. Sport was like music or art – either you could already do it, or you couldn’t: end of story. Except it’s not quite the end of the story. Fast forward a couple of decades and suddenly I’m fending off a scary illness, the sort of thing that can really ruin your weekend in a rather permanent sense. Then exactly one year later a dear friend, of much the same age, simply dropped dead one day. This sort of thing concentrates the mind wonderfully and I started thinking about sports and fitness again. I can’t remember when I first became aware of orienteering: maybe it just sidled into my consciousness while I wasn’t paying attention. Looking back over ancient emails I find that it was 1997 when I first started enquiring – rather half-heartedly I fear – about orienteering. Now, writing in 2006, I’m hugely annoyed that I didn’t follow up on it then: my feeble excuses for not doing so would require another ten pages so we’ll skip them but suffice it to say that my very hazy picture of orienteering, and what I might get out of it, wasn’t enough to overcome my strong inhibitions about sport, about joining an organization, about doing something new, about being useless at it, about always coming last; you name it.

This state of affairs continued for some years, with orienteering – whatever it was – somewhere vaguely around as a half-understood idea of something I might want to try one day, if I ever dared. I think this would have continued indefinitely had help not appeared from an unexpected direction: my brother David suddenly (as far as I knew) took up orienteering, joining his local club, which just happened to be the struggling and little-known Southdowns Orienteers. David had inherited all the courage and decisiveness, along with the brains, so he didn’t spend years vacillating about whether or not to do the sport: he just got on and did it. This really changed things for me as I now had a constant stream of information and experiences to share in. This was just what I needed: I’d previously failed to identify anyone I knew who was into it, and this I found crucial. I couldn’t help but notice that SO had a pretty full programme of events, as my brother kindly invited me to many of them, and eventually the day came when I made it to one.

It was a difficult beginning: unfortunately David was badly delayed en route so the planned gentle introduction didn’t really happen and instead I found myself sitting alone in my car feeling seriously cheesed off, wondering whether to give up and go home, feeling like I couldn’t just hang around for another hour doing nothing, and so on. (I should add that this was Southdowns’ rather wonderful 3-in-1 event, which runs for a decently long day, and was therefore a very useful one at which to dither about whether or not to participate.)

In the end I gathered together my last few scraps of courage and went up to some tent or other and said, “er – what do I do?”. I do realize that a huge majority of people reading this will be going, “uh? What’s brave about that?” but believe me, there will be a few others who do recognize the feeling. For a certain personality type, an event like this can seem a pretty scary environment. You don’t know anyone, you don’t know what to do, you’re worried about making a fool of yourself in 93 different ways and your fight-or-flight reaction is kicking in. And since it would seem impolite to thump someone, you’re left with flight: your sofa and telly suddenly start to exert a strange magnetism. Maybe you aren’t meant to be here at all, among these proper sporty people: you are simply too old or fat or foolish or whatever, and you’d be better off at home. I should not, by the way, be portraying myself as a completely non-coping Billy No-Mates, lacking in all competence and confidence. I operate just fine in my native leisure-habitat, orchestral music – it’s really only in the area of sport that I’ve felt always quite such a fish out of water.

Anyway, I did manage, despite the terrible chorus of nagging doubts, to go and ask for help and, as you’d expect, received it in abundance. I still felt pretty clueless, and I’m pretty sure that I carried out the classic Wrong Queue Manoeuvre at least once, but somehow or other I eventually found myself in possession of the right bits of high and low technology, and ready to start. Even starting was a bit of a bafflement, but the nice SO people running it recognized my advanced state of helplessness and got me started in a kind, efficient and painless way, and even pointing in roughly the right direction, as I had by now, in my fright, pretty much forgotten how to use a compass. I even managed to not freak out completely when I realized that I was going to have to copy all those lines and circles and stuff from that map to this one, and I may even have put some of them in the right places, yes indeedy.

And I was off. At that point – and I don’t want to overdo the sentiment here and make Pacemaker’s readers feel too nauseated – my life changed. I suddenly realized that this was the sport I wanted to do, and that I actually could do it. It’s not that I was so great at it, I hasten to add, but rather that it was so great for me. I am not likely, ever, to wildly impress anyone with my results but that wasn’t, and still isn’t, the point – I was just enjoying being out in the woods with a map and trying to figure out where to go next. One of my concerns about orienteering had always been that it would somehow or other feel like a race, an experience from my schooldays that I’d be reluctant to revisit. Until I actually tried the sport I had no idea how it actually felt, and how inclusive it is of all speeds and skill levels. All my worries about this kind of stuff pretty much vanished during that first run. By the time my brother arrived I was utterly blissful, having finished my first course (yellow, since you ask) and was thinking about my next one. I was keen, you see, to go out and do another because even on that initial try I had discovered how easy it is to overshoot a control, even a nice easy one, and be forced to relocate! Whoops. I thought I might get it right a bit more the next time round: indeed I still live in hope of getting it right a bit more, one day.

