Archive for September, 2009

Beyond Alston

September 30, 2009

I set off, with my daughter, to visit my friend Patrick who lives beyond Alston. I have turned onto the A1 heading north and notice that the traffic in the southern carriageway is heavy. Traffic news on the radio mentions that a lorry carrying assorted nuts and bolts has overturned a few miles south and that part of the road would be blocked for quite some time to come. While I feel empathically sorry for the drivers across the divide, I have to say I feel a sense of relief that we have not been plagued by a slow start. The turning to Hexham looms and I veer off to the left. Ten minutes have passed and already we are leaving behind all signs of habitation. Occasionally we skirt a Northumberland market town, such as Corbridge. Once past Hexham I take a sharp left into a minor road that winds up and down the hillside. The hairpin bends are arranged spectacularly for our entertainment.

Imperceptibly we have been drawn into a deep, engulfing wood. Through the windscreen I see the tarmac stretching ahead, framed on both sides by overhanging trees. Branches entwine  to form a womblike tunnel (thank you Dr Freud) as we are sucked inexorably into a primordial terrain. The colours of the leaves are turning to autumnal gold; another week will bring out the reds, too. Pheasants scurry across the road from time to time. The frequent signs of roadkill suggests that many do not make it to the other side.

More and more moor

More and more moor

I drive up the phenomenally steep central high street at Alston and take the lane to the village-beyond-nowhere, past which my friend lives. The driving becomes more and more demanding as we move through each stage of the journey, moving deeper and deeper into remoteness. Finally, we arrive at the nearest village and head off up into what can only be described as nothingness.

When I first visited him, the house looked more like a barn than a house. Here is an example of the sort of structure I have in mind. This barn can be seen from his sitting room window just beyond a drystone wall which vaguely marks the perimiter of his property.



Decades of hard work has transformed his house to what it is today. I walk right in and call out to him. We settle in his sitting room where he has lit a fire; it feels so welcoming and takes the chill off the room.

"Come in" she said "I'll give you ~ shelter from the storm"

"Come in" she said "I'll give you ~ shelter from the storm"

 AgaHe makes us tea and coffee and we go through to the kitchen to drink it. This room is dominated by a rather splendid 1950s Aga. I find myself standing close to it, warming my bum: these stoves are wonderful inventions.


We eat a simple lunch with fresh baguette rolls, Greek salad, and a selection of cheeses. I notice that one of the cats has slunk off to the moor to get a snack. They never have to buy cat food here. Although the cats are pets, I believe their function is partly to keep out the mice and rats. Easygoing chat flows. Afterwards, I play a few covers on the piano he has. It is rather loud and slightly out of tune but that doesn’t really matter. Soon it is time to say farewell, and I drive back again.

We hit the afternoon rush hour as soon as we approach the metropolis known as Newcastle, home to a football team whose black and white shirts have earned them the epithet of barcodes (thank you Coinslot for this illuminating information). By the time we get home, I am ready for another cup of coffee. And now I have to do some stuff. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Esse est percipi

September 29, 2009

I press the light switch on my digital watch and, grappling for my spectacles, peer into the little screen; it is 05.00 a.m. Grumpishly, I toss and turn but sleep eludes me. I get out of bed, make a cup of tea and bring it upstairs, with a couple of biscuits for dunking. And here I am, typing to you.

I shall go back to bed a bit later. I need to top up my sleep by a couple of hours because I am going on a trip today to see my friend Patrick. He lives in the middle of nowhere in an alternate reality known as ‘Beyond Alston’. You can’t even get a mobile phone signal in his house.

FungiI am in the garden, yesterday, walking around aimlessly. What is this, by the path? A clump of fungi. [Cut to my bedroom bookshelf… opening the book on mushrooms and toadstools… flip, flip, squint, sigh… can’t find it… return book to shelf] So, do you know what they are? If so, please tell me in a comment here.





