Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Tray A Little Tenderness

I always feel a little disappointed that establishments like the Hilton allow riffraff like me in.

There should, in my opinion, be a long coated man at the door who reaches out with immaculate white gloves and gently stops me with a polite but firm “I think Sir will feel more comfortable in another, lesser, establishment”

Places like the Ritz, the Hilton and that are owned by anyone who has a child named after a major city are probably not the sort of places to which the likes of me would usually gain egress and the fact that they will allow me to stay there in return for the exchange of small pieces of paper (or increasingly the swiping of a plastic card) in some way cheapens them.

As you may have guessed by now a few nights ago I stayed at a branch of the Hilton on the one of my increasingly rare work visits (these occur every year or so and are usually to do with training or meetings) – paid for out of the company coffers. We were down to visit a site that already had a Bright and Shiny New Practice that we wished to emulate and also to have a team bonding day for what is increasingly a disparate group of ragamuffins who are spread to the four corners of the universe.  Quite frankly though: if the two people required to give us the briefing on the aforementioned Process had come to us it would have been a hell of a lot more economic than shunting a team of 16 people half-way up and down the country.

I had chosen to stay overnight the night before in a desperate attempt to be even vaguely awake for the meeting and in the knowledge that the trains from my local station to this site were about as frequent and believable as sightings of the yeti.

Staying in a hotel on company expenses is not what it used to be – back in the Good Old Days you used to get a generous food allowance and pretty much be able to book wherever you wanted to, arriving there in a gold plated Rolls-Royce if one should desire to do so. However: these days everything has to be In Budget and therefore affordable – so you get enough money to feed a hamster and bus fare home if you’re lucky. However: I had managed to swing it so that I could get the Hilton as my hotel is on this occasion as it was just about in budget.

My plan was to get something to eat at lunchtime and then just grab a snack at the train station that I could eat in my hotel room – however this proved to be more difficult than I had thought, because I couldn’t find my way around the train station enough to find anywhere that would sell suitable snacks. The platform, i decided, could only have been designed by Professor Rubik, In addition to which the train ride had been hot, sweaty and tiring – with corridors crammed with people, so I was pretty tired and just decided to get a taxi straight to the hotel and just order in.

There was no sign of the white gloved doorman when I arrived, so it was a relatively simple operation for me to go through the door, approach the lady behind the desk and plant my ukelele on the desk (having foolishly agreed to provide a section of “entertainment” to close off the day) – the major miracle being that in the two trains and three taxis between work and the hotel I had not succeeded in losing my microscopic instrument.

She looked at me in my jacket, T-shirt and jeans, with my windswept hair and must have assumed I was some kind of vagabond, because when I booked inand asked how much wireless access would cost me she gave me a free pass (which would normally have cost £8) as well as taking my payment details for the breakfast the next morning (£12)

I didn’t really want anything big to eat – having eaten out at lunch, and by now my feet were very tired – so I decided to look at the room service menu and based upon the selections, and even despite the fact I thought it was a ridiculous amount pay, I ordered an omelette that cost me £10

Now I don’t know about you, but I think £10 is quite a bit pay for a couple of whisked up eggs mixed into some milk – quite frankly I could have done that and I doubt it took their most highly trained sous chef to create my meal– anyway, it was okay and was sufficient for me. It took me awhile to find the free tea and coffee, which they had surreptitiously hidden away in a drawer next to the not – so – free minibar (cheapest item £3 for a chocolate bar) and to work out the remote control (£9 for a film)

The room was pretty much like any other hotel room I have ever stayed in and there was not much to do. I don’t know what it is like in other countries, but most Hilton’s seem to be out in the middle of nowhere, so once you are there they are pretty much playing to a captive audience unless you have transport – so my only option was to flick through the channels watching naff TV until it was time to go to bed and check facebook for humorous pictures of cats.

In the morning I woke up, showered and pulled back the curtains to the exciting view of another part of the hotel and saw that my bill had been pushed through the door during the night. When I looked at it I noticed that it was £5 more than I was expecting it to be and it was only then that I realised that they had charged me £5 for the tray at my meal had come on.

