Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Lost Chord

Although there have been moments when I have been more than happy with my own company I have to say the best moments in life have been, and still are, when I have been part of a "team".

These days the team most often takes the form of a choir. Last year the Rolling Stones performed live at Glastonbury for the first time. I say live despite the fact that some of the less flattering camera shots gave the impression of animated corpses using up energy rapidly at first and gradually slowing as the energy wound down. Proof positive that ageing baby boomers (a group of which I happen to be a member..) can continue to perform despite the passage of time. So, 2 or 3 times a week I find myself standing alongside compatriots trying hard to absorb a new tenor line.

Fortunately in the local choral Society there are some excellent singers who have been with the choir for a good number of years. Amongst the tenors are a 70 something and an 80 something, both of whom can still hit notes clearly, and with a repertoire between them that is impressive. So the tactic is to manoeuvre into a place in front of one of these maestros to pick up on awkward notes and tricky leads, especially when the tenor line is exposed (i.e. the only part singing).

Our last performance of Handel’s Messiah in the local church involved a final practice at 5.45 p.m. ready for the 7.15 start. Many of the loyal audience who turn out every year to listen to us have realised the value of turning up at 5.45 as well. They get a real insight into what is likely to go wrong, and a rich shared experience a few hours later as they check how well we fare.

This year, the soloists worked through a number of lines to get used to the ad hoc orchestra that gathers for the event. By 6.50, one of the four soloists had not arrived; the conductor seemed pre-occupied with the orchestra and it was left to the choir to speculate on how the performance would go, without a Contralto soloist. Needless to say there was a growing anxiety amongst a section of the ladies and, it seemed, a certain amount of speculation amongst the other 3 soloists. How could the part be shared out??

Fortunately, at 6.55, to considerable applause the final soloist arrived. Problem solved. Meanwhile amongst the tenor section I was having my own private misgivings. One of the two stalwarts was ill. The other stalwart was sitting so far back that front row dependants couldn’t hear him! This led to a frantic chair shuffling session in the few minutes between rehearsal and performance. One tenor arrived just as the opening chorus was about to start (having been held up o the M25), we took a deep breath and began what was to be a memorable sing – inspired no doubt by the level of adrenalin now flowing through our veins.

To hit a note at the moment you are supposed to hit it - accurately - and, to quote a well-known phrase "with one voice", is a moment to share. The hair does tingle on the back of the neck (just as well because hair seems to have deserted the rest of my head). To miss a lead, to lose a note here and there does not seem to matter, since the "team voice" keeps the music going and it’s great to experience the "team spirit" that invades any group activity when that activity is done well. A crisis does seem to help produce that team spirit.

I was once part of a 14 strong crew on a small "tall ship" sailing across the North Sea from Middleberg, Holland to the Thames estuary. As we left through the Dutch storm barrier winds started to pick up, a small rope snagged on a sail and skipper was rewarded with a wellington boot full of seawater as he freed the knot. Halfway across we were being treated to very large waves, force 9 gusts and a wind direction that pushed us north to Lowestoft. Next day we had to sail the extra stretch of East Coast, wet and tired, and yet the team spirit that banded everyone together was palpable. Singing, silly jokes, shared food all took on a different dimension.

Life can be especially rewarding when we have to struggle hard for a while – when we have to rediscover that "lost chord" of mutual dependence and rely on each other to succeed.

A banal conclusion I guess – true, neverless..

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Stand in line please

Queues. Queues at the bar. Queues at the checkout. Queues at the security check. Do I have a unique inner talent that both guides me to the queue with the imminent problem, whilst  transmitting my intentions to all and sundry? And why do I attract taxi-drivers with a lifetime of sob-stories which they need to share with passengers?

We have just returned from a splendid holiday in Turkey. Weather was great; food was good; company was excellent and the activities generally taxing enough to be satisfying without being unduly tiring. 

There was just this irritating queueing problem that kept catching me out. 

