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26th September 2016

2:12am: Some thoughts about chickens and eggs
This weekend, I have been thinking (and reading) a lot about the chicken and egg industry. You may have heard of Lucy Gavaghan, the teenager who started a petition calling on Tesco to stop selling non-free-range eggs. She's received lots of media coverage, and amazingly, the petition was successful. Having signed the original petition, yesterday I received an update message asking me to sign her new petition - "say 'NO' to new chicken factory farm”[1]. I felt I wanted to know a bit more about the proposed farm, so I started doing a bit of googling.

I found a few articles in local papers[2], and a summary page about the planning application[3],but not much in the way of specific details. I did however discover that the applicant, Richard Corbett, is currently a director of 9 companies[4]; his longest-held position is 13 years with Organic Farmers And Growers C.I.C.[5], "one of the UK’s leading organic certifiers, working with producers and processors to ensure their products meet the highest organic standards." I couldn't help thinking that Mr Corbett's current plans suggest that he hasn't fully embraced the organic ethos.

Today, I found my attention turning towards what does it actually mean to say that an egg - or a chicken - is 'free range'. Again, a quick google search will throw up a multitude of media horror stories of poultry farms that technically meet the 'free range' standards, but are a far cry from what most consumers imagine when they think of free range. And of course, this is an almost inevitable result of the huge increase in demand for free range eggs. When the market was restricted to a few bleeding-heart eccentrics, the demand could conceivably have been met by small-scale producers with a genuine interest in animal welfare. It should have been obvious that this could not continue to be the case as the market exploded to its current levels.

And this brings me back to one of my three recurring preoccupations - scale. I found a really interesting article from Henley Business School, written in 2007. It's called "The chicken, the factory farm and the supermarket: the emergence of the modern poultry industry in Britain"[6]. It notes that "the British poultry population expanded during the 1930s as demand for fresh eggs grew. The flocks were small, typically only around 200-400 birds, and were fed off farmyard scraps." If you're wondering how we got from flocks of a couple of hundred to Mr Corbett's proposed facility that will house just under half a million hens, this article will give you an idea (and also traces the role played by Sainsbury's in the development of the factory-farmed chicken industry).

According to an article on the Poultry Site[7], in 2007, there were 35,800 producers with flocks of less than a thousand birds - over 95% of the total number of producers. But these small-scale producers were only responsible for 3.8% of total egg production, while a mere 400 producers with flocks of over 20,000 accounted for 78% of the total. I find that quite a sobering thought.

There's another major change that's taken place since the mid-20th century. Again quoting from the article cited above,
"an egg-producing industry needed chickens, for a hen’s productive life lasted around two years. And while there were some small commercial hatcheries, most egg-laying flocks reproduced themselves. This inevitably led to the production of surplus cockerel chicks all around the country. It was these young cockerel chicks (males) that supplied the early demand for small “roasters”. The older “spent”, or redundant, layers were mostly only fit for the pot. Apart from some imports from chicken farms in Hungary, Lithuania and Russia, the chicken supplied to British households in the 1940s was overwhelmingly a by-product of these egg-laying flocks."

Today, separate breeds are used for egg production and chicken meat. This means that all the male chicks produced by the egg-production breeds are surplus to requirements and are destroyed at one or two days old by gassing or being ground up. (Ever wondered what that curious-sounding occupation 'chicken sexer' was all about? - well, now you know.) However, some new technologies which can detect the sex of an egg a few days after it's laid are on the horizon[8] - I’ve only just discovered this in the last few minutes, so won’t comment further at present.

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years now. I don’t see myself going vegan, but I’ve had long-standing concerns about egg production. When free range eggs first appeared on the market, they seemed to be the answer. Now, it all seems a bit more complicated. I’ve been fascinated by the recent series ‘Inside the Factory’, showing how millions of cans of beans, packets of crisps and boxes of cornflakes are made at incredibly high speeds on amazing high-tech production lines. But I remain sceptical that very large scale production practices can ever be compatible with the welfare standards appropriate to living creatures. I rarely buy fresh eggs at all these days, though I would gladly do so if I could find a source I had full confidence in. And I confess I still buy foods, such as cakes, pasta and vegetarian ready meals, that include free range egg on their ingredient lists.

I hope you’re not expecting a conclusion, because there isn’t one. I’m just recording some of my thoughts and concerns, and some of the interesting things I’ve found on my little journey of discovery around the web this weekend. I’d be interested to know what you think! (if you're not logged in as a LiveJournal member, please stick your name or initials at the end of your post to give me a clue who I'm talking to.)

27th September 2015

2:06am: Worcester On Stage present HMS Pinafore at the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham
I'm sitting here with a big grin on my face, having just got back from a most enjoyable performance of HMS Pinafore at Birmingham's Crescent Theatre.

This was a Worcester On Stage (WOS) production; I'd not come across this company before, which wasn't too surprising as it seems they've only been going for about a year. There were, however, a few familiar faces from other shows I've seen in the last few months.

Things got off to a promising start with a charming re-orchestration of the overture for a small orchestra (9 musicians). Subsequent reading of the programme revealed that this was a new orchestration by Colin King, who was there tonight in the capacity of pianist.

The production was set in the 1950s (inspired by the company manager's recollection of a similar setting he'd seen at the Savoy Theatre in 2002), and involved minimal stage furniture - namely, a chair, which was well-used by various characters throughout the piece. During 'We sail the ocean blue' there were several saucily-dressed women on stage, who we then discovered were Buttercup and some of her 'girls', this Buttercup being in a slightly different business from the usual Mrs Cripps.

Coincidentally, I was commenting only last night that Buttercup was unusual among the 'old bag' characters (a term I heartily detest, perhaps because I identify a bit too closely with them), in that she is not described as being plain or unattractive - if anything, rather the opposite - and that she certainly shouldn't be portrayed as frumpy.

