Sunday, February 08, 2015

Trains, Plays and Auto-Awesomes

This week I've spent more time in London than I have working. I feel as if I've gone through the motions of commuting without the unpleasant business of actually having to do a job.

This morning, I found myself here:

Google's 'Auto-Awesome' feature is continuing to randomly mess around with my smartphone camera photos, but I'm not complaining. The black and white version above is far better than the original below.

Perhaps there's a feature that automatically mutes the garish colours of hi vis jackets.

I'd arranged to meet up with two friends whom I've known since I was 11. They were running late, so I popped into St Paul's and killed time by sitting in the Whispering Gallery. Stupidly, I'd forgotten how it had earned its name and wondered why I was hearing strange voices emanating from the bare walls.

Fortunately, the voices were only telling me to wave if I could hear them.

After a stroll around some monuments to forgotten 18th century heroes, I met my friends.

We have all gone off in very different directions during the last few decades, but there is an ease that comes with old friendships, perhaps because we know the child within the adult.

Today, we recalled our first trip to London and my near-demise at the hands of Duran Duran, who were speeding through the back streets of Knightsbridge and narrowly missed knocking me off my bicycle.

Would my death have been a price worth paying to stop hits like The Reflex seeing the light of day?

We talked about the career choices we'd made. One friend worked as a software developer and had watched three alpha male colleagues become absurdly wealthy and successful in their early 30s, only to pay the price for it ten years on, with broken marriages and heart attacks. All three were now dead.

Next time I'm sorting through a tonne of books in a freezing cold warehouse, I shall congratulate myself for not jeopardizing my health with a successful career.

After saying our goodbyes, I walked to the station platform and waited to board my train. Next to me, a small, dumpy woman in her late 60s was fussing with her husband's coat collar, as if he was a little boy. The train doors opened and we walked towards the one vacant table.

The wife pointed to some empty coffee cups: "You can clear those up before we sit down." The husband meekly obliged without saying a word. They then sat in silence until the tannoy announced that we were in coach number five of twelve. 'Ooh, "coach number five of twelve"', she imitated, in a sarcastic voice.

The husband asked his wife what she had said. "I'm not saying it again!" she snapped.

I looked at the husband. He had the air of a broken man and I was slightly disturbed to see the faint traces of a black eye. Almost as if she could read my mind, the wife blandly announced "As you sow, so shall you reap."

The husband remained still and silent.

Another passenger that caught my eye was this individual:

I didn't manage to get more than a blurred snapshot, but you get the general idea. I'm used to mad hair but the facemask, with its metal shield over the nose, was a little disturbing. Perhaps they had allergies.

However, the most offensive person was a young businessman, two days ago, who was talking loudly on his phone so that we could all hear how dynamic he was: "Yup, yup, I'm gonna be smashing into it over the next few days..."

'Smashing into' was a new one on me, but it falls into the same league as actioning and escalating. It's part of a growing trend in which people try to claim kudos for what they intend to do as a means of distracting attention from what they haven't achieved so far. The crude, macho metaphor was clearly meant to impress.

The call ended and the man dialled a new number: "Yeah, behind Sainsburys...okay...turn left...yep..." There was a paused and he sighed theatrically. "Look, I don't want options" he said, aggressively. Okay? Just tell me where I should go."

I could hear a woman's voice on the other end of the end. I wanted to take the phone and say "Don't do it. He's a complete plonker."

We were on our way back from seeing 'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre:

It was a competent production, but the real star of the show was the amazing set and beautiful lighting (by the wonderfully-named Bruno Poet).

Out of the circle below, a three-storey cross-section of a sailing ship emerged, with people sitting in fully-furnished rooms. It was quite stunning:

I'm more aware of the sets these days, as my father-in-law was a lighting designer and we always used to feel grateful when a critic noticed his work in a review.

His lighting plans for operas were incredibly complex, like a schematic for the Hadron Collider, but he was an artist by training and used his switchboard like an painter's palette. The results were stunning, but I wonder how many people noticed his work. 

I suppose we all see different things. I was particularly moved by a beautiful sea shanty at the end of 'Treasure Island', arranged by John Tams. My wife could barely remember it, but my younger son had noticed, as he's not a big fan of musical theatre.