We had just recovered from a 20 minute monologue about the problems of a divorced single overweight red-bull intoxicated cabbie and got our way through the airport obstacles of bag drop and security check. I lost the plot for a split second and offered to go and buy a paper (mainly for the puzzle page to keep my mind active during the flight). 

Getting the paper was easy. Paying for it via the "scan-it-yourself-pay-and sort-the problems-out-yourself" checkouts was almost impossible. In desperation about not missing flights I saw frantic tourists throwing £20 notes into an honesty basket to pay for a Daily Mirror. In my case I had stupidly tried to buy a bottle of water to replace one confiscated at the security check so I just had to wait for the one slow, harassed assistant to serve me.

Hey ho - off to the plane, which departed on time (despite having me on board). The fact that we were almost the last to board mattered not. It meant less time thinking about the physics underlying the problems of getting a very heavy metal weight into the air. However I really didn't think enough about what to have from the hot snacks menu. My wife had thought it through and calmly chose a hot bacon baguette which miraculously managed to appear within 3 minutes. Needless to say, my cheese and ham toastie took a full half an hour.

Realising the power of my latent "rent-a-crowd" talent I began to focus on an expedition to the toilet - an expedition that would clearly have "timing issues" (to quote a popular misconstrued phrase). No need for further details....just think extreme discomfort.

And so it continued throughout the holiday. Almost every time I headed for the drinks bar I would arrive no higher than 10th as 2 or three lines of customers glided into the queue formation. The queues behind me were almost always non-existent (after all it was much more fun to arrive just before me rather than just after). On the rare occasions when I got there first, the drink had just run out (coffee, coke, tango, orange) or the beer barrel needed changing. 

In the self-service buffets of the all-inclusive guests, diners in front of me would help themselves to just the right amount of pancakes/ fried eggs/ beefburgers to leave...nothing. I could have lived with this had I not noticed, time and again platefuls of uneaten meat and eggs littering the table tops. Maybe the sight of so much food was just too strong a temptation - which I suppose is a harder issue to deal with than queues.

For the most part, several days passed without problem (or perhaps I had moved to a denial phase).

Then came the thunderous climax - the grand finale - the mother and father of "rentacrowd" problems - checking in at the airport for the return flight. 

Wickedly, Bodrum airport actually has 2 security check-ins. The first one is a "total baggage" check which takes place just after the departures entrance and comes at a moment when thoughts about passports and airline tickets are uppermost. So I struggled to get all the baggage onto the moving rack without slowing down the queue too much, whilst removing my metal buckled belt with one hand and getting small coins into the plastic box with the other hand. The red alarm light flashed as I went trough the scanner - and the guard gleefully found a mobile phone at the bottom of  a deep pocket (the usual place for my wallet). Place small mobile into large plastic box and go around again. 

As I came out the second time, conscious of trouser slippage, I was confronted by 2 security guards - despite getting a green light from the scanner. "Open bag.!" in a tone and expression that left little room for negotiation. So clutching my trousers with one hand (having only managed to get the belt through 1 loop) I opened my rucksack to reveal 3 spherical objects - which to an x-ray machine could just about have been home-made bombs or baked hand grenades - but which were in fact 2 apples and an orange.

The disappointed trigger happy guards (with back -up hovering within metres) scowled and sent me on my way - doing up belt and re-arranging hand luggage contents whilst walking in the wrong direction for the check-in desks. 10 minutes later, just as we reached the front of the baggage drop queue I heard the public announcement about a mobile phone left in a plastic box at security.

When I finally left the hard-to-convince guards, clutching my ancient "bottom-of-the-range" nokia mobile, I swear I sensed a communal "high-five" going on in the background. But at least the problems couldn't get any worse I thought. I was now mentally prepared for the wrong choice of snack on the plane and a customs queue at the domestic airport. 

I just wasn't prepared for a booked taxi which arrived an hour late at the pick-up point. It just wasn't fair on my friends.

Great holiday, really great. In fact it's difficult to remember when I enjoyed a holiday as much as this one - 
..just a shame about my "rentacrowd" effect...

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Gather ye rosebuds..