Not, I hasten to add, for the purchase of my tray (which quite frankly I could have found in a fairly 
decent pound shop), but for the “hire” of the tray. Had I not been so tired the night before I would have noticed this and ordered in a pizza (with free box)

I was actively incensed and paced around the room like a delegate from the Tourette Convention for a good couple of minutes – I could understand this in a budget hotel, where everything is optional or extra: but in the one kind of expects that things like trays required for delivering food on, is part of the price.

I took a deep breath. I calmed down. I went downstairs to breakfast: wearing my Manic Street Preachers T-shirt and jeans.

It was a small act of defiance that brought me little or no satisfaction as I piled my overly priced breakfast onto my tray and called for a second cup of coffee, but it was worth it for the look of horror on the faces of the two business types in suits who shared the left down with me.

After breakfast I made a hurried escape – before they could set the man in the white gloves on to me.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Where Do Songs Come From?

A question almost every writer will be asked at some point in their lives is: where do you get your ideas from?

Agatha Christie allegedly used to answer this all-too-often asked question by replying, "From Harrods, of course: where else?"

Terry Pratchett postulated that ideas are like lightning arcing through the air in search of the right head and that it was equally possible for an idea about quantum mathematics to hit the head of a camel as it was to hit the head of Einstein - which goes some way to explaining why camels look so permanently surprised.

I began thinking about this after a series of incidents where I have woken up at 3am with an idea bouncing around in my head and had to find some way of recording it before it was lost forever.  Where did this idea come from? Why did it arrive at 3am?  Why is it not possible for it to arrive at a more convenient time: for instance when I am sat with a piece of paper trying to come up with an idea.

I suspect that the amount of times that someone, even a great songwriter, sat down and said "right: let's create a classic song" and then did so are quite small.  Sure: there are plenty of people who can bash out hit single after hit single on demand and make a living out of doing so - but the truly great songs...well, I suspect they are a bit harder.

Elton John, I believe, allows himself a maximum of one hour to find a tune for the lyrics that Bernie Taupin has supplied - if he can't get to grips with it in that time then he abandons the song and moves on - personally I don't know how one would go about writing a set of lyrics and then handing it over to someone else to come up with a tune, but I would imagine that Bernie has to write quite a few lyrics before he finds one he thinks suitable to present to His Eltonness

The truth is that there is no easy formula or solution to this - otherwise we'd all be doing it: but here are a couple of examples of how you can start:

#1: Some form of physical exercise.
Preferably in the middle of nowhere and with no recording implements so that you have to keep repeating the idea to yourself until you get to a notepad/mobile phone/handily placed secretary - there's something about the motion and rhythm of exercise that is beneficial - particularly to song writing which is all about rhythm and movement

#2: Talking to yourself.
Some people say that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness: I say it's rude to ignore the little pixies.  However: talking to yourself is a way of externalizing your thoughts and making them solid - if you really allow yourself to relax you will often find yourself thinking in ways that surprise you and saying things that you have no idea where they came from.  If you get embarrassed talking to yourself try talking to the cat instead.

#3: Being in a creative space
Some of the best ideas come purely from being around other creative people and doing creative things - more than a few of my songs have come from just mucking around on the guitar and seeing what happens.  Most famously Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd) has said that the notes for Shine On You Crazy Diamond just seemed to fall off the guitar - most likely whilst he was playing around and seeing what would happen

#4: Listening and giving it time
Some of the best songs I have ever written have come from things that people have said to me that have stuck in my mind.  Most recently a friend was telling me about her violin and it's history and it just stuck with me: I knew somewhere in the back of my head that there was a story to be told, but nothing came through immediately.  Then, one night, I woke up at 3am with a fully formed chorus in my head.