Six weeks earlier, we went to see a friend's daughter in a production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had promised my son that it wasn't a musical, but there was rather more singing than we expected.

Afterwards, I asked my son what he thought:

"It was good apart from the music. The poster should have said:  

Warning. May contain traces of songs."


Helena said...

So many interesting things in this post! I love the thought of your potential sacrifice for the benefit of music lovers (but am glad you didn't succumb). That bullying woman who doesn't even bother to pretend in public these days, or maybe she's even worse in private? Does anyone sound reasonable in one side of a phone conversation which one is forced to listen to? And thank goodness none of those whisperers said "jump"...

I sympathise with your son. There are certain styles of music I don't like at all, and a warning along the lines he suggests could come in useful, amended according to preference.

Kid said...

I used to visit London every week on business, so enjoyed seeing your photos of the place. Funnily enough, I was looking at photos I'd taken in St. Pauls back in December of '87. One day, you must gather together some of your interesting writings and publish them in a book. I'll be your first customer.

Brian Busby said...

I will be he second, Kid.

Brian Busby said...

(Apologies for the typo. I've been struggling with a phantom cursor. Didn't even know such a thing existed until last week. I wish it on no one. )

George said...

About a year and a quarter ago, I tripped while running, and got an impressive black eye. A neighbor, who knows us well, and knows that my wife's best punch might not bruise a peach, kindly informed me that there is hotline in which one may anonymously report spousal abuse. Most men do seem to marry women who are smaller than they are, both in height and in lean body mass; so perhaps the meek fellow inflicted his own black eye, as I did, with clumsiness.

Steerforth said...

Helena - You're so right about phone conversations in public. Someone phoned me from Royal Mail's Business Account 'team' while I was on the train (nobody ever calls me usually) and I had to try and sound like a grown-up, but I could almost hear the other passengers, sorry, customers thinking how ghastly I was.

Kid - That's very kind of you. I'm just grateful that you read the blog entries and wouldn't dare to presume that anyone would want to read a book.

Brian - Thank you. According to an article about self-publishing in today's Sunday Times, if a self-published book can sell over 3,000 downloads on Amazon, a publishing deal awaits. However, if I really want to "shift some units" as they like to say, I'll have to introduce either some bondage (not a la Maugham), a Jesuit conspiracy or a divorced, alcoholic Scandinavian detective.

George - I considered many possibilities as I scrutinised the couple. I agree, it's unlikely that she gave him a black eye. Apart from anything, she would have needed a stepladder to reach her target. She was very small indeed.

George said...

If you want to work a Jesuit conspiracy in to your book, I commend to you as starting point a building I noticed on Carondelet Street in New Orleans: AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM carved in the pediment, but beneath that stained glass proclaiming the building a Scottish Rite Temple. Jesuits and Masons, what more could you want? I have a picture at

Steerforth said...

George - Thanks for the link. That's an intriguing building and New Orleans would be the perfect starting point for a Masonic/Jesuit conspiracy. Sadly, I've never visited the city, but Google Earth and some superficial research on Wikipedia will suffice.

Josh in Japan said...

I once had a film instructor on a short course who said something like 'sound is the cinderella factor'. I can't quite remember what the connection with Cinderella was but what he meant was that though you may not notice the sound it can make or break a film. I imagine the same could be said for lighting and even that not noticing it may even be a compliment.

I'm going to barge on in and add that one of the newspeak words that bugs me (apart from the widely derided 'going forward') is 'incetivise' - what the hell is wrong with encourage?

Canadian Chickadee said...

Amazing how things turn out, isn't it? The boy I was madly in love with at 16, dumped me unceremoniously before the biggest dance of the school year. Best thing that ever happened to me.

The man I met and married after university has treated me as if I were a queen, and shared his love and delight of his English family with me for many years. They were and are great, and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. In fact, I can't wait to get back to England so that I can see them again.

Rog said...

I know the effects can look good but I hated the smart Alec cockiness of auto awesome and even more hated the name auto awesome - so I switched it off. It is an option! (Don't give me options)

Steerforth said...

