Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Songwriters & Poets Newsletter - extracts, March 2018

From time to time I have thought that I should include the content of the monthly newsletter I write to subscribers of the Songwriters & Poets nights in Downham Market in Norfolk. Maybe this is cheating, but just in case anyone else is interested, here are bits from the most recent one.

Last week I had my first experience of performing at the circus. I opened the evening for the monthly Psychedelic Circus evenings at Jurnet’s Bar in Norwich and it was a lot of fun. I was followed by a man from Bristol juggling hats. He has come to Norfolk to join the cast of the Foolhardy Circus this season. I missed seeing most of his act because I was packing my kit away, but what I saw was very clever although nothing like as scary as the act that followed him - a woman with a bull-whip and a very brave friend who held playing cards between his lips or through his legs for her to whip away! Being of a nervous disposition I moved further back. I love making music but I am constantly in awe of people who have musical and other skills including, as in this case, the brandishing of vicious weapons. Whether skills enable people to build their own homes, write books, give speeches, make beautiful or practical things, cook delicious food or fix something that is broken people truly are amazing. I took part in the Venice Carnival last month and I have been looking at some astonishing photographs taken by some really skilled photographers of the most extraordinary and beautiful hand-made costumes and masks that lit up the city for four days. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain why some photographs are so much better than others, but somehow they just are and something very special shines off the picture. I have now been to Venice a couple of times and have spent hours watching gondoliers working their boats with incredible accuracy and skill - it takes five years to train and qualify for a licence to “drive” a gondola. They manoeuvre their craft with delicacy and precision through the tightest of situations that would have me in a complete panic and not once have I ever seen two gondolas touch accidentally.  Last evening I watched a friend coaching a young girl on a new pony. I had to ask questions about how she knew what to look for in order to help the girl improve, because I could not see what she so obviously could see. I suppose that is what some people wonder about me when I am working with children on composing projects. Over many years of experience I hope I have enough of a feel for ways to help them get increased satisfaction from their music. While what I offer doesn’t feel special to me, and I always question my right to interfere in their creations, I hope that they feel better - rather than despondent - about their efforts when I’ve finished interfering. Smiles on faces sometimes reflect that, I suppose. I would guess too that it is all a matter of degree. I was complimented on my own boat-handling skills recently. To me it just seemed logical to take a manoeuvre slowly. It’s the only way I have a chance of not getting into trouble - something I have found all too easy in the past and undoubtedly shall again in the future. Last year another boater passed me after I had turned in a limited space and congratulated me for having managed it since it was something he would not have attempted, even in his smaller boat. It was nice (actually, very nice if I am honest) to be acknowledged, but somehow skills seem more special when they are possessed by someone else. If I see you and offer you a compliment for something you have done, it comes from a place of warmth. I feel genuinely amazed by what others can do, not because I didn’t expect them to achieve it, but because I feel joy, and often awe, at something I feel I would be unlikely to be able to accomplish myself. 

I have received an invitation to open the Spirit Of The Marsh in Lincolnshire in May. Actually, I chased it a little. It is a tiny festival (my favourite kind) put together by a group of friends and I spent a short time there as a punter a few years ago. It seemed appropriate that Marshlander should perform at Spirit of the Marsh and that will now happen. Fortunately I did not have to audition for the gig or, worse still, go up in competition against others for a spot. I realise this often happens behind closed doors as choices are made but this month I shared the disappointment of friends whose music was insufficiently acknowledged. It was supposed to be an open competition for a chance to perform at another festival. The criteria for success were published in advance and, apart from a final catch-all criterion, it seemed straightforward enough. What was disappointing was not that the friends didn’t get through to perform at the festival, but that the criteria for judging performance were mostly ignored in favour of the final one which amounted to whether or not the judges liked them sufficiently - the same decision that takes place with an autocratic promoter or by committee behind closed doors. This made a nonsense of criteria that claimed the decision would be made on the quality of the music, the composition, originality and crowd engagement. I have always struggled with the notion of competition, yet some people have said I am competitive. I disagree. I do not experience the feeling of being in competition with others but I am, though, very tough on myself and always want to do something better than I have done in the past. I think that is different.

In the coming month I am looking forward to being under the spotlight at Grange Farm Studio Hangout on Thursday evening. Singer/songwriter Neil Cousin has said once or twice that he feels that he wants to have a q&a when I perform. He may be there. This may be his chance. I am hoping to see some new people turn up for Songwriters & Poets night at The Crown in Downham on Friday. There have been hints in the postings! I am going into fanboy mode a couple of times this month when I get to see Maggie Bell and Dave Kelly perform in Peterborough and Jethro Tull in Cambridge. Although I’ve seen them all before I haven’t seen any of those people play for decades (I think Maggie Bell was in Stone The Crows last time I saw her and I haven’t seen Tull since 1970), so I am really looking forward to the performances. 