Well, tonight's Buttercup (Charlie Cameron) was about as far from frumpy as you could imagine, in a sexy red dress and red high heeled shoes; she was also a delightful actor with some wonderful facial expressions and she sang really well, although a bit more power would have been welcome at times.

Ralph was played by Tom Dalton, who we'd previously seen as Frederic in the Tinker's Farm production of Pirates. More good singing, especially in the lower part of his range, some amusing and beautifully-executed dancing (at the end of 'A British Tar') and excellent acting.

Josephine was sung superbly by Bella Harris, whom we don't seem to be able to escape from (but then, why would anyone want to?) We last saw her as Rose Maybud in Birmingham Uni G&S Soc's Ruddigore, and before that as Mabel in the Tinker's Farm Pirates. She has a gorgeous voice, and, I suspect, a bright musical future ahead of her.

WOS company manager Alan Feeney injected lots of character into his Captain Corcoran. An unexpected inclusion was 'Reflect my child'  (which I only came across for the first time a few days ago while browsing my latest treasure from the Oxfam bookshop, Ian Bradley's fascinating Annotated G&S). As someone with a great interest in language, I was particularly taken with the second verse, and it was a real surprise to actually hear it performed tonight.

Dick Deadeye (nicely described in the programme synopsis as 'the embodiment of the ugly truth') was most ably performed by John Clay. His duet with Corcoran ('Kind captain I've important information') was one of the highlights of the evening.

A somewhat sickly Sir Joseph (Simon Satchwell-Giles) rarely managed to escape the determined attentions of Cousin Hebe (Claire Hardie), who was dressed in riding attire and brandishing a riding whip.

Both men's and women's choruses were rather small (about 5 people in each). Unusually for an amateur production, I'd say the men's chorus had the edge over the women's.

It's a long time since I've seen (as opposed to listened to) Pinafore, so I couldn't say what constitutes typical stage business and what counts as innovation, but here are some of the things I particularly enjoyed:

  • At the start of 'A British Tar', Ralph has to keep turning the sheets of music held by the boatswain and his mate the right way up.

  • In the dance following 'A British Tar', Ralph first does the dance by himself, and is then copied by the other sailors. The midshipmite initially pulls faces and struggles to copy the moves, but by the end of the dance has got the hang of it and is happily dancing away with all the others.

  • In 'Things are seldom what they seem', both Buttercup and Corcoran's facial expressions and gestures make it abundantly clear that they have no idea what the other is on about, even as they sing 'Yes I know, that is so' etc.

I particularly liked the way the last scene was played out. As soon as Buttercup had revealed her secret, she collapsed weeping into the chair, and continued to cry until the moment when a dispirited Corcoran suddenly realised that his new, lowly status could have its advantages, and went across to lift her up on the words 'and you, my own, are she'. I'd never quite figured out before why Buttercup should be so reluctant to reveal the mix-up, since it would remove the one barrier that prevented her from getting the man she loved. But of course, she also knew how much the loss of status would hurt him, and perhaps also feared that if he learned the truth, he would turn against her. No wonder then that, circumstances having forced her to tell all, she became distraught and disconsolate. And what a relief and joy for her discover that Corcoran, far from being angry with her, is finally able to declare his love for her.

I've been pondering too on the alternative title for Pinafore, 'the Lass Who Loved a Sailor'.  I'd always assumed that the lass in question was Josephine, but couldn't it apply just as well to Buttercup?

Returning from my rambling digression to this evening's show, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The acting, the singing, and the musical accompaniment were all delightful. A bigger chorus would have been nice, but what would have been even nicer is a bigger audience. This was the last night of a 5 night run (plus Saturday matinee), and I'd have expected the Saturday night performance to attract the biggest numbers. Quite possibly it did, in which case some of the other evenings must have been very sparsely attended indeed, which is a tremendous pity, since this fun, flirty production deserved much, much better.
Current Mood: happy

19th August 2015

1:57am: Harrogate Day 6 - Sunday 16th August
Started the day with the church service at St Peter's, led by Canon Stephen Shipley and Very Rev. Ian Bradley. I was a little surprised to discover that neither Gilbert nor Sullivan were regular churchgoers (especially considering Sullivan's hymns and sacred music, and also in the light of the religious references which I'm sure came up in the letters we heard extracts from yesterday). Apparently Gilbert was particularly taken with the book of Job, with its story of ever-increasing sufferings heaped upon a good man. Gilbert viewed society as being full of injustices, and in his later years, when acting as a JP, was inclined to take the side of the defendant, if he felt they came from a disadvantaged background.

We sang 'Alleluia, Alleluia' (which is the same hymn the congregation are singing in the opening scene of the film of Papp's Pirates), 'Hushed was the evening hymn' (new to me, but I rather liked it), and, of course, 'Onward Christian Soldiers'. We would have sung 'Jubilate Deo', if we'd got a copy of the words and music; unfortunately, we missed out on the relevant announcement due to a problem with the PA system just before the service started. The readings were, appropriately, from Job (21:7-20) and The Prodigal Son (the text of which formed the basis for Sullivan's first oratorio).

After the service, we headed across to the Winter Gardens for a Wetherspoon's Sunday lunch (a very tasty spinach and chestnut wellington, with full vegetable accompaniment). After lunch we wandered round the town for a bit, then back to the hotel for a bit of internet time, and a chance to take a look at my purchases from the memorabilia fair yesterday. These included a copy of 'How to sing both Gilbert and Sullivan' by William Cox-Ife (just because it looked intriguing) and, optimistically, a vocal score of Trial by Jury, which was to be the evening's pot luck performance.

Tonight's show was The Mikado, which I'd been much looking forward to, as it was directed by John Savournin, about whom I'd heard good things. He was also taking the title role on this occasion, as Donald Maxwell was off giving a concert at another part of the festival. The show opened with the men's chorus wearing bowler hats and carrying large red fans, of which they made strikingly inventive use. The ladies' chorus entered formed into a train, with spinning parasols representing the wheels, which was also very effective.

