We’re quite good at ’empty the freezer soup’ and ’empty the cupboard’ type meals in general. When the time comes, it’s good to have a clear out, and the results can be surprising.
I say all this because we’re letting our Amazon Prime subscription end – it’s the sort of thing that’s nice to have over Christmas for deliveries, and for a month or two at a time to catch up on film and TV that’s currently available.
And with only a few days left of Prime, I’ve found myself scanning around for unwatched stuff to check out before the subscription runs out. Mostly I’ve been chowing down on Bob’s Burgers most recently, which I’ve sort of dipped in and out of before. It’s very fast and colourful and fun. It feels like a 21st-century Family Guy, I guess.
I watch a lot of YouTube which means I sit through a lot of terrible mistargeted ads. I briefly considered a YouTube Premium subscription to make the ads go away, but it turns out that it costs £12 per month — double the cost of a basic Netflix plan. What.
Indeed! For some time last year I had a three month free trial to YouTube Premium. I tried out YouTube Music very briefly, which was a confusing mishmash and not at all as straightforward as Spotify (which has its own usability issues, and introduces new ones every few months).
But I watch… probably a few hours of YouTube content a week. I’d like to see some stats, but I suspect approximately half my ‘slumped in front of the telly’ time is spent on YouTube with the other half split between stuff recorded on Freesat and streams or Blu-rays.
When I had that free trial, watching YouTube without ads felt wonderful. Firstly, there are no ads, which is of course nice. But you also don’t get ads inserted mid-video, which so often just get placed arbitrarily rather than (as is my understanding) at a convenient point selected by the creator.
So it was overall a nicer way to experience YouTube, and it was a shame to lose it once the trial ran out. But the cost of £11.99 a month was just too high for the ‘nice-to-have’ of no ads.
This week I noticed the day length, the sky being a certain colour, and the interesting light and silhouettes you get at walking-home time in these parts. Stark building silhouettes against icy blue skies; golden rays highlighting trees and buildings just before the sun dips below the horizon.
It’s lovely. A good time of year, even despite the changeable weather: we’ve had a winter storm rolling over every weekend for the past three weeks, and this week it tried to snow for an hour or so in north London.
I also like that at this time of year it is nice to be aware of the sunrise and sunset times – sunrise recently shifted before 7am and sunset moved later than 5.30pm. These are good boundaries to have crossed, and spring rolls ever closer.
The Norwegian connection is clear from the wording on the packaging, and from the information helpfully included by the re-seller which tells you how to reset the device from the default Norwegian language to English.
I’ve had mixed successes with portable DAB/DAB+ radios in the past, but this thing is lovely. It’s tiny, and feels nice in the hand. About the size of a fat pack of gum. There are just three buttons and an on-off switch.
Reception is solid, with the earphone cable acting as an aerial. A scan in north London pulls in 100-150 stations, and it doesn’t struggle to hold onto a station if it is found on a scan. It charges via USB, and battery life is decent – 4-5 hours or so, which isn’t bad for the size of the device.
It’s got a decent and responsive menu/interface, which is also something I’ve learned not to take for granted with cheap portable radios. And this one is ridiculously cheap – the POP Nano can currently be purchased from Amazon for either £9.99 or £14.99, depending on whether Amazon has included some sort of e-voucher.
Alas, the other day I noticed the menu/select button was no long clicking, rendering it unusable aside from the station it was tuned to at the time. Unfortunately for me that was something called CDNX which seems to be some sort of Camden Market-related ex-NME jukebox station which I was briefly checking out after I learned of its existence on the London Trial multiplex.
I say unfortunately mostly because the bitrate of CDNX (48kbps – albeit via DAB+, so stereo AAC) is pretty awful, especially for a music station.
Anyway, the re-seller has been responsive and I’ve sent it back for (hopefully) exchange with a new unit. I don’t hesitate to recommend it – in the hope that my fault is a one-off. But who knows? And I hope I will soon have a new one and it won’t face a similar fate in three months’ time! I will try to update this if I get another and it proves to be a common fault.