Other local events to look out for later in the year (which I’ll include now because tickets sell out quickly) include Folk In A Field at the beginning of July (I shall be working with Willowspin on the Saturday afternoon) and the Southburgh Festival at the end of July. I’ve reserved my tickets for that one and hope to catch up with an old friend, Chartwell Dutiro, whose photograph beams out as one of the headline acts, performing with his son Shorai, whom I haven’t seen since he was a little boy. I really look forward to seeing him perform with his father.

Nico Dobben continues to organise the splendid music nights at No8 - The Old Bookshop in Downham Market and John Preston runs the open mic nights at the Green Britain Centre variously known as the Collapsing Cabaret or the Apocalypse Café. It will probably have another name by the time of the next evening. Something I’ve rarely mentioned in the past is the fortnightly Wolf Folk Club at Wolferton Social Club. It is probably one of the longest running events in the local folk and acoustic calendar, yet seems a secret known only to the many who attend. 

As usual, don’t forget West Norfolk Radio. It’s best to check out their website for details. The format of their twice-monthly live music evenings on Sundays is often a mixture of recorded music, guest performers and floor spots.  You can go and be on the radio as performer or audience member.  I did my third guest spot recently. It is probably best though to check their diary, because the remaining weekly shows are recordings only. As mentioned they also keep an excellent diary on the website of other folk-related events around the East Anglia region, occasionally promote some high profile performers in concert and they broadcast from a number of festivals (including Ely Folk Festival and Folk On The Pier) around the region. It beats me how two people manage to do so much. 

Another excellent source of music is Norwich’s Future Radio specially with Richard Penguin’s “Acoustic and Eclectic Show” on Sunday afternoons, which often features the work of local musicians. The show is available live on air if you live in the Norwich area or otherwise online or occasionally via a podcast on Mixcloud. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

In The Meantime

Just case anyone thinks I've forgotten to write something here, I haven't. I am ridden with guilt about neglecting this blog! I have, though, had other things happening that seem to have taken priority. I really must get round to telling you all about opposing a private bill in Parliament, some health stuff, this year's Venice Carnival, how I moved on to the boat in the first place (I promise t's a good story if I can remember it all), something about gigs, some sad news about dogs, and I have spent a couple of days in a studio over the past couple of weeks ... "about time too", said P.

Okay, that's a little shopping list of reminders for future essays. In the meantime here are some pictures from last week of me recording at Grange Farm Studio in Norfolk, with the wonderful Isi Clarke at the desk (and on my iPad in order to take these photographs). I'll save yesterday's photos for when I write properly and I'll try and write properly soon.

Now I have to leave to get set up for a ceilidh with my brilliant rocking ceilidh band in Norwich tonight. 

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Of Snows Of The Wrong Kind And Late Night Chairobatics

As I mentioned in the last post (did I really write that?) the day, (now yesterday, do try to keep up) started dramatically enough. Leaping on to trains having already run a marathon between platforms followed by a distressing encounter with a troubled man were just the beginning of what was to prove an exhausting and very stressful day.

The gate to international trains at St Pancras International slid open as I shared the ticket in the Wallet application on my mobile phone admitting me to that holy sepulchre, security. Suitcase, backpack, bumbag, water bottle, coat and hat in large trays were treated to x-ray zapping. None of the nonsense of removing computers, tablets, e-readers, belts, shoes and anything else that conflicts with the rules du jour that afflict air travellers (or visitors to Parliament ... ah, you don't know about that yet, I must get round to bringing you up to date with my recent January - you will need to know about harmonicas and padlocks!). Two border control people fought for my attention at adjacent desks. I apologised to the one I had rejected and he graciously accepted my expression of regret. Another helper was available to aid me with inserting my passport the correct way round in the e-passport gate and there I was, in Valhalla - the international rail departure lounge at St Pancras. I had made the journey in plenty of time. I love it when plans actually work out. It so rarely happens. First stop, breakfast. Much lighter in the wallet later I had stocked up on more than enough goods to get me on to the train and through the three-hour journey to Paris. I may not be vegan, but I do try to select vegan food options when available. As usual at railway stations, there were none. After a short wait during which I began to write up my stingingly fresh memory of the distressed man we were called to board our train, which also proved to be painless enough. As we were boarding I caught part of the announcement that seemed to suggest there would be a twenty-minute delay getting into Paris, but no one else was listening and no one seemed to be making a fuss above their ambient chatter that had partially blocked the message, so I let it go too. The train left on time and I was looking forward to a stress-free trip from Paris Nord to Gare de Lyon on the RER, two stops only - the order of the day. I think I have now memorised the route from platform to platform, de quai à quai, and I had tickets left from the carnet I bought on a previous adventure. There would be no queuing necessary at a ticket office or behind one of the (usually few) working ticket machines at Paris Nord.