From there, it was all as it were downhill. I went on attending occasional Southdowns events and then realised that I would need sooner or later to join a club nearer home. As an aside, I should maybe add that one of the things that I found confusing as a would-be orienteer was the role that clubs play. Like, I suspect, many people in my situation, I did not understand that the club in effect is the event: I had maybe thought it was somehow possible to just go and “do orienteering” in the same way that you can just go for a walk. What I hadn’t grasped is how very thoroughly an orienteering event needs to be set up and managed, and what structures need to be behind this. Anyway, I did join a club, but it didn’t really work out (mea culpa), and after a year I was again clubless until I came across Happy Herts. My first nervous email enquiry to the club was again a bit of a make-or-break moment but I am delighted to report that it was met with a charming and encouraging reply and this has been the pattern for my dealings with this club henceforth. I did my first Happy Herts event at Chipperfield Common in May 2005 and have not, metaphorically anyway, looked back since.

When I think about the last few years it really does give me a great deal of pleasure that at my age it is possible to find a new (to me) sport which is such an incredibly good fit with what I needed. I do know that it’s unlikely that I’m going to burn my way up through the rankings and make the national team lose sleep, but the great thing is that I just don’t mind. The level at which I compete with myself is that I would, in a perfect world, quite like to not be last, and anything else is pretty much a bonus. Having said that, I do remember coming back from a WAOC event at Ampthill and saying “I have had a fantastic run, that was a lovely park, great fun etc etc” and guess what, I did indeed come last in that one. The nice thing is that this didn’t make me feel bad, and didn’t have the power to detract from the great day that I had already had: this is a characteristic of orienteering which is almost magical to me. As a general rule I lurk somewhere around the bottom quarter of most events and I am pretty happy there. I did manage last year to come first on a Light Green course in Norfolk but this seems to have been a bizarre fluke, or perhaps just straightforward computer error, and any tendency to move in this direction has in any case been thoroughly countered by my deciding to concentrate on Green as a rule. I still make horrendous, jaw-dropping mistakes and it is not unknown for me to take more time over one control than the fastest competitor has over the entire course. I remember one event last year at which I got so unbelievably lost that eventually, having nearly given up, I was very surprised indeed to almost stumble over the start, which did not seem to be where I had left it. As you might imagine, though, this did get me relocated rather well!

One thing I have had to learn is to tolerate mistakes and to cope with them productively rather than just getting angry and frustrated, which unfortunately is my natural tendency. Since that first event I have never yet given up and walked away, although it has been pretty close once or twice – when it’s all going wrong I do sometimes have to make a conscious effort to fight off a depressed and defeatist attitude that can try to flood in but, you know what, I have always been glad, ten minutes later, that I managed to fight it off. The fact that I’ve kept on coming to events and struggling with my, er, abilities has had a great deal to do with the kindness and encouragement that I have had from HH officers and members. Whether this is deliberate development policy or just that people are naturally nice I am not sure, but it’s working fine anyway: a club’s behaviour towards strangers, visitors and wandering incompetents like myself is the best possible advert for it. People who are already at home in an environment, be it a sporting event or an orchestral rehearsal, may not realise how confidence-sapping it can be to be a newbie/visitor type. Encouraging the non-gung-ho, and paying attention to the unsporty wimps as well as the superheroes is a strategy which I believe does pay dividends. I’ve also had superb support from all my family, who have been incredibly kind and encouraging and even – to my delight – come along sometimes, despite having had to listen to all my panics and crises as well as my wildly exciting control-by-control accounts of, ahem, dramatic woodland action, illustrated by much map-brandishing.

Other things I would regard as milestones in my orienteering “career” thus far are buying my own dibber (thanks Adam and Miranda!) and eventually getting round to having some proper shoes: this latter after an inordinately wet and muddy (but fun) Saxons event at Eridge which I swore was the last ever I would do in trainers, having spent a somewhat difficult morning with remarkably little control over where my feet were going. (Actually, I could write a whole separate article about the phenomenon of Equipment Buildup.) Another way I have branched out recently is trying a couple of Night Orienteering events, starting with our own one at Whippendell Wood: I had previously dismissed the very idea of night-O as being only for diehard nutters, but I had such a completely fantastic time that I have been forced to reassess them, or perhaps myself. Even though I just plod round very safely on a short course, I love it, and I find there’s something very healthy about being forced to rethink things at an age when you perhaps thought all was set and solid. I’ve now also helped on an event, in a very minor capacity, and it was such fun that I have volunteered again for a couple more. Just over a week ago I ran in LOK’s splendid Boxing Day event, a score event and mass start (two things that not long ago I would have done anything to avoid) and was more than rewarded for my dire navigation round the depths of Trent Park with mulled wine.

I don’t really have any serious ambitions about orienteering, just to go on enjoying it. Sure, I would like to get a bit fitter and faster (yes, and thinner) and improve my confidence and competence, but to be honest even if I do not accomplish these goals I will go on having a perfectly good time anyway. This is one of the things I find hard to explain to friends and colleagues who know me only as a fat slob: it’s a sport which I enjoy just fine in my own way and I do not need to aspire to Olympic levels of skill and fitness to do so. Another nice thing, and I guess it is realistic to acknowledge that there may perhaps be an important development issue hovering somewhere here, is that through me, quite a few other people have now tried orienteering who might not have – both family members and friends. I am aware that, in development terms, as a nearly-fifty-year-old bloke I don’t exactly represent exciting new blood, but my kids and my nieces and nephews and a little network of friends and colleagues may be a bit more significant in the longer term. I often find myself proselytising about the sport and I am amazed both by how little most people know about it, and how interested they often are in the idea when they start to understand what I am rambling on about.

