Fringe diary 2013

… being a brief account of my fourth annual visit to “well-set Edinburgh”. Yes, it (the visit) took place last year, and this (the write-up) has been “in draft” until now. But, hey, better late than never. It needs to be published before I go to any of this year’s shows.

Main aim: Fringe comedy. But interspersed with classical music. My notional ticket budget is £10 for the week – last year I spent it on Henning Wehn. But, as always, I have plenty of loose ££ to enable me to give the performers in the Free Fringe some of their just desserts.

I arrive by Airbus A320 on Monday evening, having enjoyed my in-flight dinner of home-made marmite and cucumber sandwiches.  The Airport bus is, for the second year,  grotesquely delayed by the tram system roadworks.  I check into my little room at the Metro Youth Hostel in Cowgate.

My first night out is at the inimitable PBHASC (a.k.a. Peter Buckley Hill and some comedians) and within moments of arriving I have a pint tankard of Festival and I am singing … yes, the audience is busking the Dr Who theme, led by the great man – PBH – himself.

Addy van der Borgh – naturally funny – gentle humour – with harmonica and helium-filled microphone.

Kate Smurthwaite – quick and cutting – jumped back and forth between material on politics and female anatomy.

Dave Williams (the Manchester one) – excellent ad libs, natural delivery, had me laughing to tears.

Tuesday

Steve Bell (Grauniad cartoonist) … a romp through his favourites from own work.

– lunch with Spicer – cheese and bacon scone with double espresso, followed by a pint at the Cafe Royal.

– quire (but no quaffing) – top notch singing from the lay clerks at St Mary’s cathedral

– a quick trip to the quirky oriental feel of Kebab Mahal – saag ghost – excellent service compared to previous visits.

Ben Norris – quite famous according to Spicer, but I’d never heard of him.

– the Jollyboat brothers – a singing and dancing duo with talent, and a guitar.

Nick Hodder – excellent portrayal of nerd-type with mad staring eyes and anorak.

Jonathan Bowyer – entertaining portrayal of gay football-supporter type.

Wednesday

HIGHLIGHT: I listen to some little-known gems of the 20th Century organ repertoire, some light, some heavy and all entertaining. Played on the Willis organ at St Cuthbert’s by the big man himself, Kevin Bowyer. His introduction is friendly, informative and there is no trace of elitism.

– my third year of seeing and hearing the unique “geeky outcast” Owen Niblock. He was thrown a bit by almost outnumbering the audience (three of us, all named James, allowing for my middle name) but he pulled it off.

– dashed up the road to hear Porky the Poet (a.k.a. Phill Jupitus) and friend. He saved the best until last, a piece about Jeremy Clarkson attempting to have various types of sex with various types of cars.  The ending is good (in more than one way).

– a quick change into my running gear, to join TNT H3 (or, The New Town Hash House Harriers) for their Wednesday evening run. An excellent route, if shorter (4 miles) than expected, beginning and ending in the beer tent in George Square.

– Wednesday is PBH’s day off, so  Gordon Brunton takes over as compere, and works his way mercilessly through the audience, ad libbing all the way. Nor am I spared, and my attempts to convince Gordon that I am attached, but that Jenny is not with me in Edinburgh, lead only to his alleging that the reason I have arrived late is that I have obviously just “bumped her off” and have come to the show to provide an alibi. Fortunately I do remember not to protest too much. Later, by a strange co-incidence, about a dozen TNTH3 hashers arrive (some in lycra) to be much mocked.

Thursday

HIGHLIGHT: my second ticket of the week, to Mrs Moneypenny‘s kitchen in the Aga Showroom. She asks who in the audience came to her 2010 show, and I am the only one – it was one of the first things I saw in Edinburgh. She is on good form, as are canapes and the glass of bubbly to wash them down. It is a characterful mix of humour, pathos and strongly held opinions.

– a spot of lunch at Peter’s Yard, which purports to be a Swedish cafe, in the company of Spicer (devoid of his Swedish jacket). I dine on a pickled herring smorgasbord, stratospherically priced in authentic Scandinavian style.

HIGHLIGHT: the inimitable Raph Shirley entertains me in his vigorous and ever-original style with this year’s whirlwind tour encompassing humour, theatre and enigmatism.

– the Free Cambridge Footlights today includes Phil Wang and Bryan Ghosh / Xaablaargh the Conqueror – and an excellent compere whose name I fail to nail down.

– My final night at PBHASC, where I see Charmian Hughes and Byron Bertram

– … and star-quality singer-comedian Christian Reilly.

