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Rock and roll!

This has to be one of the most unusual experiences of my life so far, and certainly one of the most entertaining.

Our friend P celebrated her 50th birthday in style by arranging a recording session at Sawmills Studio ( http://www.sawmills.co.uk ), as well as booking the accommodation there for the weekend for anybody who wanted to stay (we only went down for the day, as we weren't quite sure in advance whether the expected wind and rain would make it possible to go at all). It is only accessible on foot or by boat - we parked in a nearby village and proceeded on foot.  Arriving in heavy rain, we warmed up with a hot drink and heard tales of skinny-dipping in the river by the overnighters before everyone  gradually made their way from the house to the studio itself to start preparing for the recording. The song chosen was "If Ever I Stray" by Frank Turner, a cheerful singalong sort of modern folk song with references to swimming and the English Channel (P is a serious swimmer who has taken part in relay swims across the Channel) and the importance of the simple things in life and friendship. As always I'm constrained by only being able to use landscape format pictures, but here are some of the guests practising or recording their parts, and the sound engineer who put it all together:

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The whole process took just a little over two hours of impressive organisation, a few re-takes and a lot of fun. Somehow singing in front of others is not nearly as scary when you're wearing headphones playing the backing track and you can't really hear yourself. Even our teenagers agreed to give it a try! (H also had a go on the drum kit, and now seems quite enthusiastic about the idea of learning to play properly.)

While all this was going on, a small team in the kitchen were producing a fantastic buffet lunch of roast lamb and chicken, a whole salmon, lots of vegetables and salad and a vegetarian option of some very nice looking nut cutlets and tomato sauce. While eating all this we got to hear two versions of the song we'd recorded - one with the original vocals left on and us as backing singers, the other with just us. I have to say the one with just us had come out pretty well after the engineer had worked his magic on it, editing out a few moments where people came in at slightly the wrong time and bringing out the vocals so we sounded stronger and more confident than we thought we had at the time. The wine and conversation flowed, and all too soon it was time to go if we wanted to walk back while it was still light.

A lovely day, full of fun, friendship, music, good food and unforgettable memories - and something to think about: I will be 50 myself in just over 2 years. What would I like to do to celebrate? The brainstorming session starts now...

Yellow new year?

This is what H&M think I am going to be wearing this year:
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I'm certainly not going to run out and buy everything in the window (not least as most of it probably doesn't come in my size) but the sunshineyness and playfulness of it made me smile, so I might dig out an existing yellow t-shirt and do my own homage to it.
Well, the last month or so has been quite busy, but not always in ways that would make an interesting blog. The two standout events were completely different and just go to show how varied the cultural life in my town can be, once you know where to look.

Along with a group of friends, I went to a huge burlesque event (the first time the organisers whose events we've attended before have upgraded to a much bigger venue, which has been used by nationally famous music acts). These events are always as much about the audience getting dressed up and people-watching as about the performers (although those were fabulous, and included the current reigning world burlesque champion - no, I didn't know there was any such thing either), so we all got dolled up in our corsets, fascinators, sparkly dresses etc, with the men in a mixture of vintage suits, hand-embroidered waistcoats, James Bond-style dinner jackets and one very fetching pair of heart-shaped sunglasses. It was a wonderfully entertaining evening and we danced until 1am - some of our friends lasted even longer!

And then last night it was time for something completely different: a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio by a local choir and orchestra (with soloists from further afield). Our friend H sings in the choir and we were looking forward to seeing her in action. I met friends J and G beforehand, as the road where the church is situated was having its annual Christmas street party. (It's a rather upmarket shopping street, with no fewer than four lovely cafés.) I used to go to these parties regularly some years ago when I worked in a school in that area, and had fond memories of the local deli's special Christmas rolls filled with the leanest, most succulent turkey in town - but in fact there was such a variety of street food available this time that I didn't even go for the turkey, but had a very generously filled baked potato and chilli instead, followed by mulled wine. The sights and smells and live music, and a beautiful new moon, kept us entertained until it was time to go into the concert, where we joined forces with another friend, M.

