Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two weeks ago

Augh! It’s all fading away into the stiff mix of tapioca that is my brain.

The surprise in the Robin Ince free show at the Canon’s Gait was Jimeoin. Robin was manic as always, Helen Keen was charmingly enthusiastic about space (probably shouldn’t point out the Archdruid’s latest post) and Helen Arney sang her amazing songs but we’d seen them all before and expected nothing less than a good show from them. I’ve never see Jimeoin live before and I enjoyed his shtick. Being of an age where memory is (obviously) gradually fraying, listening to him talk about thinking and memory was wonderful but perhaps the thing that will stay with me longest is that universal constant for slow movement, the Speed of Cheese. Next year in Edinburgh…

The thing that stood out about Mitch Benn’s performance is how much less there is of him. It was amazingly distracting. I’d thought him rather cute when he was large and I didn’t quite get my head around him being suddenly much more conventionally attractive. To some extent I found the songs less mesmerising because of it. The balance has changed but that is not Mitch’s problem, it’s mine, and I’m sure I will readjust over the years. He is always on my must see list just because of his outstanding musical/satirical talent.

Andy Zaltzman. What can I say? He is embedded in my world, sometimes second hand, through the Bugle to the extent that I’m not sure what was in this show and what I’ve heard over the last year’s podcasts. I think the highlight of the show was that bad boy, Julian, heckling him with a business card. Sigh.
On another note, I am very much enjoying Ian’s downstairs bathroom book, Andy’s credit crunch book that was purchased last year. Andy is excellent.

We finished the day with Milton Jones who was, as always, wonderful and wonderfully weird. The first time I saw him was in the horribly hot and damp Caves. He’s playing the Assembly on the Mound now and deservedly so.

We added in two shows just because Julian wasn’t completely broken by all the stairs, uncomfortable seats and other horrors of the fringe. Both were at the Pleasance Courtyard and so a simple stagger from the convenient (after 6) parking.

I’ve liked David O’Doherty since the first time we saw him and his toy keyboard. Ian thought him a little too whimsical I think but agreed that this year was the best we’d seen him. I guess he’d grown a beard for his other (Arctic Explorer) show but it suited him. It made him look faintly grown up. Whimsicality and charm don’t usually do great things for Ian who prefers quick-fire jokes and wordplay, so I go to see Tim Vine with him and he comes to see David O’Doherty with me. Still, this year Ian seemed to have been mildly converted, perhaps by tales of awful illness. Scatological humour brings us all together.  

Rich Hall was fab. But crikey, I can’t remember the show other than it was great. How sad that an hour of brilliant performance can be reduced to a memory of hilarity with no detail at all. And the shows I saw yesterday are fading already as I try to recall two weeks ago. Sigh…  

(Links provided so that anyone who is interested can get a flavour of the comedians not provided by the rather poor 'reviews'.) Sorry.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What I did on my hols...

This post started in July and just never got any further and I’m starting to forget what I was writing about so I’m just going to do a very brief round-up whilst I still have some memory. The things that got in the way? Work, books, gardening; nothing exciting or worrying, just life.

So, in July we went on holiday, before the Fringe. I took the train down to Falmouth (a substantial journey) and Ian flew down to Exeter and joined me for the last leg of the train journey.

The holiday started with a visit to Christina Lake and Doug Bell in Falmouth. We’ve been meaning to visit them again for ages but it’s not a place to just drop in, it requires a bit of planning and time to travel. It’s always lovely to see them, such good fannish fans, and we seemed to spend the whole weekend gossiping and planning (and eating ice-cream, and drinking cocktails & nice wine and eating) and occasionally talking about books. They have a lovely house with a view of the harbour if you are high enough up. From the attic where we slept you can see a gorgeous panorama but it’s a ladder and a flight of stairs down to the bathroom, which certainly precludes drinking too much or the temptation to make it the main bedroom. I enjoy spending time with Chris and Doug enormously and then never stay in touch in the interim. I guess it’s because it is the gestalt that is so marvellous. Perhaps we ought to set up conference calls with all four of us from our three different locations calling in.

