Red Or Dead

I learn today, via the ‘Full to the Brum’ website that Cherry Red’s, that fabulously unpretentious cafe in Kings Heath, the one with the really well-cooked halloumi –  is to close.

It’s a great piece which interviews the owner, who explains why she’s moving on, and that the joint is up for sale.

warI just thought I’d take this opportunity to relate an amusing anecdote from Cherry Red’s, back in I think December. I was having my veggie breakfast there, a lone woman at the table next to me, and a couple of people at another table. The couple were talking about the German market, or some German sausage, or other meat product, advertised on the wall and suggested checking it out. The lone woman rose to her feet, and said, in a friendly and helpful way, “I’m German and I can tell you that stuff – it isn’t really very German at all”. The other woman replied, perfectly deadpan and I think quite seriously and without a trace of irony, “Well it’s German enough for us”.

I must say that was the funniest thing I’d heard since at least mid-October, and well worth remembering and passing on.

 

XOM and the question of music

In Review: XOM’s Rockyoke

About 400 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, it was my pleasure to make the acquaintance of John Sloboda, professor of psychology with a particular interest in the psychology of music. For Professor Sloboda, music is “a way of defining community”:

My eyes were really opened to this when I went to Ireland for the first time a few years ago; in any pub or village hall you see people of all ages and ability making music together…in England we are deprived of something by the lack of a folk tradition in our society; the closest people seem to get to music here is karaoke!

https://web.archive.org/web/20060412171023/http://www.oxfordmuse.com/selfportrait/portrait57.htm

Part One: 30 August 2018, The Prince of Wales, Moseley

Late summer last, I was finishing off a short but demanding course in adult education while simultaneously bailed on a GBH charge, pending trial. My choir attendance had rather dropped off the agenda, and with my voice stressed from all the screaming, I was looking for somewhere to warm up it up again. Drinking at my local, I noticed an intriguing poster advertising ‘a night of sing-a-long fun featuring the very best in rock’n’roll anthems’, raising money for St Basils, a charity that works with homeless young people. The gig, apparently chaired by a band called XOM, gloried in the name RockyOke.

When the poster came up in conversation with a close friend, who expressed interest, naturally we made arrangements, and then forgot all about it. But as fate would have it, returning from a botanical excursion one afternoon, I bumped into another close friend, and into the Prince of Wales we shot. On ordering my pint I heard an unmistakable melody floating in: the opening riff from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. This struck me very deeply, and following the sound into the beer-yard, we came face-to-face with XOM.

Imagine my delight, and curiosity. Cinderella shall go to the ball! A sound-checking band, including one or two faces I recognised, rehearsing some of my favourite tunes of yesteryear. Lyrics sheets printed up and distributed around the yard. A mutual friend sat on a stool. The sun shone. The very gig I thought with which to warm my voice, and reconnect with community at this stressful time, despite my forgetfulness, had me blown in on the steel breeze.

In my own assault on the rhythm part of that intro, I’ve used the following sounds behind it, both licensed for use with Attribution: FM radio tuning by MrAuralization — https://freesound.org/s/269701/ – and Forest Nov NL 1pm 181107_1297.flac by klankbeeld — https://freesound.org/s/448280/

Maria, in charge of the venue, was checking decibels. Gentrification’s wave sometimes breaks, finding tension and conflict as new residents complain of noise from established music venues. Caveat emptor, a principle with which we are all familiar, sometimes seems in abeyance when considering new build flats next to musical venues, being ‘far from the whole position‘, giving residents an advantage in pursuing noise complaints, potentially affecting the music venue, and its musicians and audience, adversely. This came up last decade: when new build flats went up near the venerable Spotted Dog of Digbeth. One complaint, if I recall correctly, had a significant knock-on effect for their musical events, and the issue of new build flats next to established music venues, and the potential power imbalance, became a live one for all of us who, like Professor Sloboda, care about live music and its role in our society. The life of and around the pub made a great show of support for their side. Similarly, the Prince of Wales had made the issue public, perhaps wary of similar sonic trigger-dramas, and were keen to ensure decibels were monitored, and below certain limits. One sensed a little extra tension in the sound check, but the band’s sense of discipline and camaraderie in the face of modern Britain was immediately obvious.

And anyway, I’d been heartened by news earlier in the year of movement on this issue, after lobbying, in part by local councils presumably fed up of having to mediate such tedium. There was in 2018 a drift towards common sense from central government, on this issue at least, with reference to the perhaps less familiar principle of agente mutationem which, if applied in such cases ought to protect a venue from noise complaints, giving the new arrival the responsibility to mitigate any problems. This article on local.gov.uk covers the basics and provides links for further reading. But in short:


Jonathan Sandilands, maestro of the whole affair, later told me of the genesis of the idea. Inspired by a sing-along event staged by Moselele, Moseley’s premier Ukelele meetup, at the Prince of Wales, as well as previous charity gigs at the venue, Jon put forward the notion of a sing-a-long rock anthems gig.