In my misspent youth I used to play in the university orchestra (though I always felt as if I was surviving by the seat of my pants, as virtually the only person who wasn't a music student and didn't have Grade 8 - I think I only got in because I played an unpopular instrument) and we performed at least two sacred works similar to this oratorio. One was the one everybody knows - Handel's Messiah - curiously I can't remember a single thing about how any of the viola parts went, only the overall sound, which was much more splendid than you might expect from a bunch of students, at least one of whom didn't know her musical arse from her elbow. The other was a cantata by Buxtehude that either began or ended with an orchestral fugue, which I've been trying to trace even since - it would probably help if I could remember what it was called. So last night's performance, as well as being a lovely piece of music in itself,  was quite nostalgic for me - I'm not saying all Baroque composers sound exactly the same, but there are enough similarities to transport me back to that time quite effectively. It's often a sort of double nostalgia for me with music - for the time in my life it reminds me of and for the period of history it belongs to, at least as I imagine it. It was also lovely to see H singing!

Sorry no pics this time - I had a great one of some of our costumes for the burlesque, but thanks to livejournal's habit of turning all portrait format photos on their sides, it didn't really work.
First post for a month. Not good enough, is it?

Anyway, the very last thing I wrote on here was that I'd love to visit the Seaton Tramway, and lo, it came to pass. But that's the end of a story that begins on Saturday morning, when we set off to join a bunch of friends at Lulworth youth hostel for some swimming, walking, eating, drinking and companionship. We had in mind that we must be back by early evening on Sunday because of the predicted major storm, and high winds and rough seas were to become a theme of our weekend.

On the way there, we decided to pay a surprise visit to our friend M in Weymouth. He agreed to come with us to a café he introduced us to years ago, where we had some excellent soup and watched windsurfers jumping the already quite sizeable waves in the bay outside. M then walked home while we pressed on to Lulworth, where we had a tentative arrangement to meet some of the others for a swim in Lulworth Cove at 4pm.

We did it. It wasn't warm, but the roughest seas were at the entrance to the cove and it was possible to have a short, safe swim near the shore in conditions like this:
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Then it was back to the hostel for an evening of friendly company and lovely food. Some of the children there had been carving pumpkins and there was one left over, so our boys went to work on it, which kept them happy and entertained for quite a long time.

The next morning most of the party went over to Durdle Door for a walk and another swim in the most biting wind imaginable - I am not an insubstantial person, and there were times when I felt as if the wind was blowing me off course! How my skinny children managed I'm not quite sure. But we made it down to a relatively sheltered spot and some people went swimming. I didn't quite fancy it this time, but A and some of our friends were more intrepid:
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(That's R taking photos!)

We said goodbye to the others and set off homewards in plenty of time to make a few detours. One of these was the the Isle of Portland, which is just the sort of  place that intrigues me. Not quite an island, as it is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land bringing a single road, it had in interestingly bleak, end-of-the-line feel that was probably intensified by the grey and threatening weather. Huge old naval buildings, grey and white stone houses, empty and forlorn-looking shops and hardly anyone on the streets added to the impression that the place was down on its luck and in need of revitalisation, but perhaps everyone was just inside battening down the hatches for the forthcoming storm - they would certainly have been exposed.

On to Chesil Beach for the wildest waves we'd seen yet:
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In the time it took to take a few photos we were sticky with salt, wild-haired and red-cheeked. We set off again, and that's when I thought of suggesting a detour to Seaton. I didn't know when we would next be "in the area" and, as it turned out, Seaton itself probably wouldn't have been worth a special journey. Although the line is called the Seaton Tramway, I assume most of the action is somewhere else, as the terminus at Seaton consists of a single line in, with two stubs of line branching off right at the end, but only one stop where people can get on and off. We watched one tram come in, let off a few passengers and then do something unexpected and very interesting. I'm used to the trams in Vienna. They can only go forwards and there's generally a loop at the end of the line, enabling them to turn round, get on the other line and set off again. Because there is literally just the one line into Seaton (not one for each direction), when it reaches the end of the line the driver has to go up to the top deck, manually disconnect the "antenna" (which I now know is actually called a pantograph) from the power line and swivel it round the other way, before driving off in the other direction. In other words, these trams, like naked mole-rats, can go backwards as easily as forwards. I found it fascinating to watch this procedure, but H (the only one of us who had never seen a tram before) was unimpressed. "It's like a cross between a bus, a train and a bloody dodgem," he pronounced. "You wouldn't drag us out of the car to look at a bus, would you?" "I might if it was the only place in Southern England you could see a bus in action," I replied, before accusing him of having no soul.
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So there you have it. A weekend of sociable fun followed  by a personal bucket-list moment, with plenty of wild wind thrown in.

Something new to be obsessed with?