RoseI spot a red rose, solitary. I capture its moment of extreme autumnal beauty with my camera. I am thoughtful. I am taking this picture in order to share it with you. I can think of no other reason. This triggers further thoughts. What am I doing, writing this blog. I am sharing my life with you. Esse est percipi, as Bishop Berkeley is reported to have once said: To be, is to be percieved. You, my dear blogophiles, are the ones who percieve what I am thinking here, and thus indirectly assist me to be. A couple of centuries ago I might well have been writing in my leather-bound journal with my quill pen; writing for posterity. The journal, with its copperplate hand, would have held the promise that one day someone, perhaps you, would have stumbled upon it as you poke about some dusty junk shop back room, nosing through the fruits harvested from a cash-in-hand house clearance. In your act of reading, you would have retrospectively bestowed existence upon my hypothetical being of the past.

If I read my own blog, I am able to narcissistically confirm my own existence; this is the mental equivalent of physically standing in front of a mirror. Does my ego look fat in this blog? I might ask myself, as I metaphorically fondle my adjectival clauses.

I have to get this blog posted and get back to bed for a bit more sleep. I shall talk to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Gigs, gigs, and gigs

September 27, 2009

I am sitting at the table with a sea view at Bungalow cafe. In fact we look out onto the harbour and Roker pier. I have taken a pic to give you an idea of the sort of day it is today.  The waitress has just served us with the full English breakfast and Tom has poured the coffee. We take a bite, and then relax into a couple of hours of meandering conversation, as is our wont each Friday morning.

Full English





















zzzapppp… where did time go? Did I experience Saturday? Can I remember anything significant about it? Oh… it is all coming back. This reminds me of the time I had a bad concussion when I was playing rugby once. The memories start to trickle back.

Friday night was a good late night gig at Terra Fyrmusica. There was a nice crowd there. We got griefed (smoke bombs). I was over the other side of my studio playing piano. We didn’t manage to work out who it was. Anyway, it was a great gig. RichJack and Costello were there and we hung out after the show had finished, along with Jeaninne and Gil. Coinslot was there I remember, too, but he moved on (my guess is to another gig).

I stayed up real late on Friday night. I remember  going with Woody to the Mocha bar at the Nitida Ridge .. must have been around 3 or 4 a.m. my time. They had a pass the mic session going on and I took over from Jellyjellyjelly Benelli and played some stuff on piano. I can’t normally sing as late as that but I was on my own, apart from my daughter downstairs. I really had a blast. My voice was growling. Surprising as it may seem, I went to bed and then got up in time to play my one hour show at Foxy Hollow at 11 a.m. on Saturday. I also later caught the relay streaming show where JJJ sang the songs and played acoustic guitar, streamed it to Toby Lancaster who then played his guitar lead over the top and that sound was then streamed up to Second Life and back down to the listeners. I loved their show. JJJ has a good voice and plays some good songs. Toby is an excellent guitar player; he is very melodic, without being too flash about it. I certainly want to catch them again.

So back to Sunday, and I played Cascadia Harmonics at 7 p.m., as usual. Reg, who is German, was at the gig so I sang a Rammstein song (Ohne Dich). I’m really getting into Rammstein. I also slotted in a timed 3 minute digital piano improvisation in a string quartet voicing. As usual, folks thought of it in terms of a horror movie sound track. I have stopped using my kitchen timer because the beeps are just too shrill. I now use my digital watch timer. When it goes off, I take one hand of the piano and hold the watch to the mic. I think that works quite well. Anyway, I think my arrangement of Geldorf’s Mondays song is coming on nicely now. I am very pleased with it

Ok. It is nearly midnight. I had better get to bed or something. Speak to you later.

Protractors, bottoms & onions

September 23, 2009

I am driving through the late September sunshine; it is morning and I’m feeling fine. I turn off the urban motorway into a small retail park and abandon the car at one of the neatly drawn parking bays of the garden centre. Striding swiftly into the store I press the right arrow of my mental keyboard to swerve the first life avatar to the right,  gliding smoothly to a holt in front of the packet seed rack. My eyes rotate in their sockets as I scan for over-winter cabbage. Damn, they have none. My research online last night indicated that you need to make sure you get seeds that are appropriate for autumnal sewing. I abort this plan and swivel to the left in order to inspect the bulbs that hang in perforated plastic baglets, full of promise for the spring of 2010. 