Every so often we make an effort to treat ourselves taking advantage of discount fares on the trains (senior railcards), sales, last minute offers and bus passes. We have become accustomed to discovering like minded ageing enthusiasts on these adventures.

Having scrounged a lift to the train station from friends (the bus timing didn't fit) it was no surprise to find the train south only partially full. Inevitably we had hit the carriage with our compatriots - in this case a rambling group heading, we guessed, for Welsh hills - judging by the profusion of anoraks, heavy sensible walking boots, walking poles, small rucksacks and safety equipment. No-one purchased from the refreshments trolley. No-one had a lap-top - and no-one seemed preoccupied with updating status on Facebook.

Amazingly, these people were talking to each other - a trait of the older generation perhaps. In the next carriage a younger generation of thirty somethings was staring fixedly at ipads/ipods; used, it appeared, for playing computer games or watching videos, with earphones as a must.There seemed to be obligatory coffee cartons everywhere.

Great excitement - a change of trains at Birmingham - which has been recently refurbished. Needing to find a vital platform I came across a wall-mounted touch screen offering all the information I could want about arrivals,departures delays and so on. I rapidly worked out the next stage in a tenth of the time it had taken my wife to buy one cup of coffee from a coffee stall, fully equipped with coffee, cups and machines, but run by a teenager faced with the stress of 2 people in the queue.

On to the connecting train, having run a gauntlet of "eager-to please" rail staff all very concerned to make sure their new station arrangements were not too taxing or confusing. There was brief moment as I held up a queue of passengers, wondering why an intervening door would not open for me despite my hand gestures across the door sensor. For information - if the door is already open - then the door will not respond as expected. So much for the "senior moment".

Lunch involved pre-prepared sandwiches wrapped in foil (needless to say) with sensible fruit to follow . Three half-completed suduko puzzles later, we arrived at a station ready for a final change of train/company/personnel. This last train actually contained a ticket inspector who gave our tickets and travel cards the merest of glimpses - clearly fearing yet another unwanted long conversation with a pair 60 somethings that would involve questions he couldn't answer and simply delay his progress through the carriage.(I would have thought the chance to share thoughts about the weather; expected arrival times; behaviour of other passengers and the length of his shift would have been seized upon.)

We arrived early at Portsmouth and tried to guess the way to the port, dragging a suitcase. No luck with an immediate route, but fortunately a Morrison's supermarket gave chance for a shared cup of tea and use of customer facilities. A cunning plan emerged. A £1 coin was needed for a large trolley - and subversive loading of the trolley with suitcase and bags took place. To our delight we then discovered that the trolley would fit inside a wooden "cupboard" for use of another £1 coin. As luck would have it, I found a £1 coin left by the previous user (probably a stressed young mum trying to deal with shopping trolley and frantic children). So having solved a "where do we leave the luggage" problem we set off to research routes, buses and other attractions unhampered.

We can recommend a trip to the Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth - there is a fascinating variety of ships; a modern retail outlet (including one of those Marks and Spencer Places where unwanted lines are sold off cheap), and a magnificent new tower called the "Spinnaker".Clearly it was sufficiently photogenic to attract an Australian film crew making a documentary about a character who had been shipped to Australia in the late 19th Century. There only seemed to be one spoken line in the "take" - but a succession of ships horns; delivery vans; refuse removal and interested onlookers was enough for the scene to take 20 minutes. They were obviously aware of our presence (suppressed giggling probably gave us away), so much so that the presenter and producer made a beeline for us after filming to see how we rated the set-up!

Back to Morrison's and several enthusiastic questions from a youth asking "Are you alright there?" as we tried to smuggle the suitcases out of the cupboard having retrieved the invested £1 coins. Guilt overtook us so we decided to share a pot of tea and toasted sandwich bought at the youth's cafe counter. On, via bus (free bus pass) to the port; through the customs (where, unsurprisingly we were not chosen for luggage inspection) and onto the magnificent Britanny Ferries car ferry. We had taken advantage of a discounted 2  night "gourmet cruise" to St Malo - inclusive of cabin on successive night crossings, 4 course dinner; 4 star lunch in St Malo at a highly rated restaurant, with continental breakfast on return.