A little snow in Northern France 

I tried reading, but having had even less sleep than usual, I couldn't keep it going. I am currently reading Judy Dyble's autobiography written in partnership with Dave Thompson and really wanted to get past the obligatory childhood memories and on to her time as a performing musician. I dozed. I came to in the blackness of the Chunnel and dozed some more. The countryside of Northern France sped by. A sign on the screen in our part of the carriage pointed out that Eurostar had hit a record 346.7 mph at some point in the past. I wanted to fire up the speedometer application on my phone to see how fast we were travelling at that moment, but resisted, knowing I would need to conserve battery life for later in the day. The fields were beginning to look whiter. At first I couldn't make out if this whiteness were frost, snow or lime spread in anticipation of a specific crop. Soon it became apparent that this was snow. A few inches of the stuff were piling up on branches drooping under the weight as we rolled by. All was going well with the journey and the sign on the screen informed us we would soon be arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. Then we stopped. We didn't move for quite a while. We edged forward and stopped again. The disembodied voice from on high informed us we would be arriving fifty minutes late, because the snow had meant there were three trains ahead of us waiting to pull into the station. We were in a train jam! It appears that the French rail system also is prone to suffer the effects of the wrong kind of snow. After much more edging forward and stopping we eventually arrived at the station two hours late and it was clear I was going to miss my connection to Geneva. Half-an-hour should have been sufficient time to get me between these two Paris main stations and I had timed my journey to leave two hours. On this occasion it wasn't enough. 

Rather more snow in Northern France

I have often underestimated how much a difference in style makes in understanding helpful notices between the UK and France. For example, in England a direction sign with a down arrow suggests a descent to a lower level. In France it means go straight ahead (notified in the UK by an up-arrow).  On the tube in London, all stations are listed as destination options at the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, staircase or platform. Nothing of the kind seems to exist in France. One just seems expected to know that a train heading for Malesherbes or Melun will stop at the major gateway to the south, Gare de Lyon, in two stops. I think I have cracked this one now and  - probably for the first time - I found Quai 44, the home for southbound trains on the green RER ligne D without any wrong turns. However, there was still nothing really obvious confirming that my destination was possible. This was further confused by the apparent introduction of trains from Ligne B on to this track. The overhead electronic destination board was listing places with which I was not familiar and Gare de Lyon featured in none of the information. I checked with a woman in my broken Français and I understood that what I was now expecting was correct, namely that not this train, but the next one, should be my train of choice. It was. The first train pulled in and it was at this point that I discovered that even French people get confused with their own system.   The woman turned to me and said something I didn't understand and I smiled gormlessly in acknowledgement. She gave up after a few attempts to help me understand something. Then amongst a little gang of men on the platform a cry went up. Does this train go to Gare de Lyon? It doesn't, okay. It does? It does! One of the men leapt on the train and I followed in what used to be called hot pursuit. Once on the train I looked at the route map. There above the door in its full green glory was the route for Ligne D. The destination I hadn't recognised was a tributary of the main line and the only way to that destination was via Gare de Lyon, two stops down! Aaagh! I am never going to understand this. My map of the Paris Métro and RER system stops short of the tributary and so, of course, I had never seen it on the plan. Once again, and for the second time in the day, railway destination boards proved unhelpful. 

I arrived at Gare de Lyon about ten minutes after my connection to Geneva had been due to leave. I considered the possibility that my next train had been delayed too and that I would still be able to catch it, but of course today was not going to be that day. I looked on the overhead information boards and there was no sign of any train leaving for Geneva, on time, running late or at any time in the foreseeable future. What if the train I had booked on to was the last of the day? It took me a further twenty minutes of drifting between Halls 1, 2 and 3 to find help. I found a man in his smart SNCF uniform who was loitering in the lobby and answering the questions of the stranded and delayed. Every answer seemed to initiate the immediate flight from his spot to a distant part of the hall with the hapless passenger in pursuit. I joined the game and once again failed to crack a French code. This one probably explained why railway station staff in uniforms only answer questions from people who interrupt a previous passenger requiring another migration with a flock of the confused in tow. After a while I had been his acolyte for longer than anyone else and was still being ignored every time I moved into his direct line of vision and opened my mouth to speak. That was the point at which I gave up and looked for another solution. Eventually I found the ticket office in a hitherto hidden corridor between Halls 1 and 2 and decided that enlightenment lay somewhere near at hand. The queue leading from the door was horrendous. It was being marshalled by barrier straps while the entrance to the ticket office itself was staffed by bouncers. No one was allowed through unless they had queued for at least half-an-hour, unless for some unfathomable reason the bouncers decided it was your turn to sidle up to the exit lane and push through to the inside - another French code I have yet to break. This queue was at least as long as the queues I had often encountered at ticket machines on the Paris underground during strikes and public holidays, when most of the machines had already given up in despair and actual ticket offices with real people were closed. It was also growing longer by the second. I turned to the woman behind me and asked as best I could if this was the right place to come as I had missed my connection. She answered in the affirmative helpfully filling in my halting French with random words in English. So I waited … a very … long … time. Finally being beckoned into the ticket office foyer I was greeted by a charming and smiling woman in SNCF colours who looked at my home-printed ticket and led me to a machine that dispensed tickets with numbers. This is France after all. My number was I39043. The foyer was festooned with more overhead display screens. It was overhead display screen heaven. I worked out that my ticket number would appear in a left-hand column and the desk at which I was to present myself for assistance would be in a corresponding right-hand column. I learned a new word, guichet (n. m. - a window in a post-office, bank or some other administrative office through which one speaks to an employee). Once again I was confused by the customs associated with this form of queuing. While waiting for my ticket number (I39043, remember) to hit the display I had to experience a somewhat abstract arrangement of letters and numbers first. Ticket number A61230 would be followed by, say J11275 and then a sequence of I numbers, except for mine. It took me a while to discern that the newest number appeared at the top of the screen and eventually disappeared altogether from view after it had dropped to Number Six in the chart. I did not even begin to work out what happened if one missed a turn. My eyes stayed glued to the screen. After another half-hour I was summoned to guichet dix-huit. I handed my ticket to the gentleman at the desk and explained as best I could my quandary. He tapped at his computer keyboard and I had to wonder if I should trail behind when he leapt up from behind his desk and hurtled out amongst the throng to speak to the woman who had allotted me my ticket number. I stayed and awaited his return. I assumed his return was as near to inevitable as dammit. He did indeed come back to his desk and he could not have been more helpful. He changed my booking to the 15.15 train and didn’t even charge me for another ticket. I had been fearful that I would be expected to cough up another €90, because French rail staff are generally rather keen for passengers to travel only on their allotted train and only in their allotted seats. Booking websites are equally keen to point out that tickets are not transferable. I needn’t have worried. The experience from here onwards was actually rather painless, barring the inevitable wait for my next train.