Friday

– time to go home, but not without calling in at the cathedral to hear young performers from the City of Edinburgh Music School.  My morbid fear of listening to recorder music is miraculously cured on the spot by hearing Oscar Gormley playing Song of the Dancing Skunk by Walter Mays.

– a touch of real-life comedy brought my visit to a neat close – while I was waiting at a bus stop near Haymarket to go to the airport, I noticed that the chaps who were hard at work with their pneumatic drills on the Edinburgh tramway were actually digging up the concrete on the tracks, not laying it.  I asked a local shopkeeper what was going on – and was told, “The tram tracks failed their quality tests, so it’s all got to be dug up and done again properly!”  Boom, boom!

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Musical magic

I no longer believe in Father Christmas, but each year I do still seek a little “Christmas magic”. Perhaps each year it becomes is a little more difficult to track down, but my antennae are up and eagerly awaiting it.

This year “Christmas magic” seemed to me to be particularly scarce. I really only found three minutes of it (as described below) — but its quality more than made up for the lowness of quantity.

The Esterhazy Choir concert included a piece which has long been one of my favourites – Hymn to the Virgin – composed by Benjamin Britten when a teenager. I was unexpectedly given the job of singing the bass part in the quartet, aware of being outclassed by the other three.

The concert was candlelit, so we stood in the flickering gloom behind the audience. The main choir started in the distance, and the musical dialogue began, as we chipped in with our plaintive Latin fragments. And three minutes later, we sang the last phrase which includes the best note in the piece, (a B-flat, sung by the bass of course). And the audience seemed to like it.

Our efforts weren’t recorded, but here is roughly what it must have sounded like:


Ah, bliss!


Too many coincidences?

Boxing Day, especially a bright sunny one, is a day for walking, so Jenny and I decided to do our walk from Folkington, near Eastbourne.

We had planned the first coincidence, which is that we decided to visit the grave of pioneer celebrity chef Elizabeth David (born 26 Dec 1913) in Folkington churchyard. As today is the centenary of her birth, we wondered whether we’d be crushed in the stampede, but of course we found that we had the place to ourselves.

RIP Elizabeth David born 26 Dec 1913. Date of photo 26 Dec 2013. Gravestone at Folkington, Sussex

RIP Elizabeth David born 26 Dec 1913, photograph taken 26 Dec 2013, Folkington, Sussex

As we walked towards Jevington Hill, we encountered another walker while crossing a stile. After a jovial introductory exchange, I suggested to him that he was “Pete the Vicar”, or celebrity TV clergyman Peter Owen-Jones, a suggestion to which he cheerfully admitted, although today he was without his trademark hat and cloak. So, coincidence two, meeting famous theologist.

Back at Folkington, inside the church, there was a pile of secondhand books on sale to raise money for repairs. Near the top of the pile was (next coincidence) The Graham Kerr Cookbook by the Galloping Gourmet. Why the coincidence? Ah, because when Jenny and I were discussing Elizabeth David earlier, we had identified three fellow pioneers of bringing cookery to the masses – Fanny Craddock, Keith Floyd, and … Graham Kerr, the galloping gourmet. Yes, I hear you say, finding that book there was astonishing.

The final coincidence was that as we started to drive homewards down Folkington Lane, we pulled over to pass an approaching blue Land Rover. “That’ll be David Dimbleby”, said Jenny, and indeed we exchanged waves with the legendary TV mega-personality, now also famous for his tattoo and election-night cock-ups. Farmer Dimbleby is a popular local.

So that made four coincidences. There can never really be “too many” coincidences as there is (I think) always a finite chance of any finite number of coincidences.

But I recall the words of the immortal nuclear power enthusiast Sir Walter (aka Lord) Marshall, when he was chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board. The chances of a major accident at a UK nuclear power station (involving every level of the safety systems failing simultaneously) could be modelled and calculated, and the results of the calculations showed that such an accident was “non-credible” – about the same as the chances of a golfer scoring eighteen consecutive holes-in-one. It’s a finite possibility but any reasonable person would say it’s “never” going to happen. So I suggest that eighteen such coincidences (or is it seventeen) would be too many for comfort.

Folkington Church, Sussex

Folkington Church, Sussex


Rrrrr-ex tremendae majestatis

Jenny and I are just back from a singing tour of northern France, having participated in no fewer than four renditions of Verdi’s Requiem. The concerts took place in Amiens, Compiègne and twice over in Rennes, all of which were sell-outs. We, the English, sang music composed by an Italian, alongside two French orchestras, an international array of soloists and the maestro himself was from de Nederland.

There was little to grumble about, with transport and accommodation costs taken care of, and even a small daily allowance for beer (and potentially food to soak up said beer) which, given the thirsty nature of performing the Dies irae and Rex tremendae sections, seemed only reasonable.

