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Image from Wikimedia Commons by http://www.flickr.com/people/theeerin/It did not occur to me for a single second that – when during the composition of my last post, (touching as it did upon the subject of my new bicycle) I described the Sturmey Archer three-speed rear hub with which the cycle that I was given in 1965 as ‘prehistoric’ – said engineering marvel might actually still be in production!

Discovering from the InterWebNet that this is indeed the case I was rendered what can only be described as ‘gob-smacked’!

Sturmey Archer was apparently established in Nottingham in the UK in 1902 as a division of Raleigh Cycles and production of their most ubiquitous model – the AW three-speed hub gear – commenced in 1936. For an extended period virtually every three-speed bicycle sold in the UK was fitted with a Sturmey Archer hub gear.

The company got into financial trouble towards the end of the last century and by 2000 was on the verge of bankruptcy. Following a period during which it appeared that the company would disappear without trace the entire assets were eventually sold to a Taiwanese company called SunRace, who moved the whole operation lock, stock and barrel to Taiwan.

Despite discovering that much of the machine tooling was obsolete SunRace persevered with production of the hub gears – and as of 2016 the famous three-speed AW model (amongst many others) was still in production.

Now – whereas I cannot for the life of me imagine what I am going to do with at least two thirds of the twenty four gears that I have on my new machine, I am mighty glad that I don’t still have to cope with the old three-speed hub gear.

But then – I am an old codger these days!

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidIt was with great sadness that we heard the news over the weekend of the passing of that wonderful British actor – Tim Pigott-Smith.

Still performing on the stage in his seventieth year, Tim Pigott-Smith was amongst the very best of his generation of thespians and was duly awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year Honours for his services to drama. His career encompassed film, TV and stage – with wide screen appearances in films such as ‘The Remains of the Day’, ‘V for Vendetta‘, ‘Clash of the Titans‘ and ‘Quantum of Solace‘, and starring stage roles in (amongst many others) ‘King Lear‘, ‘King Charles III‘, ‘Enron‘ and ‘A Delicate Balance‘.

It was a TV role, however, that was to make him a household name; the part of police superintendent Ronald Merrick in ITV’s 1984 adaption – under the title ‘The Jewel in the Crown‘ – of Paul Scott’s epic quartet of Raj novels. Pigott-Smith deservedly won a BAFTA award for his portrayal of this complex and flawed character, standing out even amongst the glittering array of talent that had been attracted to this vast and ambitious project.

I was certainly far from alone in declaring in 1984 that this be the finest television drama that had yet been made; beautiful filmed and acted, thoughtful adapted and deeply thought provoking to view, complex, stirring and heart-breakingly moving. This was television drama as the highest possible art form. In the three decades since the series’ first showing I have still seen nothing to compare with it.

We were fortunate enough to have met Tim Pigott-Smith on a number of occasions through friends of ours. For once the old adage that one should never meet one’s heroes seemed simply not to apply in his case. He was a complete gentleman, generous with his time and attentions and an excellent conversationalist. There is no question that he will be greatly missed.

I think that it is perhaps time to re-watch “The Jewel in the Crown“…

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Image by MykReeve on Wikimedia CommonsThe weekend just passed saw the occasion of the one hundred and sixty third University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge on the Tideway in London. Long having been a follower of the event (at which for entirely spurious reasons I always cheer for Oxford) this year’s late start – determined naturally by the tides – meant that I was able to watch the BBC coverage of the race live from the other side of the world. It was a good tight race which Oxford deservedly won, but they were pushed all the way by the heavier Cambridge crew.

I must confess to a twinge of nostalgia whilst viewing the race. The school by which I was employed immediately prior to retirement lies on the banks of the Thames on the Surrey side of the boat race course. Reference thereto is made habitually during the BBC race commentary, particularly in years in which some alumnus of the establishment is himself taking part in the contest.

The TV coverage this time around afforded a fleeting glance of the ongoing building works at the School, showing it already to have been transformed from the place that I knew to somewhere considerably more remote. Such things are – of course – ever thus…

The best way to watch the Boat Race – by the by – is probably by staying at home and following the TV coverage. An event that takes place at reasonably high speed over a four mile course gives little opportunity for involvement on the part of the spectators who are actually present – and unless they have had the foresight to have provided themselves with some means of following the commentary (by radio or on the InterWebNet) they stand little chance of knowing what transpires whilst the competitors are out of their sight.