The dinner was overwhelming in quality. Inevitably by the end our stomachs were filled to capacity. Probably  our senses had also been slightly dulled by the bottle of wine. Cabin bunk beds proved more than a slight challenge! Early next morning as the ship's announcements boomed into the subconscious, we realised that French time was 1 hour ahead of  English time. Rising at 6.30 am was a work habit, long since abandoned.

So in what for us was the early morning, we found ourselves walking the walls of the fine ancient pirate city of St Malo, dodging the early morning joggers and enjoying the clear fresh air. The tide was in, streets were sparsely populated and the main tourists appeared to be English couples of a certain age moving slowly through the streets in search of a cafe or places of interest. The French have a certain style about them - a refreshing support for family life; distinctive style of dress and great flair with their food. Lunch in a gourmet restaurant was therefore an enjoyable time as we tried oysters; cockerel, gravelax, creme brulee and splendid ice-creams. But the real icing on the cake was the conversation flowing around the tables of  the restaurant. 

Good for the pirates we thought. What a splendid place to have founded. Just perfect for those of us who have the time and energy to go harvesting the roses. Sometimes we find what we were looking for; often we have unexpected bonuses along the way - it makes the effort of getting out of the house worthwhile.

Views mentioned in the account - can you place them?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Give us a clue

Recently four of us had lunch in the town centre. Being an unusually warm spring day we had walked for 15 minutes from the house. After the meal K decided he would call in at the chemist to pick up his prescription before returning home. The choice of whether to wait for him outside the chemist or to browse adjoining shops was a no brainer, and the other 3 members of the group disappeared into charity shops and a hardware store "just for a moment".

Sometimes freak timings operate don't they? In this case, in the 30 seconds that all three were browsing, K came out of the chemists to find no-one waiting. Being of a methodical mind he returned to the restaurant to check we had in fact left - rather than sneaking back for an extra course/drink/coffee. "No - definitely left" was the message.What to do? Use mobile phone. Ah. Mobile phone was at home charging batteries. No alternative but to set off retracing earlier steps in order to catch us up. The only access to the house were the keys in K's pocket, so fearing a threefold wrath from "locked out"  family and guests, speed was of the essence in K's opinion.

By sheer chance a passing neighbour offered a lift. Result! K was nicely installed in the house just 8 minutes after leaving the chemist.

Meanwhile.....back at the Chemist three detectives were piecing together clues of K's location. Three separate checks on visible customers and an enquiry to the prescriptions counter were enough to prove he had left. A check on nearby shops (looking for us perhaps) drew a blank. Finally a mobile phone call was made - and a one sided conversation with a message system took place as a prelude to the walk home. Conversation ranged from topics like  responsibilities; relative walking paces;other evidence of previous disappearances to possible reprisals and repercussions

We were greeted by a calm, unconcerned  K. This was suspicious.Claims and counter claims about the uses of mobile phones followed. Under close questioning he cracked - and admitted to having had a lift home.  A promise to do lots of clearing away and washing up seemed like an acceptable recompense. (At least, I think that was the deal..)

This episode had unnerving similarities to a mystery that faced us 2 weeks ago. We arrived home, after a brief visit to friends, to find :

a conservatory door key in the middle of the lounge floor
the key to the other conservatory entrance on the kitchen table
2 grand-daughters locked in the conservatory with no means of escape performing antics we had last seen on a visit to the monkeys at the zoo, with lots of jumping up and down accompanied by loud shrieking noises.

Needless to say, elder sibling had her "blackberry" with her - so by the time we arrived the world knew of their predicament, and a rightly concerned mum phoned just as we had unlocked the doors.

So, what had happened?

Leaving out our long and tortuous list of possibilities that we presented, we were given the following explanation.

Younger sibling had been watching a children's cartoon programme in which - I am told - the character is locked in a cupboard (?)......... and another cartoon character mysteriously comes to the rescue. They then have an adventure............

Doh!.. this doesn't happen in real life!

