Catching Up, Part 1. Cornbury

On the whole, Cornbury had more good than bad. The organisers can't be blamed for persistent rain and unseasonably low temperatures, or the fact that Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron keep turning up. We saw enough good music (clearly we wouldn't have bought tickets if we'd thought this would be otherwise), there were no massive queues for anything, and the sanitation was as hygienic as could be expected*. However, I had three bugbears (hmmm, this makes me sound like some weird version of Goldilocks).

1) Beer. I know that it must be tricky gauging the level of demand for real ale at an event, and it's not like lager, you can't just chuck the unused stuff back on a lorry and sell it somewhere else, so there is a potential loss. But when you've run out of draught beer by Saturday afternoon, and the bottled replacement by Sunday lunchtime, you've screwed up. Especially when you employ loads of nineteen year old barstaff who appear to think that wanting proper beer is a weird affectation.

Note to organisers: You've got a folk stage and Morris Men by the dozen, for crying out loud, how did you imagine Hobgoblin was going to be a hard sell?

ii) Changes of Scheduling. We timed our Saturday arrival to catch The Beat at 1 o'clock, and had actually checked on the website before leaving; so what we didn't want to hear as we entered the grounds at half past twelve, still a mile away from the stage, was the distant strains of Hands Off She's Mine. As it turned out we got there for the second half of their set, and an impromptu encore which lasted nearly as long as the main body - I think someone was trying to correct for the early start there - then bought a programme which had them down as being on stage at 12:30.

Note to organisers: So knowing the time had changed weeks ago, you amended the printed programme - available only after punters had got inside the arena - but not the website (available to absolutely everybody, including those who were checking on Saturday morning. WTF?

iii) Umbrellas. Not to mention chairs, picnic baskets, coolboxes and tents. Tents! Cornbury has a particular village fete-like atmosphere which can be charming if you're patronising the marquee where the local school sell tea and home-made cake. However, there is a downside to the innocent "we don't normally go to gigs" vibe, mainly the people who set up something resembling Everest base camp ten feet from the main stage, thus taking up the space of fourteen people for the two of them, and appear bemused by the crowds gathering menacingly in their vicinity. You have a choice, set up your picnic area at a reasonable distance, or be prepared to stand.

And if you've come prepared like we had, i.e. wearing waterproofs and walking boots, and with the expectation that "Yes it's an English summer, it might rain", there is nothing more infuriating than the people who have thought "Well why on earth would I need waterproof clothing, I have an enormous umbrella bearing the name of my stockbroker", and use it to obscure the view of anyone standing behind them.

Note to organisers: The bad weather brought idiots out of the woodwork. This year there seemed to be a lot of people who were taken aback by the rain because it meant they got wet, and who would have preferred to be allowed to drive their Land Rover up to the stage and watch through the windscreen. Of course, if they'd been told they were allowed to do that, they'd then have tried to bend the rules by bringing a caravan as well; and been offended to be told that was breaking the rules, even though obviously they needed that caravan to make a proper cup of tea, actually.

*I've just remembered that at one point I found myself standing next to a Morris Man (one of the sinister Sith ones) in the gents, and, as he finished his business with a good shake, thinking to myself "So that's why they call it going for a tinkle".
  • Current Mood
    cranky cranky

Cornbury, in brief and longer

Thoughts, long and short, after attending Cornbury 2008

*It was wet. It wasn't Glastonbury 2005, or the Somme, so I'm not claiming to have suffered life-changing hardship, but it was terribly wet, and unpleasantly muddy. We left early on Sunday because we'd had freezing water thrown at us for six or seven hours, and KT Tunstall was singing. If the promoters did that at Guantanamo (Not Quite Torturebury? Unconstitutionfest?), they'd be in front of a war crimes tribunal, so we didn't feel we had to justify leaving early.

*We hadn't previously noticed, before driving past it, that the nearest station is Finstock. Isn't that a better Festival Name? I know Cornbury sounds a bit like Glastonbury, but Finstock? Come on, boffins! (Even if it's a one platform station on the worst line in Britain, and you wouldn't actually want to depend on it to transport more than half a dozen people to and from the festival on any given day).

*Top three bands:
i) The Beat - first act on the first day on the second stage and it made most of the rest of the weekend feel like the headline had already happened; I know they caught about the only proper sun of the weekend, so it may seem unnaturally sunny in the memory, but I have to say that's some poor scheduling (subsidiary major grump to follow)
ii) Lightnin' Willie & the Poorboys - looked like Kinky Friedman, played guitar like Santana, sang like Johnny Cash and had the best line from on stage all weekend (again, see below)
iii) Salsa Celtica - normally, advocating that a band which includes a banjo, bagpipes, accordion, tin whistle, upright bass and fiddle should also have a Spanish-speaking, gourd-beating, lead singer and play the rhythms of Latin America ought to be like the worst excesses of fusion food, just with music. However, like fusion food, in the hands of the right people it works.

