Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! Major bout of diary constipation there – in a nutshell, we've been working like maniacs getting everything ready for end-of-financial-year. I actually got invited to the finance dept's end-of-year mparty on Friday night, but the idea of going to a party to celebrate the ringing in of a new fiscal year seemed ever so slightly sad to me (what do they do, wait til midnight then hold hands and sing “Should old accountants be forgot…” ?).
Of course that's possibly hypocritical in light of what I'm about to relate.
If variety is the spice of life, then the weekend of March 8-11th was a Life Vindaloo.
Having now recovered from my last hard-rock guess-experiment (Sepultura/Motorhead), I thought it about time to get back on the horse and go see something properly loud (i.e. not like Beatallica), so my learned West Australian colleague Brett & I organised ourselves tickets to go to the gig metropolis of Brixton Academy and rock out to Nine Inch Nails. The urgency of scoring tickets off eBay was somewhat offset by the way that scalpers were selling them between the tube station & the venue for between 3 and 15 quid. As well as dodging touts, we managed to dodge the merchandising stand, flogging flimsy screenprinted tshirts off for 15 quid a throw.
The crowd were suitably bedecked in black – though not so much as the Bauhaus gig – and the whole pre-band mood was really cool: slightly misty, dark, & cyberpunky. The support band, Ladytron, would have been perfect as ambient mood-setting music rather than being thrust onto us in the form of a focal point; musically skull-buggeringly monotonous, and any sort of appeal seeming to stem from the novelty of them having two non-emotive goth non-musicians fronting the band. Thankfully they left without much hassle and we could get on with the actual gig.
Bloody amazing. They just came out and rocked hard, pausing only to speak once (which is apparently a departure from their usual no-talking). I've got no idea what they played, cos I only know 3 NIN songs, and of those I know they definitely didn't play one of them, possibly played another, and definitely played the third (that would be Closer).
We spent the whole gig downing vodka & redbulls, and evidently so did a few people around us, as one bloke clearly had too much energy and started taking swings at another bloke.
Quite a lot of sweaty, hairy, black-clad surging air guitar going on at the back of the room, but relatively placid by contrast to the bubbling cauldron of mosh at the front. Would've been fun to get in amongst it, but I was feeling a bit rancid with a cold, and besides which when you've shelled out that much spondooly for a vodka & redbull you don't really want to risk spilling it.
That doesn't tell you a damn thing about the gig itself though, does it? Errrm… brutal & awesome. They did some great stuff with lighting, and played hard all the way (with the exception of an acoustic Trent Reznor piano moment). Brett remarked (& I agreed) that their gigs are wild because they reproduce quite faithfully the seemingly heavily produced sound from their albums. It was good enough (although it may have been the booze talking) to goad us into buying gig shirts as well… and the cheeky bastards running the merch stand had even increased the prices by 3 quid per shirt in between us getting there and leaving!
With Thursdays power chords still ringing in my ears, Friday night was then quite the contrast – Hannah, Paul, Liz, Dave, Julia & I once again returned to the far more Establishment venue known as Royal Albert Hall in order to immerse ourselves in, like, culture n' stuff, in the form of Opera (yes, again). Specifically, the Puccini workhorse Madam Butterfly. Once again, I leapt in with both feet without really doing any research – I knew that it formed the basis of the Schoenberg/Boublil musical, Miss Saigon, and didn't get anything in the way of alarm bells based on the last tediously-long-and-bereft-of-storyline Puccini opera I saw (La Boheme). Ever the optimist, I guess.
An opera that long deserves more description than it's going to get – musically fascinating and masterfully executed, visually & technically top-shelf, and the quality of performance was absolutely worthy of the price and venue. But it was sooooooooooooo bloody tedious. Puccini has this amazing ability to cram 20 minutes of story into a 3 hour opera.
At the risk of appearing ignorant (and as you'll know by now, that's a risk I'm more than prepared to take), I appreciated that the music was rich & moving, and that the storyline was emotive & sad, however (I hope I don't spoil one of the 3 plot points the story has) the end of Act 2 sees Cio-Cio-San dolling herself up in preparation for the return of her husband who hasn't returned to her in 5 years but whose ship's suddenly appeared in the harbour (anyone guess what happens next?), and wait by the corner of the house for him to arrive. She stands there, and waits, and waits, and waits. And waits. The sun goes down (slowly). She waits. And she waits. And she keeps waiting. You get the idea. The sun comes back up and she's still waiting, and… oh look, he just doesn't bloody show up, alright? The point is that it genuinely felt like you got the sunset/night/sunrise happening – with her standing silent and motionless – in real time.
No more Puccini for me, methinks. Now Mozart – THERE was a bloke who could write an interesting opera.
Right, so the third leg in this overly long-winded triumverate of discontinuous behaviour was that on Sunday, Charlie and Dan joined me on another one of those half-thought-out plans that I'd nonetheless set into action, and drove me out on my maiden voyage to the former British industrial powerhouse, Birmingham. Upon arriving, Charlie elected to do some hardcore shopping, and this left Dan & I with a dilemma – which direction do we go to find a pub? Picking one that seemed likely (it had a church – there's usually a pub wherever there's a church), we sprinted off to make best use of our hour and a half. We spotted a building with Irish flags sticking out from the front of it – usually a sure indicator of the availibility of some form of booze or other – however upon nearing it we discovered that it had been closed for some time, possibly since the mid nineties. Not deterred, we looked further up the road and saw more Irish flags – this time there was a working pub attached to those flags, but it looked pretty skanky, and just a bit further up the road was another pub with Irish flags! Also protruding from the front of this pub was a queue about 4 wide and 8 deep – which struck us as odd for a Sunday afternoon – however as luck was to provide, next door ANOTHER pub with Irish flags!