#5: Try not to interfere too much
I read an interview with Bono some years ago where he said something along the lines that songs were ideas floating in the air and that the more you reached for them and tried to catch them the more you changed the shape of what they were - scraping away the imagery this essentially means that the more you let the idea occur naturally the more pure it will be and that sometimes by messing around with an idea too much you can break it.  Having said that: the above mentioned song about the violin took me two days to finish writing, but is probably the exception to the rule as I usually try to get the idea down fairly quickly

#5: Practice
Ultimately if you have the time and patience to do so you should spend some time trying to be creative every day.  I saw an interview on TED some time back about creativity where the speaker said "Inspiration may not turn up: but you should" - and it's true, because if you train yourself to be receptive to the ideas that come along then they are more likely to materialize in the first place.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Yet More Film Reviews

#1: The Imitation Game

There are many big names in Hollywood – but at 19 letters Benedict Cumberbatch is surely one of the biggest

This quirky British actor is slowly gaining himself a reputation playing intense characters such as Khan (Staff Trek: Into Darkness), Stephen Hawking (TV series Hawking), Sherlock Holmes (TV series Sherlock), Julian Assange and now legendary mathematician and war time code breaker Alan Turing

The film follows the story of Bletchley Park – where the team test with the seemingly impossible challenge of breaking the Enigma code were based, focusing on Turing and his relationship with the rest of the team, although it does so in a semi-flashback some years later when Turing is brought in for questioning following a break-in at his apartment which initially leads to him being suspected as being a Soviet spy.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a highly skilled actor who manages to make Turing both an outsider and also ultimately likeable character, who struggles to communicate with others due to his obsession with the giant computer he is trying to build – the first of its kind. Keira Knightley is also strong as the main female, who due to restrictions on women working on the project has to perform her mathematics almost secretly. How much of the story, aside from the focus on the Enigma machine is true is debatable – however this is a tense and enjoyable story that keeps you interested from start to end and at the end, when you discover the eventual fate of Turing (for those who don’t already know at the start) you feel genuinely angry on his behalf and for those who suffered the same fate

This is well worth watching if only for the story of Bletchley Park - which may have been one of the best kept secrets of WW2

#2 The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

When the original film came out a couple of years ago it was the surprise hit of the year – a film about a bunch of old age pensioners who, for various reasons, decide to retire to a dilapidated hotel in India where they find a new lease of life.  The film appealed to a whole generation of cinema goers who were being overlooked in the rush to fill the cinemas with films about robots hitting each other and with a strong ensemble cast that included almost all of Britain’s acting elite, a plethora of exotic locations and plenty of humour it was an enjoyable and oddly life-affirming film

This sequel carries on where the first film left off – with the residents of the now flourishing hotel finally settling in as the young proprietor tries to juggle expanding his empire, the imminent arrival of a hotel inspector and his forthcoming nuptials. 

Cue Richard Gere turning up, wooing the ladies and much confusion as to whether he is/isn’t the expected Hotel Inspector (a plot that many have likened to an episode of the sit-com Fawlty Towers)
Pretty much everyone in the cinema seemed to enjoy the film and I have to say it was certainly nice enough to look at whilst it was happening, but there was something slightly missing from the film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  

Perhaps it was the way that the plot twists seemed to be sign-posted for all to see or that the action all seemed a bit by the book but there seemed to be something of the heart of the original story that was missing from this.  

All in all it was an enjoyable enough film at the time and it carried enough good will through from the first film to get away with it – but it left me feeling oddly like I’d eaten an average takeaway meal: when you go for the meal you are thinking how much you are looking forward to it, and you scoff it down quickly enough – but at the end you still feel slightly empty and want to bite into something a bit more tasty

#3: Pride

And then we come to Pride.