A little south of Paris the snow disappeared altogether. It appears that the snow that had caused so much chaos was in reality a narrow belt stretching from the west coast to the German border. Once in Switzerland I knew my way. I could almost do that bit blindfolded. It took me longer to pick out the Swiss francs in my change to buy my ticket from the ticket machine for the 61 bus back across the border into France. Having arrived at knocking-off time I had to stand for the whole journey. Arriving at my destination in the town centre left me with just the fifteen-minute walk to P’s apartment. 

When I opened the door the sewing machine was throbbing and production was in full flow. The Divine Miss M was brandishing gold-threaded braid and asking me how much I wanted to be able to tie up my new cape. P immediately had me balancing on a chair so he could pin up the pantaloons he had made me. I was so exhausted that I was seriously afraid of not being able to keep my balance. Breaking a leg at this stage would be most inconvenient. Tomorrow night we leave for Venice. Carnival awaits.

Work in progress - The Divine Miss M
Work in progress - P modelling my outfit so far

Of Men In Distress

I don't know how it works that £16 can buy a permanent place to stay, but that’s what he said. How could I argue? The poor man was clearly very distressed. It was not even six in the morning and already the homeless were out and about. Being homeless, perhaps he’d been out and about all night and it hadn’t been the kind of night I would have wanted to be outside; not at all.

I came down to London yesterday. I arrived about 8.30pm and stayed overnight with my dear friend from my schooldays. As usual, M and I discussed our latest political adventures, art and music. We shared our news to the gentle accompaniment of his newly discovered ukulele chords while I noodled on the guitar I had restrung for him a couple of weeks ago. We mardled till gone eleven and he called time first. He had to be up at five for work. I had to be up at four to get a train to Paris.  

There seems to be a hierarchy of platform information on the Bedford to Brighton line. During the night plans can change in an instant. This was a phenomenon I first encountered when, for a while, I used Leagrave Station regularly. The same phenomenon seems to affect West Hampstead too. It was while I was mulling over the implications of how a train that had been due on Platform One in four minutes had become a train going to another destination in fourteen minutes that my train arrived ... two platforms away. Maybe it serves me right for staring at the half-occluded moon through the screen of tiny, gently falling snowflakes. There was no way of knowing that the new arrival was actually the train I wanted, but there were clues. It was heading in the right direction, there were only two stops to St Pancras International and check-in time was approaching. I ran with my large suitcase and heavy backpack up the stairs to the footbridge, along the footbridge and down on to the new “right” platform. I don’t know why or how this happens. It’s not as though West Hampstead is in the middle of nowhere. I hurdled the gap to mount the train, but the necessary exertion felt rather extreme and, as I sat in the train with the doors closing, gasping to catch my breath  and hoping my heart would hold out for the remainder of the day, I realised once again that I am not a fit man; certainly not in the traditional sense and barely in my own imagination in any other sense.  