Josh - Yes, the music is also overlooked. I once wrote some incidental music for a couple of plays and was quite pleased with it. When the broadsheets published their reviews, I hopefully scanned them for phrases like "the incidental music was particularly impressive..." Naturally it was ignored. I suppose that was better than a negative review.

But where would Planet of the Apes be without Jerry Goldsmith's haunting music, or Vertigo, with Bernard Hermann's wonderful score?

As for incentivise it's awful because it's a stick pretending to be a carrot.

Carol - If only we knew then how those setbacks would turn out to be one of the best pieces of luck we'd ever had. At the time, it just feels as if the world has ended. When my first date didn't want to see me again, I felt awful. I wrote about it here:

Rog - Anything with 'Awesome' annoys me, but I also like the surprise of seeing odd things happen to my pictures.

In addition to 'awesome', I'm also becoming increasingly annoyed by the tendency for young staff to address my wife and I as "you guys", as if we're in an episode of Friends,. Last week, I finally lost it and grumpily told someone that I wasn't a guy. Unfortunately, I think they took it to mean that I was some sort of transgender person.

Annabel said...

I've not seen Treasure Island (I'd have loved to hear the John Tams sea shanty though - have an album by his band Home Service somewhere). I love the things that they can do with the Olivier revolving stage at the National. Alan Bennett's Wind in the Willows used it rather well I remember...

Canadian Chickadee said...

I know what you mean about "you guys." Another thing which I always find rather annoying is being addressed simply as "Carol." Yes, it's my name, but the clerk doesn't know me so it just sounds too cosy for words.

As proof that the clerk doesn't know me, I offer the following: I returned an item to the store, which I'd paid for with a credit card which has my name on it. There was some problem with the scanning of the hang tag, and my receipt, so it took longer than usual. I finally got my return sorted, and the clerk said, "Thank you, Carol."

I went back into the store where I picked up another item, and returned to the front to pay for it. I was waited on by the same clerk who took the troublesome return. She smiled brightly and said, "How are you today?"

She obviously hadn't the slightest idea that she'd ever seen me before, even though she'd spent at least five minutes getting the computer till problems sorted out less than fifteen minutes earlier.

Now that's what I call a close friend!

Steerforth said...

Carol - I find it quite creepy when people use one's name and for a cashier to use your first name is disrespectful. I don't think I'm being stuffy, but the whole point of using first names and terms like "you guys" is that they are a gesture of friendship. If businesses think they can appropriate this language to try and make us feel better about them and buy more, they're barking up the wrong tree. I hope.

Rog said...

I'm SO with you on the guys thing! I really recoil when it gets used to me and the wife. And while we're at it, also the boxed

Rog said...

Boxes which say Got It!

Chris Matarazzo said...

While reading this piece was made worth it by virtue of my having been introduced to the word "plonker," I also think your point about lighting in theater is an interesting one. It really is an underrated art. When I used to do musical direction for high school plays, we were fortunate enough to have help from an alumnus who was a professional lighting man and he and I used to spend late nights working (I on musical details and he on programming the lights) and I was always surprised by the meticulousness of his work. In the end, his lighting elevated the shows from what they really were into something bordering on professional. (At any rate, they mitigated some of the self-conscious teenaged "acting.")

Steerforth said...

Rog - I received a confirmation email from Boden once that said something along the lines of "Yay! Thanks for your order. We're doing a little dance of joy." Either they were being sarcastic or horribly insincere (it probably serves me right for ordering from Boden, but their children's coats are the best of a bad lot).

Chris - I'm glad you're now familiar with plonker/. It was a polite alternative to a word I wanted to use. I don't think I've ever used it before because it's very local to London and is a good 20 years out of date.

Some words don't travel. I'm ashamed to say that until last week, I thought that the Superbowl involved skittles. We live and learn.

Steerforth said...

Sorry about the typo above. It's not Plonkerl - he's a cartoon character from communist Czechoslovakia.

Dale said...

Steerforth, on the other hand, some brutal honesty from suppliers also has its awkward moments.

I know a bookseller who once received a delivery note from a publisher, with his order, that read "I'm freezing my tits off in this xxxx warehouse."
It wasn't anonymous, either.

Maybe we can find a happy medium. "Thank you for your order", though bland, seems to cover the bases.