Those of good fortune might find themselves invited to a gathering in one of the buildings that flank the river. Should the hosts have provided large screen TVs, a copious supply of ‘Harry Champers‘ and what Canadians call ‘Appies‘, one can amuse oneself by getting gently plastered whilst following the build up to the main event – rush out onto the balcony to watch the eights fly past – then back in again to see how it all turns out in the end.

My best viewing experience – however – came about back in the late 80s through having a dear friend whose sister was that year the cox of the Oxford boat. My friend – being a lady of ferociously single mind – determined that we would watch the race from beyond the finish line – in the boathouse at which the Oxford crew would disembark after the event. She swept past the security proclaiming that she was the cox’s sister and we camp-followers stumbled along behind crying “We’re with her…!”. We watched on the big screen as our friend’s equally ferocious sister bullied the Cambridge cox out of the race before rushing down to the foreshore to cheer crew and cox as they landed in triumph.

Happy days!

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Image by Alana Elliott on Wikimedia CommonsBefore I came to Canada in 2015 I was entirely unaware of Stuart McLean, or indeed of the much loved weekly CBC Radio show – The Vinyl Café – that he hosted for more than twenty years.

I am absolutely certain that the Kickass Canada Girl – who has long been numbered amongst the humourist and storyteller’s many fans – had for my benefit at some point extolled his virtues long before we crossed the pond for keeps, but I am a bear of advancing years (as well as very little brain) and there has been such a lot to learn (this is called “getting your excuses in early”!).

Once in Canada, of course, and having had the opportunity to experience the show ‘in the flesh’ (so to speak) I rapidly became a convert too. It was therefore deeply saddening to hear the news this week that Stuart had succumbed to the melanoma that he had been battling for more than a year.

I am way too much of a Vinyl Café neophyte to be able to indite anything remotely apposite at this point. I urge the gentle reader instead simply to ‘Google’ “Stuart McLean” and to peruse some of the many tributes to the man. This page of twitter reactions gives a good idea as to just how deeply loved he was.

For myself all I would say is that there was something about his writing and on-air manner that reminded me of how radio used to be when I was growing up in the UK, where my earliest exposure to the outside world came exclusively from the BBC’s ‘Home Service’ (later Radio 4). That’s pretty much as good as it gets in my book.

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Image from Pixabay“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

Mark Twain

Following on from the reminiscences of my last post… and in an effort to demonstrate that these meanderings are not as purely random as they sometimes appear to be…

Back in the day I was (and still am in a somewhat desultory sense) a bass player. In common with many novice musicians I proudly acquired my first bass with no thoughts as to what to use for amplification. Later – once I had grown out of the usual home-made setup cobbled together from various bits of domestic electronica – I set about finding a bass rig that would give me the biggest bang for my bucks.

As detailed in my earlier disquisition concerning PA systems, received wisdom at the time was that an extravagantly sized loudspeaker cabinet was required to produce the desired bottom end, with the speakers themselves also being as large as possible. I ended up with an impressively chunky setup loaded with 18″ speakers.

The band in which I was playing at the time had found itself a semi-permanent rehearsal location in a ramshackle outbuilding that formed part of a nursery located in the middle of nowhere. Tucked away in the midst of a swathe of decaying greenhouses we could safely leave our equipment set up and ready to go, so that we could crack on with rehearsals with the minimum of fuss. Further – one of our number was the proud possessor of a van!

Once that band had succumbed to the habitual form of musical entropy I was obliged to downsize my bass rig. I was driving a Mini at the time (my first proper car) and the equipment had to be sized accordingly. Over the years since I have tinkered with various different setups, but when we packed all of our goods and chattels into a container to head for BC in the summer 2015 the box that I loaded was still a weighty lump.

Having payed for its conveyance to Canada I was not best pleased to discover that there was no way of easily converting it to operate on 110V! The manufacturer had gone out of business and no parts or circuit diagrams were available.

I am – as always – the luckiest of chaps, however, and she who is possessed of all wisdom agreed to help me purchase a new amplifier as my birthday present.

Well – you will be unsurprised to hear that technology has undergone its usual magical transformation in the thirty years since I last went shopping for such and it is now possible to purchase a tiny, tiny wee box that can miraculously produce more bottom end grunt than any rig I have ever owned. This thing is minute, it weighs next to nothing but is built like a tank and there can be no doubt that this little mutt could easily take on the big dogs… and probably win!

For those who demand technical details this is a Traynor (solid Canadian brand not found much outside these shores) small block SB110. The amp provides 100W and the cabinet is rear ported and loaded with a single 10″ speaker and a tweeter.