As luck would have it, I was in the front row of the choir, immediately behind the timpani and a ginagerous Verdi bass drum …

Percussion and basses - I'm the one underneath the 19:21

Percussion and basses – I’m the one underneath the 19:21

But two relatively minor incidents provided food for thought on the French economy.

  1. Whilst in Rennes, we stayed at a hotel on the city outskirts – picture roundabouts and airports. Given that Saturday’s concert started at 8pm, Jenny and I decided that we’d spend the morning in the city centre, then walk homeward and have a late lunch near the hotel. We managed to locate the only eating establishment in that area of the Rennes which hadn’t closed down, the Brasserie Pizzeria Marius. We arrived at 3pm, with the restaurant almost full, and our pockets full of euros, raring to go at a bleu steak et frites, but we were greeted with “FINI!”, accompanied by a trace of smug amusement at our misfortune and the familiar gesture with the raised palms of hands moving apart. But, but surely, even in France, pizza bars stay open on Saturday afternoon? NON! So back to the hotel room to eat supermarket bread and cheese instead. French economic recovery delayed a bit more.
  2. Nor was that all (as Augustus Carp would say). On the ferry from Calais to Dover, Jenny attempted to continue reading the story of The Talking Parcel to me. We sat in a virtually deserted area at the back of the ferry and she began reading. But everything was spoiled by a cascade of loudspeaker announcements which sought (unsuccessfully) to persuade us to buy several things we didn’t need or want, but particularly bottles of absurdly expensive 25-year-old Chivas Regal single malt. The only reason we were given (over and over again) for buying it, was that it was cheap compared to “high street prices”. Next we were told relentlessly that it was “happy hour, happy hour” (crossing time: around one hour) and that a hot drink and pastry were available in the bar at the front of the ship on level seven. And so the bullying continued all the way to Dover. It was utterly barbaric, and a powerful advertisement for DFDS’s subterranean competitors.

So we were victims of both “you want it, but you can only have it when we say you can” and “you obviously don’t want it, but we’re going to try to make you have it anyway”.

Dona eis Requiem those who expect to be treated as a customer, not as “the consumer”.


… and a pound of carrots, please

If you’re a Tesco customer, it will not have escaped your notice that much of the fresh produce now seems to cost £1 a bag.  It was an idea they (Tesco) seemingly copied from Asda, who had in turn copied it from pound shops.

(By the way, I think that we can reasonably expect the quantities in the bags to get progressively smaller over time. Not ideal, but at least it will tend to reduce the overall demand (and waste) and falling demand might eventually lead to falling wholesale prices (good for Tesco’s buyers at least, and potentially good for its customers too). This “shrinking £1 bag” approach does have a more solid economic basis than that other familiar supermarketing ploy, the “BOGOF”, which dodgily persuades people that it will be cheaper to buy more than they need, thus increasing demand (and waste) and tending to drive up the wholesale price.)

Selected carrots posing demurely for the camera

Selected carrots posing demurely

Anyway, enough of the quack economics.  On Sunday morning, whilst enjoying a rush of endorphins after a four mile run in the sunshine, I stopped off at Tesco and picked up a bag of “Bushytop” carrots, grown in Cambridgeshire.  Or rather, I picked up two bags to compare the contents so that I could choose the one with the more succulent and shapely carrots inside. One bag seemed much heavier than the other and so, out of curiosity, I weighed them on the scales – bag A weighed 0.8 kg and bag B was 1.2 kg.  So bag B was 50% heavier than A. My curiosity growing, I looked on the bag to find the nominal weight and – guess what? – there wasn’t one (nor, apparently, was there a best before date).  The price label on the shelf informed me that £1 a bag was deemed to be equivalent to £1.67 per kg, which (it turns out) is equivalent to a bag weight of 0.6 kg.

So the packs appear to have no stated minimum or average weight and they contain wildly varying quantities. The only known quantity is the price charged – one pound.

I went ahead and bought bag B.  Stopping briefly at the customer services desk on the way out, the staff were as baffled by all this as I was — after all, how could meaningful price comparisons be made?

An exploratory call to Weights and Measures yielded only the placatory banter of a call queueing system.  Maybe a plausible explanation will emerge for charging people either £0.83, £1.25 or £1.67 per kg at random.  But in the meantime, surely we are entitled to expect £1 of carrots (and their bushytops) to be defined in some conventionally measurable way, and within a reasonable range?


Letter from Barcelona – my first visit

Why are you presenting this post in that irritating interview-with-yourself style? In keeping with the traits of my Gemini star sign, I have decided to assume a split personality.