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but checking in for international trains is so much more civilised than checking in at an airport. Having ignored those signs that now forbid taking suitcases on the escalators, I was making my way to the Eurostar entrance at St Pancras (with as much optimism as I could muster after a night’s sleep lasting one hour and forty minutes and a fierce attack of insomnia) when I passed a lonely piano. No one was there to tease music from its keys and strings, but I was vaguely aware of a couple just ahead of me - at least without looking directly at them they looked like a couple - until one half, the male half, shuffled my way. I am very familiar with that shuffle. He was coming to ask me for money. Being about to go through security I had taken all my change out of my pockets and put it into the pouch strapped to my waist. Since it was still only 05.45 I hadn’t anticipated meeting any homeless person who needed money and hadn’t got my “buskers pocket” ready with the £10 I usually budget for a day in town. His opening gambit was to hold open his hand and display a modest collection of silver and copper coins. I couldn’t make out everything he said, but he was clearly very distressed. It seemed he had been trying to raise enough money for some sheltered accommodation. In three days all he had managed to beg were these few coins. He seemed convinced that £16 would secure him somewhere to stay tonight and on nights to follow and I think he was facing a deadline, or at least he seemed to feel he was. He said people had been very unkind. He looked as though he’d had a rough time. He had indeed been through the wars. He told me he had been in the army, bomb squad, and had also been shot. He’d fought for his country, it had affected his nerves and he hadn’t expected to be treated with the contempt he’d encountered on his return. He kept pulling at his sleeves which revealed informal tattoos and patches of what looked like red dye. “I’m not an addict,” he declared, “but here’s where I was injured”. I lost his thread at that point as he explained that he was so upset that so few people seemed willing to help.  My judgmental side was about to explain that no one should feel obliged or coerced into giving him anything, but looking at the pathetic handful of coins, I broke my usual rule and pulled out my wallet. I fumbled around for a five-pound note and offered it to him. “That’s really kind of you,” he said, “but what good is that going to do me? If I don’t get the sixteen pounds soon I shall lose my bed. I can’t spend another night out in this weather. I can’t stand living in this world where people are so unkind. I’m going to finish it.” He made a slicing motion across his throat with his fingers. I would love to have had enough time to sit him down with a cup of tea and encourage him to share his story, but I needed to get my train. I put the fiver back in my wallet and on impulse pulled out a twenty and pressed it against his hand. “Sixteen pounds is what you need today?” He had been on the verge of weeping when trying to articulate his situation, but now the tears flowed. He grabbed my hand and thanked me over and over. It was reward and embarrassment enough to be able to conjure in my conscience a little hope that this small gesture would help take some of his immediate worries away. I’ve known depression and I’ve known suicidal despair, but I could not begin to imagine what this man had been going through, nor did I really know why he needed that precise amount of money. I know I’ve been lied to by people begging in the streets before, but that isn’t the point and nor does it worry me as much as the fact that they were forced there in the first place by circumstances likely to have been beyond their control. Were I in that position I think I would learn to do and say whatever I could to get through a day if I hadn’t died first. The handshakes clearly weren’t enough. He threw his arms round me and locked me in an embrace. My first thought was alarm. I didn’t want to have to deal with head-lice if he had them. I have enough difficulty communicating in French without having to take a trip to the pharmacie. This thought was quickly quashed by shame. When was the last time this man had been hugged? I pulled him in closer and held him until he was ready to pull away. Still thanking me he started backing away and wishing me a safe and happy journey. I hope he has an hour or two of relief from his  burdens. London’s mayor is currently running a campaign in support of relief for rough-sleepers. No one should have to sleep rough. This man has obviously fallen through the net and he cannot be the only one. Two of the last three or four rough sleepers I have met and spoken to are talking about suicide. One of them may even be dead; he had a plan. Just one is too many. Such talk is unlikely to be a coincidence. Homelessness is becoming an increasing problem and is affecting more and more of us. It is an indelible mark on our collective conscience and, unless this nation looks closer to see what is really happening out there, it is going to become much worse. I hope I don’t meet you on the streets.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Of Mountains, Père Noël, And Vegetarian Encounters With Exotic Meat

I hope you have had a peaceful and pleasant Christmas commemorating whatever may be your winter festival of preference. Where I am at present it is called "Noël". I came to France last week and stopped off in Paris for a few hours as you may have noticed. Now P. and I, along with The Divine Miss M., are “down the valley” and not far from Grenoble where P. grew up. We have come to spend a couple of days with P’s papa.

Papa built his house forty years or so ago. It was the second house he built. The first one disappeared in divorce arangements when P. was a child. P. and his brothers all had a hand in helping papa build this extraordinary place. I never tire of the view even though, since the house was built, all the other plots have been sold and much infilling has taken place. In our bedroom there are two windows. The large one has double windows that open on to a small balcony with a view directly across the valley to the mountains of la chaine de Belledonne.

View from the bedroom

Behind the house tower the steep cliffs of the massif de la Chartreuse, part of which may be seen through the smaller window. Being France, both pairs of windows are shuttered. The windows in both design and view tell me I am in a different country.

View from the other window

I don’t know how many hours during the past fifteen years I have sat and stared at the Belledonne massif. Like the skies and the watery reflections of my beloved Fens, the mountains are constantly changing and dancing to the tunes that nature plays. As yesterday wore on, the mountains hid themselves behind a veil of mist. Today, in the rain, a different scene altogether is visible. I shall miss this place when there is no longer a reason to visit. Papa celebrates his 90th birthday next year. He has been making chocolates (he has got The Divine Miss M. dripping the remaindered liquid chocolate into paper petit fours cases as I type. Then the equipment will be cleaned and put back into the cellar until Pacques requires the making of Easter eggs. Papa has led a varied and interesting life. He seems not to have as many clients for his healing services these days. He knows about manipulation, acupuncture, herbs and other Chinese medical practices, although his favourite treatment seems to be to offer colour therapy. I wonder how many other university English language lecturers can put all these skills on their cvs? Papa is a bit of renaissance man.