*Best three lines from on stage
i) Lightnin' Willie (in the world's broadest Texas accent): It's nice to be playing Cornbury. As you may have guessed, I'm not from round here. I'm from Didcot.
ii) Graham Gouldman (during 10cc's set): Sorry about the rain, I'm from Manchester, so I know how you feel. Mind you, I'm actually quite dry up here, so fuck you.
iii) 13-year old Judy Luxmoore on the Riverside stage: If you'd like to hear my CD, please give me ten pounds after the set. As soon as I've recorded it, I'll let you have a copy.

This may only be Part I. I still need to vent about umbrellas, scheduling changes, and beer stocks.
  • Current Music
    Bill Bailey: Insect Nation

Perfect Preparation Means Bugger All

Ah, the joy of organising cricket matches. Two years ago, the groundsman rang me up to tell me the ground had lost its drinks licence a week before my 40th birthday game - no problem. This week? I get a phone call to tell me that the caterers have been involved in a car crash at the weekend and have baled out, five days before the match. In the circumstances it would be churlish, nay, somewhat unfeeling, to criticise them for lying around the John Radcliffe instead of cooking my food on Saturday just because the chef has a broken leg. Instead I have, surprisingly easily, found an alternative caterer at short notice, and one who clearly didn't detect the notes of panic in the enquiry, and quote us double the usual rate.

There are times when I wonder why I bother laying my plans a year in advance, as it seems that as long as you have the nerve, you can leave it all till literally a week before the event and save yourself all the work and worry.


Though I hope the person with the broken leg feels better soon. Which I must admit I didn't on Monday morning.
  • Current Music
    Warren Zevon: Renegade

"Cut and Paste"

And so Doctor Raj Persaud is brought to book for what he has described as a "cut and paste" error, compounded by his "inability" to "use" quotation marks "correctly".

Again, the ability of an aparently intelligent man to fail to see the flaw in his cunning plans is mystifying. Did he think to himself "I'll never be found out: the only way that could happen is for all these newspaper articles and other writings to be seen by the people who originally wrote them. And what are the chances of that?"

When my student self was required to produce original work, the internet hadn't been invented enough, so we had to plagiarise the old-fashioned way. Given that the result of the Peloponnesian War hadn't changed, nor any of the major events, the topics for essays tended not to vary much from year to year. So if you didn't have time to read the relevant books and articles (and produce your precised version of what you read there) you found a sympathetic person from the year above, bought him a pint, and copied his essay.

Not word for word, obviously (and you also checked what he'd written, in case he claimed that the first reports of the disastrous Athenian expedition to Syracuse had been broken exclusively on Sky News) but what you ended up with, even with your own flourishes added, was essentially the same essay. A year later, it might happen that a younger classicist of your acquaintance would tap you on the shoulder, offer you a pint, and that essay would be revived for another outing in different clothes.

As it happened, one of my tutors was considered to be possibly the foremost expert in the field of textual transmission: looking across the 20 or 25 centuries since they were written, he had traced the manuscripts which had brought us the accepted version of all the ancient works we were reading, even in his own tutorials. For most of that time, these works survived in monasteries, when few people could write, and the only way to copy a text was to write it out by hand (presumably Raj Persaud would have blamed a "scriptorial error" when his version of the Odyssey seemed very similar to Homer's). I like to think that he amused himself tracing the history of one or two of my essays even while I was reading them, spotting the common bits of text which betrayed its roots.

Fortunately my tutor was not only a scholar but a true gentleman, and if he noted the similarity of my essay to the works of others, living or dead, he never mentioned it. Raj Persaud must be wishing the internet would do the same.
  • Current Music
    Radio 4

Travelling Hopefully

If my French was better (which I suppose it could be - it's not as if it's frozen at its current level and I couldn't learn a few more of the words I don't already know, such as "monkey-wrench" or "rewritable DVD", if I needed to), I could see myself living there quite happily. In these days of the internet (or le internet, as they say in France - see how easy it is?), I could still access Radio 4, and most other things I couldn't live without. And I think it might suit me. They simply don't care about stuff.

My most recent visit was to attend a wedding near Toulouse, and it gave me ample time to reflect on the nature of France. For a start, as we were boarding the train, we quite literally heard whispers about a national strike from other passengers; to start with, I felt pleased at dragging up the correct French word from my memory (I am old enough to remember that the phrase "grève totale" featured in the opening titles of World In Action, in the 70s at least - the French going on strike is hardly a modern phenomemon). Our bonhomie continued, unsurprisingly, while we were bombarded with complimentary champagne and other treats; however, once we'd moved into the relaxed post-prandial mode, we thought it worth asking the train staff about our chances of catching an onward connection from Paris to Toulouse. It was probably fortunate that we asked the question after a good dinner and two bottles of wine each, because the answer was that Paris welcomed the English milords, so much so that they wouldn't be seeing Toulouse, or, for that matter, any other city but Paris that night, as there were no inter-city trains running because of la grève.