(Splendidly we also saw them in the first week at the Fringe as they were up visiting Doug’s parents in Penicuik. We met for a lovely and memorable lunch at the Missoni Hotel in Edinburgh, adding Lilian and Julian to the mix. Fab!)

We left, somewhat reluctantly, on Monday morning and headed for Bristol to stay at the Mercure, which is very nice and only quite expensive (Laterooms). We’d looked at cheaper options but Trip Advisor advised against. Most of my lovely (if hazy through time, not drink – really) memories from here revolve around meals. Who would have thought? We met Sue Hobson for dinner in the Glass Boat, a floating restaurant of Welsh Back, in view (and Wifi contact) from our room in the hotel. I can’t remember what we ate (although I remember it was lovely), just that we had a fine time chatting. It’s always good to see Sue.
We also met Clarrie and Tim (the celebrated first Harry Potter) Maguire for the splendid Mexican meal and an evening at their flat complete with a life size Lara Croft (of course). Clarrie, like me, is a Daniel Kitson fan. Ian took agin him when, after winning the Perrier, he forsook stand up for whimsical storytelling the next year. I’m just going to have to go see him on my own.
We did things other than eat. We went to Bath and visited the Roman Baths, and stayed a long time to justify the steep admission price. We went from there to the house of the celebrated astronomers, William and Caroline Herschel. The most interesting thing for me was the house itself, kept as far as possible as it would have been when the Herschels lived there.
We also explored Bristol’s St Nicholas Market, a hundred yards or so away from the hotel but that takes us back again to eating. The Source. Eggy bread. Mmm.
I guess other than the food and the chatting, what stood out in this Bristol visit was the plethora of gorillas. If we had had more time we would have sought them all out and captured them. There was a map with all their locations available. I have a vague impression they were to support Gary the Gorilla at the zoo. Personally I’m not keen on keeping gorillas in zoos but I really like having illustrated gorillas infesting a city, providing simian surprises in unexpected places.

From Bristol we caught a train up to Worcester to stay with Chris Donaldson and Paul Oldroyd. Annoyingly they have gafiated so we don’t get to see them automatically twice a year. Even more annoyingly they have retired and spend much of the year gallivanting around France and Spain with their overbred but delightful dog, Guinevere. I miss them.
Chris cooked all our meals and they were wonderful. If Ian hadn’t picked up a few sausages in Source it would have been a vegetarian couple of days for him, poor soul. Chris is one of the best vegetarian cooks I know, and not even veggie herself. Julian Headlong came over for the day on the Thursday so we left the boys at home and Chris and I took a bus into Worcester to go shopping. Window shopping for the most part. I bought a book and a soap from Lush. And a coffee at Costa.
I really enjoyed this final part of the holiday, again more for the sitting around chatting than for anything we actually did.

Compared to the Fringe this was a very low cost holiday, despite a fair amount of eating out and quite some distance travelled. We managed to find cheap deals on the trains and we only stayed in a hotel for two nights. And so much fun!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fringe 2011

And so we come to Edinburgh again for the fringe. This year, though, we are taking it really easy. Apart from the EICC all venues have horrid uncomfortable seats and Julian can no longer take more than three shows a day. We’ve gone from a programme of five, sometimes six, shows a day because the pathetic sight of Julian in pain is not really fun.

So, Monday (2 for one day) we saw three shows. We took the train as a return is less than £4 at the moment, started with the wonderful Instant Sunshine, moved on to Ed Reardon; A writers burden (fab!) and finally saw Josh Widdicombe in a tiny stiflingly hot hut at the Pleasance. Josh is a young comedian who is both very personable and funny. He made the mistake in fixing on Julian following the inevitable question, ‘Where has everyone come from?’ I guess he thought Swindon was the potentially funniest place. Oops. It wasn’t quite as derailing as when Ian and I got into a question and answer session with John Bishop some years ago but there was always the potential. As Ian points out, a comedian isn’t really interested in hearing a participant’s life story, they want sound bites to be amusing with. I’ve seen much more seasoned performers than Josh flounder when faced with Julian’s answers (Otis Lee Crenshaw found it very difficult to adjust his song ‘Big [Julian]’ to a job maintaining analysers). I was very impressed with the way Josh dealt with Julian’s too much information. He was friendly, professional and managed to wring laughs out of Julian’s contribution without any nastiness emerging. Josh is a thoroughly bright and charming young comedian. I’ve got a bit of a crush.