Yesterday, P’s brother and his family came for lunch. During my childhood, before I was twelve and became a vegetarian, I ate pretty much whatever my mother chose for Christmas. Christmas was the only time of the year when the family ate chicken. How times have changed! Other meats being available, yesterday’s main meat course was ... kangaroo! I never expected to be sitting at table with people devouring kangaroo, but then they had already consumed the foie-gras, a delicacy whose attraction utterly escapes me. We are going back up to Haute-Savoie later today. We’ll drop The Divine Miss M. back home en route. Then P. and I have a day to prepare for the trip back to England. For the first time since I have been living on the boat I shall be returning with confidence that nothing will have leaked from any water system - I can’t say the same about any rain water which will drip into the bilges via gaps in the rear doors, the hatch and somewhere else I have yet to discover. Before leaving I drained the domestic cold water tank, the calorifier and the heating system. The weather had been cold before I left with hard frosts and a thin layer of ice on the river some mornings. I did not want a repeat of last January’s spillage (with ghastly details here). However, this does mean that the first thing I need to do when I get back to the mooring is to start filling up with water even before I light a fire to warm the boat up. I wonder how easy it will be to displace air that will inevitably have found its way into the system? I wish I could do a job without imagining all sorts of problems that will probably never come to pass.

I enjoy being with P. in France and his family is lovely, but I do look forward to going home and getting back to the boat. The workload that awaits me is not something that I anticipate with eagerness, however interesting some of it will undoubtedly be. No doubt more will be revealed in the fulness of the coming few weeks.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Of Paris 19/12

My trips to and from France are usually a fraught affair. Rushing to get to a station on time, checking in, passport control and all the rest of it. It takes very little to complicate the journey still further - usually it is the late arrival of one of the legs of the journey or just me. 

Waiting at St Pancras International for the 07.55 to Paris
Today I added another complication. I made arrangements to meet the good people at HyVibe Audio to try out the prototype of a guitar I have ordered from them when it comes into production in June. Gimmicks have always a been a weakness of mine, but these days I can mostly resist on account of cost, lack of available space and stopping to think about whether I really need whatever it is.  Increasingly I am of the opinion that I have too much stuff and don’t need anything more. 

I decided to make an exception for HyVibe. I think I first encountered them as one of those irritating suggestions on Facebook as a product that might interest me ... or was it YouTube ... or it could have been an Indiegogo mailshot. Whatever, I did just what Facebook/YouTube/Indiegogo wanted and clicked. I was taken to the Indiegogo website, which you may know means crowdfunding. The product wasn’t the first thing to catch my attention. What initially excited me was that the company was started up by people from IRCAM! IRCAM, as you may also know, is a place in Paris where, in my imagination at least, the most wonderful and magical music is possible. Sometime during a family trip to Paris in the 1990s I insisted we visit places like the Centre Pompidou to experience the architecture of an inside out building and I stood in reverence outside nearby IRCAM. I had wild flights of fancy about the hitherto unimaginable music that must be emerging from experiments in subterranean musical laboratories. I have no idea if that is really what happens, but it felt appropriate that it should. One day I may actually get to find out.

HyVibe have managed to get themselves noticed and, for a small company, they are certainly gathering a lot of attention. That is, they keep popping up in various feeds and threads to which I am subscribed. Good for them. If I ever get a recording together I should tap into their one-man advertising and marketing department. Their own website demonstrates the principles behind their guitar project. Basically the instrument uses the spruce belly of the guitar (the prototype uses a Martin as the starting point ... could do worse!) as an amplifying surface more akin to a speaker than a resonator. As a result sounds, including the acoustic guitar itself, may not only be played and amplified, but also an otherwise acoustic guitar can be played with added effects. I contacted the company a couple of months ago to ask if I could visit on one of my trips through Paris to try it out for myself and they readily agreed. We made a tentative arrangement for December and, having heard what other people have done with the prototype in the interim advertising videos and the guitar’s live launch party webcast a couple of weeks ago, I was even more keen to try it out for myself. 

As much as Monday’s plans went awry, Tuesday’s were super smooth. I woke up in London at 3am in the guest bedroom of my dear friend, M. I thought I might actually manage a little more sleep, but that didn’t happen. However a leisurely stroll to West Hampstead Station at 6am, a train to St Pancras, a spot of breakfast and check-in to my Eurostar booking due to leave at 8am. I maintain that after the multiple abuses one suffers in airports and whilst flying the train is so much more civilised, except when travelling a Sunday of course, but I think I have already expressed those concerns elsewhere in these essays. 