I throw some snow drops and irises into the basket. I am about to make a dive for the till when I notice some onions. I perform cognitive categorization gymnastics on the spot: onions :- VEGETABLES :- cabbage. This neat bridge is sufficient to salvage the recently  aborted plan. I smile, make purchases, and head for the car. I promise myself lunch as a Skinnerian reward for adaptive behaviour.

Brrrrmm….. Brrrrmmm…. Vroooom…. Vrooommm… Well, in my car perhaps it is putttt…. putttt… fizzzzle…. pottttterrrr…. Either way, I arrive at what was once Europe’s largest shopping mall (or so I am told), the Gateshead Metro Centre .

I head for the very lovely Marks & Spencer store and stock up on some essential items of clothing: 1pr black chord pants (trousers, to the English); 2 pr undershirts (vests, to the English); 3 pr boxers (saucily striped, to anyone); 1 shirt. Deep breathing enables me to avoid fainting at the checkout when I discover how much it all costs. It is fairly painless: the card is flashed; the pin number is button-pressed; the personal inventory is incremented by 7 items.

Pencil & watercolour 25.09.09

Pencil & watercolour 25.09.09

I settle at a table by the window in an Italian coffee shop and put my lunch tray down. Were I a food psychiatrist, I should say that my plate of quiche and chips was undoubtedly suffering from chronic depression. Indeed, I think the only way to liven them up would be to give them a sharp dose of ECT….. Munch…. munch…. chew…. chew…. I watch the world go by as I wash down the solids with a more than passable mug of Americano coffee. Bottoms, some huge and bulbous, others tightly petite, wobble and role past. I regret that I did not manage to sketch any bottoms in situ, as it were, but I have sketched for you a rather fabulous example of the species post-hoc. The woman appears to be leaning into a roadside telephone booth and from the look of it I would imagine she has stopped somewhere on a highway in the  States, possibly to order a pizza for her dinner. This is the first painting that I have done since I withdrew from the MA course and I am very pleased to have broken the watercolour duck, in this regard. My nephew is a surgeon who specialises in colorectal surgery; maybe I shall follow in his footsteps and specialise in bottom sketching.

 A young woman has her toddler in a baby chair at the next table and is feeding her spoonfuls of gorgeous goo, if the gurgling sounds of glee are anything to go by. I note that it is not only policemen that get younger every year; mothers do too.

Driving home I leave the contempation of mortality back at the mall, where it seems to belong, and mull over my early morning piano lesson. I played badly today. I think what happens is that I look at the sheet music and my eyes become glazed as I focus on some point in the middle distance about six feet beyond the piano. So I am not actually reading the music. What I play, is what I have imperfectly remembered from practice. Since I have not practiced in order to remember, this results in frequent breakdowns and stoppages as I struggle to find my place in the music. If this sounds dreadful to you, believe me it sounds (literally) much worse in my teacher’s parlour. I really must sort this out.

As I drawn nearer to the city I think about the preview of the MA Students exhibition I went to see last night at the university Design Department. It was good to meet up with some of my old friends, but I did not really fit in. The night was a night for celebration and a mature student who had withdrawn (well, quit – let us not beat about the bush) for rather vague personal reasons was no longer occupying the proper role for the occasion. I came away feeling very sad. It had seemed important to me that I go to this event, though; it would have been cowardly not to do so. It was the last thing I needed to do to provide myself with a sense of closure. While I was walking round the exhibits, I did try to talk to various people about my drawing and what I wanted to do in terms of making this blog into an illustrated journal but somehow this seemed to be of scant relevance to the university in general or this programme in particular, and my conversations were patchy. Folks were very kind to me, but my speech was somehow located in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the way back I compared it with the highly animated chat artists and sketching techniques I had had with my neighbour that morning: chalk and cheese.

Speaking of art and all that stuff, I bought a small protractor today. I would still like to learn a little more about calligraphy and one has to pay attention to the angle at which the strokes lean. Originally I needed to explore the families of calligraphic hands in terms of the title pages for my animation film. Who knows, that film might still get made one day.

I had intended to plant my bulbs this afternoon but I think I need to take a nap. Speak to you later.