The three little maids were so full-to-bursting with girlish glee that one almost felt sorry for Pooh-Bah. Nanki-Poo had an underlying air of self-assurance, and while affable and free of malice, showed a hint of condescending amusement at the troubles besetting Ko-Ko in Act II (reminding me somewhat of the character of Paul in the 1980s sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles). The Mikado cut an imposing figure, with a voice to match. The star of the show, though, was undoubtedly Ko-Ko, delightfully comical, but also played quite sympathetically. I don't think Katisha got too bad a deal!

On a more serious note, listening to 'See how the Fates their gifts allot', I found myself thinking back to the morning service and Job.

After the show, it was off to the Pavilion, for another short cabaret provided by the National G&S folks, followed by the pot-luck Trial by Jury. I finally succeeded in identifying Sarah-Jane Hall and obtaining my SavoyNet badge, and John & I joined her and her family for the remainder of the proceedings. Having never sung Trial before, it was really good to be sitting with a couple of people who really knew the piece and were clearly enthusiastic about it. The chorus lines in 'A nice dilemma', which had completely baffled me when looking at the score earlier in the afternoon, suddenly started to make sense. I love watching and listening to G&S, but there's an extra buzz you get from joining in; I really do want join a local society this September (if I can find one that'll have me!)

16th August 2015

6:26pm: Harrogate Day 5 - Saturday 15th August
A full programme for us today!

In the morning, we went to a talk by Scott Hayes, Sullivan's great great nephew, about letters which Sullivan sent to various members of his family. They ranged from ones sent to his father at age 12 up until not long before his death. Although Sullivan never married and had no children of his own, he was very involved with his brother Frederic's family. Frederic died quite young in 1877, and Sullivan took on a lot of the responsibilty for providing practical and financial support to his 7 surviving children. Sullivan comes across as an appreciative and considerate son, and a generous, fun-loving uncle who was keen to maintain harmony within the family.

The afternoon performance was the youth production of Pirates at the Harrogate Theatre. The cast was made up of youngsters between the ages of 9 and 19 who had been rehearsing together for about a week. It was a traditional production, with some nice humorous touches (for instance, one of the younger daughters came onto the stage carrying some climbing gear during 'Climbing over rocky mountain').

Ruth, the Pirate King and Mabel were all confident performers, with Frederic well on the way to being so. Ruth sang well, and her acting and facial expressions were a joy to watch. The Pirate King had plenty of character and a very pleasant voice which will doubtless increase in fullness as time goes on. His interactions with Samuel were very entertaining. Mabel's singing was extremely good, but she had so much more projection than any other member of the cast that the overall sound felt a bit out of balance at times.

For me, the absolute highlights of the show were the Paradox scene (great choreography, executed with style and confidence), and 'Ah leave me not to pine...', which was extremely moving - you could have heard a pin drop at the end of it, as the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath before bursting into what I'm sure would have been rapturous applause if we hadn't had to cut it short because the action on stage had started again.

And this brings me on to a recurring problem throughout this performance - not leaving enough space for the applause (of which there was plenty!) to die down before someone started speaking or singing again. I guess this is the one thing you can't really get a feel for in rehearsal.

This being a youth production (with some very young cast members) the chorus was inevitably quieter than usual, and this was compounded by the relatively small numbers. This was particularly evident in the final showdown between police and pirates. It would be great to see more young people getting involved next year!

In the evening, we went to the National G&S Opera Company's Patience - our second 'first' of the festival. (We saw The Sorcerer, entertainingly performed by Bus Pass Opera, for the first time earlier in the week). I instantly fell in love with the overture, which was a promising omen of good things to come. The production was full of larger-than-life characters, colourful costumes, great singing, and a special mention for the excellent lighting. Movement and static poses both seemed to play a major part, from the (intentionally!) overdramatic wafting of the lovesick maidens, to Bunthorne and Archibald's posing, and the officers' bumbling attempts at aestheticism. The chorus were top-notch, and several of them subsequently entertained us in the cabaret in the Utopia Pavilion.
12:57am: Harrogate Day 4 - Friday 14th August
Friday was a bit of a 'day off' for us. The original plan had been to take the train to Knaresborough, which we'd been told was very pretty, but the unremitting rain made this option seem not so attractive. Instead, we swung by the Utopia Pavilion (where I purchased a copy of Diana Burleigh's G&S quiz book), and then headed off to the Bean & Bud Coffee Shop for a rather late breakfast and a spot of quizzing. Bean & Bud have earnt a reputation for paying careful attention to the details - John's Lapsang Souchong came with an egg-timer to judge when the brew was ready, and a glass carafe into which to decant as much of the tea as wouldn't immediately fit into the cup, to avoid it becoming stewed. The staff are very friendly and helpful, and the place has been almost full to capacity both times we've been there.

A leisurely breakfast over, and the rain still very much in evidence, we made a quick dash across the road to 'Books for All', which kept us occupied for the next hour or so. The shelves went all the way up to the high ceiling, and there were several stepladders dotted about that I eventually concluded must be intended for the use of patrons. I bravely ascended to the 'A's on the top shelf of the sci-fi section, but sadly there were no copies in stock of Asimov's I, Robot, which I have a hankering to re-read after being reminded that there's a G&S reference in one of the stories. We ended up making a single purchase (Thanks to Jennings by Anthony Buckeridge, to add to our slowly increasing Jennings collection).

By this time we were getting a bit peckish again, but also keen to try and stick to our budget, so we made our way through the rain (which by this point was really chucking it down) to the Winter Gardens, now run as a Wetherspoons pub. It's a fantastic building, and we got a decent meal at a very reasonable price (veggie burger, chips and a drink for around a fiver).