Tuesday (2 for one) we drove over as we wouldn’t be out of our last show to make the last train. We had intended to go to see Robin Ince’s free show at Canon’s Gait. This free show is non-ticketed. Obviously, though, there needs to be some way of managing the audience so there are queue places allocated. We were too late to obtain a queue place (not a ticket) so we planned to try again on Thursday whilst we trudged up the horribly crowded Royal Mile, gruffly refusing leaflets and avoiding catching the eyes of the bright young things breathlessly inviting us to their shows.

We plunged, with relief, out of leaflet central and headed off to find Transreal, recently relocated. There are so few SF bookshops left these days. I’m sure I’ve said this before but since Andromeda died there is only Transreal where I can go to browse, to discuss books with a knowledgeable owner, to find new authors and books that I would never discover from Amazon. I’ve always had great suggestions from here and, again, I walked away with far more books than I intended to. I think of it as supporting a sanctuary because I could almost certainly get the books cheaper on Amazon but money is not the only consideration here. As Bob Waldrop and others point out, every time you make a buying decision you are changing the world.

Julian and I were only lured out of Transreal by Ian texting us from Under the Stairs to tell us that he had warm pitta bread and dips. Reluctantly we paid and entered the cool haven in the basement of one of the looming grey buildings on Merchant’s Street. We drank our Citrus Punch whilst we waited for our lunch and for June to join us. June is an Edinburgh resident and an accomplished Fringe goer. Although joining us for a few shows she experiences a very different Fringe from us, going to many free events as well. She had come from a Japanese tea ceremony and planned on looking for other shows after she left us.

The first show we saw was Cul-de-sac, a very strange play. It was very well acted and started out as mildly amusing. A new person, Tim, has moved into the cul-de-sac and meets his neighbour, Neville. As Tim is told about what is expected of him we hear of Tony for the first time, the man who, it slowly emerges, controls the neighbourhood. During the hour we see the slow breaking down of Tim by the social controls exerted by Tony, with able assistance in abuse by the doctor. As each episode became more sinister and disturbing fewer and fewer people laughed. Towards the end the absurdity was completely overwhelmed by the horror. It was a very strong piece, professionally performed and I didn’t like it at all. We wondered if it was an allegory for Britain under Blair, with all of us becoming creepily acquiescent and accepting of things that were patently wrong. June suggested that there should have been some sort of warning as there were definite triggers for people who have been abused. Julian says, ‘A cross between 1984 and The Stepford Wives’.

We retired to the Corvoisier Bar for a pint of tap water and some beer for the boys before heading for another sweaty venue, Above at the Pleasance. This was to see Isy Suttee’s show, ‘Pearl & Dave’. This was a lovely tale of unrequited love with songs. Images of loveliness include two girls letting off a penpal request attached to an ordinary balloon from the top of their climbing frame, an accountant with rows of friendship bracelets up his arms, a papier mache penguin called Roy, and a skype romantic dinner for two. At the end there were tears in my eyes. Most of the women leaving were sniffling slightly. Reviews have likened her to a young Victoria Wood but I tend to think this is because if a woman is funny and sings songs that are both funny and poignant there is no one else to compare her too. Isy is, I suggest, incomparable. You really wouldn’t hear her and think she was anyone else. And I completely agree with another reviewer, someone who doesn’t greet the gift of a five foot papier mache penguin, lovingly made for them by their lover over weeks, doesn’t deserve such devotion. I’ve got a bit of a crush.