In both cases there was an unplanned event with a trail of evidence to piece together what had happened.

I think in fact we have played too much "Cluedo" recently. 
Nevertheless next time we have certain visitors they may have to solve the puzzle of a front door bell that doesn't work; locked gates; an absence of cars on the drive; drawn curtains and  a phone system that is sorry it can't take a call. 

( Only you lots really..monsters..and don't be surprised if mobile phone signals get jammed by the new electronic force field I have invented.... or the ground gives way in the garden causing you to fall into a deep pit....full of crawly creatures..and soundproofing on the walls..with only a frayed rope as a possible means of escape..and scarey out of tune singing and snorting noises echoing round the walls..and pictures of fanged trolls glaring out..with only lettuce and a nearly empty jar of nutella to keep you going.. and a half empty bottle of water that you have to share... )

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Car knows best

l really like my 10 year old Golf. Over the years we've shared many pleasant experiences and I just get the feeling that many of my idiosyncrasies are now well understood.

The key to this is sheer mechanical intuition. When I'm trying to reverse into a barrier I am alerted by a loud bleep reminding me that reverse gear has been selected and that I had better wake up because " we don't want a repeat performance or reversing into a post do we?". So as I get nearer and nearer to the wall, bank or another vehicle (especially in the supermarket car park) the bleeping intensifies, building up to an exasperated continuous blast that would awaken the dead. Often I then find myself losing confidence and selecting a forward gear, even with a foot or so to spare.

The same happens if I try to walk away from the parked car having left sidelights on or an indicator on the "on" position. I get reminded with a sudden alarmist burst of bleeping. The dashboard itself is in cahoots with the noise brigade. "Engine workshop" screams a message when I occasionally stall the engine. "Service Due" crops up as a message some 2000 miles before the actual event needs to take place. 2000 miles for me is about 3 months driving so I'm a bit disappointed by the assumption it will take me 3 months to phone my mechanic and arrange a date.

Over the last 6 months the noise and message department has added a lethal weapon in the form of a "Tom-Tom" device. So now I am also bleeped (in a different musical key) whenever a speed camera is around. I am told, more often than I like, in a calm, clear voice to "turn around when possible" to get back onto the right track at the roundabout. I've become programmed into counting exits at roundabouts instead of using my eyes to read signs, and my memory to remember where I am going. Just occasionally I am left to my own devices - at crossroads for example when there is often a pregnant pause whilst I venture across, waiting for the demoralising "turn around" order.

However, I have to say that 2 days ago, in snowy conditions, the Golf really surpassed itself. Having spent the night in the Pennines town of Buxton I had to decide on a passable route to Holmes Chapel where our second night's hotel stay had been pre-booked and  pre-paid with no chance of a re-fund. Also a warm swimming pool; sauna; jacuzzi and steam bath , comfortable bed and quality 3 course meal awaited - all in all major incentives to arrive.

I made a choice - within 5 miles a sign warning of road closure blocked the way. I retraced the steps and tried a second route. On the long slow climb up the snowy road I repeatedly got a new sign flashing on the dashboard - basically a triangle warning me (as if I hadn't noticed) that we were skidding on the loose snow. I thought I needed to assert myself so I pressed the accelerator to gain power to climb the hill. Somehow - the engine just didn't respond. Slower and slower - ending in a final tired skid across the road into a well placed lay by. "I think the car wants to stay on the lower ground" declared my perceptive wife. So we turned around, headed back to the main trunk road and travelled without another incident a 30 mile detour along A roads and Motorways to arrive only an hour later than planned.

Until now I'd never thought of my car as a "he" or a "she" ....
.......................or even graced her with a name.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Just one handshake away

Yesterday was spent singing; being shown how to sing; listening to conductors talking about singing and talking to other singers. A choral-fest which lasted about 6 hours left me with about 3 thoughts that will stay with me for many years. It will probably come as a disappointment to the organisers of the ABCD day if they ever happen to read what the three thoughts are.