The journey to Paris Nord passed quickly, mainly owing to the friendly woman sitting next to me. We mostly chatted about the lack of promised on-board wi-fi, her job as a massage therapist and the friend she was going to meet in Paris before catching the 9pm train back to London. It was all very cordial. The rest of the journey to HyVibe Audio’s centre of operations close to Montparnasse was also very easy. 

An easy trip from Gare du Nord to Saint-Placide on the Métro

Once there I couldn’t find the actual building and ended up in a school at the same address asking for directions. A quick phone call to Matt Volsky, my contact at HyVibe, soon put me right and he came down the stairs of the adjacent building to meet me at a locked security gate. He and Adrien Mamou-Mani, another of the three founders of the company and a rather gifted and accomplished acoustic scientist, had only arrived back in Paris from their trip to New York to introduce the HyVibe guitar to Guitar World five hours earlier, so I suspect he was not at his best. I was introduced to the team. Apparently I was the first actual customer to try out the guitar. That seemed to make it a significant day for them too. My worries were two-fold. Firstly, would the guitar sound good and play well and was it a serious instrument above everything else? Secondly, the name HyVibe. It reminded me of another “instrument” I bought many decades ago that, at the time I thought so cool, but that turned out to be a musical dead end. That was an Optigan, a chipboard-built keyboard that used twelve-inch floppy discs that looked a bit like big versions of the free discs that came with some music publications in the sixties. These optical floppy discs were printed with stripes and patterns reminiscent of a monochrome Bridget Riley painting, but these patterns could be interpreted by the Optigan to play looped accompaniments to melodies played on the keyboard. The Optigan was unwieldy, required at least two strong people to lift it and Mattel, the manufacturers, let it die. Within a few years the MIDI protocol was established and Optigan would have bitten the dust anyway. However HyVibe is not the Optigan and neither do I see it disappearing in a cloud of indifference unlike my previous purchase. 

The guitar was actually on the workbench and had to be reassembled before I could take it into a smaller adjoining office and play it. I live in hope, but I still haven’t found a Martin I like. This wasn’t it, but I was relieved to see that they are taking seriously the necessity of using a guitar with integrity of its own before adding the electrics. The production models are unlikely to be Martins and neither will they be dreadnoughts. The plan is for a cutaway, which will be good because I don’t have one of those - listen to me, I’m beginning to sound like I have GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome - as sung about about by Sally Ironmonger on Sunday evening’s Jane Clayton Show on West Norfolk Radio. The official video of the song may be found here). 

Matt demonstrated the way to access and use several features which at present include the ability to use the self-amplifying guitar as a Bluetooth speaker for backing tracks, looping and recording, along with effects including reverb, chorus, phaser, delay, tremolo, acoustic boost and distortion. I tried a different song for each setting and was filmed playing and singing some of them. If any of them come out well enough I’ll add it here eventually. Everything worked pretty much as expected although the effects, which are controlled via a phone app are not yet fully developed, so the settings were mostly just on or off. The looping function only applies to its own channel at present, but should work with every effect by the time of production. Effects can be chained via the app and up to nine chains can be sent via Bluetooth to one of nine banks in the electrics on the guitar. It was mad having sustain and distorted feedback coming from an acoustic guitar. I am looking forward to June when I get a HyVibe of my own, although after today I am now the proud owner of a complimentary HyVibe plectrum. I don’t know yet how I shall use the HyVibe with my current repertoire, but it will be fun playing with it to work it out and I think the guitar is very likely to expand the methods I use when I compose songs.

At HyVibe - Dr. Francois Beaulier, Dr. Dmitri Bouche, Matthew Volsky, Marshlander, Dr. Adrien Mamou-Mani

Looking at the video of the Guitar World review in New York a couple of days ago it was striking that some of the comments from people watching were so negative. I thought they were very unfair at the time. There seemed to be two lines of attack, one was criticising the quality of the sound and the other that the technology rips off Tonewood. Firstly I don’t know how anyone could have judged the quality of the sound without being present. The quality of the sound relies, in a video broadcast, on many more factors than simply the quality of the instrument. If someone thought the sound was poor, it was more likely that they were listening through the tiny speakers of their laptop computer or smartphone. The real thing is impressive. I have never played a Tonewood-equipped guitar, but I think the technology involved is significantly different. HyVibe has been designed from the ground up. It uses a number of actuators attached to the underside of the belly of the guitar. Adrien's seven years of research have included finding the optimal placement of these actuators. The system relies also on the communication in software between mobile phone, tablet and HyVibe guitar for the sounds. This is quite unlike the Tonewood, which, is a hardware box attached to the the back of a guitar. That alone is bound to have a massive difference on the sound. I shall research further and let you know, for sure but I think the Tonewood does not attempt to be the same thing as the HyVibe, nor vice versa. At the moment I think that the HyVibe carries the potential to be more flexible in terms of sounds, because all the sounds are in the software. However, the Tonewood device probably scores in operational flexibility because the device can be attached to any guitar more easily, I suspect. The systems, though looking superficially, similar are in fact quite different. I suspect the HyVibe will probably end up being the more desirable device, while the Tonewood will probably win points on cost.