It's a wet, grey Saturday afternoon and I'm sitting here thinking, as I have done quite often since my recent visit there, "What would I do right now if I was in Vienna?" The obvious answers would be "go to the cinema" and "ride around on trams". In my student days I loved riding around on the trams so much that I would often catch one into town and a different one back out again to get to the Translation Institute, where all my lectures took place, which would probably have been a 20-minute walk from where I was living. On a monthly transport network card this didn't actually cost me anything I wouldn't have had to spend anyway, but it wasn't the most time-efficient way to get around, it was just important to me as part of the process of immersing myself in all that was uniquely Viennese about Vienna. The older-style trams, some of which are still in use today, consisted of one big and one smaller carriage hooked together, and right at the back of the smaller carriage was a little wooden shelf-like windowsill just big enough for up to two people (usually students) to rest their bottoms on. I considered it the coolest seat on the tram and loved to demonstrate my breezy informality by parking my (in those days moderately sized) bum there. I think in many ways that whole year of my life was all about constructing a image for myself, one which has never totally gone away, but still has a certain influence on what I like to wear, eat and do.

So here I was, idly thinking about trams and wishing we had some here so I could indulge my sudden nostalgic urge to ride on them, and then I thought, "Didn't Torquay have them a long time ago? I'm sure I've seen them in old photos." A quick look at wiki threw up lots of information about the network (five lines, two of which were the same circular route in opposite directions) and now I feel like thoroughly researching their history, and going in person to all the places where you can still see traces of the tracks. My Web browsing also reminded me of the existence of the Seaton Tramway, in East Devon, a place we always meant to visit when the boys were smaller,but never quite organised ourselves to get to. It's now going on my bucket list - in fact let's say I will definitely go there within the next year, and come back with photographic evidence.

Time's up?

It has just come to my notice that I started my Personal year of Culture project on 1 October last year, and one of the first things I blogged about was the Manhattan Short Film Festival. We've just reserved our places for this year's festival and are going on 1 October itself, so that will officially round things off nicely.

So did I do more than I would otherwise have done?

i think maybe yes, and there were a few things I did but didn't blog about (mostly to do with the two film clubs; I felt things were getting a bit repetitive).  But it might not have made as dramatic a difference as I expected at first. Instead of doing something new or adventurous every week, I was lucky if I managed it every month (but then that's still a bit better than the rut I was in before). In June, an unexpected death in my circle of friends sparked a general movement to get more out of life, which probably kick-started my activity level again, and this has definitely been the busiest and most interesting summer I've had for years, but with a lot of the activity more on the physical/outdoorsy side of things than the cultural. However, autumn is a good time to move things indoors and spend more time on the arts, and with the film festival lined up and the possibility of going to an art exhibition in the next couple of weeks with R (who is turning into quite the art connoisseur), I think I'll just make the PYOC a rolling programme and just, um, keep on keeping on.
Day 3, and we'd picked a couple of fascinating buildings to visit. First on the agenda was the Fernwärme, an extraordinary rubbish dump and incineration plant by the canal, designed in typically exuberant style by the indefatigable Hundertwasser. Not only is it colourful and eye-catching on the outside:
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but part of the building is open to visitors and houses exhibitions by local artists. When we were there it was the turn of Christian Kvasinicka, whose semi-abstract, nature-inspired oil paintings (the exhibition was entitled "light, water, earth, air") appealed to us both. We also visited Gasometer City, a recent renovation project in which four old gas towers have been converted into a complex of living accommodation, shops, cafés and offices.
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What was particularly charming about this development was that it was right opposite an equally unusual but totally different new housing estate, the "eco-living park" Ville Verdi:
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and with a fast U-Bahn connection to the city centre from right in front of the first gas tower, this suddenly surpassed the Hundertwasserhaus as my fantasy location to live in Vienna.

A bit of clothes shopping, a whistle-stop visit to the Stefansdom (cathedral, most of which is only open to those willing to pay for a guided tour) and a snack in an old-fashioned cake shop later, we were ready to go back to the hotel and get changed and ready for our final night out. We'd decided to do the ultimate touristy thing: a spin on the iconic Riesenrad (big wheel). If anyone is thinking of visiting Vienna and wants to try this, I would strongly recommend you to go on the U-Bahn (U1) rather than the tram (1) as it will get you a lot closer to the fairground - we ended up in a green and pleasant but noticeably un-fairgroundlike area of the massive Prater park, a popular place for cyclists and runners it seems, and had to ask a woman with a pushchair which way to the Riesenrad, as it wasn't even in sight. When we did get there, things had changed a bit since my day. You no longer just turn up, pay and get straight on the wheel - now you are funnelled through a visitor centre (I could hear Bill Bryson being sarcastic about this inside my head) containing some of the unused carriages with models of scenes from Viennese history inside them, but we didn't have to wait long and were soon sharing a carriage with an excitable Italian family and enjoying fantastic views of the city at dusk. We rounded off our day - and our stay - with takeaway noodles at Schwedenplatz, which seems to be the liveliest spot in town for eating street food and watching the world go by.