I’ve recently been reading A Golden Age of Cycling, a lovely (if slightly under-done) collection of diaries from a British cyclist in the 1920s and 1930s. The author breaks down his cycling holidays day-by-day, telling the reader all the little places he visits, where he stops for bread, cheese and ale, and what mileage he clocks up.
It’s a lovely thing to read at bedtime, as he writes with a jolly demeanour, and it makes for easy daydreaming, putting together little routes through the Cotswolds to get from village to village.
And so for a while I’ve been wanting to remind myself that it is still possible to cycle through the countryside, village to village, and for cycling to be so much more than just a slightly anxious, functional and frantic pedal from home to work on busy London roads.
So on Sunday, after hatching a plan for a while, I took my bike out on the Thameslink train north into the countryside for a spin.
I had previously identified Harlington as a decent candidate hitting the sweet spot between ‘decently served station’ and ‘small place surrounded by countryside’. I then used Komoot to find a route someone had uploaded that started not far from Harlington – before using one or two other apps/websites to convert the GPX file into an app I could actually use for navigation.
There are many thousands of words I could write about this weird, broken, paywalled landscape of ‘apps that allow you to find cycling routes’, ‘apps that allow you to create and/or share routes’, ‘apps that allow you to navigate routes’, ‘apps for converting one such app’s route into another format for another app’ and so on and so on. But I digress.
I struck very lucky with the weather, it being bright and dry, if a little chilly. The wind was a bit much in places – with the usual weird sensation of wind blowing from nearly 270 degrees in all directions rather than one single direction. Whenever I had a brief respite from the wind, it really hit me when I got buffeted again.
I had aimed for 50-55km as a decent distance to test myself out. This loop saw me head out east from Harlington, kissing the edge of Hitchin, then heading south a bit, before heading almost straight back north west towards Harlington, via Emily’s Tea Shop – a nice little cycle-friendly cafe – at Whitwell.
I ended up doing just over 60km, and this was perhaps a stretch. It was my first big ride in a while – save for a couple of rides in the meantime, I hadn’t ridden this sort of distance since France last August.
And thank goodness it wasn’t a particularly hilly route, as I found the last few hills a real struggle. It is heartening to note that the final phase of the ride really did see me climbing and climbing and climbing – albeit not very high. But still. The creaking in my knees in the days following this ride have at least something to blame.
Anyway, wind and ‘hills’ aside, this was a mostly very enjoyable route. I passed a great number of riders – some individuals and a fair few groups. In fact I may have even seen more bikes than cars, which is always nice to see.
There’s something quite reassuring about following a route created and shared by someone else – a hope that it must be reasonably pleasant and doable. If I sat down and programmed my own route, I’d inevitably misjudge a busy junction or completely fail to check the contours and gradients.
I did use Google Maps to navigate the last few KMs back to the station as the Komoot loop would take me instead to a random car park. Ironically, Google led me down some field track bridleways rather than roads, which was a pleasant diversion, but not as easy riding.
I was pretty exhausted by the end of it, but really pleased with my efforts. I may have slightly underestimated how hard a ride of that distance would be, but it’s nice to have that done so that my thoughts can turn to the next route and I am a little more confident of my own potential.
Recent radio and podcast listening: Radio 3’s Saturday Breakfast and Unclassified with Elizabeth Alker; Giles Coren and Esther Walker’s podcast Giles Coren Has No Idea; Late Junction.
I think I’ve set myself an accidentally high bar when it comes to Weeknotes as I seem to be writing a thousand words or more and sometimes there just ain’t enough notes for the week. This week is one of them.
Trying to summarise office-based workmadness is getting beyond me, but I’ve noticed it’s taking up more and more of my mental energy which is in some ways good and in more ways quite bad. I keep having (or needing) little things that provide context and help me to separate work life from life life.
I went to see The Lighthouse this week and it was batshit crazy, and very enjoyable. It’s always so fun to watch a film that seems to have such a good grasp on what it’s trying to achieve, and it feels like it was all hands on deck. There’s a lot of questionable nonsense in there too, but not everything has to make sense. I really enjoyed it.