We trooped down into the blessed coolness and headed for dinner at the Home Bistro. I love this place and the delightful Roland who was devastated yesterday when he didn’t have a place for us, and warmly welcoming today. The salad I had was lovely; pear, beetroot, feta and leaves with a great dressing. I had, of course, had no starter and a light main in order to keep a bit of space for the fabulous ice cream. The toffee was nice, the ginger was splendid and the marmalade was luscious.

Half way through the meal I got a call from Sally. Salford Uni had emailed her to say there would be an induction day on 25th August. 25th is the day the kids and I are travelling up to Scotland on Megabus for our traditional bank holiday weekend fringe binge. Transport tickets booked, show tickets booked, all arrangements made. Of course. I know it’s two weeks away still but most people I know have fairly busy diaries and are booked up at least a month in advance. It would have been useful had they asked us the pencil in the dates several months ago. Oh well. We agree to look at options on Wednesday morning.

At the point I thought we had already reached the highspot of the fringe with Isy. We looked around at the rest of the audience for the next show and worried that they looked quite a serious lot. I guessed that the show would be informative and worthy but probably a little light on laughs. I’ve read Mark Thomas and I’ve been impressed by his politics but I’d never seen him perform before. If I had I wouldn’t have been concerned. His two-hour show about extreme rambling, walking the Israeli wall, was astonishing. A serious subject with potential for bigotry, potential for dull preaching. This is not, of course, what we got. Mark is a consummate performer, a storyteller, a comedian able to wring helpless laughter out of an audience, whilst laying out the enormity of a wrong done to two nations, both Palestine and Israel. He took us on the walk, introduced us to some marvellous characters, crossed the wall backwards and forwards many times, led us to sympathy, anger and understanding. I really had not realised how good he was. I’ve got a bit of a crush.

So here we are, Wednesday morning, having a lazy day off and catching up on gazing at laptop screens. I’ve filled in my Biobank diet questionnaire (the second and both times I have been eating abnormally), caught up on the cartoons (XKCD, Freefall, Bug and Questionable Content) and gazed out at the unrelenting rain while fending off invitations to supermarket shopping. I’m hoping the boys will wander off soon and leave me to browse through my books. Or maybe just finish off ‘One Good Turn’.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't panic Mr Mainwaring

Saturday evening we were sat chatting about deep and meaningful (frivolous) topics when Ian announced that Standard & Poor’s have downgraded American debt to AA+. It was a chill down the spine moment. In itself it is not unexpected or significant; it is simply a marker, a label on the downward trend. But, goodness, a downgrade for America!

After wobbling for a little while we inevitably came back to a discussion of what, if any, SF books model this situation for us. We have so many apocalyptical books and so few about living through the dull, anxious days of a slow motion resource led collapse. People tend to be excellent at dealing with big obvious emergencies. In the UK we still look back with nostalgia at the way we dealt with World War II. We are, however, rubbish at even noticing the long emergencies despite the fact that these will have a far more lasting and devastating effect on how we live our lives.

I foresee decades of bickering, occasionally escalating into full-scale fights, as we slowly descend into real poverty with no one in power making any effort to make any of the radical changes needed to ameliorate the distress. Already there is the fear that there will be another generation that will never be able to reach their potential, who will languish on scraps of work, permanently dependent on handouts of one sort or another.  This is not a recipe for a settled world. We’ve seen how this has played out in Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, we older people still in work, will almost certainly not receive the benefits that our parents did. There was a golden age embedded somewhere in the latter half of the 20th Century, though we didn’t notice it at the time. Free healthcare, free education, safe sex, liveable pensions, even, for a short time in the late 60s/early 70s, an optimism that love and peace could actually be achieved here on earth. How those things have decayed.

When I look to what our politicians are doing to lead us out of this difficult situation I see nothing other than a few banal clichés about the Big Society and a refusal to see that we are at a pivotal point where the old solutions of deregulation, growth and controlled inflation will only worsen the situation. Business as usual at any cost appears to be how this government (I include the loyal opposition and the media) fiddles.