First memory - to get a proper note that does not get distorted by mouth shape, I have to open my mouth like a muppet (i.e.up and down not from side to side). Secondly, as a tenor, I was thanked just for turning up. Thirdly,the memory  that I shook hands with a man who was only 4 handshakes away from Beethoven and only 1 handshake away from Bill Clinton. (The historic link with Beethoven did include a bit of speculation on John Rutter's part, but the Clinton link seemed very plausible).
Anyway, it was worth shaking hands with the writer of a new piece for the last Royal Wedding Wedding and hearing about the background to his work. In answer to the traditional question, "Which comes first - the words or the tune?" apparently the real answer is "Actually it's a phone call". Therein lies the motivation to respond to a specific request for a specific occasion.

Earlier in the week I had spent a rather shorter period of time on a "Driver rehabilitation course". This was another rather intense course to which I had been invited as a result of an error in judgement on my part involving my car's speed and the local speed restrictions. Three thoughts stayed with me from that course as well. It may be that my mental facilities are in decline given that after a week I can only really remember 3 thoughts.
By coincidence I was thanked for taking part in the speed awareness course, which came as a pleasant surprise, having gone with the expectation of being chided about my driving errors. A little rhyme "Only a fool breaks the 2 second rule' ( a reference to distance between cars and stopping quickly)) has stuck, muppet like in my subconscious. And, I now have a better appreciation of repeater signs and how to recognise a speed limit in an area devoid of signs.

I suppose, if pushed I could remember a bit more from each course given enough incentive or perhaps being in a relevant situation. Next time I shake hands with someone new I can imagine my mind starting to speculate.." wonder if this person is in any way linked to the designer of speed cameras?"

Friday, 22 February 2013

Under pressure

I am fascinated by top quality sports players who can keep a cool head. The expression on top tennis player Roger Federer's face rarely changes regardless of his last shot - usually precise and well executed or occasionally a blunder. Either way Federer only shows a touch of emotion after a game as he effortlessly fields interviewer questions in a variety of European languages.

The England Rugby team have a new fly half who seems to be cast in the same unflappable mould. Owen Farrell has the ability to 'read' the international rugby game at lightening pace and make quick incisive decisions that boost England players and spectators. He concentrates impressively on kicking goals in front of huge crowds, come rain or shine. These are two outstanding performers under pressure.

Somewhere at the other extreme are us mere mortals. The mere hint of pressure has immediate implosive effects. A hard scrutinising stare from a customs officer is enough to convince me that I have unwittingly packed drink, cigarettes and drugs into my hand luggage. Somehow, despite a clear conscience, my brain then tells me to act normally - which is a ridiculous instruction to give really. How can you act normally by thinking about it?

When I think too hard about my driving, I find I crash the gears. When I deliberately try to think of my PIN number at a cash machine with a queue behind me, I get the numbers mixed up - then I have to pretend I am going somewhere to buy something and whilst thinking of what to buy I let my subconscious brain deal with the PIN number. Endless times I have shouted at the computer telling me I have entered the wrong password/login only to realise, after watching something on TV for a minute, that I have imploded through lack of concentration.

Currently our county chorus choir is rehearsing Verdi's Requiem. I find myself surrounded my people who have sung this piece many times - so much so that in one case at least the whole score is known by heart. This is not a piece of music that lends itself to sight reading; so I feel under considerable pressure to get the right notes at the right time using the right words. In these early practices I find I can confidently get about 1 note in 10 - which means singing little snatches of chorus hoping the conductor will not be too aware of my limited contribution. Unfortunately I suspect it is all too obvious. All singers who know a piece of music look at the conductor whilst others have their heads down looking at the music.

I suppose the real trick is to focus, mentally, on what I am trying to achieve and be absolutely convinced that the concentration effort will be worthwhile.

So the ticking clock, demands of a loved one or the opinions of friends and family are no longer pressure - just a spur to getting a particular job done, properly. Result!