We were philosophical. And this is where I think the choice of train over plane, and the upgrade to first class, was justified; I suspect that if I'd had to queue for hours to get through airline security, having had to get to Stansted or Luton first, eaten a ham sandwich for dinner, fought for my baggage, and realised I was still thirty miles from the city after which my airport was named (memo to the owners, I know you're Spanish and not from Bedfordshire, but you can't just call an airport London-Luton - it's in Luton, and therefore not in London - the name itself is a giveaway) the news that half of France was on strike would have upset me. As it was, I had taken a direct route into the centre of London, I had been given food and drink (possibly even to excess), my Luggage was safely behind my seat, and I was now in the centre of Paris. What did I have to complain about?

Over our starter, we had agreed how admirable it was that the French were not stultified by modern representative democracy - if they thought they were being shafted, they needed no second invitation to take to the streets and let their government know about it. It would have been churlish to complain about that independence of spirit two hours later, even though it meant we were standing at the enquiries office at Gare du Nord looking for answers to important questions.

We had three, more or less:

1) Can we get replacement tickets to travel to Toulouse tomorrow morning?
Yes. (Fair play to SNCF, we were given first class tickets on the 0810 TGV without any argument).

2) As we'll be leaving from Gare Montparnasse, can you recommend a suitable hotel?
No. All Parisian hotels are of a high standard and comparisons would be invidious, you so-called Arthur King. Find one yourself.

3) Will you be paying for this hotel, having cancelled our overnight train?
No! Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time. (Actually, he gave me a piece of paper on which to submit my comments to SNCF, though as we walked away, I think I heard the words "I told him we already got one").

The sensible thing seemed to be to find an hotel as close as possible to Montparnasse station; worryingly, the first two we tried were full, though I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise, as presumably everyone else who had been planning to be on our train was also in need of a bed until the morning. There was, however, one room left in the appropriate Timhotel, while a nearby bar provided a pleasant enough way to spend an evening definitely not going south.

The bar was mostly populated by men, puting the world to rights; and a dog, which recognised my accent and bit my leg. We loitered at the counter while the patron added up our bill in leisurely fashion, and conversed about politics: they told us how awful Sarko was; we responded by throwing up our hands in Gallic style to indicate the utter futility of Gordon Brown. In this way the entente cordiale was satisfied by mutual grumbling about political leaders, and we slept soundly.
  • Current Music
    Stuff played by Marc Riley

There and Back Again

On a global scale I didn't go away that long (4 days) or travel that far (1800 miles), but I certainly feel as if I have returned from a decent adventure.

Things whose reputation has been enhanced in my eyes: the Eurostar, the TGV (in fact, just rail travel in general) the vast majority of Parisians and Toulousains, French cuisine (with special reference to the glory that is confit duck) and Munster rugby.

Also Radio 4 (especially given that Test Match Special was on the air), proper tea (actually more to do with proper milk), and the Times crossword, because I had access to none of them and realised how much I couldn't live without more or less daily access to such things. Hmmm. For a man who spent a good part of the weekend wearing a provocative red rugby shirt, that makes me sound rather too much like John Major.

Things which have not impressed me: French trade unions, the selfish bastards. And small French dogs who bite you when the bastard French unions have compelled you to spend an unscheduled night in Montparnasse. That's about it, actually. I seem to be channelling John Major again, which is not really me, oh no.

Last week I went to the wedding of a college friend (to take place in the vicinity of Toulouse, which is unusual for men from Bolton), and another friend agreed with me that for men unrestricted by wives, children or time constraints, first class overnight rail was the only civilised option; I think I'd been reading Jerome K Jerome, and couldn't help feeling that it was the option he would have chosen. In time I may write a little more about trains, or just start planning the next journey instead.
  • Current Music

The Archers? Indian.

I am an inveterate capturer of BBC radio output, so that, having filled up my media player, I can be my own Programme Controller; and while I generally choose to listen to music on the way to and from work, I like to be able to spend my lunch hour immersed in drama and comedy. While I can't escape the work environment physically, I can at least do so internally, simply by putting in my headphones and daring anybody to disturb me.

This week I have been listening to The Nightrunners of Bengal, in turn part of a larger dramatisation of four novels by John Masters, which formed a Classic Serial in eighteen parts (back in the days when the idea of a Radio 4 Classic Serial that only ran for two weeks would have been considered too puny to deserve the name).

