360 and Still Counting

With unexpected numerical neatness, this is my 360th post since I began this blogging adventure at the beginning of 2011.  This count includes something every day, apart from one, since 5 January.  That’s quite a surprising statistic, even if I say so myself.

None of the posts contains anything very significant, sometimes a bit of a rant, a few reviews of theatre, films and books, random photos from long ago holidays; it probably builds up to a picture of vague impressions of my idiosyncratic engagement with the world.  That’s part of the point of it, when I come to think about it for a moment.  If I thought any of the posts had to bear the weight of saying something specific, relevant or deep, then I think I might have been paralysed, my fingers hovering uncertainly over the keyboard.  Knowing that if today’s isn’t great, there’ll be another one tomorrow, has afforded me an unexpected freedom from worrying unduly about any individual element.

Although my original commitment was to write the blog for a year, I have decided to continue, although how this continuation will manifest is something I’m still thinking about.  I have decided that I will experiment with the way the thing looks, so sometime soon you may arrive here and wonder at the change in appearance, but I’m ready for a change, to see if that generates something new.  In the meantime I will continue to gently amble along with the random ideas that life throws in my path.  Do let me know what you think.

In the meantime, thank you for sharing this experiment with me and giving me your tremendous feedback and extra ideas.  Discovering that there are readers out there has been one of the greatest surprises of all.

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Stand-Up Comedy – Will It Ever Make Me Laugh?

Before Christmas I watched a two part Imagine programme about Stand-Up comedy.  Now, those of you who know me may wonder why I would spend any time on comedy, as I generally don’t find it amusing.  But that is the very reason why I did watch.

The majority of orchestrated comedy, stand-up and sit-com, usually has a broadly negative impact on me; not only does it rarely make me laugh, it actively irritates me.  But I have witnessed, on many occasions, in cinemas, theatres, and other people’s sitting rooms, that other people do find such things funny, are even attracted by reviews that mention rolling around in the aisle or crying with helpless laughter.

Usually when I say that I don’t like comedy, my interlocutor will tell me that I must try this or that show, performer or act, because they are ‘really funny’.  I nod and smile ‘Oh really?’ just to be polite.

It is such a question of personal taste, and yet, the fact that some performers attract large crowds and make lots of money, interests me.  It’s unlikely to make me crack a smile, but it is nevertheless a cultural phenomenon that I’d like to understand better.

Watching the Imagine shows was, however, a surprisingly gloomy experience: talking heads, popular stand up comedians seriously analysing what it is they think they’re doing, how they calculate the content and performance of their shows, and how long it has taken them to develop their particular shtick.  Interspersed with the interviews were filmed extracts from their shows, presumably illustrating the points they had just made; all of them uniformly, to my eye and ear, entirely unfunny.  I can see that some of them are clever, but there was nothing in it to make me laugh.  It seemed such a shame that they put in so much effort to so little effect on me.

There were however many parallels between the way the comics described how they generated their material and their stage persona to what any writer takes into account in their own work; to take small details of life and to exaggerate, to riff, to change, to improve and then to deliver it in their own individual authentic voice.  A couple commented that early in their careers they had been told their material was clever but that they had not found yet the right voice in which to deliver it.

I’m still puzzling about why I am so put off by stand-up comedy.  Some of it is the shoutiness of so many of them, and the pausing for effect, the craven begging that they be found funny, the laughing at their own jokes, the ‘trying so hard’-ness of it all.

I do however quite enjoy the silly panel shows that are often on television, where the quick witted repartee does amuse me.  Yet it is often the same performers who are on these shows, who, on their own doing the ‘Hello, Swansea’ type shows, will always make me operate the off switch on the TV and radio.

So if there is a joke, I’m still not in on it.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes – A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund de Waal

I came to this book by a somewhat circuitous route; I saw Edmund de Waal speak about his approach to making pots in the BBC series on the history of British pottery earlier this year, and searched online to find a little more about him, fascinated by his neat appearance and fastidious mannerisms.  I found an article about the book, and realised somewhat slowly that this was the book that lots of people had recommended to me, but which I had been behind the times in taking up.