If, in conclusion, I can just preach for a minute: I know it’s unlikely but if someone is by any chance reading this who feels a bit like I did and who has not yet tried orienteering, please please come along and give it a go. It took me some effort to get over the initial hump of getting started but I am so pleased that I did. Seriously, I very nearly didn’t do orienteering because it “wasn’t for me” but I now see that really there’s very, very few people whom it’s “not for”. Because it is an unusual, nay unique, sport you have to experience it to understand what goes on and how it feels – if you are wondering, please take it from me and give it a try: you won’t regret it.

Saturday, 2 June 2007


It's almost three in the afternoon here now and I have just submitted my last piece of writing, so I am feeling pretty relieved. The Festival of Trumpets has been running since two so I may go down and have a look, though to be honest I could also do with a short kip or a walk or both, as it's the banquet at five and I am feeling a tiny bit cooped up.

I can't blog about some of what has been going on but it's been interesting. I think the new online system has been a success - not, of course, without teething troubles - but generally a significant improvement. Once I got better at taking the laptop out with me this improved my social situation - I have still been doing some writing in my room but I've also been doing it at events or up here in the writing HQ where I am right now.

I have also not had much of a chance to look round the exhibits. I have mixed feelings about this - we are supposed to go and schmooze the exhibitors and thank them for coming etc but some of it can be quite intimidating and you don't always get a good conversation with people, especially if someone is playing Screaming Top Z - and they do, believe me - a few feet away.

Another year I need to do a bit more thinking about how to use my time more effectively. This one hasn't been too bad but it could be better. Next year I want to be organized enough to be able to go for a walk if I want. Easily!

There are a few events left but I feel like it's winding down now. Quite soon I should be able to check in online for my flight. Tomorrow I think Gary and I are possibly going to Boston for a while (maybe with Laura, depends on her lift and flight situation) then I'm off. So while this is not necessarily my last entry from ITG, it could be. Cheery-moo!

Friday, 1 June 2007


Today I went (so far) to Crispian's recital and Chris Martin's also. Both were quite superb in very different ways and I was thrilled to have heard them. The laptop ran out of battery, fortunately right at the end of Martin, so I am back "home" to recharge, in more ways than one. Laura gave me a wrap and a banana for lunch and I am feeling almost human once more.

Jack Burt went to the trouble of complimenting me specifically on the Mnozil review from last year's ITG. I was terribly touched by this. The fact is that to be honest I am quite proud of it, which I know does not fit well with my self-deprecatory "I am sh*t at everything" stance. But I honestly think it is quite good. It nearly killed me - I stayed up pretty much all night, trying to make it sound (a) like you were there and (b) like I wrote it in ten minutes. All in one strand, indeed. Alright so I am a cynically-contriving b*st*rd but I do feel it sort of works. I wouldn't normally blow my own trumpet (aha) about this but it was so nice of Jack to bother, so, what the h*ll, I have blogged about it.

Speaking of "home" it is quite fun here right now. My fourth-floor room looks down on a concrete podium then a grassy area which gives way to the lake then the concert hall where all the big 7pm events take place. This map might show you, or not if I got it all wrong. The lake is (should be) in the centre of the image and I am in the building at its N end, looking S. Geddit? It's very nice. Anyway, the normally-calm grass area is getting megadisrupted right now - a million chairs and tables, a band setup etc have all been put out there and a band is sound-checking right now. On the programme, the Festival of Trumpets (remind me to tell you what one of my friends calls this. It is somewhat impolite) is listed as being on the "flagstones outside hotel lobby" which could almost be that, but I am wondering if the whole Banquet has perhaps been shifted there if the weather holds. Could be great whatever is planned: watch this space.

While trying to get a better view out there I valve-oiled my window which now slides nicely instead of graunching and squeaking. Should've done it sooner. While oiling it I noticed that wasps are building a nest in my window corner just outside. At the moment it is pretty, and small, and cute, and I do not intend to take any hostile action unless they do so first. I guess I should perhaps mention it when I check out in case it scares or hurts anyone later, though. I have photographed it and would post an image here - and of the doings outside - except that my getting-photos-to-the-PC arrangement is kaput, for boring reasons which I may or may not recount some time. I hasten to add that nothing is dead or lost, only flat! (Update - added a couple of photos once home. Forgot to tell the hotel about the nest. Oops.)

A much better day

As the title might suggest to the very observant reader, I have had a much better day today. Difficult to specify exactly why - just better. We all (Gary, Michael, Joe and Mrs Walters, and me) went out to lunch at the Amherst Brewing Company and it was very very nice.

Sadly I am now far to kn*ckered to write anything more, but I will ... sooner or later.