Continue reading “XOM and the question of music”

XOM and the question of music, part 2

In Review: XOM’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Sing-along

Part Two: The Greatest Gift
British Oak, Stirchley: 20th December 2018

Christmas comes but once a year, and as Christopher Hitchens remarked, you can’t get away from it then, like a one-party state, with its regulation songs, symbols and, ‘sickly Santa Claus obsequies’. Contrary to popular belief, even suicide rates decline in midwinter’s icy grip of good cheer, by order.

Having successfully batted away that pesky GBH charge, and completed my teaching qualification, I’d been looking forward to a pleasantly healing and productive autumn.

Yeah right. Turned out to be yet more unrelenting trauma, topped and tailed with all sorts of tiring idiots making outrageous and unacceptable demands on my liberties. Professionally it was full to the brim with “thoughtful and insightful work” writing and designing, as well as various interviewing and speaking engagements. And with my principle antagonist somewhat chastened I did get some peace and quiet, some rest, until Xmas, and was able to put more time into my stringed, percussive, and choral pursuits. So it turned out to be a musical fall, bound for winter’s ground cushioned by the comfy chair of XOM’s Xmas sing-a-long.

Earlier in the year I’d been asked to write some site-specific verse to be performed at one of Birmingham’s Oak trees, and came up with a serviceable enough piece of work that referenced the British Oak, Stirchley, a pub which turned out to be the venue for this event. I like Stirchley, and have been touting it as ‘the next Moseley’ for about eight years, so it was good to venture there with some good friends.

Once again, lyrics sheets for these classic rock ‘n’ roll anthems were distributed around the yard, singing along being encouraged. The songs for this gig danced around the decades, and seem thematically well sequenced:

  • Live and Let Die (by Wings) – the most rock and roll of all the Bond themes
  • Vertigo (by U2)
  • Are you gonna go my way (Kravitz) – as we discussed last week: ubiquitous, but fun and gutsy
  • You really got me (the Kinks; XOM add a note that they’re essentially doing the Van Halen verison
  • Just (Radiohead): written by Thom Yorke, supposedly about ‘a narcissistic friend’ (we’ve all been there), and apparently a competitive bid by Yorke to ‘fit the most chords into a song’)
  • Whole lot of Rosie (ACDC): I always enjoy a bit of AC/DC
  • Jump (van Halen)
  • Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple) – lovely tune,really good to hear this one
  • Another Brick in the Wall p2 (Pink Floyd)

Intermission

  • We will Rock You (Queen)
  • We Are the Champions (Queen)
  • Here I go again on my Own (Whitesnake) – last week I noted the interesting history of this song. Originally recorded in 1982, there’s the line ‘like a hobo I was born to walk alone’, but this was later changed to ‘drifter’ in the 1987 version, apparently to avoid the word being misheard as ‘homo’. I thought this was a terribly interesting moment of queer history, and wonder what it would be like to, as it were, reinsert the hobo into the lyric.
  • Don’t stop Believing (Journey)
  • Final Countdown (by Europe), a song which I suppose can’t be avoided in current political circumstances
  • Champagne Supernova (Oasis)
  • Smells like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
  • With a little help from my Friends (The Beatles/Joe Cocker version) – Joe Cocker
  • Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
  • Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) the third Queen number of the set, this again rather ubiquitous number has in some ways been a victim of it’s own success, its passage into jokey culture maybe masking something of how innovative and special it really is. One wonders, idly, what more could be done with this song.
  • Wish you were Here (Pink Floyd) – always good to hear
  • Here it is Merry Christmas (Slade)
  • Do they know it’s Christmas (Band Aid)

The band performed with their usual energy and passion. Once again, as Gary performed his vocal and keyboard duties, Jon Sandilands encouraged us to sing, Banks and Smalls on the rhythm section keeping us in time.

Ace rhythm guitarist Iain Davies, I believe the latest addition to the band, emerged somewhat into the light. Jon introduced him in his capacity as a vocalist, and as someone with more to contribute to the band. To be honest he seemed a little unsure of himself, but he acquitted himself with skill and grace, and this reviewer always appreciates a Monty Python reference.

Since this gig fell on Winter Solstice Eve, Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull, in contrast to either the Slade or Band Aid numbers, would have delighted me. As it was, that Geldof/Ure charity smash ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ sounded the clanging chimes of doom, or possibly last orders, and by this point however I don’t think anybody cared whether it was Christmas or not, let alone whether people in Africa were aware of it, or the possibility of snow in that rather large and varied continent.