In the evening, we went to the Sullivan concert at St Peter's Church, where we were treated to some virtuoso piano playing from James Hendry, a couple of string quartets from the Didsbury String Quartet, and the song cycle The Window or The Songs of the Wren, sung by Alexander Grainger. After the concert, it was back to the Utopia Pavilion for the pot luck Ruddigore, which was good fun, though I was surprised at how much background noise was coming from the folks up at the bar end of the venue. The lady sitting next to us on our table was clearly very familiar with the chorus parts. We got chatting to her afterwards, and discovered that she is also on the Savoynet discussion list.

15th August 2015

1:55pm: Harrogate Day 3 - Thursday 13th August
Our first venture up to the festival's other venue, the more intimate Harrogate Theatre, for Southampton University's gender-swapped production of Iolanthe. This was a real little gem, bursting with youthful exhuberance and a great sense of fun and mischief. The setting was brough forward 100 years to 1982, so we had male fairies dressed in leather jackets (still with wings attached) and ripped jeans, with punky hairstyles and heavy eye make-up, and lady peers in elegant dresses with swept-up hair.

The Fairy King (sporting a Queen t-shirt) was full of character, at times soft, almost coy, and at others convincingly fearsome - definitely someone you wouldn't want to argue with. The three named fairies (in this version Cecil, Liam and Philip) all had distinctive looks and personalities.

The young lovers, Stephanie and Philip were beautifully portrayed with some wonderful acting. Stephanie's singing was lovely, and Philip was delightfully vain (constantly preening and regularly checking his appearance in a small pocket mirror, which he hastily put away just as Stephanie turned to ask him if he had ever looked in the glass).

The chorus work was superb throughout, with lively and original choreography, and some fantastic tap-dancing from the ladies. A couple of points particularly worthy of mention:

  • The peers, while singing 'Into parliament she shall go' were dancing in a very controlled, almost marionette-like fashion, then shook their heads and appeared to 'come to' when they stopped singing.

  • There was a infectious energy and sense of the two sides having a go at one another in the close of the Act I finale. I practically bounced up the stairs to the bar for my interval drink!

The pace slowed a bit in the second half (but maybe that's more to do with the inherent structure of the piece?) It began with a charming reinterpretation of 'When all night long...', during which Private Willis (singing in a soft, sweet, low voice) gave a lesson on the workings of the British parlimentary system to a small group of fairies, seated on the ground in front of her, aided by some simple hand-drawn pictures on a flip-chart. There were a couple of moments later in the second act when people were a bit hesitant with their dialogue. The Lady Chancellor gave a very able rendition of the Nightmare Song.

I thought that the novel feature of this production, namely the gender swapping, actually worked very well, and encouraged the audience to look afresh at the sexual sterotypes and power dynamics in the story. It was quite unsettling to see the lady peers en masse groping and fondling poor Philip.

That last paragraph, however, is starting to sound rather serious, and the main thing I took away from the show was a sense of how much fun the cast had had in presenting it, and how successfully they had communicated that sense of fun to the audience. As I said at the start, the Harrogate Theatre is a much smaller venue than the Royal Hall, and I think being so close to the action really enhanced my enjoyment of it. I suspect this group may have struggled to make a big enough sound to fill a larger physical space, but the Harrogate Theatre was just perfect for them.
12:55am: Harrogate Day 2 - Wednesday 12th August
In the morning, we watched the 1953 film 'The Gilbert and Sullivan Story', described in the festival programme as being 'nostalgic, romantic and at times probably inaccurate'. I should have heeded the advice to 'bring a hanky' as there was definitely a tear or two in my eyes by the end!

This evening's performance was SavoyNet's Pirates, which I'd been awaiting with great interest. It was indeed a very interesting production, with some lovely touches, and a couple of unexpected breaks with tradition. One of these was having Mabel already on stage as part of the group of daughters, but not identified until she came in with 'Yes, one!'. Although this makes perfect sense in relation to the story, it doesn't quite have the dramatic impact of a separate entrance, and had me wondering momentarily whether I'd missed something. Another unusual feature was not having the Major General pause to think of any of his rhymes; this was possibly the fastest delivery I've ever seen of this song, without any loss of clarity, and the audience were clearly delighted with it! In fact, the Major General was one of the highlights of the evening; he later appeared clutching a teddy for 'Sighing Softly', and at one point started waltzing with a very nonplussed pirate.

Other touches that really appealed to me were:

  • just as Frederic is protesting that he mustn't tell the pirates why they are so unsuccessful, a clock starts to chime offstage; the Pirate King shoots the clock before telling Frederic that it's only half past eleven.

  • when the Pirate King suggests that not one of the Pirates would deprive Frederic of his love, one of them does try to protest, and is silenced and held back by a couple of his comrades. I've become very interested in the character of Ruth, and her possible back-story, and it's always seemed vanishly improbable to me that a group of men with no other female company generally available should all be so keen to be rid of her.

  • in the Major General's song, I'm sure I spotted a brief hand gesture intended to convey the impression of a loincloth at the mention of 'Caractacus's uniform'.

  • Ruth pulling a pistol on the Major General while telling him of the pirates' true identity.

The show opened with some rousing singing from the men's chorus, all decked out in their piratical finest, while Ruth fussed over a slightly irritated Frederic. There was some lovely choreography for the ladies chorus in 'Climbing over rocky mountains', and one of the later numbers - it felt like people were actually dancing, rather than just moving around the stage in time to the music (to my mind, there's a significant distinction here). While on the subject of dancing, Frederic was a fabulous mover - it was just a shame that the story didn't really allow the scope for showcasing more of his amazing talent in this field. He sang nicely, but not loud enough. There was some nice (and humourous) interaction between Frederic and Mabel (who sang beautifully) in their initial scene together, which ended with them coyly holding hands (a nice change from the more knowing interpretations of Mabel I've seen recently). However, there didn't seem to be much chemistry between them in their later scenes.