It was a delicious read, ‘part treasure hunt, part family sage’, as it is described in one of the review quotes on the back cover.

On his Great Uncle Iggie’s death, Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 small wood and ivory carvings, Japanese netsuke.  When he saw the interest inspired in his listeners when he recounted the story of the collection, how it had been passed through several generations of the extended wealthy Ephrussi family, de Waal decided to write a book about it.  The researching in Belle Epoche Paris, in Imperial Vienna, Nazi Austria, and post war Tokyo, took him longer and deeper than he had ever anticipated, and in the book we are presented with the dual narrative of family history as well as that of the searching to find it.

As de Waal is a potter, he is interested in the texture and arrangement of things, so he uses the netsuke and the collection’s travels and physical environment to illustrate and bring the family story to life.

He travels to look at the large house in Paris built by Charles, the original purchaser of the collection and sits across the street and imagines the interiors, the furniture and painting on the walls.  He has a plethora of research material to consult to build his picture of the comfort and ostentation of the house because Charles was well known in Parisian society, and appears as a possible model for Swann in Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’, as well as a character in a work by Goncourt; he’s also there in records of people who bought early Impressionist paintings, and in the society pages of newspapers. He builds a portrait of a man through the things he chooses to own and to have around him.

From Paris he followed the netsuke to Vienna, when they are given as a wedding gift to de Waal’s great grandparents, part of another branch of the Ephrussi family who also build themselves a new house in the fashionable part of town, which they fill with things they consider tasteful and beautiful.  The netsuke are kept in a glass fronted cabinet in Emmy, his great grandmother’s dressing room, where the children, the young Iggie, and Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother play with them.

The fond memories of these times with their mother, and the extraordinary story of how the collection remained intact may be why there is such a strong fondness for them which de Waal has inherited from both Iggie and his grandmother.

I so enjoyed the exploration of a domestic history through the examination of the things that people choose to have around them.  There may be some added interest in the fact that very little other than the carvings survived in family ownership after they were stripped of their belonging by the Nazis; that the Ephrussi’s were extremely wealthy in the 1930s, but by the 1950s it had all been taken from them.

But to me the story spoke of the universality of the idea that some things are valued in a family because of the people we love who are associated in our minds with them, and that we honour them by telling their stories.

Between – A Photo

This is me between the twins from down the road.  It looks like it must be from another century, and it was.  I think we used to go to their house sometimes to watch television, as their set could get ITV, while ours only had BBC1; although we all seemed to have the same wellingtons.

I wonder if they are still more technologically advanced……

Having The Name Badge Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re Useful

This is a photo I took through the dirty window of a bridge across the M6 on one of the allegedly busiest pre Christmas travel days of the year, as I was driving north.  I’m glad all the worry mongering forecasts of long delays were wrong, but I did still wonder where everyone else was.

That is, I was wondering that until I hit a roundabout at the entrance to a shopping centre area, Morrison’s on one side of the road, Asda the other and I found myself in the middle of exactly where everyone else was; queuing to get into a supermarket car park.

Leaving aside the questions of why anyone sane would join a line of stationary traffic waiting to get into a shopping car park, or why there is such an orgy of shopping before Christmas when the stores are only closed for one day over the holiday season, I wondered about how vile it must be to work in a supermarket over this period, where the frenzy of over consumption is laid bare in all its essential ugliness.

A few days before leaving London I walked to a nearby supermarket to buy a couple of things.  I specifically chose the shop on the basis that its chief characteristics is that there are rarely the long lines at the checkouts that are the sine qua non of a visit to most of its competitors.  I was disappointed on this occasion however as I had to wait some time to pay for my meagre five item basket.

Never one to miss an opportunity however, it afforded me the chance to observe the comedy of manners played out before me.

Everyone in my long line was watching the employee at the adjacent till hoping that she would soon get her machine working and open up, remove the ‘this line is not currently in use’ sign from her conveyer belt, and start to tot up the bill for the person speedy enough to dash across at precisely the right moment.

From my vantage point I could see that there were some technical problems with the screen, as it had been displaying the ‘leave me alone while I reboot’ rotating egg timer symbol ever since I’d joined the queue.  The middle aged lady operator had already performed the basic ‘switch it off and start again’ routine a couple of times when a very young woman in the green jacket which denotes a supervisor rank rushed up.