Monday, 28 January 2013

Lang mae yer lum reek

Last week-end we gathered together friends and family under our roof as part of the annual village celebration of Burns Night. The village is decidedly English in terms of ethnic mix for amongst the long-standing resident Staffordshire population there is just a sprinkling of Scots, Irish and Welsh amongst the immigrant population from Yorkshire, Lancashire and North Eastern counties such as Northumberland and Durham. Nevertheless, Burns Night is one of the nights in the village year so we were pleased to attend the 4 and a half hour event.

It is possibly the focus on all basic good things that appeals to so many. " Long may your chimney have smoke" declared our Scottish friend having been asked for a translation of the title; or in other words if you have smoke coming out of your chimney you must have heat and so you must have warmth in the home and a source of heat for cooking. Basic needs fulfilled. Except that our chimney contains a wood stove converted to natural gas. Somehow the appeal of having gas fumes emitting from the house doesn't have the same poetic ring to it.

It was the same with the food. The watery Scottish broth certainly didn't need the expertise of a hairy biker or Michelin starred TV chef. Just heat up everyday vegetables such as turnips, onions,carrots and parsnip in a large cooking pot and mix in a liberal amount of barley then serve with a bread roll. Even the mighty plastic bag bound haggis didn't contain many sophisticated items, though something in it was deliciously spicy. Served with mashed potatoes, mashed turnips and carrots and gravy - this proved to be a very filling and delicious meal. Raspberries for the sweet course and tea or coffee - that was the feast.

But there was much more to it than that. The evening began with a tot of whisky and a toast to Robbie Burns. A Gurkha piper resplendent in kilt and Scottish plaid toured the room piping the haggis towards the top table where a ceremonial dirk was used to test the consistency of the haggis. At least I think that was the idea. There was a spell of Gaelic muttering and eulogising before the stabbing but I didn't understand that and anyway there was a good supply of wine on the table. I did think the dirk was a good idea because when it came to cutting the bag of haggis for our table it took some time to get through the plastic with a table knife.

Then when everyone had finished eating the drone of bagpipes started up again and the piper marched back around the tables to the sound of enthusiastic clapping. He was a very ghurka looking Ghurka if you know what I mean, very intent on doing the job properly and clearly not prepared to accept anything less than total commitment.

Two speeches followed (or maybe they came before the piping - the wine was very good). First the local vicar gave a speech that paid tribute to the "lassies" though it did appear that Robbie himself had been a bit of a lad from the variety of sources quoted in the speech. It also contained unintended humour in the form of the sound engineer who was staring down forlornly at his un-used roving microphone, wondering how the vicar was managing to produce so much volume unaided. We all toasted the lovely ladies present, and opened another bottle of wine on our table. A very resplendent Scottish speaking, Scottish clad lady then gave a very sweet reply on behalf of the lasses, using the microphone and saying how lucky they were to have us blokes around. (Well that was my take on it.)

Next came the party game of clearing tables and chairs to the side of the room to create enough space for the Caledonian Society to demonstrate some Highland Dances.It was interesting that occupants of some tables chose to line up their chairs with backs to the wall  and a good view of the floor across a defensive bank of tables in front. I think they already knew that after 3 dances the members of the Caledonian Society would then turn on the audience to 'persuade' more people to join their elegant hopping and skipping routines. What a great way to exercise! Most of those invited onto the floor lasted one dance before needing a rest. How amusing the scene must have been as confusion reigned for most dances. Choices had to be made about right and left; clockwise and anti-clockwise decisions were needed, then massively complicated manoeuvres called reels had to be attempted. I for one got a whole new insight into the term "reeling".

Simple food; simple dances but with good friends and family to share the experience. No wonder Burns Night is so successful - and our table even won the litre bottle of whisky in the raffle!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Sixth Sense

How well can you predict the future?

I don't mean the end of a story which predictably ends with the hero solving all the problems and living happily ever after. It's the route to the end that is enjoyable, especially with a good writer who provides unexpected twists and turns along the way. A writer like John Grisham is hard to predict, except for the conclusion which will almost always result in a victory for the lawyer in question.

Nor do I mean the end of a tea-time tv quiz show such as The Chase or Pointless. You just know that if there is any danger of money being won then either the questions will need a google type brain to have the answer, or the questions for the chaser will be along the lines of "what is 1 plus 1?". However, if it just happens to be a big occasion such as Christmas, then there is a very good chance that a competitor will win.