We dove in, percolated through the tightly arranged crowd, and procured 2 pints of the black stuff, before asking what the story was – it turns out that Birmingham plays host to a sizeable St Patrick's Day parade. I wasn't going to be the one to tell them that St Paddy's Day wasn't for another 6 days, but before I had to summon my diplomacy skills I was accosted by an old gentleman of Irish extraction, who had the air of someone who had possibly supported the entire pageant in a number of capacities, and was now losing that support, along with the support of his eyelids, and possibly his legs. Nonetheless, for reasons which are still unclear to me, he launched into a verbal broadside at me with the only discernable words being “Arthur Scargill“. Diplomacy skills returning quickly, I explained that I wasn't 100% certain who Arthur Scargill was, although I was pretty sure he had something to do with coal mines and Margaret Thatcher. The man started to berate the fact that a man of my age (what he thought that was, I've no idea) didn't know who Arthur Scargill was, but mid-rebuke he must've registered my accent, and said conspiratorially, “You're not from Australia, are you?”. This was enough to get me off that particular hook, however hooks were plentiful, as I was impaled swiftly on the next one: “Have you ever heard of The Clancy Brothers?”.
Evidently they were singers, and one of this man's favourites was entitled “New South Wales“, which he proceeded to try to remember – remembering taking the form of singing each line groggily with gusto in the hope that it would fire his synapses to instantly bring the next line to hand. If it didn't, then he'd just go back and start again. Dan & I looked across and were instantly able to tell what each other was thinking: “How in the hell did we get into this, and how in the hell do we get out of this?”. Luckily the brownian motion of pub patrons was enough to dislodge us from his tractor beam and we scarpered out of there, now mindful of the fact we had places to be.
For the purpose of their visit to Birmingham (he began portentously) was to go to the National Exhibition Centre for the final day of Crufts – the World's Greatest Dog Show – to be arena-side for the Best In Show judging.
Yep, we went to a frigging dog show.
The genesis of this scheme was a seed sown 12 months beforehand, whilst sitting in the loungeroom of our flat in Camden channel-surfing, and stumbling upon the BBC coverage. It was an immensely comedic moment, and in that moment someone said “Funny if we actually went to that!”. It probably never occurred to whoever said it that like a genie from a lamp, I have a tendency to make these things happen. There again, it never occurred to me to take note of who had said it, meaning I bought 4 tickets and suddenly didn't have anyone who wanted to go. Luckily Charlie and Dan are always up for a bit of a laugh.
Anyway there we were – walled in by world class dog fanciers. Most of these people had probably spent the last few days either looking at dogs or grooming their own dogs for a shot at this title – I'm convinced that we were definitely impostors among this crowd; a thin veil which we probably didn't maintain so well amid Charlie's reading & Dan & my compulsive giggling.
The woman sitting next to me – a middle aged American in a beige tracksuit and sporting a shortish haircut which she'd probably describe as “manageable” – might well have done better going halves with one of her identical friends in a seat, cos she spent the entire time perched on the front edge of hers. A couple of rows back I kept hearing a young voice discussing with his father which dogs' gait was smoothest, and the fall of their coats, and how this year's breed example was more regal in bearing than last year's. This was definitely a dog crowd. The earnestness of it all gave me a new appreciation for the American commentator in Best In Show, who suggested things like making it more interesting for the audience by dressing the dogs up, such as putting deerstalker hats & pipes on the bloodhounds.
We caught the last bit of the agility trials – the bit where the dogs run around the obstacle course – which was bloody good fun.
The judging of the utility group was amusing enough, although primarily for watching the handlers run along beside/behind the dogs. Among the utility group was a Tibetan Terrier named Willy, and at one point I said “I reckon he's going to win it”. Evidently the judge was as fine an appreciator of breed characteristic as me, because Willy did indeed win that group, which then made way for the toy group.
I'm mistrustful of dogs that small, ever since being bitten on the back of the head by a chihuahua at the tender age of 2 (there's a scar there somewhere), and additionally you've got to squint to see them (“Those dogs are not as far away as they look”). There were some bloody ugly dogs amongst them. Why on earth do people insist on having bald pets?
With the judging now out of the way, there was the junior dog handlers, the international participants parade, and the touchy-feely section about dogs who've made their owners lives better – ideal timing for toilet, pizza & beer break.
We made it back to our seats however just in time for the main event (as far as I was concerned): the bit where the insane woman in the spangly tuxedo makes her dogs dance in time with the music. It was this which had inspired the idea in the first place – “hey, wouldn't it be funny to see THAT!”. The answer, of course, is “no”. Christopher Simms, you were right. It truly is astounding how much more amusing something seems with the twin benefits of being surrounded by other people who find it funny, and having the option to make it stop whenever you like. Now was not that time. Sadly, my phone camera wasn't up to specification to capture this marvel of entertainment, so you'll just have to picture 2 dogs walking backwards in circles to choreography – choredography, if you will – tuned to a pseudo-James Bond-like medley, while this manageable-haired woman clicked her fingers and pointed so the dogs knew where to go next. I don't even want to talk about it any more.
Finally, drawing the tedium to a close, the Best In Show judging. The tension was mounting, far more so than the participants seemed to be (which I found surprising), and I'm sorry to report that there were no major last-round upsets. None of the dogs bit the judge, none of the handlers tripped over their dogs, and none of the big dogs ate any of the smaller dogs. But the winner & champion dog from Crufts 2007 was, once again that day, Willy, the Tibetan Terrier.
I'm a champion dog picker.
Of all the things in this world to have a natural aptitude for…
(Incidentally, the reason there's pictures of the bloody dogs, but none of NIN is because I cunningly lost my USB stick somewhere between Heathrow and Aberdeen the other weekend – clever, eh?)