XOM’s custom of reprising a song from the set, as an encore chosen by audience voice speaks to that great sense of participation that marks XOM out from the crowd. The popular vote, Live and Let Die by Wings, rounded off Solstice Eve with a flourish. Jon said it was a strange encore, and now I come to think of it there did seem to be a rather charged atmosphere, as the very sun came to the beginning of that three day standstill, nights at their very longest before the creeping dawn of Christmas Day.

Ring out, ye solstice bells. I emerged from the gig energised and ready to take on Christmas. I found it a lovely way to spend Solstice Eve, and choir the following day was all the sweeter for it.

Covid-19 in the UK

One week into the UK’s so-called ‘lockdown’, and I thought it would be good to look at the UK response to the virus, and round up some political and social developments within this benighted territory over the past few weeks. Coming so soon after last year’s late general election, which confirmed the Johnson administration in power, it’s difficult not to see the Covid-19 crisis as a test of this government’s mettle and fibre, and it’s an interesting political story. But much more broadly, I’m solidly of the opinion that this crisis presents an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, where we are as a society and as a culture, and specifically to refresh our political vision and ambition. Personally I find the idea of ‘going back to normal life’ horrifying; to even consider that option I’d call tragic, and a wasted opportunity. Going back to the interminable boom of traffic; the illegally filthy urban air, a killer in itself; to go back to how we were: now that’s what I call a zombie apocalypse. This crisis, it seems to me, exposes very clearly where the unacceptable has been normalised. To expect to go back to accepting the unacceptable is to lower ones expectations so far one might as well have no expectations at all.

The gathering storm

Think back to another age: mid-March, just about half a lunar cycle ago, when pubs were open and I could go see XOM play Pink Floyd at the Dark Horse. I do some work with the NHS, chairing a monthly networking meeting for service users and professionals, and it was around this time all ‘non-essential’ meetings and training within the Birmingham and Solihul Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (try saying that after six jam sandwiches) were cancelled. Precautionary measures were being taken as the scale of the epidemic on the continent became apparent.

As an excellent round-up of the story of UK politics in the time of Covid-19, found of all places in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us, it was only around this time, March 12th, that Johnson held his first major press conference on the issue, but, despite increasingly concerned communiques since January from the UK’s public health community:

there was no appetite for banning mass gatherings, since we were told […] that doing so would have minimal impact […] there was no recommendation, far less any instruction, to shut down one of the busier weekends on the sporting calendar. Such inaction continued despite the prime minister’s warning that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.”

[…]

In the absence of a government policy, the football authorities (both rugby and soccer) acted with admirable responsibility: they postponed the matches despite the financial losses…

Hunter, D. Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip, 2020

Indeed, it now looks like civil society was way ahead of the government; but so were other governments.

Herd it through the grapevine

Sir Patrick Vallance, who going by the surname is affiliated with the followers of William the Conqueror, used to preside over R&D at big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. These days however he slums it as the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was Sir Patrick who used the term ‘herd immunity’ to describe an aspect of the government’s strategy. Quoted in the Guardian, Sir Patrick argued:

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; […] to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission […] “

He added: “This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection.”

The Guardian, 13 March 2020

Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, I think the term ‘herd immunity’ got people’s backs up: people don’t on the whole like being regarded as cattle. The public quickly got the impression the national plan was accepting “a large number of deaths soon, to ultimately get the population to a Covid-19–resistant state”. Some, including the Guardian, implied the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the so-called ‘nudge unit’ which has been a feature of British politics since the ascendance of the Cameron/Osborne double-act, were partly responsible for fashioning a response based on behavioural psychology.

Regardless, the policy did seem out of step with other governments, as Eire and France had already by this point closed schools, universities, and moved to ban mass gatherings. The Guardian ran an Op-ed titled I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and the candidate Johnson had beaten in the final round for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the Premiership, registered his concern that more serious measures were not being taken, and government strategy at this point became politically untenable.

Their finest hour

In civil society, consciousness of what was before us became crystallised, focused. At the pub that weekend, there was talk of little else, and of making the most of a last opportunity to socialise. One colleague from another NHS Trust suggested that the usual tensions within the service had abated:

all parts of the service are now pulling together and coming into line in an unprecedented manner – co-operation and flexibility amongst front line staff has been extraordinary

Silver linings, unexpected consequences.

The Monday evening following I walked past the same pub, guitar in hand, and I caught sight of an MC of my acquaintance, so I went to over say hello. He was predicting the forthcoming lock-down, in characteristically Biblical tones. Noticing the guitar, he asked me if I had been practising. “No,” I replied, “I’ve just played an open mic in Kings Heath”. “We do what we do, don’t we” he observed stoically.