There was some good singing from the Pirate King and Samuel, although I didn't feel I got to know their characters as well as I'd have liked to. One of the comments made in the adjudication was that the show had lacked pace, and that delivery of some of the spoken lines and the music was a bit slow. This surprised me, as several of the musical numbers were taken faster than my preference would be (though that's just a matter of personal taste). And if anything, I felt that some of the spoken lines could have benefitted from a slower, more exaggerated delivery.

The Sergeant and his police force were a delight, dressed as Victorian bobbies in black coats, white trousers and tall hats similar to a stovepipe. They sang some of their responses barber-shop style, adopting a group pose with some members kneeling, which was very effective.

The show closed with the whole cast coming on stage waving the flags of their respective countries (we think we spotted England, Wales, Belgium, Sweden and the US), which was a nice reminder that the SavoyNet production is a truly international endeavour. It must be a huge challenge to pull a show together in such a short space of time. It was a very enjoyable and competent performance, without any of the 'ragged edges' I noted in Tuesday's 'Iolanthe', but it didn't quite have that indefinable je ne sais quoi that makes for a really exceptional show. (Neither, in my opinion, did the Mike Leigh production - it may just be that I'm particularly hard to please when it comes to Pirates.)

P.S. just realised I haven't said anything about Ruth's singing, which was superb!

14th August 2015

6:51pm: Harrogate Day 1 - Tuesday 11th August
Having finally resolved the technical difficulties which prevented me from getting these posts online sooner, here's the first part of my musings on my first experience of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Harrogate.

Listening to the Breakfast Show on Radio 3, I was very surprised to hear my request (sent in a week or two previously for the 'Live from Cornwall' special) being read out - I'd said "You can't possibly go to Cornwall and not play something from the Pirates of Penzance!" - and the overture played. A good start to our G&S holiday :)

The train journey from Birmingham to Harrogate went smoothly, and we arrived at out hotel (Premier Inn Central) at around 4.30. Our room has a very nice view over the frontage and grounds of the Majestic Hotel. We headed across to the Royal Hall at about 6.30 - hadn't realised quite how close we were to the venue! Vegetable soup and roll for tea (pretty reasonably priced at £3.50), then to the bar for a glass of wine (less moderately priced at £4).

This evening's performance was the International University Production of Iolanthe. The performers were drawn from a variety of UK universities (mainly ones not involved in the Unifest programme) plus a few from the US and, I think, Belgium. Overall, they put on a good show. A few ragged edges (unsurprising given the very short time they'd had to prepare). Strephon (one of the US participants) was fantastic, and well-complemented by a very fine Phyllis. Having so many young performers resulted in the unusual situation of having a troupe of appropriately young-looking fairies, but a disconcertingly youthful house of peers. The Chancellor gave a characterful performance and was accompanied in his first scene by the most delightful page boy (played, IIRC, by Ian Smith's granddaughter). Along with Mountararat and Tolloller, the Chancellor delighted the audience with several reprises of a very entertainingly presented 'If you go in you're sure to win'.
6:41pm: G&S revisited - a prologue to Harrogate
I'm currently sitting in a hotel room in Harrogate, reflecting on the interesting series of events that have led to me being here.

I was brought up with G&S, and light opera in general; my parents and grandparents were members of the local amateur operatic society in Witham, and I was fortunate in being taken to see many shows throughout my childhood. My dad had a fine bass voice, and sang around the house a lot, with the result that I picked up the words to "When a felon's not engaged in his employment" and "When all night long a chap remains" at a fairly early age, but was much less familiar with the female roles.

The other big G&S influence in my early life was my friend Hazel, who lived just up the road from me and was musically very gifted. I'm sure it was through her that I became familiar with such numbers as 'The sun whose rays are all ablaze', and the Judge's song from Trial by Jury. She was an excellent pianist, and at the age of just 17 ended up as one of the rehearsal accompanists for Witham Amateur Operatic Society's (WAOS) 1983 production of The Pirates of Penzance. I went along as her page turner, and thus got to see the production gradually taking shape under the expert direction of Derek Collins. It was really exciting to be involved - even very tangentially - in the process, and I became thoroughly steeped in the music. The following year I joined the props team for the Society's production of Free As Air (though somehow that hasn't left the same lasting impression), and then I was off to University and a world far removed from G&S.

Over the years, I've had periodic cravings for G&S, and have always been pleased to take advantage of the occasional opportunities that have presented themselves. I've managed to get John interested as well - so a few years ago we went  to see The Gondoliers in Sutton Coldfield, and a bit more recently the Birmingham Savoyards' production of The Grand Duke. But things really picked up again this year when, through a slightly curious set of coincidences, we ended up seeing 3 different productions of Pirates (Tinker's Farm, Birmingham, Trinity Methodist, Chelmsford, and the ENO live broadcast) in the space of a month. This really reignited my interest, and led to a series of interesting discoveries, including the WAOS archive (with programmes and photos going back to 1921 - quite a bit of my family history wrapped up in there, including adverts for my grandad's menswear shop, and seeing my mum's name change from Maureen Turner in Bless the Bride [1960] to Maureen Walford in The Quaker Girl [1963] - I gather my parents met through WAOS).

Online delvings in a different direction led me discover that there had been a G&S festival in Buxton for many years, and that there had been a group of people from around the world who got together annually to put on a performance at said festival. Both ideas seemed delightful, and I was bitterly disappointed at having missed out on seeing them, as the initial references I found only went up to around 2012. So you can imagine my joy! my rapture! on discovering that both the International G&S festival and Savoynet were very much alive and kicking.

I joined the Savoynet general discussion list, which has been most illuminating (though I'm still waiting for someone to notice the full degree of my ignorance and politely but firmly escort me to the exit), started workng my way through the archived OOTW articles, found Marc Shepherd's helpful discography, and marvelled that one can even find scans of early D'Oyly Carte prompt books and Sullivan's original autograph scores online. There's really no shortage of material to keep me going for quite a while!