Having tried this prototype, I am looking forward to getting my hands on the finished article. I made one or two comments offering suggestions. It would be useful to have some control over changing patches via a foot-pedal rather than relying on a phone app or on releasing one hand to fiddle with the controls set into the shoulder of the guitar. I think the HyVibe team should be very proud of what they have achieved after many years of research and an excellent marketing campaign. They have reached 100% of their Indigogo target too. I didn’t think to say it at the time, but the worst thing about this innovative product is the name. It may appeal to young hipsters out there, but I can see that a few serious musos may have a bit of a problem owning up to buying something called a "HyVibe". Perhaps I'm just too fussy.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Of More Tardiness And ... Well, Just "Aaagh!" Really

Monday ... last day at home before I leave for France tomorrow. Since I am catching an 8am Eurostar to Paris Nord I made arrangements to stay tonight with a dear friend from my schooldays, M. He lives one stop away from St Pancras and really couldn't be more convenient for when I find myself forced to be in London. It is always wonderful to see him. I know that he will entertain me with his latest passion for the ukulele. He has probably bought a few new ones. If he finds something he likes he tends to go for the set. When we were teenagers I loved visiting his family. His mother always made me so welcome ... and she knew how to cook vegetarian food. Eating with M's family was my earliest experience of eating aduke beans. They are probably called something else these days.

As always on the final day before a French expedition, there was too much to do. I had Christmas and birthday cards to send to the very few people on my list - my choice as a fully paid up Scrooge. I had a list of jobs that needed doing. Chief amongst these was to take my precious instruments to my lockup many miles away and to winterise the boat. I am blowed if I wanted to return to a scene redolent of the great January indoor flood (details here, if required). I have been eking out the water supply so I didn't have to refill the cold water tank again before I left. Even so, emptying the domestic water supply from both the cold water tank under the foredeck and the calorifier in the engine bay took a good couple of hours. During that time I decided also to drain the heating system that extends by means of gravity and convection through pipes in the engine room from the calorifier and the header tank through to the multi-fuel stove near the "front door" of the living quarters where the back boiler is situated. Crawling through some inspection doors I could, by lying on my side and reaching in by torchlight, access a drain tap that I only discovered in January after the repairs to the burst back boiler had been made necessary. Pretty observant of me after living on the boat for five years. I hadn't actually tested the  tap, which I discovered on Monday required a crucially-sized spanner to open and close the valve. Naturally it took several goes to find the right spanner. I was able to empty about twenty litres of water from the system (there may have also been a dab of antifreeze in there too, but I wasn't going to take chances this time that there was actually enough). The wisdom on narrowboat discussion forums is that the water/antifreeze ratio should consist of a 50/50 mixture in the domestic heating system. I have a bit of a problem with that. Three sets of pipes or heating elements go through the calorifier - the tank that supplies all my domestic hot water. One of them (circulating from the engine's cooling system) already contains antifreeze. Adding antifreeze to the header tank means that two out of three systems contain a deadly poison. What if one of them leaks and I end up washing or washing up in antifreeze? Will I die?

I also had to remember to arrange for some payments to be made while I was away since they become due over that time. Those tasks finished I shut up the boat having emptied it of any precious instruments that I would rather still be playable should the boat sink while I am away, and headed off to my lockup. I didn't get as far as the farmyard where my van was parked when I caught sight of a musician friend who was visiting the farmer and the horse lady, friends of his since childhood. A., the musician, has been working on a new cd and I asked how it was coming along. "It's finished! It's out!" he exclaimed with justified pride. I had to have one. The ensuing conversation took a good thirty minutes. This was a very special occasion. We musicians don't put cds out every day, you know! Wishing each other the season's best we parted. Onward to the lockup.

I needed to buy a few bits that P. had asked for (it still seems odd that a French man should ask for specific items from British supermarkets, but who am I to question ...?), so I stopped at the nearest one on the way. Just as I was about to step over the threshold my mobile phone rang. It was the chief agitator in our group of petitioners against the Middle Level Bill (more here). I watched the sky turn red and the sun sink below the horizon as we discussed important matters relating to the campaign and our speedily depleting stock of time to prepare our upcoming presentations to MPs in Parliament in a few weeks. The phone call lasted an hour and I still had my shopping to buy and instruments to return. I was never going to get to M. in London by 3pm as planned. Once on the train the journey was more than two hours. It was already 5pm and I was still in The Fens.

Finally, equipment safely stowed under lock and key, I set off again to park the van at another friend's house, about forty minutes drive away. This friend lived in a town with a railway line and even a station (we still curse the name of Beeching in The Fens) -  about half an hour's walk from his house - and from where I would catch a (much later than expected) train to London.

I arrived at M.'s flat about seven hours later than planned. He was ill (again - he seems to save colds for when I visit), but he had made a delicious vegetable soup from scratch. No aduke beans that I could detect. Tomorrow is another day. I can't afford for delays. French trains are like aeroplanes and I would have to get the seats I had pre-booked or lose my place and my money.