It’s almost impossible to describe to anyone not from England what the words “1980s”, “Margaret Thatcher” and “Strike” evoke but the Miners Strikes of the 70s and 80s were one of the most turbulent times in our recent history – on the one hand you had an ancient industry that was struggling to cope in the modern world, competing against foreign fuels and finding the communities that lay behind the industry struggling to earn a decent wage and on the other hand you had a strong Conservative government determined to break the power of the Unions after decades of strikes no matter what the cost to the people – starving them out and turning the Police on them wherever necessary

And in the middle of all this, in a true story that history had all but forgotten, was a small Gay community surrounding a special interest bookshop in London that decided that they could associate with what the miners were experiencing at the hands of the police (having experienced brutality at the hands of the Police and others) and decided that they wanted to help

Finding that none of the unions wanted to be publically associated with a Gay and Lesbian group for fear of the negative publicity they approached a small welsh mining community directly and went on to become one of the most reliable sources of food and fundraising during the latter days of the strike

The fact that over a week after seeing this film I’m struggling to write this review without getting emotional tells you something about what an absolutely amazing film this was: funny and shocking, tearful and uplifting with a cast that included Bill Nighy (who seems to get everywhere), Imelda Staunton and Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton (the leader of the group) – it really is a film that you will find yourself going back to mentally time and again after the end credits roll

Clearly, being a period piece, this film uses some of the language and prejudices of the times and for me one of the most uplifting things of seeing this at the cinema was to hear the gasps of shock at the way people were treated purely due to their sexuality and to realise how much those attitudes have changed – although admittedly I was saddened to see that in the USA all references to Homosexuality have been removed from the DVD case to help increase sales (I’d be interested to sit in the front room of anyone who buys the film without knowing the content to see what they make of it as a result!)


I can’t possibly recommend this film enough – it is the best film I have seen in a long, long time and anyone who walks away from the ending without a tear in their eye is no friend of mine

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Darmok

One of the most disturbing news stories I have seen recently was something on my local news a couple of days ago. The report came from a local shopping centre where police had been negotiating with a man to come down from on top of the building. Sadly, however, he eventually jumped and died.

But the disturbing side of the story was to do with the onlookers: some of whom were reaching for camera phones to record the incident, while others were actively joking and shouting for him to jump. I found this last section particularly sickening – particularly the young lad who admitted on camera that some of the people he was hanging around with (i.e. him) had been amongst those catcalling the man.

There is psychological evidence to show that people who are part of the crowd are less likely to take action than a person on their own to help somebody – i.e. there’s a sense of “well someone else will do it”, but the fascination with recording everything is relatively new. It seems that the ability to carry a broadcast quality camera around in our pocket and instantly upload anything to the Internet has not only turned us into voyeurs on our own lives, but also desensitised us to the world around us.

However: to actually laugh and joke and urge somebody to jump to their death is a far more worrying development.

This follows on from a week where we have had a number of problems with local kids, which started with a valve being stolen from our tyre, continued with a wheelie bin being thrown at our door and most recently, albeit not directed at us, an attempt to smash as many car wing mirrors as they possibly could in the street (a series of events which has convinced us it’s time to move somewhere less semi-evolved)

With all of the above I keep saying to myself that I can’t understand the pleasure that could be gained from performing these actions: nor why someone would want to single us out, when all we have done is to keep to ourselves. And the truth is that it’s nothing to do with us – we are just easy victims and they have no understanding nor empathy of the effect of their actions. It’s just senseless violence for the sake of something to do.

I have no understanding for the kind of life they have led that can bring them to a state of being where attacking someone senselessly, or jokingly calling for someone’s death, can have no meaningful context or can be seen to be funny. Where is the pleasure in that?

But then how can I possibly have any understanding? I grew up in a completely different area, with parents who taught me right from wrong. I grew up in a completely different world, where people talked with each other instead of burying their face in their iPad. Although the kids at our school were pretty nasty sometimes I doubt that many of them would have shouted at someone to jump off a building, if any.

And why should they care about me?  They live in a world where the only goal is self gratification and there are little or no consequences.

All of this is left me thinking about an old episode of Star Trek: The Generation.

In the story, entitled “Darmok” Captain Picard encounters a race who initially seem to talk in gibberish despite all attempts to translate them. In desperation the alien captain kidnaps Picard and takes them to the planet below, where he constantly says (amongst other things) “Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra”.

As the episode continues we slowly begin to understand that their language is entirely contextual and everything they say relates back to their ancient stories and history – the example being the story of Darmok and Jilad, who started off as enemies but came to be friends after they faced a battle together: only once you know this shared history does the sentence make any sense.