I seem to have made it this far knowing little to nothing about the director or producers/studio – possibly because some of their other output has been (afaik) horror, which I don’t tend to go for. But I find that I like media that sets itself restrictions and works within them (or, I suppose, watching old stuff that had what we now know of as restrictions but which were, at the time, simply the norm). So I may check out some more in this vein.
I picked up a new camera lens on a recent visit to St Albans – an old SLR 35mm f2.8 thingy from the 70s or 80s I think. I already had an adapter for putting M42 lenses onto my Canon dSLR, and I am happy to report that I’ve been enjoying using this new one.
It is extremely manual, and obviously focus is an issue as, with a modern dSLR, there isn’t a frosted glass focus aid or similar, so you’re just doing it by eye through the viewfinder. Or you can use zone focusing, which I don’t think I really understood before, but which I do now (to a degree), and it has helped me achieve some nice results.
On top of this it’s just a nice object – all-metal, solid construction, etc. It’s nice to have in my collection of lenses.
At the weekend M and I popped down to Hastings – oddly enough a repeat of a trip five years earlier, and somewhere we’ve felt drawn towards on a couple of other occasions since. We had a nice (if rainy and stormy) couple of days down there and I’m intending to write separately about our weekend.
I took my new lens and took some pictures with it.
One draw was the Hastings Parkrun course which is a fast, flat, out-and-back along the sea front. I’ve run that course twice before, so this time went for a third. Being on the front and out-and-back (and in the beginnings of storm Dennis) meant for a particularly fast out and a running-face-first-into-the-wind back. Fortunately what this meant overall was that I broke my PB for a standalone 5k*, which was unexpected and very nice.
* Strava tells me I’ve run a faster 5k before, but in the middle of a 10k run, which figures as that would make it a 5k with a rolling start and finish which you’d expect to be faster.
Anyway, being at the coast is nice and being at the coast in a winter storm is also quite nice (with the usual caveats). We ate good food and as much as we got soaked and windswept, we also found lovely cosy little places to warm up and dry out.
There we are, you see? I only wrote 700 words this week. Let’s see what next week inspires.
On Monday I had a longstanding appointment with Eon or one of its contractors to fit a smart meter for our flat. Exciting stuff. I’d arranged this with our building manager as the meters are in a communal cupboard. And I’d checked with Eon that this would all be fine.
The day came and… their contractor couldn’t find anywhere to park. Which is ridiculous. Was this the first such appointment they’d done on a London street? The chap was friendly enough but phoned and asked where he should park and I told him I really had no idea. He ended up doing laps and then waiting at a nearby pay and display until no spaces became available and he cancelled the appointment. This was all after our building manager confirmed to me that under no circumstances could the contractor park his van either in the turn-off to the building’s underground ramp, or indeed in the empty underground parking area.* Insert joke about smart meters and stupid policies/people.
* We were told that although our building, built five years ago, was built with a basement capable of housing probably fifty cars, it cannot be used for this purpose for an unspecified period of time due to local authority planning regulations, ostensibly to put people off owning cars? Not sure. It also means that bicycles cannot use the (gated) vehicle ramp to access underground secure bicycle storage, and muddy wet bicycles must be wheeled in through main, carpeted entrance and taken downstairs or in a lift. Marvellous.
Fortunately after all this kerfuffle, in the evening we had a performance of Hamilton to look forward to. And golly it was excellent. My previously-mentioned act of bankrupting myself in December to give us stuff to look forward to in January and February continues to pay dividends.
I can count on one hand the number of theatre performances I’ve been to since living in London, but I always enjoy them when I go. I guess I’m mostly put off by the ticket prices, but I know there are ways around that.
ANYWAY the theatre itself is beautiful and, I understand, recently refurbished. The seats were great and comfortable, and of course the show itself was just fantastic. Funny, sharp, and a great mix of lighthearted and serious.