This thing is seriously loud for such a small unit and has no shortage of room-rattling bottom end.

How is that even possible?

 

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“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

Mark Twain

Way back in the mid-1970s when I was in my early twenties and playing in the sort of wildly optimistic band that so many of us did back in the day – only one thing was certain… none of us had any money! One of the effects on the musician, of course, was that we had to make do with whatever cheap and cheerful equipment we could cobble together.

It is a sad truism concerning the arc of the musician’s career that, at the point that he (or she) is young and just learning to play, he (or she) must do so on some hideous old nail of an instrument that makes everything a hundred times more difficult than it need be. Of course, should he (or she) eventually become established as a musical legend, able rip out licks and riffs even whilst comatose – then the manufacturers of the most precious, the most beautiful, the most infinitely playable of musical contrivances dispense them like candy – utterly free of charge – to those who no longer have any need of such largesse… in the pursuit of ‘celebrity’ endorsement!

‘Tain’t fair!

But where was I? Oh, yes…

So – when it came to trying to cobble together a PA (Public Address) system such that – if nothing else – our delicate (some might say fey – this was the 70s!) vocals might be heard, we were obliged to beg, borrow or steal what we might. The bottom end was a different matter. Bass bins were expensive, hard to come by and people didn’t just give them away. We had to build our own!

Image from Wikimedia CommonsI carried out extensive research at my local library (for the InterWebNet had not at that point been invented) into the acoustic design required to reproduce low frequency signals at a reasonable volume. It turned out that we would need to build bass ‘horns’ of which – because of the length required to deliver frequencies low enough – the horn parts themselves would need to be ‘folded’ if the enclosures were to be confined to manageable proportions. My calculations (and it must be said that maths was never my strong suit) suggested that the unfolded length of the horn would need to be some where between fifteen and twenty feet! The resultant boxes were enormous and weighed a (metaphorical) ton each.

Image by Rudolph Schuba from Wikimedia CommonsNow – if you have been to a large concert anytime recently you will have observed that the PA system simply comprises a number of curved columns of small(ish) units suspended from the ceiling. This interestingly fragile looking contraption is called a Line Array. Not only are these modern systems really rather elegant, but the sound produced is any number of light years advanced from the distorted offerings of yesteryear. There is simply no comparison with the systems in use at the first gigs that I attended back in the early 70s, for which either side of the stage would be girt with huge stacks of bass and other cabinets (I went to one gig at which the support act had their own massive PA stacked in front of the main act’s system. There was a very long intermission!).

The point is – when it comes to gear (and technology) – everything has changed.

But why am I telling you all this? Just a tease, of course, for the next post!

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Image from PixabayThe year just ending will be difficult to forget… no matter how hard one might wish to try. The grim catalog of events which has confounded us has been, of course, most widely promoted already – just as have the all too understandable reasons for seeking sweet oblivion in the face thereof. It is difficult to recall another recent period during which this little blue/green planet feels as though it has been buffeted to quite such an extent by the ‘slings and arrows…‘ etc, etc.

Though our own year here on Vancouver Island has not been entirely without incident there is no doubt that we have escaped considerably more lightly than have many. I thought I might canter briefly through the high (and low) lights for the benefit of anyone who would like to be brought up to speed – and in the process maybe to answer some questions that I have not thus far addressed.

The year has certainly flown by, but then they all do once one attains a certain age. The Kickass Canada Girl was shaken quite badly this last time last year by the passing of her aunt and took a while to recover her joie de vivre. The process of introspection that followed led her to reconsider what might have become a permanent retirement and she has instead returned to the world of work – providing assessment services for a charity that organises volunteers for the (mostly) elderly. This focus has renewed her sense of purpose and restored a spring to her step.

I have made reference already to the legal matter that has thus far prevented us from starting renovations to our North Saanich home – and also to the fact that we have now set same in motion regardless. It is a good thing that we have done so, as it turns out, since the latest thinking is that we should now apply for a court date as a means of chivvying things along. It is apparently inconceivable that such an appointment could be scheduled before 2018 and we are not prepared to wait another year before getting things started. This coming spring will see definite moves forward.

I spent three months at the start of 2016 studying for (and mercifully passing) my various boating qualifications before finally – with the summer already more than half gone – finding and purchasing a boat! Next year ‘Dignity‘ will doubtless be much in demand – particularly if the summer is anything like the one that we enjoyed this year.