Everything went extremely smoothly on our journey home the next day, but an article in the Lufthansa in-flight magazine struck such a huge chord with me that I had no choice but to smuggle it off the plane so I could remember the quotation in full. Remember that odd feeling of rushedness and disappointment I mentioned on the first day? Here's author Carola Saavedra talking about returning to Rio de Janeiro, the city where she grew up, after ten years' absence, and it was as if a light bulb went on over my head:

"Going back is just as difficult as leaving. It takes time and courage for the person you have become to meet the person you have stopped being, and the collection of irretrievable possibilities. You have to arrive slowly, reconnect with the city, its rhythm, its scenery, its darker and its human sides. You have to inhabit it, become part of its everyday life, of its streetscape."

That's how I got to know Vienna the first time round, and that's probably what was inexplicably missing this time. The best moments of our trip were definitely the new things we discovered together - the old familiar places were somehow bound up with the "irretrievable possibilities" of youth, the new ones were new beginnings and reminders that you are never too old to try something different.

I would just like to mention that R was a wonderful travelling companion, whose unique combination of interests and fresh pair of eyes brought an interesting perspective on the city and took me to a lot of places I would never have thought of visiting with anyone else, and  I apologise unreservedly if I have accidentally got him addicted to iced tea.

Return to Vienna

I've just got back from a long weekend in Vienna with 16-year-old R, a post-GCSEs treat for him and a chance for me to revisit the city where I spent a year in my student days. It's 26 years since I came back from that extended stay, 18 years since I've been there at all, and I was very interested to see what had changed and what hadn't, what would awaken unexpected memories in me and what would fail to ring a bell at all. R, meanwhile, mostly wanted to see art and architecture.

It's hard to describe how it felt emotionally, being back. At times I felt vaguely disappointed, not because of anything in particular that had changed, but because visiting the place as a holidaymaker demanded a very different pace from getting to know it as an inhabitant. I felt I was being thrust into the role of tourist, ticking off famous landmarks and not really having time to savour the feel of the city.  For  me to get the full experience I had imagined would have been to deny R the experience he was hoping for. At the end of the first full day, although we had had many individual enjoyable experiences, we both agreed that we didn't feel we'd made the best use of the time, and it briefly seemed as if the trip was going to fall flat. Somehow (and a lot of credit is due to R for not throwing a teenage tantrum but being constructive and philosophical beyond his years) we picked ourselves up and started looking at the guidebook and the What's On magazine, and by bedtime we had a definite plan for an art-based Sunday.

Unfortunately, the first gallery on our revised itinerary (picked by R) turned out to be shut until Tuesday lunchtime, and we were due to fly home on Tuesday mid-afternoon. There was therefore a lot riding on our next stop, the MAK (museum of Applied Art), where we were hoping to see an exhibition about eco-friendly South-East Asian architecture. This turned out to be quite intriguing and inspiring, and the icing on the cake was discovering that the museum also housed a collection of rare old bicycles, suspended from the ceiling so you could have a good look at them. From the boat trailer that could be converted to a bike so heavy and cumbersome it was virtually unusable (not surprisingly there is only one of these in the world) to the ice bike, with a heavily studded back wheel and a ski for a front wheel, not to mention the racing bike built for a Tour de France competitor who was disqualified for travelling part of the route by train, the bikes all had their own interesting and often amusing stories. It was the perfect museum for us, quirky and surprising - the only minor disappointment was that the museum shop was, like so many things, closed until Tuesday.

We then went on to the Hundertwasserhaus, an early prototype of eco-friendly housing designed by an eccentric artist and still almost entirely residential in function:
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This proved a big hit with R, and so did the proliferation of graffiti art along both banks of the Danube Canal (pics by R):
By now we were having a great time, but it was still quite early in the afternoon, so we headed to the outermost suburbs for a long walk in a big country park with fantastic views over the whole city:2013_0905vienna 078
We explored the area local to the hotel in the evening, and found a small, friendly and inexpensive pizza restaurant which I rather wish was located in my street.

End of Part 1

Leicester revisited

High Street by b∞giebabe
High Street, a photo by b∞giebabe on Flickr.