Although there is no realistic way that such language could have evolved the idea is an interesting concept – what would it do to our society if the only way we had of communicating with one another was to talk about shared experiences and relate them to our history? Would this foster a greater understanding of one another and read empathy for different viewpoints which it now became necessary to understand and relate to in order to do anything even as basic as trade with one another?

If we had no choice but to empathise with one another surely this would change the way we view our own lives and the world around us?


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Live Organ Transplants

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but getting anything for cheap in the UK requires a level of deduction and planning rarely seen outside the offices of Sherlock Holmes.

For instance – if I were to travel between my house and London via train an “any time you want” ticket would cost me around £140 and even booking from A to C on the cheaper tickets would still be around £90. However: if I break my journey so that I buy a ticket from A to B and then from B to C ON EXACTLY THE SAME TRAIN AS THE MORE EXPENSIVE OPTION and then come back from C to a station there is actually further on from A I can actually do this for around £55.

Not that the travel companies will tell you any of the above, oh no: you need a good knowledge of the route, a lot of determination and to spend a good fortnight trawling the internet and typing in all the different variations you can think of

It was with this thought in mind that, when I had to recently travelled to London for the 1st time in about 5 months, I decided it would be just as cheap to travel down the night before and stay over if I found a suitably cheap hotel. As it turned out the journey down in the evening cost £10 and the journey back the next day cost £25 – so all I needed to do would be to find a hotel for around £45 and I would pretty much break even (aside from food and taxis), alongside the benefit that I would be less tired for the team meeting that was due to take all day.

So I spent some time on the hotel comparison websites such as Cheap-But-Not-Cheerful.com and also rang around 3 or 4 hotels before I finally spoke to a young woman with a heavy set Eastern Block accent who was far more helpful than the previous hotels had been and, as such, I decided to book with them requesting a room on the 1st floor as I knew they wouldn’t have a lift and didn’t fancy 20 flights of stairs!

So the day of my travel arrived and at 5:15 PM I boarded the slow train to London – arriving just after 7:30 PM, by which time I was too tired to face the thought of travelling on the underground and caught a taxi across London that actually ended up costing me more than the entire train journey so far! As I arrived I saw that the front of the hotel was covered in scaffolding, making it impossible to see the contours of the building. To be fair I wasn’t expecting a great deal – this was a one star hotel, which means it was as cheap as you can possibly get (hotels in England tend to go from 1 to 5 stars).

Inside the woman with the Eastern Block accident greeted me, telling me that if I wanted a remote control for the TV it would be a £5 deposit – which I politely declined, having taught my generic tablet device with me (complete with downloaded program about art from the BBC).

I followed her direction down the corridor and saw that the stairwell that I was due to climb was covered in clear plastic sheeting (the kind you see bodies wrapped in on CSI Punxsutawney) and it was then that my texts to my friend and occasional fellow blogger Argent that the hotel would turn out to be a front for illegal organ donation or the Russian Mafia/white slave trade came back told me, even despite the smell of plaster and paint that was clearly the true explanation.


I carefully climbed the stairs, making sure not to slip on the sheeting whilst also examining it for any tell-tale signs of blood or entrails, and let myself into the room.

The room itself was little more than a box with a single bed in each opposing corner and a small cupboard that served as the ensuite bathroom and toilet in between. The shower was a square that was barely big enough for a 12-year-old to clean themselves and the toilet was positioned in such a way that it faced an outward jetting part of the wall, making it impossible to sit down on the seat in a straight line with the system behind your back without first removing one of your legs.

However the room was clean and the bed seemed reasonably comfortable which was the main thing.

It was now so dark that I couldn’t see what kind of view I had, but with the window closed could barely hear any traffic.

This was when I inadvertently made my 2nd mistake. Earlier in the day I had listened to documentary about a musical group that had played a song in the style of a Slavic anthem and, what with my comments about the Russian Mafia, I found this stuck in my head all night long as my brain refused to shut up and let me sleep properly.