Weeding the rose bed

September 22, 2009

StartWeed2It is a warm morning and I am in the garden, weeding a circular rose bed in the middle of the lawn. The sun is slanting in low; I contemplate putting on my straw panama but the bushes seem to be shading me once I get down into the dirt. Weeding can be a chore, unless you become at one with it in the here and now. I think about the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I read when I was a postgrad student in the 1970s, and also about a lovely little book called Zen Guitar which, regrettably, I seem to have lost. Today all is good; I have Zen weeding.

My new nextdoor neighbour’s father arrives in his builders truck and starts carrying in bags of cement and what-have-you. They are in the middle of a major renovation of the property and are not yet moved in. We pass the time of day and I fork out another weed. I am sitting on an upturned plastic storage box. I get up from time to time to take a swig of tea from the mug I have placed on the living room windowsill. I notice how stiff my leg joints feel as I move into the upright position. Gardening is a pleasant way to give the body a gentle workout.

ProgressWeed2My other neighbour, Bob, emerges from his house to go for the newspaper. He stops and we have one of our easy-going chats. He is an exceptionally good realistic artist, currently working mainly with acrylics. He takes my back into his studio and shows me some paintings of Venice that he has recently completed. They are awe-inspiring. He has already hung some of his work in galleries. He very generously explains some of his techniques to me, and I am totally fascinated. A couple of years ago, what he says would probably have been wasted on me. My studies on the MA course last year have changed all that. I could relate what he was saying to things both my life drawing tutor and the illustration tutor had said to me. I explained to him that I would like to incorporate more of my sketches into this blog, so it becomes more of an illustrated journal. I gave him my website address and I hope he has a look at it sometime. By the time we finished chatting I needed to go indoors and brew some coffee. I shall probably finish off the weeding of the rose bed this afternoon.

I have so much to do today. I am determined to look again at my piano boogie DVD and my piano lesson has been moved to tomorrow, Wednesday, this week. I want to try to think about what to take in to my teacher so I can get the most from the lesson. I have three exercises to practice for her, anyway. Then I need to make a decision as to whether to go to the preview opening of the MA students’ design show. A week ago, I could not have contemplated doing this; I think I was in the equivalent of mourning. Today I feel a lot stronger. I have started to put sketches into this blog and the chat with my neighbour has put me in a good frame of mind as far as my art is concerned. I shall mull this over. Maybe I will go. It would mean that I was on top of it all. And I would love to see some of the tutors again. It might be a case of taking a deep breath and standing tall. I’ll speak to you later.

Baseball cap

September 21, 2009

CapApart from hamburgers, one of the most enthusiastically welcomed imports to English culture from the States has to be the baseball cap; even I own one (see my pencil sketch). I am currently deciding whether or not to stowe my cap into the closet, along with my summer shorts. I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to wear the cap back to front, a practice so fondly embraced by the yoof of today. My cap, far from being a fashion statement, is functional: it keeps the summer sun off my eyes. As such I have begrudgingly allowed it to usurp my panama hat which is made of straw and has a delightful black band around the circumference. I don’t have time to sketch that right now, maybe tomorrow.


A DVD that I ordered last week arrived in the post today. It is all about how to play boogie and blues on the piano. I find this to be quite a difficult thing to do and I’m not very good at getting my right hand to do something different from what my left hand is doing. The DVD has been put together by Louis Vause and Seamus Beaghen and I think I am going to enjoy working through their exercises very much indeed. For example, today Louis was talking about this problem of the two hands and he suggested thinking about it as a multi-tasking problem. So, setting up a bass boogie pattern in the left hand, he challenged me to pick up a pencil from the top of the piano, move it a little way across, and put it down again. At first I just could not do it and keep the bass going at the same time. He gave a few other examples of things to try out before putting the right hand fingers anywhere near the keyboard. I can see this is going to be an entertaining challenge.

I have to have something to eat before I get ready for my internet show at The Vibe tonight. Oh, btw, thanks for your comment Coin (I approved it on the blog earlier this afternoon). I must get going now. Speak to you later


September 20, 2009

This afternoon I mowed the grass. It looks neat and slightly stripey now. In tidy mode, I brushed the clippings off the mower before I stowed it away. In England, the last average cut date tends to be sometime from the end of October through to mid-November; it won’t be the last time I mow this year.