I am already making plans to grab some cheap seats again in a few months’ time to see it again. (I hear that Disney is filming a performance featuring the original Broadway cast, mind you, so that might do.) And I have inevitably become the sort of person who now listens to cast recordings in his spare time. The same happened with The Book of Mormon too, in fairness.
We got a Sodastream for Christmas, and thus have spent January enjoying carbonated beverages of various varieties, including some very posh ones that came with it, are made in New Zealand(?) and apparently cost £8 for a bottle of 500ml of what is essentially squash. Mostly we mix the fizzy with cheap squash or elderflower cordial, and it’s lovely.
The first gas cartridge finally ran out – I was becoming anxious about this as I wasn’t sure if it would sort of slowly run out or just stop one day. And… yeah. It just stopped one day. So that’s good to know for future. The weird thing with Sodastream is that you exchange the gas cartridges, and the cartridge has a sort of deposit system so to buy a full one costs x and to swap an empty one for a full one costs y.
There’s something inherently novel about using a Sodastream. We had one when I was a kid and I can still remember the a) glass bottles, b) the horrible fake cola/lemonade/whatever flavoured syrups, and c) the odd yellow and white plastic colour scheme. I suppose it was probably a late 70s/early 80s model.
Anyway, we were without gas for a couple of days and felt bereft. But now we have one full one and one empty ready to swap next time. Sodastream anxiety levels normalised.
It’s nice having a Sodastream – our main reason for getting one is so that we can avoid transporting (either ourselves or as a grocery delivery) bottles of carbonated water, which we drink a ton of. We already have a tap that dispenses water, so why not get one that dispenses bubbles of fizzy? So that’s what we did.
The rest of the week was anxiety about work stuff and anxiety about our impending exit from the EU. Both completely unrelated but equally head-fuggying and frustrating. That’s about all I have to say about that.
Luckily the weekend was better. I accidentally discovered that Seinfeld was to leave Amazon Prime at midnight Saturday/Sunday, so I had the whole of the last season to try and get through. And damnit if I didn’t almost manage it. But I still have two episodes left – including the double episode which is presented as one on Prime – ironically if I’d have started that 50-minute episode at just before midnight it will have played all the way through. But alas.
Anyway I can’t yet report on what the long-term effects of watching ten hours of Seinfeld in one sitting are, but it kept me amused all day at least.
I definitely make strange Kramer-esque noises from time to time, and I do wonder what would have happened to me if I’d grown up watching him on Seinfeld as I was so influenced by slapstick, physical comedy and the antics of Tom & Jerry etc. that I just know his eccentric movements and sudden entrances would have appealed to me massively.
Sunday saw another bike ride. I eyed up a few routes into central London and joined the dots between the local routes I know and the more distant signposted/highlighted cycle ‘super highways’ (are they even still called that? It’s a very weird name).
We rode down towards Kings Cross, stopping at St Pancras Old Church which I’d never even seen before let alone popped inside, and then carried on down to the river before doing a little loop and an explore around London Wall and heading back pretty much the way we came. It was a mostly satisfying little excursion.
I have to remind myself that cycling in London, even when planning a decent, joined-up route, is s-l-o-w. I am so desperate now for a ride where I just set out and get 20-30km out of the way without stopping, and ideally doing it at a steady 20-25km/h. Riding in London I’m lucky to get my average speed to hit 20km/h – it’s actually often nearer 15.
Anyway, that’s another week out of the way. 2020 is motoring along. I guess that with planned activities, decent weather for being outside, and being busy at work, I’m just basically quite busy? And that’s good? It’s making the time fly past at a decent pace anyway. Let’s see what February brings.
At some point towards the end of the year, I decided that January should be filled with interesting little things to look forward to, and we began week four thusly: attending a Michael Palin event at the Owl bookshop in Kentish Town. I had discovered the event by browsing the Daunt Books website, and just assumed I had missed out and barely considered looking to see if tickets were still available – and they were.
I try and go to see Michael Palin doing whatever he might be doing in London – book readings, Q&As, screenings of films he helped make, or whatever. He’s just very good value no matter what he’s doing. This one was a reading slash re-telling of his North Korea trip a couple of years ago which spawned a TV show for Channel 5 and a book of his journals.