I also spent a fair amount of time this year trying to establish a youth drama programme – a project which is most dear to my heart. Considerable progress has been made but there have also been a number of unfortunate setbacks. I am not convinced that we yet have the right framework and the early part of the new year be given over to further study and much head-scratching. These things take time, I know, and my fingers are firmly crossed for the season to come.

During the summer my brother and his S.O. became our first visitors from the UK – he celebrating his sixtieth birthday. By all accounts they had an enjoyable visit (in spite of still not having seen a bear!) the which included a trip to the interior (Kamloops, the North Thompson, the Okanagan) and a great deal of merriment and indulgence in our own ‘hood’. Hopefully this will be the first of many such.

Reviewing the year’s deaths amongst the great and the good is always salutary; this year as much – if not more – than many. I just wish that that number did not include quite so many who were younger than are we – though I fear that it will increasingly be so.

Still – let us be of good cheer and celebrate the turn of the year in whatever manner suits each of us best.

Happy Hogmanay to all – and ‘Lang may yer lum reek!‘.

 

 

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Photo by Andy Dawson ReidI purchased the apartment in the small village in the south of Buckinghamshire (in the UK) that the Kickass Canada Girl and I were to have such trouble selling before we moved to Canada last summer – back in the first year of the new millennium.

When I took possession in the November of that year I knew that the place needed a fair amount of renovation before I would be able move in but as I was, by great good fortune, at that point housed by the school at which I then worked, I was able to engage a builder and to give him free reign over the apartment in the run-up to Christmas.

As I mentioned in the very early days of this blog, the Georgian manor of which my apartment was but a portion occupied a prominent position in the centre of one of those arcadian English villages (four hundred inhabitants (or thereabouts), sixteenth century church, one pub (of varying quality), a cricket club (likewise!), a huddle of ‘artisans’ dwellings and farm buildings) which are, of course, all as pretty as a picture postcard!

Most days, after leaving work, I drove the short distance to my new residence to check on the (apparently inevitably) glacial progress of the building works. It would be dark by the time I wound my way down the hill into the village so I was accustomed to not really being able to make out that much of the surroundings. Given the sleepy, bucolic nature of the place, therefore, you might imagine my surprise – nay, total shock! – on entering the village on one such dark evening to come face to face with a single small terraced cottage – just across from the pub – that had been adorned with sufficient Christmas illumination that it must surely have distracted pilots on their run-in to Heathrow airport.

Lest you think my reaction excessive you should remember that in the main the Brits don’t go in for American-style public displays of decoration for the outsides of their residences (the which they tend to find a little on the… er, garish side) preferring instead the traditional Christmas tree, tinsel and paper-chains on the inside.

Canadians are (as in most things) somewhat more restrained than their neighbours to the south, but do have something of a liking for illuminated inflatable figures of such size that they must needs be deflated should the weather forecast prophesy wind speeds in excess of the balmy. This year – ignoring my habitually raised eyebrow – the Girl persuaded me that – as we are both now Canadians (if only in the honorary sense on my part) – we should make a little more effort to join in. As you can see from the image that heads this post we didn’t exactly go overboard… but this seems to me to be a suitably mid-Atlantic compromise.

Those who find my attitude to such things snobbish will be delighted to hear that back in 2000 I rapidly received my comeuppance. Having grumbled to all and sundry about the unsuitability of such a vivid display for a sleepy rural village I discovered – on my next visit to the pub – that the owners of the cottage had lost a young son to a cancer and subsequently each year decorated the frontage as part of a fund-raiser for an appropriate children’s cancer charity.

That shut me up!

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Image from Pixabay“Well, I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming, saying something about a queen.”

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

I had a hankering – just the other day – to listen again to Neil Young’s splendidly mysterious classic – ‘After the Goldrush‘. I don’t recall now what brought the song to mind… maybe I heard a snatch of it – or read something somewhere… It matters not.

What I did not want was to listen to Neil Young singing it! Nothing against the Canadian ‘national treasure’ of course – it is just that for this particular piece I have always had a different sound in mind – one which involves the female voice. This whimsy is probably the result of having loved the 1970s ‘a cappella’ rendition by Prelude – which is the version of the track that I heard first.

The recording of the Prelude version is – however – sadly showing its age somewhat these days, and I found myself scouring the InterWebNet for a more recent cover that might achieve a similar effect. As ever such a thing was eventually uncovered – in the (slightly) more up to date version (1999) by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt (and who would have ever thought that I would be be listening to that combination?!).