I have enjoyed it, but only after getting used to the cognitive dissonance caused by the main character, a British officer, being played by Oliver Sterling Michael Cochrane, the plucky English lady, with whom he falls in love, by Lynda Snell Carole Boyd, and the sultry, mysterious Rani of Kishanpur by Usha Gupta Souad Faress.

Mind you, it did leave me waiting for Captain Savage's faithful jemhadar to come upon him with the words "Grettings, sahib, me old pal, me old beauty" before saying he was unfit for service because of his farmer's lung.
  • Current Music
    Radio 4

Cracking the Code

I was sorry to see that Bletchley Park is in trouble. One of the manifold fun things I've been doing in recent real life, and not writing about, was going there for a day out. Last month, after we'd come back from Paris, we had one more day of holiday, and might well have spent it loafing around the house, and doing nothing much in particular, if we hadn't been listening to Radio 4; but when The Reunion happened to have brought together a group of codebreakers who'd helped win the war, and then not mentioned it for thirty years, we listened to their reminiscences, had breakfast, and drove in the direction of Milton Keynes to look at their huts.

We did remark at the time that it felt like the sort of place which was clearly run with an enormous amount of enthusiasm and knowledge, but probably not very much money. Hopefully a larger institution (The National Trust? The Imperial War Museum? I don't know enough about museum funding to guess what might be a reasonable scenario...) will be able to absorb the site, or a benefactor will emerge with enough cash to keep it viable for a bit longer.

The trouble is that the wonder of Bletchley lies in the ideas that were conceived there, and the people who thought of them. There are, of course, real Enigma machines (including the one which was stolen and returned to Jeremy Paxman) and reconstructions of the bombes, and the rebuilt Colossus (no doubt everyone spots that the technician who monitors Colossus has a laptop, almost certainly with more processing capacity, and not taking up an entire room to do it - I suspect this is done deliberately), and these are all worth seeing; but it's the brilliance of the minds behind Bletchley which is the really impressive thing about what happened there, and the fact that you're right on the spot gives an insight into the circumstances in which they had to work. Unfortunately, I bet that sort of thing is quite fascinating enough for old men like me, but it must be a difficult sell to young people who like their 21st century museums to be interactive and shiny; and who are of a generation where even their grandparents aren't old enough to remember the war.

Personally, I liked being able to walk amongst the actual buildings where it all happened, with white_hart, who had even dressed up in appropriate period style, and feel what day-to-day life in Station X in 1942 might have been like; so I'm extra glad I did it before economics dictates that the artefacts end up in an American university, and the house is sold to be an outpost of some multinational conglomerate. Fingers crossed.
  • Current Mood
    calm calm

Captain, oh my Captain

Two months to go till the cricket tour / college reunion, so I sent out the important e-mail (the one which points out that saying yes-what-a-good-idea-I'd-love-to-come is no longer enough, and to prove it, here are the details of the bank account I have set up to collect everyone's contributions)...

This is the point at which I have to remember to steer a middle course: not to get too excited by the fact that people have confirmed they're definitely coming from, say, Dubai and Singapore, and have planned their summer trip home around this weekend; and not to get too depressed when someone turns out to have been offered a new job starting next month in San Francisco and thus definitely can't make it. Most of all, I need to remember not to worry unduly because the majority (who don't live anything like as far away) haven't yet responded at all either way, and hope that this means they're coming and don't think it needs saying, rather than backing away now that they've been asked to make a commitment. I just need to remember that for the most part it's just in their nature to be forgetful, incompetent, procrastinating bastards, and they are not doing it to spite me.

The one person who has pissed me off is the cricketer who now tells me he can't make it because he's being somebody's best man, and has decided that the only weekend for the stag do is the one I first put forward for this event nearly a year ago. If it was just him, fair enough, but he's also taking three or four others from his team away with him, which feels like actual sabotage.

Being a captain at this level is not about being Michael Vaughan, who needs to have the respect of his peers for his own abilities, a gift for strategy in the field, and a winning way with the media and public. No, because Michael Vaughan has never been told by Kevin Pietersen that he can't play in the First Test because he forgot to put the date on the calendar and his wife's booked them a city break in Vienna that weekend. Ryan Sidebottom seems to be a nice bloke, but I reckon if his brother-in-law said he needed a hand moving house during the South Africa series, Ryan wouldn't say "Sure, I'll give Vaughany a ring and tell him I can't play till the one-dayers," he'd say "Sorry, I've been booked for something else for ten months," which is exactly what doesn't happen at the base of the cricketing pyramid.

I am now thinking of the man who was so organised he was able to tell me a year ago that he wouldn't be able to make it, and wished me luck with what he described as "herding the cats". He used to be a cricket captain as well.
  • Current Music
    Messiah, Let us break their bonds asunder