Now this is where things get really strange – because at about 11/12 at night another man let himself into the room and started setting up on the other bed – it turned out that the hotel had double booked the room, explaining the 2nd single bed. To be honest I should have gone down and complained – but I was far too tired and decided just to put up with it, as he didn’t seem to be making much noise.

However – at about 3 o’clock in the morning the door of the room was kicked in and a shadowy figure appeared in the doorway, leering drunkenly into the room. After a moment’s hesitation he apologised in a sick Russian accident and went away again to the room he should actually have been staying in. I got up and went to the door of the room, only to see that had been kicked clean off the hinges.

It was at this point that I woke up and found myself alone again in the hotel room – my fellow guest and the Russian Mafia bloke having been created by my imagination.  Sleep continued to come and go for the rest of the night, interspersed by a variety of songs playing in my head to the beat of a polka.

Morning came and I somehow managed to squeeze into the tiny space allocated for shower and washed myself – then it was downstairs to the basement where there was an array of beds and linen splayed out across the hallway outside of the breakfast room. Breakfast was beyond extremely cheap: consisting only of a tiny packet of cereals, an extremely runny yoghurt and some cheap orange squash – so I ate enough to feel that I had earned at least some of my additional £2 I paid for the privilege and checked out.

In the end, if you include all the taxis, it did end up costing me more than coming down on the same day would have – but the main thing is that I was awake, ready for work and still had all of my internal organs intact!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Cribbins Factor

It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’ve just dumped my bag on my desk and before heading to make myself a much-needed cup of coffee I nip to use the facilities.

The “facilities” here are in the shape of separate cubicles inside a small corridor at the back of the building not far from where I sit. As I opened the door to the cleaning lady with the Afro hairstyle greets me with a smile and says “good morning”

I return the smile and ask if she managed to get home on time yesterday: this not being our first meeting. She tells me again about her 2nd job that she has taken on to help pay her daughters way through college, meaning that for the next couple of years she is working 15 hour days.  I commiserate and tell her not to overdo it.

I go back to the coffee making area and the chap with the moustache who somehow knows my name (despite the fact that I have no idea of his) says “good morning Pixie” before I get involved in a conversation with crazy eyelash lady who is under the weather at the moment with a combination of a cold and a pulled back muscle. I recommend Lemon & Ginger tea with honey over Lemsip (full of sugar – yuck)

This, in short, is my life: people seem to see something in me that makes them want to tell me their entire life story at the drop of a hat

People of all shapes and sizes just seem to befriend me: from the chap at the train station, who regularly tells me about the workings of the local railway, to this security guard with a hearty laugh who greets me with a fist bump whenever I’m in the building, to the variety of people around the office that I regularly stop and chat to – some of whom I know who they are and some of whom I have only the vaguest idea.

Perhaps it is because I’m quite quiet and I’m usually happy to listen, perhaps it is because I make no distinctions in life – a cleaner, to me, is just as important and worth my time as a senior manager and I try to treat both the same. Perhaps it is because I take things quite lightly and am usually ready with a silly comment: though personally I attribute it to what you might call The Cribbins Factor

Now I accept that at this point I’m probably going to lose some of my readers – if not all of you: because I don’t know how I can possibly explain Bernard Cribbins to a global audience.

Bernard Cribbins is what you might call a National Treasure: the something that I’ve always wondered about. There are plenty of celebrities who are referred to as national treasures, but I wonder what this really means. For instance: do they have to open themselves up to the public on bank holidays?

Mr Cribbins is an actor, most known for his work in light comedy and children’s entertainment. He has been in such films as The Railway Children, Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., Casino Royale (the 60s spoof, not the Daniel Craig one) and been the voice-over for classic animation series like The Wombles (essentially a bunch of creatures that live on Wimbledon Common and collect rubbish).

He was also a regular presenter on Jackanory – which was a 70s/80s TV show where minor celebrities of the time read children’s stories episodically over a week and for me, as a result of this last programme, he will always also be the quintessential Bilbo Baggins.