I can predict that whenever I hear my wife's car on the drive I will have to multi-task almost immediately. Specifically this will include making a cup of tea; carrying heavy bags of shopping from the car to the kitchen; re-organising the freezer in order to fill it again (twice); and generally making soothing noises about the stress of shopping, often applying balm in the shape of my credit card. 

Garden birds can easily predict my movements. The moment I reach for my camera in order to record a happy feeding scene for Facebook, the birds will disappear. Or, worse, the blue tits will arrive mob-handed and orchestrate a feeding frenzy which lasts until just before I press the shutter on my camera.

In my moments of black humour I sometimes think it would be useful to know my date of death. That would allow planning of travel, spending and saving accordingly. I would also have time to say the things I wanted and needed to say to friends and family, but which don't get said because I am "too busy" with everyday activities. On the other hand the day before DOD might not be that exciting - perhaps..

Inanimate objects can also predict the future. Essential items such as wallet, mobile phone, glasses and car keys all love to play hide and seek and in moments of stress (e.g. by being late) I can guarantee that hide and seek will have started.

By the far the best predictor is my lap-top. I am amazed at the predictive skill  of my lap-top. Recently I was  browsing the internet to find a supplier of small rugby balls, using sites such as Amazon or direct manufacturers. In the end I was overwhelmed by the choice, so bought nothing. However, over the next two days, by sheer coincidence I thought, I was amazed to see endless adverts for rugby balls of every size and shape, and in the end I made a purchase. Then I found that after researching a train journey, the adverts changed to offering low cost trips to London; train and hotel deals; offers on Eurostar and insurance for rail journeys. How did my laptop predict I would be interested in all these?!

This afternoon I intend to make life difficult for the cookie monsters hiding in my laptop. I'm going to google for elephant traps; organic compost; custard; toe nail varnish; minis and global warming - just to see what lap-top thinks I want to buy. 

If it really can predict the future I may have some interesting purchases ahead.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

I dreamed a dream

Dreaming a dream - not a good start perhaps; there are few alternative actions other than living in one; chasing one; or trying to live in one I suppose.

I think dreams are vital to us. Sometimes I help myself to sleep by starting an adventure in my head then waiting for sleep to take over the story. I'm envious of a friend who is on a type of medication that allows him to take a comfort break in the middle of a dream, go back to bed and pick up the dream where he left off. In my case I have to start a different thread, usually a successful experience such as scoring a rugby try or sailing a long trip in a dinghy without falling over. On rare occasions a real event comes along which seems to echo a dream in an eerie sort of way - like seeing a "new" place and feeling I have seen it before.

Yesterday we went to see the film version of my favourite musical (by a long margin). Reading various critics of Les Miserables nearly put me off. Some of my highly skilled musician friends were also full of reasons why mere actors should be not be allowed to perform in such a highly rated film. The musical is of course a world phenomenon now - and yet the so called experts got it wrong at the start as well, predicting an early end to the stage show.

Well, I still love the musical - and the film has added hugely to my enjoyment of the stage performance. It certainly hasn't spoiled my dream. Instead of having to imagine what events were taking place from programme notes or brief text comments I now have a much clearer mental picture of the plot. Street conditions were portrayed vividly. Anguish and emotion were present in abundance. The escape through the sewer was horrifically vivid. And good though the landlord and landlady have been in the stage and video performances I have seen - Helena Bonham Carter's take was delightful, especially being paired with the often dubious Sasha Baron Cohen.

There were lots of dreams in the plot, and the songs around this theme are woven all through this epic story. It mattered little to me that very few of the performers could match the singing performance of their equivalents in the stage show - Russell Crowe's strained rendering of "Javert's" stern edicts are a prime example.

Hope; Forgiveness; Remorse; Second chances; Love; Dreams.. in my head all these themes of Les Mis are now much more clearly defined. If you haven't seen either the film or the stage performance - you are missing out.