And, of course, I booked up to come to the festival. The original plan was to come for 2 or 3 days, but there was always something that looked interesting on the next day, and we ended up booking for a week. So here we are in Harrogate, enjoying our first festival very much!

19th October 2009

1:12am: If I had to name one thing that I'm really, really good at, I think procrastination would come pretty close to the top of the list. I'm pretty good at coming up with all sorts of wild (some might say half-baked) ideas, but I rarely get round to actually doing anything with them.

Well, this evening I was pottering about the house, singing Ruth's solo from The Pirates of Penzance. Not being able to remember all the words, I dug out the score, and by the time cabbage got home I was firmly ensconced in front of the piano and halfway through the first act.

I should point out here that neither the singing nor the piano playing are of a particularly high standard - it's very much just for my own amusement! However, it did remind me of a long-standing desire to create an 'alternative' version of Pirates using guitars, drums etc. rather than a traditional orchestra. I can just imagine Joseph Porter rattling off "I am the very model of a modern major general", or Wob as Frederic.

Ideally, I'd love to see it done as a full staged performance, but that's obviously quite ambitious. So I'd like to start by seeing if I can persuade a few people/bands to take a shot at one song, and see whether the general concept works as well in reality as it does in my imagination.

If anyone's interested in giving it a go, or has any (constructive!) suggestions, I'd be delighted to hear from you!

Plot summary, lyrics, scores, audio files etc. can be found at: http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/pirates/html/index.html

6th June 2008

12:07am: A quick follow up to the previous entry... I occasionally get sucked into mammoth youtube sessions, and the most recent one involved seeing how many different versions of "Drink to me only with thine eyes" are out there (after seeing the one with Duke Special and Neil Hannon). The answer is 'quite a few' (and yes, I did listen to rather too many of them!) Have had fun today figuring out how to play it on the accordion (actually quite simple, and the tune is very well suited to the instrument) and coming up with my own piano arrangement of it (I was only trying to work out a single line harmony, but I got a bit carried away).

Anyway, I rather liked this - the very antithesis of an action-packed video!

I've also discovered nowplayit.com, a site of downloadable tutorials for assorted popular (and not-so-popular) songs, some of them by the original artists. I'm naturally compelled to draw your attention to this one (take a look at the preview of 'Portrait') - but I'm also quite interested in the idea in general... wonder what the criteria are for getting tutorials included on the site?

I'm so used to turning to the web to answer all my random questions (well, at least when cabbage isn't around) that it comes as a bit of shock when from time to time one realises that certain things just aren't there. Recently on Radio 4, one of the afternoon 15-minute slots was taken up over the course of a week by 'An Audience with Dan Leno', based on the life of late 19th/early 20th century music hall star and comedian. Anyway, the theme tune for the programme was a song called "The Hard Boiled Egg and the Wasp" - and of course, neither a recording of it nor the lyrics are available online. (I did however find a company advertising a CD with this track on for the princely sum of £10, so I'll probably be tempted to splash out!)

Well, that's quite enough nonsense from me for one evening, and I really ought to go to bed before I eat any more Kettle Chips (new flavour - sour cream and chive - very yummy!)
Current Mood: sleepy

3rd June 2008

12:08am: This Charming Duke
Duke Special, Glee Club, 2nd June 2008

I first fell a little bit in love with Duke Special when I saw him last year at Greenbelt (well, if I'm going to be entirely honest, it started when I saw his picture in the programme, all smudgy eyeliner and dreads falling across his face, perched beside an ancient gramophone). Last year's gig was a large-scale affair on a big outdoor stage accompanied by a motley assortment of musicians.

This evening was a solo performance in the comparatively intimate setting of the Glee Club (my first ever visit there, and I was duly impressed - nice food and fully seated, which these days is a definite plus point!)

The evening started well with an unusual support act by the unlikely name of The Voluntary Butler Scheme (aka Rob) - several songs began with him creating on-the-fly samples of percussion and backing vocals which then formed the backing track for the rest of the song.

Moving on to the main attraction, we were treated to an evening of amazing variety and inventiveness. (The projection of snippets of old film onto the surface of a drum was a nice touch.) I can't think think of any other artist who could get away with following an audience singalong of "Down at the old Bull and Bush" with a decidedly idiosyncratic rendering of Prince's "I feel for you". But perhaps he's at his best in 'vaudeville mode', crashing piano over a background of crackling gramophone .

You can always tell you're having a good evening when you suddenly catch yourself sitting there with a huge idiotic grin on your face (over the years, I've come to think of it as 'Blyth Power Syndrome'). I found myself searching for the perfect adjective to describe Duke, but it's hard to narrow it down to one... charming, quirky, talented, theatrical, engaging, extraordinary, adorable (did I mention the eyeliner and dreads? I did? Oh... right). But if you had to sum him up in a single word, you could do a lot worse than 'special' - this performer is truly Special in every good sense of the word!

Here's a little taster...
Current Mood: elated

8th March 2008

8:10pm: Musical musings
I am a happy bunny. I have been lent a new toy to play with... and there's no electronics involved. It doesn't even have a 'power on' button (though this hasn't stopped me looking for one, because nothing unpowered should be able to make quite this much noise!)

And the cause of all this excitement is... a piano accordion. I've been intrigued by them for years, and have been tempted more than once to ask if I can have a go when I've seen people playing them at gigs and dances, but the end of the evening when people were wanting to pack up and go home never seemed a very propitious time.

However, a few weeks ago I went of a short 'craft holiday', and several people there had accordions. As they seemed friendly types, I plucked up courage, and asked one of them if I could have a try on his accordion. I got a positive reception, but this was a large, 120-button affair, and I couldn't even see over the top of it. I needed something smaller. I was advised to consider buying a second-hand instrument, as if I didn't get on with, I could probably sell it a few months down the line for more or less the same as I bought it for.