Although motorised lawn mowing provides relatively light exercise compared to pushing the manual Ransome Sims & Jefferies mowers of yesteryear, it nevertheless succeeded in bringing me to a modest sweat. I therefore sat quietly in a chair on the green swathe to cool down. A red robin came to share my space, perching jauntily upon a nearby branch. The way it kept looking at me was tantamount to anthropomorphic flirting.

When I got up to go, my feathered friend flew off, presumably in search of wriggly worms and other delights for its dinner, and I set about collapsing the garden chair I had been sitting in. As I did, my somewhat unkempt holly bush grabbed my attention. I had been reminiscing, whilst mowing the lawn, about Christmas times way back when we first moved to our present house. I used to make and ice my own Xmas cake and also my own Xmas puddings; I used traditional English recipes. I always made a roast turkey Xmas dinner with all the trimmings (usually with home-made chestnut and mushroom soup to start with). I used to serve my Xmas pud at the end of the meal and even poured a ladle of warmed brandy over it, flaming with a match. On the top of the pud I always put a sprig of holly from the bush in the garden. Year after year I looked eagerly to see if there were any red berries on the bush, and repetitively I was disappointed. Eventually I researched the matter and discovered that there have to be male and female trees in close proximity, although not necessarily in the same garden, in order for berries to appear. I can only assume that somebody nearby has planted a complementarily gendered bush, since I beheld a profusion of berries on my tree. Some are already red, others still yellow but turning that way. I am so excited about this I might even be moved to make some Xmas puddings again this year (I stopped doing that because nobody else in my house likes either the puddings or the cake).

After such excitement, the only thing to do is lay down and take a nap. I’ll speak to you later.

Poor turn out for blindfold improv

September 18, 2009

BlindfoldYesterday I played a show at Terra Fyrmusica in Second Life. In the second half I did a timed 10 minute atonal improvisation on piano, as planned. I listened to a recording of it today. I find it almost impossible to pass comment on it in terms of quality. It is difficult to think of what to compare it with. One thing I did learn was that the sound levels need to be adjusted at the start for the maximum volume likely in the piece, since I have no hands free to mess with knobs and faders on the mixer which, in any case, is across the room from where I am playing.

The venue is small and only one person came to listen to me. I can’t worry about that, I need to get on with what I want to do with my music. If other folk don’t want to listen, that is up to them. I’m not playing tonight, so my next gig will be at Foxy Hollow on Saturday morning. This afternoon I did a quick pencil sketch of the blindfold I used for the improvisation (see above).

The big news today is that the repair man came, at last, and fixed our dryer. However, we have not tested it yet; I live in hope. Speak to you later.

Waiting for the repair man

September 17, 2009

I am waiting for the repair man to fix our dryer. He is late; I had hoped to snatch a nap before my show in SL tonight. I have prepared my songlist and I am planning on a 10 minute atonal improvisation on piano, blindfold. I would rather be fresh for that; if I am tired and blindfolded, I could drop off to sleep I suppose.

I have spent another day tidying up in my studio and also doing some housekeeping on computer. The new MA cohort will have been settling in this week and so I have tried to keep busy in order to keep my mind from dwelling on it. I have had moderate success with that strategy. This afternoon would have been a good time to do some autumnal clearing up in the garden. The sun is bright and it smells nice outside. I don’t always make the right decisions. Still, I have sorted out a lot of music leads and that is a job I have been meaning to do for a long time.

I also got my synthesizer up and put my nose into the manual for about an hour. I use it for a couple of songs in my internet shows but so far I been restricted to pre-set voicings, owning to a lack of deep understanding. The instrument is fairly complex. I need to study it further. I shall post this now and think about what to do about this repair man. It is nearly time to have something to eat. All I had for lunch was a few plums. Speak to you later.

Atonal experimental piano

September 16, 2009

It was good to meet up with my friends Richjack and Costello inworld the other day. Costello now looks pretty good and no longer has the stamp of newbie across her avatar.