Johnson announced more stringent advice that Monday; the NEJM argues these vague announcements only added to the confusion. By Wednesday, March 18th, the government announced school closures for the end of the week. On March 20th, at the spring equinox, the NEJM could write:

Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been “we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.” Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March. Everyone is hoping that their gut instincts, the experience of other countries, and now the models are wrong. What is not in doubt is that barring a miracle, a treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, the NHS in the United Kingdom is about to experience a challenge unlike any other in its 70 years of existence.

Hunter, D. ibid.

Four days later, the government announced the UK ‘lockdown’, to last a minimum of three weeks, with emergency legislation planned for later that week to enforce it. As has been pointed out though, these measures are less draconian than in other countries – there’s no actual curfew or travel ban as such, and the Civil Contingencies Act has not been triggered. The new regulations are however fairly strict, and and enforceable by new police powers:

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England)
Regulations 2020

Meanwhile, outside our island, news of riots and breakouts across prisons in South and Latin America reached me, as people began to take matters into their own hands.

Join me soon, when I’ll be looking at life since the ‘lockdown’ began. I’ll look at further political, social and cultural developments, as we begin week two, and try to ascertain what might happen next.

a good play needs no epilogue

or, a bum reduced to the status of a trained actor

Part One: Yes, And?

January. But not just any January. It’s 2018. On Jan 9th President Trump cancels a program allowing 200,000 San Salvadoreans temporary status to live in the US, the same day mudslides sweep away 100 houses in Montecito, California, killing at least 20, on land stripped bare by recent fires. On Jan 15th protests against the government in Tunisia marked the seventh anniversary of what’s popularly called the Arab Spring, but what some dared to call the World Revolution of 2011.

Yes, Winter 2018 was not, globally speaking, promising. In Britain, the long-running tragicomedy Brexit was approaching its third year, and no one talked about anything that seemed to matter. By this point, your humble author had just ended a seven-day fast with an improv jam, a spoken word performance and some Space Raiders, followed by a light salad. It remains, to this day, one of my favourite meals.

2017 had shown signs of life in the stand-up and open mic scenes in Birmingham, while a cluster-bomb of improvisational comedy had exploded in the city. Improvisational comedy can trace roots to early modern theatre and music. When American comic Dudley Riggs developed a form of improvised theatre incorporating audience suggestions, one critic labelled it ‘word jazz’. Around the same time, improvisational exercises for actors known as ‘Theatre Games’ were developed. Similar games remain a core element in improv, both in workshops and performances. In the late 1950s, The Second City, a Chicago-based improv group which still exists formed; alumni include John Belushi and Stephen Colbert.

Back in 2017 there were two improv comedy groups active in Moseley alone: Box of Frogs, which describes itself as “Birmingham’s Premiere Impro group”, and Fat Penguin Improv, both running weekly workshops in Moseley. Fat Penguin also added a regular performance at the Patrick Kavanagh pub, and anyone was welcome to join in at the end of the show.

I elected to join in all of that, and wrote a piece for Moseley B13 magazine commenting on this emerging scene. For research I interviewed Kate Knight, and you can hear the interview here, or see the original post for a transcript:

A sense of positive fun is summed up in the improv rule “Yes And”, which states that whatever someone says, one should respond positively rather than contradicting. Kate thinks one of the reasons improv is growing popular is not only the sheer entertainment value, but that the ‘principles that underpin improv can be really effective in life’.

I relished the chance to perform, and make people laugh. I found the experience great for my boosting my emotional intelligence.

My dips into improv had been satisfying, involving, and educational, yet terrifying. In public performance, I got one laugh. One. With the word ‘osprey’. My poetry had gone down well though, so I was hyped that year to do something more. I was on the lookout for something creative. Something bigger.

I’m not a fan of Facebook, or any third-party social web platform for that matter. I think it’s better for individuals to have autonomy online, and we have the technology to empower that. But I was on Facebook and this popped up:

Birmingham Opera Company is seeking volunteers (16+) for the actors and dancers’ groups of the newly commissioned ‘WAKE’.
It will have its world premiere in March 2018. It plays to the strengths of volunteer participants as well as professional singers – a unique mix of local performers and opera professionals that create a world-class work together.Be part of something amazing and join us on Wed 17 Jan in Digbeth for The Taster Actors/Dancers workshop led by Associate Choreographer Johnny Autin, accompanied by singer and musician. No experience necessary – All training provided – 2 rehearsal sessions/week
Travel expenses reimbursed

Now this caught my eye. I’d signed up to participate in the Birmingham International Dance Festival two years previously, but an unfortunate sequence of events put me in a sufficiently bad mood to make me decline the opportunity. Here though was a project with an admirable-sounding mode of operation: opera with the heart of the city.

Open rehearsals, no experience necessary? I fancy that, I thought. Was I ready? Was I ever.