I decided to look into this possibility, and asked one of the guys who plays at our local folk dance club where one might go to buy an accordion in Birmingham. He's given me details of Birmingham's last specialist accordion shop (in a truly improbable location!), but also offered to let me have a go on his 72 button accordion. I've just got back from his house (where he has a truly amazing collection of old instruments in various states of repair), with a shiny red Hohner Arietta in tow. The thing I'm finding trickiest at the moment is remembering to keep opening and closing the bellows ('cos if you don't, you don't get any sound out). But it's a gorgeous piece of kit, and I'm already pretty convinced that I want one!

28th February 2008

12:59pm: Underground Tendencies
Is anyone out there interested in coming to this year's Sub Brit Spring Day Conference on Saturday 12th April? cabbage will doubtless want to go. I'm not always so keen, but the promise of a 1950s film of the Tube By Night, and the talk about the history of London's sewers have proved sufficient to lure me in this year! Tickets for non-members are £20, and include refreshments but not lunch.

9th February 2008

2:20pm: Shiny new distraction
Well, after a couple of years of 'thinking about it', I've finally stopped procrastinating and bought myself a laptop. And I'm sorry, evilmattikinz, it's not a mac. It's an acer aspire 4920G, it's running the much-maligned Vista, and we're now on Day 2 and it hasn't yet done anything to really annoy me. Could this be the start of a beautiful friendship?

In other news, we spent last weekend up in York at the Computer Applications in Archaeology (UK chapter) conference. I remember cabbage and I several years ago talking about using a game engine to create virtual reconstructions of ancient buildings... it seems that several people are now actually doing this. I'm kind of interested in the potential for using 'authentic' reconstructions within an educational game context.

One of the other issues that frequently comes up when discussing virtual reconstructions is how to distinguish fact from varying levels of conjecture. For instance, you may have the lower level courses of a building still existing; you can make a good guess about the upper levels, but the roof may be pure guesswork. You could have a 'reality slider' that altered the transparency of different parts of the building according to how certain you were about them. So 100% reality would just show you what was still there, whereas 0% would give you a complete (if fanciful) representation of how the building may have looked. It may be useful to provide several alternative reconstructions to reinforce the idea that these are possibilities, not facts.

For almost as long as I can remember, people have been talking about IT-based on-site recording (getting your data straight into a database, rather than recording it on paper then having to enter it onto computer at a separate stage). It seems that the practical difficulties in doing this have yet to be resolved; cost, finding suitably rugged hardware, and user acceptability are all significant barriers. One of the guys from Oxford Archaeology gave an enthusiastic presentation looking at various hardware options, such as the laptop designed for the 'One Laptop per Child' programme (on the basis that it's designed to be rugged) and coming to the conclusion that the ideal on-site device does not have to be a 'computer' as such - they are now looking at the openmoko linux-based phone, and are planning to become distributors for the new version.

18th October 2007

7:39pm: A little ponder
OK, here's a little question for you - what's your name backwards?

And another one - what's my name backwards?

Did you find that you could answer the first question rather quicker than the second? I have a theory that most people will have at some point worked out what their own name is backwards, and can therefore answer almost instantly if asked about it, but it takes longer to work out other people's names in reverse.

Might this have some application in determining whether people are telling the truth about their identity? Obviously not foolproof, but could be a useful indicator. I wonder if anyone has ever done any research along these lines?

9th September 2007

12:52am: Ithaca, Old Welsh poetry and the 21st century chicken house
It's not especially surprising to hear topics such as "Where was Homer's Ithaca?" discussed on Radio 4 - however, Material World is not the most obvious place to chance upon such a discussion. Someone has proposed a theory that the reason that no-one can find an island that corresponds closely to the descriptions of Ithaca in the Odyssey is... it's no longer an island! You can hear the full story as a podcast.

In one of those curious little turns of fate, the Odyssey was also one of the topics under discussion at my Greek Club meeting a couple of days ago. The theme for the evening was 'Greek, Welsh and Russian Epic Poetry', and I must admit I had some reservations beforehand - it sounded like one of these subjects with a tremendous capacity to be worthy but dull. Fortunately, we had a very engaging group of speakers (in fact, the chap doing the Welsh section turned out to be my Welsh tutor from evening classes a couple of years ago!) Y Gododdin is a collection of praise poems commemorating the deeds of 300 brave warriors who set out to do battle with the invading Saxons, and - being vastly outnumbered - were soundly defeated. (Yeah, this story does sound vaguely familiar from somewhere, doesn't it?) The curious thing to note here is *where* this tale is set - the warriors marched south from somewhere in the Edinburgh region to Catraeth (possibly modern Catterick). "Now hang on a minute" I can hear you saying "I thought this was supposed to be a Welsh poem?" And so indeed it is - at the time the poem was written, northern England and parts of Scotland were inhabited by Welsh speaking peoples. In fact, the county name Cumbria comes from the same roots as Cymru (the Welsh name for Wales). This all sounds rather intriguing, and once again I find myself wishing for more time to dig a bit deeper into some of these topics.

When I was little and visiting my grandparents, I often used to be sent to go and get some eggs from the lady who lived a few doors down the road. This wasn't out in the countryside either, just a Victorian terrace with a moderate-sized back garden. Whereas once upon a time, many people would keep a few chickens (and perhaps a pig or a goat), it somehow doesn't seem to quite fit in with a 21st-century lifestyle. Well, think again - the eglu could be about to change all that. It does sound rather appealing... you couldn't do much better in terms of food miles, and you could be 100% sure that your eggs came from well-cared-for hens!

30th August 2007

10:21pm: Following the instructions issued by larissa_00
List seven songs you are into right now. It doesn't matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your journal along with your seven songs. Then tag seven other people to see what they're listening to.