More recently he made several appearances in the revamped Doctor Who as Donna Noble’s grandfather and he is also known for a series of comic songs in the 70s including “Right Said Fred”

None of which, I suspect, will make you any the wiser if you live outside of the UK

However: when a friend of mine recently described me as having “the air of affable approach-ability of Bernard Cribbins” I was oddly pleased – as he has always struck me as somebody who would be extremely down-to-earth and, should you ever meet him, would turn out to be extremely pleasant and generous with his time.

Not that I will be having one, because they are so expensive now, but if the best thing they can find to say about me on my tombstone is “he had the affable approachability of Bernard Cribbins” I shall not consider my time to have been wasted – after all what is so wrong with spending a life being nice to people and spreading a little affability around?




Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Keep Below The Parapet

It can be small wonder that we British never managed to invent Jazz – or much else in the way of music come to that.

We seem to have been hanging on the coattails of other countries musically for several hundred years – all the great composers were German or Swiss apart from Elgar; Blues and Country both came from the colonies and it’s hard to think how something as tropical but relaxed as reggae could ever have originated on a cold November night in West Dulwich.

In fact about the only thing we can claim any sort of heritage with musically is folk music – which is largely people in Arran jumpers wearing ginger beards you could hide a ferret in, sticking one finger in their ear, screwing up their eyes and singing about how much better everything was 500 years ago – but even this largely comes from Scotland, Ireland or in cider growing country or wherever miners chose to frequent.

With our famous Stiff Upper Lip, no-nonsense view of the world and strict adherence to queueing for everything it’s hard to imagine what Brits must have thought when we first heard Jazz: which is largely people plinking around randomly on a piano in search of a tune. (NB I should probably say at this point that my image of Jazz as a child is largely garnered from brief performances by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth as she scat sang her way through hour after interminable hour that made me want to bury my ears in concrete with every shoobie-do-do-do-wah)

About 4 or 5 years ago now I started learning to play the saxophone – in truth it was something I had thought about doing about 10 years previously and then never followed up on. The saxophone, when played correctly, can be a beautiful instrument that produces a lot of emotion despite its connection to cheesy 1980s pop songs and the inevitable image those bring of a man on a beach without a shirt on. However – it does have inevitably strong links to Jazz, having largely been invented the purpose of playing that particular ilk of music.

Which is probably why I still struggle with the blasted thing: particularly when it comes to improvisation.

Douglas Adams once wrote that his character Arthur Dent could contrive to feel self-conscious if left alone with a pot plant for long enough, let alone with other people and I know exactly what he meant: when you improvise you are awfully exposed and bringing attention to yourself, inevitably inviting other people to comment on what you have just done – when, in my case at least, all you have done is to go up and down the scales in a largely formulaic manner.

I should mention at this point that I never dance in public unless there is a large crowd of people in which I can hide – and that when I do, very rarely, dance attempt to do what I call an “embarrassed boxer shuffle” where I sort of jiggle on the spot with my fists clenched looking at the ground for a shorter period of time as I can politely manage before considering it safe to go and sit on the sidelines and watch everybody else move with abandon – or preferably just go home and read a book. This is a similar experience to trying to improvise because it makes you acutely aware of your failings, particularly when you don’t have a great deal of confidence in what you’re doing in the first place.

Since October last year for a number of reasons I haven’t really played my saxophone and when I first picked it up after quite a long break I found that I had forgotten some of the few scales I had previously managed to remember and become rusty on the others. I’ve also stopped going to my lessons partially at frustration that none of it seemed to be sinking in, partially because I simply wasn't able to go and partially as increasingly large parts of the lesson focus around improvisation.

Since this is something I don’t feel comfortable with in the first place I find that I don’t enjoy the process and that this disinclines me from practising improv outside of the lesson, which presumably only adds to the problem. I feel that I somehow lack the imagination and spontaneity required. I just can ‘t seem to get past that sense of being pointed out in the crowd that we Brits fear so much.

Maybe I should just give up, buy a big woolly jumper, dye my beard ginger and go wassailing in the merry month of May…


…but somehow I doubt I’d manage two streets before I died of embarrassment.