‘Open up the till.  There’s a queue.’ She pointed at us, as if the other woman hadn’t already been aware of 10 pairs of eyes observing her every move as she attempted to overcome the reluctance of the technology.

‘It’s rebooting,’ the older woman said, in a tone, which to me sounded remarkably unperturbed by the rudeness of the supervisor girl, who had already rushed off without contributing anything to resolve the basic issue.

Two minutes later, another bright faced girl in a green jacket, clip board in hand entered the scene from the other direction.  She removed the ‘this line closed’ sign from the belt,

‘Open up now,’ her tone was even more peremptory than the first girl.

‘The till’s not working,’ the woman’s tone was still patient.

‘You’ve got to open,’ the girl’s pace barely slowed, while she gesticulated with the hand holding the ‘closed’ sign.

‘Put it back’ Finally the older woman’s voice contained the years of additional experience, the fact that she knew what she was doing and that the girl was contributing nothing to the customer service experience.  ‘Put it back,’ she pointed to the conveyer belt. ‘Now.’

As a disinterested observer, in an increasingly restive crowd, I could have suggested that instead of rushing about issuing useless instructions to an experienced co-worker, most likely old enough to be her mother, and manifestly used to the idiosyncrasies of the company’s IT systems, at least one of the girls could have opened up one of the unmanned cash desks by the cigarette counter and done something to contribute to reducing the lengthening lines.

But then, I’m only a customer, so what would I know?  (And if they were more efficient, maybe there would have been more people in my way on the motorway…..)

‘Christmas With The Rat Pack’ at Wyndhams Theatre

This was my Christmas Panto outing for this year.  A cabaret show, riffing on the idea of the shows that were performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but with a Christmas flavour.

In contrast to the other jukebox shows on in London at the moment, there is no attempt to give this any kind of narrative; it’s simply three guys giving us their impersonations of the three ‘rat packers’.  There’s a little repartee between them, the joshing of each other that the originals indulged in, Dean being drunk, Sammy being Jewish, and Frank smooth, but apart from that, it’s all down to the singing, supported by a ‘three sisters’ group, backed by a 15 strong band, arranged across the back of the stage.

The singing is good because they’ve all got great voices, but it’s not a brilliant sign that I spent a lot of the time worrying about whether they were going to trip over the cables of their retro style microphones.  And when I wasn’t thinking about that, I was wondering about how satisfying it could be to make a career out of the fact that you can do a decent impersonation of someone else.

There wasn’t really enough to look at on stage for me; I perked up when the girls danced, but there wasn’t nearly enough of that.  So instead, in my perpetual search for a narrative I watched the small interactions between them to see if there was something in the relationship between the three crooners.

Who knows what the dynamics really were, but based on this show it seems that Frank was the acknowledged cock of the walk, Dean had a better voice, but disappointed he wasn’t Frank, drank too much and made a virtue of that in a hard drinking age, and Sammy was the most talented of the three, but who played the fool and endured the patronising of the others in order to be allowed into the gang.

This is essentially a tribute band, but its the fame and mythology surrounding the original artists, and the age of their audience, that allows this to be produced in theatres rather than on the university circuit or in the fourth string tents at festivals.

It was foot tapping and fun by the end, with the addition of a few carols in smooth swing time for seasonal spice

In a trawl around the internet I found one ‘user comment’ about last year’s Christmas show by the same cast that made me laugh out loud.  ‘He’s the best Dean Martin I’ve ever heard.’

And there you have it; ersatz can win the day.

Happy Christmas

From the beardy guys and me.

Some Christmas Lights

I have an ambivalent attitude towards Christmas.  I find the television advertising in the run up to it odious; the street lights and decorations are up for far too long , and all the seasonal going out puts too much pressure on bars and restaurants which have difficulty coping, leading to an inevitable deterioration in the overall experience.