Read My Mind - The Killers
Famous Last Words - My Chemical Romance
Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors - Editors (curiously, it's only while compiling this list that I finally got round to finding out who this song is by)
Hate Me - Blue October
Before I Fall To Pieces - Razorlight

The foregoing probably suggests (correctly,as it happens) that I've been listening to too much Kerrang! Radio recently, so let's have a couple of songs that are from a slightly different mould:

This Is The Moment - The News (as featured in the Adam Adamant episode Sing a Song of Murder, and recently purchased from ebay on one of those curious, old fashioned bits of shiny black plastic)

I want to include something by Duke Special (who I encountered for the first time at Greenbelt last weekend, and who put on an amazing and very theatrical performance) - but there's such a mix of styles, it's hard to know which one to include here... let's go for 'Portrait'

As for who else to tag... cabbage, neilh, purpletigron, mike1thinks, vaia - will that do for now?

13th July 2007

9:17pm: Random jottings
Glad to see that the concept of traveling without taking to the skies is gaining in popularity. Not only was there a very good article about it in the latest Friends of the Earth magazine, but even Radio 4 is jumping on the bandwagon: Traveller's Tree

I'm pleased to report that the temporary lapse in sanity (not mine, I hasten to add!) that led to my workday being shifted to an unpleasant 9am start has been rectified, and I'm now on a much more civilised 9.30 - 5.00 shift :)

One of the few good things that can be said for ironing it that it provides an excellent opportunity for listening to Radio 4, and I was intrigued to hear about the difficulties presented by attempting to provide artificial homes for bumble bees. Apparently, the bees 'natural' choice is abandoned mouse nests, so researchers used this as the basis for their creations (e.g. flowerpots filled with kapok). They've planted about 400 in all, and are a bit disappointed that so far, bees have only taken up residence in 2 of them. A substantially larger number, however, are now occupied by mice!

And finally, my bit of campaigning for the day - the Avaaz climate change petition.
I managed to supress my usual pedantic tendency to quibble over details, and just signed the darn thing - would be good if a few other people would like to do so too!

8th June 2007

1:51pm: Phaistos

Intrepid explorers cabbage, Liz and Larry brave the searing heat to gain a closer understanding of the little-known ancient Minoan site at Phaistos :P
1:40pm: Yesterday, we went to Ayios Nikolaos, to visit the excellent (and not especially crowded) museum; in the same way that Knossos is always vastly more busy than the other Minoan sites, Iraklion Museum is a great favourite with the tour parties, but the 'provincial' museums are often surprisingly quiet. Most of the significant finds from the area that haven't ended up in Iraklion have fetched up in Ay. Nik., including the libation vessel in the form of a woman carrying a jug from one of the sites at Myrtos.

We then drove up to Elounda, and took a boat across to Spinalonga Island. There was a Venetian fortress on Spinalonga which held out for many years against a siege by the Turks; in more recent times, it served as a leper colony. These people - effectively imprisoned there - seem to have found the will to make a life for themselves there, in spite of minimal medical care and a lack of interest in their welfare on the part of the authorities. Eventually, one of their number became a very effective leader, and campaigned for better treatment and conditions. The colony was closed in the 1950s after a cure was found for leprosy, and when restoration work took place in the 70s, many of the buildings associated with that phase in the island's history were demolished on account of being deemed 'unaesthetic'. Of course, this now seems rather short-sighted - the island has a long and interesting history, but the story of the leper colony is unique, whereas there is no great shortage of Venetian fortresses!

Today, we visited the tiny local museum in Myrtos, based on a collection put together by a former local primary school teacher, and housed for many years in one of the school classrooms. Its piece de resistance is a beautifully-crafted model of the site of Phournou Koriphi, just outside Myrtos. It took the creator 3 years to make, and has painstaking detail - apparently even the hundreds of tiny pots and jars correspond to those actually found on the site!

5th June 2007

10:10am: It's raining! Not that I mind... we're having a lazy day today, and I've finally got round to enquiring about internet access at Big Blue (the lovely apartments where we're staying).

We went to Knossos on Saturday. It's starting to look quite familiar now, though some parts of the site are much less accessible than they were in the past (you can no longer walk along the Royal Road, or see into the Queen's Megaron). Unfortunately, the Archaeological Museum in Iraklion is currently closed, so we weren't able to show Liz and Larry the various artefacts and frescoes from the site. Still, Knossos is an impressive site!

We also had a brief walk along the road to try and locate the Villa Ariadne; we saw it from a distance, but as the road leading up to it has a prominent "No Entry" sign at the gate, we decided not to try and get any closer.

Yesterday, we went to Phaistos and Ayia Triada, both of which were much less busy than Knossos (Ayia Triada we practically had to ourselves!) The journey was not *quite* as straightforward as it might have been (possibly not helped by the 'navigator' falling asleep several times en route :P)

We stopped off for a coffee on the way back, and found an intriguing monument commemorating those who had been executed by the Germans during the war.

Last night, we found a very good Italian restaurant down by the seafront, which served the best guacamole we've ever tasted! We also encountered a cat that didn't like anchovies ;)

1st June 2007

11:47pm: Arrival
Well, here we are, back in Crete :) We were last here back in October, and on the day we left something very peculiar had happened to the weather... high winds and lashing rain. This evening, however, has been very pleasant and mild, and we discovered a very nice little restuarant called 'Embolo', where we dined al fresco on spinach pie and Greek salad, washed down by a very agreeable red wine. We were observed throughout by a vocal, hopeful, but ultimately unsuccessful cat, which finally gave up and disappeared up a tree with amazing agility.

At this point, I should perhaps introduce the other members of our party (since they're bound to get mentioned over the forthcoming days - always assuming I manage to get on the internet again once we arrive in Myrtos); I'm travelling with cabbage, and his parents, Liz and Larry. It's their first time in Greece, so I'm looking forward to showing them some of the amazing Minoan sites, starting tomorrow with Knossos!
Current Mood: content
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