Last week I spent some time with my parents, who live in a pretty village outside Leicester. I grew up in the city so visiting their present place is not quite "going home" for me, but it puts me within an easy bus ride of old haunts it's always interesting to see again. One day we went into Leicester to see the Richard III exhibition (mum and me) and do some sketching (dad) and then all had lunch together at the all-vegetarian World Peace Cafe, after which I sent a few hours in the city on my own, just walking around, admiring old buildings (some of which I remembered and some I didn't - teenagers aren't the most observant people) and taking photos.

This is a view of the High Street. From the nature of the shops on the ground floor I'd say the economic centre of the city has shifted a bit since the street got its name, and in fact even since I lived there full-time about 30 years ago (although on the other side of the road is the entrance to a big newish mall-type shopping centre). But just look up! I don't think I ever did when I was young, but somewhere along the line I've learnt that the most interesting sights of a town or city centre are almost always above ground level. These are fine old buildings beyond the garish facades. It was the same story all over the city centre and even in the suburbs on the way back - I sat on the top deck of a bus, the better to appreciate those upper storeys.

So that's my top tip for a cheap and unusual "little pleasure": look up!

The nearest I'll get to being a biker

...only with push-bikes.

On Sunday I took part in the first Torbay SkyRide, a free organised cycle ride around Paignton Green and the surrounding area. I've been wanting to cycle more for ages but A's fear that I will DIE INSTANTLY makes me feel a bit guilty about cycling in heavy traffic, so when I heard that this ride was entirely traffic free it seemed perfect for me.

"My" bike (it's kind of communal but I'm the only person who shows much interest in using it) was a raffle prize, so I didn't have any say in what it's like. It's a mountain bike, and I don't technically need a mountain bike, but I quite like it aesthetically and our town is so hilly that all those gears do have their uses.2013_0818skyride 010

According to all the experts the handlebars should be much lower, but I find it more comfortable this way! I would secretly love a beach cruiser like this:

Friends had excitedly told me about a new cycle track (Hollacombe to Preston) that would take me part of the way to my destination, but as it turned out, the track isn't completely finished and you still have to carry your bike down a few steps at the far end. Not a problem for me, but I was glad I didn't have a kiddie trailer!

Paignton Green was a sea of yellow hi-vis bibs and blue flags. I've seen it full of motor bikes lots of times but I don't think I'd ever seen so many push-bikes in one place in my life! There was a great sense of community with people of all ages and abilities taking part, a café with a sprawl of wooden picnic tables, tents where you could get your bike fixed and/or advice on maintenance, a chance to "race" on fixed exercise bikes and try to get your name on a national leader board, and a commentator at the start and finish line deliberately misunderstanding the non-competitive nature of the event and announcing that people, especially kids, were "in the lead" or "had 27 laps to go". After trying to sign in and finding out that you didn't have to, I got on my bike and set off. The first part of the course was wide and flat, and I never expected to find any aspect of it scary, but soon realised that small boys who like to weave in and out of the older riders are not particularly helpful when you're trying to steer a straight course, and decided to keep to the side and let them have their fun. When we turned into a maze of side streets, there were some new challenges, including speed bumps, two-to-three-gear-change hills and bends that weren't particularly tight in themselves, but had to be negotiated carefully if you happened to have three boy racers on your tail and a tiny girl wobbling around on a fairy-cycle just in front. I'd say it was just right, really - the need to keep alert kept it interesting and slightly challenging, but there was nothing that made me want to give up. Eventually we emerged from the side streets and rode round the remaining three-quarters of the green in relatively relaxed style, pausing only to let marshals with red flags usher groups of pedestrians across the road at two crossings.

That was the first lap. I had in mind to do 3 before lunch, then maybe one or two more afterwards. By the middle of the third lap, I was still thoroughly enjoying it but my bum was definitely becoming rather uncomfortable, and I thought if I got off I might never get back on again, so I decided to go on for a fourth (making 12 miles in total). At times I wished I hadn't, but towards the end of that lap I think I got the equivalent of a runner's high, and I picked up a bit of speed on the final ride round the green (the numbers having thinned out a bit by this time, possibly because everybody was breaking for lunch). I found somewhere to leave the bike and bumped into a friend, L, who kindly took a photo of me:
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Some other images from the day:
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After a reviving coffee and flapjack I felt sufficiently enthusiastic that I decided to cycle as much of the way home as possible, sticking to side roads, which took me on a pleasantly scenic route, and I can confirm that I didn't DIE INSTANTLY. I've already signed up for another SkyRide event and have plans to go for a short spin most days!



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