If there were less of it, I’m sure I’d appreciate it more.  I remember in 1995 I left Moscow around 23 December to come to the UK for Christmas.  At that time, there was nothing in Moscow to indicate that it was a celebratory season; no extra street lighting, no decorated shop windows, so when I saw my first illuminated tinsel Christmas tree after landing at Heathrow, I truly appreciated its jolliness.

So just to prove my inconsistency in these matters I should probably confess that I’ve decided not to put up my Christmas tree this year. As I’m going to be away for most of the festive period, it didn’t feel as if the work effort to enjoyment ratio was in my favour.  It’s only worth it if it’s going to be there for my pleasure for a couple of weeks before, and all of the time after Christmas until the grand dismantling on January 6th.

The best thing about having the tree inside is the lights, I enjoy  sitting in their gentle twinkly glow, so rather than deprive myself completely I’ve unearthed these fairly lights which, for a couple of years, after I bought them on a whim one December lunchtime, adorned the window in my office at work year round, much to my colleagues’ amusement.

Everyone needs a little whimsy, every now and again.

Another Unanswerable Question

There is something fascinating about questions to which there may be no answer.

Wondering is what fuels curiosity and the hunt to find explanations.  There are books raising such points as why penguins feet don’t freeze?  And in the recent season of  ‘QI’ the panellists are each issued with ‘nobody knows’ card to brandish when a particularly arcane question is asked: why do brazil nuts always rise to the top in a box of cereal?

I was reminded a couple of days ago of one of the things that perpetually puzzles me.  Why is it that people who wear Ugg boots are incapable of lifting their feet up when they walk? Is there some special weight inserted in the soles of them that impedes lifting, or that somehow adheres them to the pavement?

I was walking to the supermarket the other day when I heard that distinctive rhythmic scuffing sound behind me.  My reaction to the sound used to be to assume that I was being followed by someone with a walking disability, requiring special consideration, an elderly person with sore feet, a crook back and no teeth, maybe needing me to step aside so they could shuffle past me.  And I’d turn around to be confronted by the sight of a shiny faced young girl, dragging her feet, slouching along, scoring a rut in the concrete with the soles of her boots.

It’s not an attractive look, but that’s their look out; more importantly, it’s really annoying, and I want to shout out them.

‘Pick your feet up, for goodness sake.’

But maybe you know.  Is there an answer to this question?

History in an Address Book

There’s a story in this book.  It might not be apparent to the casual reader, but to me it tells a vivid tale on each page.  I’ve been looking at it for the addresses to send out my Christmas cards, a not always annual process that makes me pause and think about the people listed in it.

I’ve had this book since 1977.  I remember this because I got it just before I went to University which marked the moment when I had to become responsible for keeping track of people on my own, rather than relying on the family archives. I bought it in the Oxfam shop – that’s the old logo for the charity, on the cover, I think.  Even then it was rather old fashioned.

It’s weathered well, still properly bound, but bulging with change of address notifications collected over the years and grubby at the cut away edges where my thumb selects the required letter when I’m looking for a particular name.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the D pages, and also the Ss, are full, with many entries written over and scored through.  X, Y and Z are blank, as are I and U. There are people in there I’ve not heard from in 25 years, and each time I look at the names I wonder where they are now, although only in a half hearted, fleeting way; not enough to do anything about it.

There are some friends who have moved so many times that their entries are now squeezed in tiny writing between the lines, and sideways up the edge of the page.  Those who have married and changed their names are crossed out with an arrow to the new name to make sure I don’t forget.  There are addresses in the UK, France, Holland, the US, South Africa, Australia, Greece, Russia, Latvia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Spain and Peru.  I’ve got a telephone number for a taxi in Limoges, where I spent the academic year 1979/80, which I’m occasionally tempted to call to see if it still works.

Of course I rarely write a telephone number down these days; instead I store them directly in my phone, so more recent friends and acquaintances rarely make it into the paper address book; unless I am to see them around Christmas, I have to ask for their home address, ‘home’ or ‘snailmail’ being a specification we would never have thought necessary in the pre internet days.

Even though I keep track of most people via the internet these days, it is still nice to send and receive at least some physical cards, to stand them on the book shelf beside the fairy lights until January, and reflect on the histories shared with the people who sent them.

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