I was also very touched when Toby got in touch with me inworld. I know he reads this blog, so I just want to say thank you for your encouragement regarding my music. What Toby said to me was that he liked the way I explored new things in my music and how, even when I do covers, I somehow do them in a novel way. Casting false modesty aside, I think that is true; I really do put a lot of thought into working out reasonably original arrangements for my covers. This sometimes means that I keep playing them over and over at all my shows and I thank my regular fans for putting up with that. An example right now would be my version of Sir Bob Geldorf’s Mondays song. I heard another singer play that song inworld last night, using a simple guitar strumming accompaniment. The singer was ok, but the song sounded like a pale imitation of the orignal Boomtown Rats number. I feel that deciding NOT to play this on guitar has been a good move for me. There is piano on the orginal track, of course, but I have not followed that. My approach has been to develop an arrangement that breathes as I sink into the meaning of the lyric (which is highly disturbing, btw). Incidentally, it was my friend Costello who suggested I learn Mondays.

I have been thinking about what Toby said to me, especially in context of my piano playing. I often go to listen to Kourosh at Natida Ridge on Saturdays. His concerts are timed early morning in Second Life but I experience them as mid-afternoon, listening in England. Most of his playing is semi-structured improvisation. He sometimes plays a synth together with piano (one in each hand, I guess). His music washes over you in waves of harmony, yet from time to time he will startle you discordantly. I very much admire his style and in fact he has a large following of regular fans who I see there each week. The atmosphere is chillax [you chill and relax]. The music is slightly spacey. I no longer smoke cigarettes of any shape or form, but I imagine that a little joint and a cup of tea would be very compatible with this style of music.

I can’t play like Kourosh. Of course this is partly a question of keyboard skill. After all, the guitar is my first instrument. However, I do not think that this is the whole story. A couple of years ago a professional violinist who is also a professor of music at our local university suggested that I spend some time each day (perhaps 10 minutes or whatever) playing piano blindfolded – not trying to remember set pieces, but improvising freely in whatever way I choose. I have a full size 88 key piano. He pointed out to me that the keyboard is really quite wide; he held both arms out to physically demonstrate the fact. Then he said to me (I can’t remember the exact words) “You bought all of that – the whole length, and not just a little bit in the middle. Make sure you use it.”

I have been tidying up my studio over the past couple of days. Now that I have withdrawn from the MA in Animation and Design, I need to reorganise my space and throw out a certain amount of stuff that I shall no longer be using. I have found a very good place for my paint brushes:) Anyway, the clear up has extended to my music books, papers and so forth. I was rummaging through my bureau yesterday and found the blindfold! This isn’t one of those flimsy freebies that you get on Virgin flights; I bought it at a travel shop and it is definitely a deluxe model. It is comfortable and really does shut out the light. It is impossible to peek downwards to see the piano keys once it is pulled over my eyes.

I set my kitchen timer for 10 minutes, blindfolded myself, and let my fingers wander over the keys. At first, nothing much happened. I mirrored what was going on in my left hand with what my right hand was doing but this was more of a technical effect than anything else. Gradually, however, I became lost in the music that I was creating. It became more emotional in nature. It most definitely was not like Kourosh’s improvisation. I think the sound I create is less comfortable, more edgy. I don’t think the fans at the Ridge on Saturdays would like the music that I produce when I do this. There would definitely not be the typical comments you get such as “Oh, this is so relaxing – beautiful” etc.

The question arises as to whether I should risk subjecting my audience to a 10 minute timer improv. I have done 3 minute improvs before, even at Cascadia Harmonics, but I’m pretty sure I did that in a string quartet voicing (it sounded a bit like the sound track of a horror movie). It was done more as a novelty or musical joke, back then. If I do this again I shall do it in a piano voicing. It will have to be at my cosy little  venue, Terra Fyrmusica. The problem is that I have tiny audiences at my concerts when I play there. I have a show scheduled on my list for 11 am SLT (7 pm English Time) on Thursday 17th, tomorrow.

I could put in a 10 minute timed improvisation slot part way through the keyboard half of my show. It is just one of those things I have to do. If some listeners don’t like it, that is fair enough: they will just teleport out of the venue. And, of course, I shall not make a cover charge for the show. There has been a lot of debate and controversy about all that in SLMC lately but I’m not going to get into that here.

I must commit myself. I shall put the Terra Fyrmusica event in Search and make a statement about the planned keyboard improvisation in the blurb. I see it as atonal experimental piano, I would not call it jazz. Ok, I shall sort that out. Speak to you later.