I’ve seen Palin do his own talks by himself, and I’ve seen him do a sort of double-header with another writer or broadcaster, and I’ve seen him ‘in conversation with’ a host of sorts. Fortunately this was him on his own – other events can be a bit disappointing as they can stick to the script a bit, or worse they exist to inflate the host’s ego as they ask knowing questions and don’t give their guest a chance to shine.
Palin stood for an hour and delivered a funny, informative, sharp and very accurate telling of the trip he embarked upon to North Korea and it was just lovely to be in his presence, telling his own story at his own pace. There followed a brief Q&A, and then a chance to get signed copies of the book. I had brought along my own, itself a gift from M which she had already inscribed. She pushed me to get it signed and I’m glad she did.
As we neared the head of the queue, we could see that he was signing the title page, but M’s inscription was on the inside front cover. We thought it would be fun to get him to sign that page – and indeed it was, as he added a nicely personalised note referencing the fact that he was barging in to sign it along with M’s own message, but that it is his book after all.
While he did this, I badgered him briefly about my diary project that I had done for my degree – along with a number of other correspondents, Palin had contributed to the project by completing an online survey about diary-keeping habits. Amongst the tick box responses were longer free text boxes for responses to open questions, and it had been a thrill to get his Palin-esque responses to my project questions along with those of the others.
Despite me just being one of a number of people queuing up to get a book signed, he thoughtfully responded to my diary ramblings by asking if I knew about the projects run/housed by the Bishopsgate Institute, which was really great to hear.
It was a great evening, and the bonus was seeing just how healthy and sharp he is, and I’m so grateful that these events happen with the regularity that they do and that I’m able to attend some of them.
It was all the more poignant, then, that later that week we learned that Palin’s good friend Terry Jones had died after a slow decline. Sad news indeed. Always a knock to the heart to hear of heroes and legends passing on.
Later in the week, with tensions in the office running a little high for my liking, I scoured the map for a route to stroll at lunchtime.
To my delight, just ten minutes away from my office is, if not quite open fields, a small farm and a field home to two friendly goats.
I spent a few minutes introducing myself.
The walk had taken me past an impressive statue called La Delivrance (known locally as ‘the naked lady’, and a nickname so well-established that the information board even says so, rather damning the imagination and culture of the locals, I’d say).
I had forgotten how important it is to strike out and discover new places nearby when your mind is starting to get a bit clogged up with more familiar issues. It wasn’t all goats and bronze breasts and buttocks though, as another version of this lunchtime walk merely led me along the length of a filthy, flytipped water course delightfully named Mutton Brook but looking for all the world like a rainwater drain leading from a municipal dump.
Regardless, I will continue to try and find new paths to follow in familiar places. I found a neat online map that attempts to show you how far you can roam from a central point using various types of transport including walking.
(Related: I started following the #fieldrecording tag on Instagram and saw a nice post from a guy reflecting how he used to take lunchtime walks from his office in New York or San Francisco – round trips of an hour – recording the sounds along the way. Perhaps I’m missing the point but I fear if I did that, all I’d get is the full drone of traffic and the occasional honking horn – but it struck me as an idea worth considering.)
At the weekend, driven by this desire to look at maps and forge routes, I sketched out a rough cycle route from home heading north and away from the city, through suburbia to a place near Cockfosters tube station which had surprised us with its rural beauty on a previous London LOOP walk.
This cycle route north had been floating around in my head for some time and the thought was catalysed by re-reading some notes in my notebook from a visit to the London Metropolitan Archives a year ago.
Whilst flicking through copies of a century-old local newspaper that covered the activities of local groups looking for evidence of Charles Wade’s involvement with amateur dramatics, I found reference to a 1915 cycle ride from Golders Green to Letchworth – from the Garden Suburb to the Garden City – taking in Welwyn on the way as a point of politeness, as well as other stops en route.
I was captivated by this striking out, this group of cycle pioneers hitting the road one Sunday to head north through open country, touch base with their distant cousins, and head back in time for supper.