The exercise started me thinking. There are instances when only a specific genre of music will do. This particular mood – for example – clearly demanded the dulcet tones of the old-fashioned female torch singer in delivery of eloquent and poignant versions of classic tunes – perhaps with a slightly twist of mystery for good effect.

Time to put together a suitable compilation CD – I decided – commencing a further search. Herewith the list of tracks and versions with which I have come up thus far to satisfy this requirement (in no particular order):

  • Alfie (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – Vanessa Williams
  • Wichita Lineman (Jimmy Webb) – Cassandra Wilson
  • Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell) – Joni Mitchell (from the ‘jazz’ album ‘Both Sides Now’)
  • One (Harry Nilsson) – Aimee Mann (album version)
  • Cry Me a River (Arthur Hamilton) – Diana Krall
  • After the Gold Rush (Neil Young) – Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt
  • The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Robbie Robertson) – Joan Baez
  • Somewhere (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim) – Barbra Streisand
  • The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress (Jimmy Webb)  – Judy Collins
  • This Woman’s Work (Kate Bush) – Kate Bush
  • Unchained Melody (Alex North, Hy Zaret) – Sarah McLachlan
  • That’s What Friends Are For (Burt Bacharach, Carol Bayer Sager) – Trijntje Oosterhuis (live with guitarist Leonardo Amuedo)
  • Nothing Has Been Proved (Chris Lowe, Neil Tennant) – Dusty Springfield

Should the gentle reader care to add any suggestions of his or her own before I commit this list to plastic such would be reviewed with great interest…

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Image by B0rder on Wikimedia CommonsOn Saturday last – for the second time in as many weeks – the Kickass Canada Girl and I found ourselves witness to a gathering of Canadians making an unanticipated act of homage to a musical icon…

Having bid a tearful farewell last week to ‘The Tragically Hip’, this latter occasion featured a fair sized gathering of Victorians over two nights at the Royal Theatre bidding an unlikely ‘hello‘ to Sixto Rodriguez.

Some readers may already be familiar with the frankly bizarre story of Mr. Rodriguez and they may thus choose to skip ahead, but for those – like me – who were previous oblivious to his existence, here is a brief outline.

Sixto – known professionally simply as ‘Rodriguez’ – is a singer/songwriter from Detroit who had a brief and scarcely noticed career in the late 60s/early 70s during which he released two albums – ‘Cold Fact‘ and ‘Coming from Reality‘ in 1970 and 1971 respectively – which were critically well received but sold barely a copy. On being as a result dropped by his record label Rodriguez – phlegmatically and with considerable good grace – retired from the business and returned to his former career in construction.

This might well have been the end of the story were it not that – by dint of a speculative re-release of his albums and through much word of mouth – Rodriguez subsequently became a considerable sensation in South Africa to the tune of some half a million records sold. This rise to the status of a musical icon would have represented a gratifying – if belated – acknowledgement of his talents, were it not that Rodriguez himself was entirely unaware of this turn of events and the South Africans had no idea who he was – having been provided with none of the necessary back-story. Indeed, the rumour rapidly spread that Rodriguez had at some point committed suicide – though even here the details of his supposed demise varied widely from the merely tragic to the quite grotesque.

Eventually – toward the turn of the millennium – a couple of South African fans determined to discover the truth concerning his fate and the man was eventually tracked down to his home in Detroit. On discovering that he was – after all – yet alive he was persuaded to visit South Africa to play a series of concerts, which he duly did in 1998. This again might have been the end of the tale but for a Swedish film director – Malik Bendjellouldeciding that the story merited turning into a documentary film. The resulting production – ‘Searching for Sugarman’ – has won a plethora of awards, including – in 2013 – the ‘Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature’.

As a result of the subsequent interest Rodriguez – now in his mid seventies – has resurrected his musical career and gone back on the road, whilst at the same time trying to establish what exactly happened to the royalties from all of the albums that he did not know he had sold in South Africa. The two sell-out shows in Victoria – in a 1400 seat theatre – pay testament to the ongoing curiosity concerning his story.

If one were to be critical one might observe that the career in construction has clearly exacted a heavy physical toll on the man and his once remarkable voice is a shadow of what it was. It is also obvious that when Rodriguez stopped making records in the early 70s he simultaneously stopped writing, and though his oeuvre displays considerable poetic talent it is also brief in the extreme. Nice to hear cover versions of other people’s songs from that era, but perhaps not entirely worth the rapt adoration that the man received from the packed house on Saturday. I couldn’t help but speculate that it was the narrative that was being applauded rather than the performance itself.

A fascinating study in philosophical anthropology, nonetheless…

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