Why are you visiting Barcelona?  Encouraged by the success of my trip to Madrid last year, and Seville the year before, I’m continuing my visits to Spanish cities.

How did you prepare for the trip? I ordered a copy of the Time Out guide, and revised my survival-level Spanish.

Arty Barcelona – light and power indeed – backstreet colour in Gràcia

How did you decide where to stay? This always seems the most difficult part to me — deciding where to stay when you haven’t ever been there.  Web-based search engines seem to be unable to use all the data they have previously gathered on me in any helpful way.  [One solution, of course, is to stay at my old favourite, the youth hostel.]  So, armed with said guide, I read just enough to enable me to decide that I would make the Gràcia part of town my base, and booked myself into the inexpensive Hostal HMB.

Hostal? This type of establishment seems to offer all basic requirements to a high standard (room, bed, shower, wi-fi) and, quite rightly for budget accommodation, little in the way of money-wasting non-essentials.

What did you do after you’d checked in? I turned up in Barcelona having deliberately read virtually none of the guide book and proceeded to explore the various districts on foot.

Was Gràcia a good location? Staying in Gràcia was an excellent choice. It reminds me a little of Lewes, and the Time Out guide describes is as being characterised by “dissent”, “both alternative and upmarket”, “bohemian” etc,

Don’t most tourists stay in L’Eixample? The main alternative is L’Eixample which, as an early attempt at urban planning, sets a poor example with its seemingly unending collection of unfriendly pelican crossings

What was disappointing about Barcelona? I sorely missed grazing on the small complimentary tapas (or copa) which had accompanied each drink in Madrid. Study of the Time Out guide revealed that this practice is indeed “virtually unheard of” in Catalonia. But note the word “virtually” – by a stroke of luck, I did happen upon the cosy démodé music minibar just one street away from the hostal, where the tapas tradition is honoured and the barman was helpful.

A free tapas oasis in a desert

Don’t they mostly speak Catalan round there? Yes, I didn’t quite get the hang of whether to say gracias or gràcies in any given situation.

I’ve heard that there’s a naturist beach in Barca? There is, it’s in the Mar Bella section and it seemed pretty good,  albeit somewhat male-oriented.  There were plenty of people there.

At the seaside – not the naturist beach, but a similar animal next door

Was the food any good? In the absence of widespread tapas grazing opportunities, I was reduced to buying a meal. I found the menu del dia to be an excellent choice and had: verdura a la Judian (seasonal boiled potatoes and runner beans) then merluza a la Romana (deep fried hake in batter, with fries) then fruit salad, served with bread and a carafe of vino – not bad for 9 euro.

the sun sets on pescadillas, pan y vino

So are you actually writing this is Catalonia? Well, yes I am … but I wrote the above stuff around four weeks ago, and, er, forgot to post the letter. I’m now back in Catalonia again, with Jenny, and thought I’d better publish this before it’s too late.


April’s pipe is … the reject

They named it after the pioneering steam railway

This month’s pipe is depicted in the seasonal context of an April shower. And where better to take this lucky pipe for a day out than the Bluebell Railway? After travelling in the superb Maunsell coaches, steam hauled of course, Jenny and I took a bus from Kingscote to the shiny new Bluebell station at East Grinstead. We were then taken on a preserved example of the diabolical 4-VEP electric multiple unit, hauled by an electro-diesel, across the mighty Imberhorne viaduct to view the now meagre remains of the rubbish tip obstruction. But we digress.

The pipe shops of yesteryear usually had ample supplies of rejects on display. These reject pipes had a tiny blemish somewhere in the surface of the briar, and they were sold at much reduced prices. April’s pipe bears the legend F&T REJECT, stamped in a craftsmanly manner on the side, where F&T possibly stands for Fribourg and Treyer. This was once my favourite pipe, not least because the bowl (shaped like a brandy glass) is just the right size and shape to hold in one’s hand.

An April shower falls on the reject pipe, and locomotive 473 (aka Birch Grove), at Horsted Keynes

April showers bring May flowers, the saying goes, which brings us back to the month in which began this tour of vanishing tobacco-smoking apparatus. Pipe of the month has successfully (?) completed its one-year cycle, as originally envisaged. A new monthly feature will be taking its place in the Matathewsiasms blog.

But fear not, there are more pipes in the collection, as yet unexhibited, and some folk have even donated new (old) pipes to the collection.  So Pipe of the month is expected to be making occasional but irregular re-appearances.

Footnote: for those who feel that the camera has been unable to capture the smoky effluent of the pipes of month, perhaps the picture below will go some way to putting things right:

Beware amateur juxtaposer. But is it as cool and mellow as they claim?