I just had to plot this route in Strava, hoping that there might still be some remains of the route they must have taken. I’m not an idiot – I know the roads have changed enormously in a hundred years, particularly in north west London – but I wanted to see if I could game the route-finding software a little to uncover the kinds of smaller roads they might have used – and which might still be usable today.
Inevitably it followed a route I sort of recognised, past work, and on upwards to the north. To my delight, it passed near to Monken Hadley, the charming stretch of village and countryside to the west of Cockfosters that I had hoped to revisit by bike. This was all the encouragement I needed to try out a bike ride like this – and I thought the full Letchworth round trip of more than 100km in one day was possibly something best left for a later date.
This led, ultimately, to M and I setting out from home, cycling my route to work, then up and on into the unknown. Unfortunately, though there are roads leading in almost any direction one could wish for from these parts, they tend to be badly potholed, busy (even on a Saturday), and full of buses and other traffic. They are, for the most part, not built for cyclists.
Occasional cyclist-friendly bits are found, but these little oases are few and far between, and the lasting memory is of roads unfit for all the traffic that is capable of using them, and occasional instances of actually having to dismount to cross in order to safely navigate a junction. It can feel a little demeaning.
There were, of course, nice bits. Parts not retro-fitted into including a cycle path, but merely decently-wide roads that were quiet and smooth and pleasant to ride, with good signposting and big, safe junctions to cross. At moments like those, it was made slightly easier to imagine the Sunday ride from a hundred years ago.
But we made it to Monken Hadley, after various north London high streets and dips in and out of suburbia. And it felt great to have returned to a place that we’d before now only taken a tube and a walk to. This is a feeling of satisfaction I’ve found in various unexpected places – as though ‘conquering’ familiar places where before I had had to rely on public transport or the kindness of others to visit or pass through. Getting there on your own two wheels can feel like such an achievement.
The carrot on the stick of this endeavour had been the silky, open roads through Monken Hadley and its neighbouring settlements and countryside. The irony was that the worst parts of the journey were the ones that took us longest to navigate. The good bits flew by as our pedals spun. We headed straight into the woods to retrace the London LOOP where it became a bridleway. Our last visit had been towards the end of a long day, and with the light fading we kept up a quick pace towards the tube station and home. This time we found a body of open water alongside a golf course and ate our sandwiches in the drizzle as a family walked past in wellington boots and waterproofs.
The ride back was, as it so often can be, a bit smoother, with familiar roads and the known elements of the trip feeling less unending than the unknown had on the way up.
Despite the annoyances, it did still feel like a small achievement. I’m sure I’ll try and do something similar again. Plus, the desire to take the bikes out on a commuter train to the home counties and hit the road is always there.
I’ve done ten of these now, so I guess it’s A Thing? Admittedly I’ll need to do another 42 to make it official, and that seems like a bewildering number, but it feels like A Thing, so long may that continue.
After the previous week’s snow, it was back to business as usual at work, for the most part. There’s a lot of seasonal admin going on at the moment – some big mailouts. My office has a very cyclical nature to it, which I enjoy, as you can usually tell what’s happening, or predict busy periods and lulls, and organise your work accordingly. It also provides semi-artificial deadline, and lord knows I need a good deadline. Amongst very estate-y tasks was spray-painting potholes on one of our private roads, which was rather satisfying.
I also made some more progress on the two websites I’m working on in my own time. They’re close to being ready now, which I’m pleased about. Both clients are very helpful in their feedback and vision for how they want things to look and feel. It’s been a very positive experience so far.
After the NY Times piece I found myself nodding along with most of it, and was pleased to find that Phil Gyford‘s ace Guardian Daily is still working well. It strips out the content of each day’s paper into just clean text and some images, and makes the whole thing swipeable in a browser. Crucially it allows the reader to focus only on the story (not easy on the full Guardian website), and it provides the sense of a finite, finishable object that the likes of Craig Mod and others so often hail. It also had me reaching for stockists of the Guardian’s excellent Weekly edition, but I can’t seem to find any; it only seems to be available by post in the UK. I might try a trial. It made more sense when keeping up with news while in, say, New Zealand. But actually the weekly round-up nature of it – the slow news aspect – seems more appealing than ever in this current age of breaking news.