One of my least favourite ‘fixes’ that the local council has put in place has been to automate the library. I know people cost money to employ but surely when enough council workers and private sector workers are unemployed the council tax revenues will disappear too. I feel quite strongly that sharing the paid work around so we all have some access to cash would be a better solution. Of course the government has set our system up so that the cost of employing two people part time is much more than the cost of employing one person. This is something that could change. The Netherlands did this some years ago. One of the worst things that could happen to us as a society is polarisation. As the wealth gap increases the safety of us all decreases. All of us being somewhat poorer is much better than a few being wealthy and the rest living off ever decreasing benefits. That way lies tent cities and social unrest. That way lies ‘Shockwave Rider’.

Julian suggested that Bruce Sterling’s ‘Distraction’ was one of the few books that gave us some idea of what might be coming. I suggested Gibbon’s ‘Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire’. This time there’s no outside, no other empires keeping the flame alight.

(The picture of apocalypse is just a storm brewing over Sheffield in July but so evocative I couldn't resist.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How did it get so late so soon?

Where has July gone? It seems to have just disappeared. So much to write about, and none of it written. I’m not even sure I can remember enough to write about anything in detail so I’ll just do a quick précis of the rest of June then try to recall July.

I went to see Hobson’s Choice at the Crucible with my sister, Sue, in mid-June. I think this was her O’ level play. Certainly she studied it at school. Wikipedia tells me it was first performed in 1916. It was jolly well done in Sheffield. Mr Hobson was a pitiable monster but Maggie, the strong willed and sensible oldest daughter was, as always, the star of the show. I’d like to go to the theatre more often but with the prices at the Crucible I will not be buying anything in the interval. I used to collect programmes. I used to buy a beer. Someone else can fund the expense of supporting live theatre. All I can afford is the ticket to the play.

The weekend after was Tony Berry’s BBQ which was, as expected rainy, chilly and breezy; typical British BBQ weather. It was, of course, lovely to see Tony, Julian Headlong, the Harveys and Laura Wheatly, Paul and Aiden. I was very grateful to the Lawsons for giving Sally a lift down and for the chance to catch up with Dave Cox and Simon Dearn. I’m sure there is a reason for the propensity of middle-aged men to barbeque but I have never been able to fathom quite what the attraction is. Still, it's lovely to see the fans out of their natural environment of hotel bars.

A week later I went to see Paul Simon at the Armadillo in Glasgow. Take That were playing the same night but I think I got the better deal. Paul Simon seems always to have been in my listening selection, first as part of Simon & Garfunkel then on his own. When I look on iTunes I have 98 songs under Paul Simon. Admittedly one is David Essex singing, ‘For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her’. And one seems to be Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill singing the duet from the Pearl Fishers although it is labelled as 'One Trick Pony'. No idea how that happened. One of the things I have always appreciated, as well as the wonderful lyrics, is the lovely complexity of the music though I speak, of course, as a musical illiterate. Simon had eight fabulously accomplished musicians playing with him who all seemed to play many multiple instruments. I loved every minute of the show and for days afterwards ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ played through my dreams. The songs seem to have grown over the years and, after the show, listening to the originals is a little pale in comparison.

Gosh, what a gadabout I am. The next weekend we were down in London to see Rita Rudner. Julia and Dougs gave us a lift down and back and we spent Sunday morning with Julian, admiring his new bookcases. We met up with Julian Saturday afternoon in the middle of Leicester Square. He was waiting patiently for us, buffeted but basically unmoved by the colourful and exuberant crowds of Gay Priders. I’ve long admired Rita as one of the finest comedians I’ve seen. The jokes are packed in, terrifically funny and nothing sexist, racist or anything else objectionable. You can see some of her quotable lines here. We had to bring Julian, who is a passionate Rita fan, as it seems unlikely he will ever fly again (due to extreme decrepitude) and she has pretty much taken up residence in Las Vegas while they raise their child. Some years ago, while I was still flying, we (Julia, Ian and I) saw her performing in Vegas without Julian and I have a slight suspicion that he never forgave us. Perhaps the cruel gloating and incessant teasing hasn’t helped. 

Strictly speaking that brings me to the beginning of July. How these months merge together. Sigh