And the Atlantic piece about retweets made some sense. I quite like some retweets. They’re a nice way to diversify your feed (only a little, mind you – the echo chamber is a persistent issue), and they often bring items of interest. But they also provide items of little interest – and worse, they often come without comment. My friend retweeted this thing, but what do they feel about it? It’s not as simple as just assuming they agree 100%. It might be promotion of a serious issue, or just a quick meme that made them chuckle. Context is important.
As the piece mentions, there’s no easy way to turn off retweets globally, although my third party app of choice Flamingo has such a feature. And even better, it allows quoted tweets to show – and these are the ones I want to see. They provide the all-important context.
My plan is to go retweet-free for the rest of the week, and then turn them back on globally, turning RTs off on a per-account basis until I reach a happy medium.
M and I watched series one of Spaced this weekend, and it’s the kind of show I can virtually quote word-for-word. It’s been some years since we both watched it, and although elements still cut deep as they’re so well written or edited, other stick out like a bizarre anachronism: ringing someone’s landline from a payphone in the pub? Smoking in a nightclub?! But it’s reassuring how much of this 1999 TV series remains hilarious and ‘cutting edge’, nearly twenty years on. Series two next.
I made more progress in Banished, you’ll be pleased to hear. I’ve got my community up to 150 or so adults, with plenty more children and students on their way. The game still occasionally feels like a grind, but the realism of the mechanics of the town’s expansion – oh no, the cemetery is full, I’d better build a new one – are engaging. I’m concerned that the game is a bit too open-ended. There’s no narrative or end-game (that I know of). So at some stage I will just have a steadily increasing town. There’s also no development of eras like some games have – where you’ll transition through styles of architecture or technology, say. Still, I’m still some hours away from the first perceived achievement level of 300 citizens, although I did get some cute awards for having a very happy town, and a very healthy town.
I was bored on a train platform this week, so I was tuning round on my handheld DAB radio and stumbled on Forces Radio BFBS at a time when they were playing classic rock and indie. It provided a nice distraction, and I was a little stunned to see that the DAB+ station was streaming at a paltry 24kbps! I’ve seen other stations just scraping by on 32kbps, and they tend to be predominantly spoken word. But here was a music show sounding pretty decent on very little bandwidth.
In fact, the only audio glitch I could discern was the intro of the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go which has some stereo separation which wasn’t being properly played out.
A brief scan of Wohnort tells me that this is the lowest bitrate of any DAB station, certainly nationally (apart from data services), and it’s very promising to hear such efficient compression sounding so reasonable.
On Thursday I went back to Oxford for the second time in recent weeks. This time I had tickets to see the wonderful Youthmovies play their first gig in eight years, and I was thrilled to see the Audiograft festival was taking place while I would be visiting, so I made some plans to enjoy some of the installations and performances from the audio/noise festival.
Now that I know the layout of Oxford a bit better, and I’ve scoped out a few good pubs and eateries, it’s a nice little city to wander round.
I made sure to visit the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museum(s?) this time, and loved them both. The former is well-lit under a glass roof, and has a classical, elegant display of animal skeletons inside a gorgeous neo-Gothic building. And the latter is a vast collection of antique display cases of various items from around the world. It’s a darker space, and has the air of rooting around a closed museum or even a particularly well-stocked attic space.
Unlike other museums with similar ethnographic collections, the Pitt Rivers lumps items of a kind together in one area. So here you’ll have writing instruments, or there you’ll find timepieces. Or, more specifically, you might find Treatment of Dead Enemies, or Charms and Amulets. It makes for a fascinating selection, particularly seeing such contrasting objects cheek by jowl across cultures.
After the museums and a much-needed pint – outside in the Spring sunshine! – I headed to OVADA, an exhibition space in an old industrial building. Inside I found installations of sound experiments, including vinyl records playing a Morse code version of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale which was then received by a device that attempted to decode and display the words. It did this through a thin veil of recordings of birdsong and other ‘interruptions’, causing small glitches in the text. I was pleased to find that the artist Kathy Hinde was around to explain a little more about her installation Twittering Machines.
Elsewhere I also found Sally Ann MacIntyre’s Study for a Data Deficient Species (Grey Ghost Transmission). It was a necessarily small (portable!) installation, with an enchanting recording I had also encountered via the recent Radiophrenia broadcasts. I’ve followed Sally Ann’s blog radio cegeste for a number of years, so it was nice to come into contact with her work at OVADA thanks to Audiograft.
The space at OVADA affords a number of opportunities for installations like this one, but also some compromises. On the one hand it is a large space and allows for a number of installations to co-exist without feeling too crammed in. On the other hand, as some of these works are by their very nature audible, they compete for attention as they reverberate around. This worked quite nicely for the most part: hearing birdsong interrupted by music, impersonated birdsong, and the staccato human-spoken binary of Simon Blackmore’s How We Communicate made for quite a mixture of sounds and audio textures quite in line with the other textures on show, whether part of an installation or the fabric of the building itself.
An example of the aural environment on my visit to OVADA can be heard below:
Later, I made my way to the beautiful Holywell Music Room where I was pleased to catch three of the evening’s four pieces.
It’s a gorgeous space, I’m sure, for any type of music and performance. But the three pieces I caught were all experimental in their own different ways. First was a wordless exploration of human vocal sounds in response to external stimuli – thought not strictly to my taste, I enjoyed the fact that such a performance found a home in such a space; they suited each other in their own unusual ways.
Next was an interesting cross section of nerdy audio experimentation and sheer noise. A series of four cymbals was placed upon individual speakers, through which sound was passed, causing the cymbals to reverberate. This was then, I believe, fed back into the speakers. It was essentially twenty minutes of feedback, but finely tuned, and the aural equivalent of seeing coloured dye dropped into clear water and watching as it swirled slowly, forming organic or pseudo-random patterns.
The last piece I caught was, I think, an interpretation of a simple narrative of house and the stories it held, told through spoken word, projected video, and overhead transparencies.
It caused me a little amusement that all three pieces suffered from the “It’s not finished!…. It’s finished!” issue as parodied in Spaced. But I was so glad to have caught such a diverse set of performances. And all as a ‘pay what you decide’ format, with anonymous donations upon leaving.
I would’ve been more sad to miss the last act, were I not headed to the Bullingdon for the Youthmovies show.
It’s hard to summarise the show, really, as the band take up so much emotional space in my head, having soundtracked significant episodes in my life, some wonderful and some less so. But seeing a band play for the first time in eight years – in honour of a departed friend of theirs – was as emotional and uncanny and yet familiar as I had hoped. Fittingly, it wasn’t a perfect performance. They played songs they hadn’t played together in years, and most of them feature quite unusual time signatures. But it felt like a 100% positive and uplifting experience for all present.
As expected, I had forgotten over the years some of the magic of their live performance that made them such a favourite in the first place. Their recorded output will remain a bewilderingly impressive and imaginative selection of tracks. But it’s their immense joy at playing these special songs, and the modesty and passion they display when onstage that makes them a truly special band. It was an honour to have the opportunity to step back into those shoes for one night.
And then this weekend, with nothing much planned, M and I went for a nice walk along the canal on Saturday afternoon. And on Sunday I felt the urge to go for a little run, and ended up covering 22km.
I had intended to head as far as I could towards the Thames, and to turn back for home whenever I felt like I was flagging. But as Foo Fighters’ My Hero hit its climactic chorus on Whitehall, and Strava announced that I’d hit the 10km mark, I knew I had to continue.
I treat these kind of cross-city runs as something of a sightseeing exercise – people-watching in motion, with some London landmarks thrown in for free.
I’m suffering some aches and pains a day later, but it’s reassuring to know I can still pull that out of the bag every now and then. As Spring comes, I intend to get a little bit of consistency into my running and walking.