Gig Of The Week (4)

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets Band – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Wow, what a concert!

My brain is still scrambled. I set the control for the heart of the sun but at least I didn’t end up on the dark side of the moon. Our seats were up in the gods but our view was not obscured by clouds. The sound was superb.

The central conceit behind Mason’s band is to resurrect the early Floyd music, pre-Dark Side when it then all got a bit too pompous and up itself, such entertainment as there was coming from an extensive and over-blown light show. I much preferred their earlier stuff when the much-lamented Syd Barrett’s psychedelic musings and ramblings ruled the roost.

You can also see why Mason has a penchant for this era. By the time Floyd had become mega stars, the role of drummer in the band had been relegated to pretty much an also-ran. But the drums are much more of a feature of the early stuff, non more so than the urgent primal drumming of the central section of Saucerful of Secrets.

Accompanying Mason on his first tour since the 1994 Division Bell tour are long time Floyd bassist, Guy Pratt, Gary Kemp, a surprisingly accomplished guitarist, Lee Harris on guitar and Dom Beken on keyboards. All the favourites were played – Arnold Layne, See Emily Play, the wonderful Bike – as well as Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive, Saucerful and Set The Controls, representing the more experimental side of the band. I particularly enjoyed a rare outing for Fearless and the Vegetable Man.

Two thoughts. Rather like jazz, psychedelic music sounds so much better live than on record. I wonder why? And what is the definition of a tribute band? Does having a member of the original group mean that the rather pejorative term doesn’t apply?

Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that the evening was a wonderful homage to a period when Floyd were rightly lauded as one of the more inventive and experimental bands of the time. If you can get to see them – they have just announced extra dates – do so or else you will wish you were here.

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Ban Of The Week

Being an Ironman triathlete requires you to eat an enormous amount of tucker to sustain your energy levels, so I’m told. German software engineer, Jaroslav Bobrowski, is an enthusiast and his dietary regime is to fast for 20 hours and then to eat until his full.

His regular sushi restaurant, the Running Sushi, in Landshut in Bavaria offers an all-you-can eat deal for the modest outlay of €15.90 and Jaroslav often visits to fill his metaphorical boots.

But on his latest, and last, visit, I read this week, he proceeded to demolish almost one hundred plates of sushi.

Feeling that he should reward the gaff for its generosity and as a token of appreciation, Jaroslav, on checking out, offered a tip. Imagine his surprise when not only was his offer rebuffed but he was discretely told never to show his face in the place again. The reason given – he’s eating too much.

I have some sympathy for him.

After all, an offer is an offer. The restaurant presumably feared it might have had to change its name to Running out of Sushi.

What Is The Origin Of (199)?…

Honky-tonk

I first came across the phrase as an impressionable youngster courtesy of the Rolling Stones and one of their best numbers, Honky-Tonk Women. Although the lyrics are not works of art, I deduced enough to realise that it described a house of ill-repute, a dive where women of easy virtue hung out.

That I was somewhat on the right track is confirmed by this rather informative, if somewhat illiterate, definition from the Kansan Iola Register of 23rd June 1893; “when a particularly vicious and low-grade theatre opens up in an Oklahoma town they call it a honky-tonk. The name didn’t just come from anything; it just growed (sic).” That rather calls time on our etymological searches, if true. But what is fascinating is that whilst the term may have required some introduction to the folks of Kansas, it was in use in Oklahoma and judging from the gloss, had been in common usage for some time.

This enables us to deduce two things.

The first attribution in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to sometime in 1924 is wrong and, secondly, the phrase probably has nothing to do with the piano makers, William Tonk and Brothers of Chicago and New York who introduced a make of joanna from 1889 which was known as the Ernest A Tonk. It was a very popular model, particularly on Tin Pan Alley, and made its way out west, but probably too late in the day to give its name to the type of hostelry and the mode of music that were associated with honky-tonk.

In the late 19th century the West was wild and many a bar was a mix of music hall, dance hall, casino, bar and knocking shop. The better sorts in a town were keen to see the back of them and the council of Fort Worth, in particular, waged a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to close down a couple that had sprung up on Main Street. However, there were many who valued the attractions that they offered and they were not going to give them up without a fight. The Fort Worth Daily Gazette reported on 24th January 1889 that “a petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theatre on Main Street be reopened.” This may well be the first recorded usage of the term in print.

In order to give honky tonks the veneer of respectability, some proprietors called the attractions they had to offer “variety shows.” The Morning News of Dallas noted on 6th August 1890 that “myself and he set and talked awhile and he got up and said he wanted to go to the honk-a-tonk (variety show).

But its attractions soon waned and by 1900 newspapers were reporting rather wistfully that “the once popular institution is dying off.” In its reminiscences the Evening Gazette of Reno, in what was a syndicated article, on 3rd February 1900 gave the flavour of an evening which began “about nine o’clock, and continues in full blast until one, or thereabouts, as long as its patrons will patronise the bar…always at least one drama is presented, the entire company, vocalists, dancers and all, participating.

The same article gave a fanciful origin for the name. A group were wandering in search of the source of some music they could hear. “From far out in the distance there finally came to their ears a “honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a,” which they mistook for the bass viol. They turned toward the sound, to find alas! a flock of wild geese. So honkatonk was named.

We can almost certainly discount this etymological root but whence it came is anybody’s guess. Honky as a pejorative term for whites didn’t emerge (at least in print) until the 1960s and  Tonkin, the name given to the French colony of north Vietnam, is too far of a stretch to give its name to a type of bar in the Wild West of America.

The Iola Register was probably right.

Gin O’Clock – Part Forty Eight

One of the benefits of the ginaissance is that many outlets are getting in on the act of selling an increasingly widening range of my favourite spirit. Take the duty-free shop in Alicante airport. Eschewing a pair of castanets and a stuffed donkey that were the purchases of choice of British holidaymakers in days of yore, I headed to the spirits section and spent the last of my Euros on three gins that I had not tried before.

The first of these purchases was the intriguing G’Vine Floraisson – a bit of a mouthful in anybody’s language and probably the bastard offspring of some creative type in a marketing agency who thought the name perfectly blended the concept of gin and the vine. I’ll get back to you on that one.

The name aside, G’vine is from France, distilled in the Cognac region, and uses as its base a neutral grape spirit, made from Ugni Blanc grapes. In doing so the distillers tap into a tradition dating back to the 13th century when grapes were used in France and the Low Countries as the base for juniper spirits. It makes for a smoother base than the usual wheat based spirits.

The second differentiator in the drink is the use of the flowers from the vine as a botanical. The vine flowers for a few days in June before the grape berry forms and floraisson is the French word used to describe the flowering. The Floraisson gin uses flowers which have just formed whereas the other gin from the G’Vine stable, the Nouaison, uses more maturer blossoms. The flowers are hand-picked and macerated in the neutral grape spirit for a few days.

There are nine other botanicals used to create the gin – juniper, ginger root, liquorice, cassia bark, green cardamom, coriander, cubeb berries, nutmeg, and lime. Each botanical is macerated individually in separate liquor stills and then the floraisson infusion, the separate botanical mixes and the grape spirit are all blended together in a copper pot. Naturally, it has a name – Lily Fleur. The result is a clear spirit which weighs in at 40% ABV.

It seems a lot of trouble to go to and is a radical departure from the usual method of macerating all the botanicals in one mix. And, of course, the question is: is it all worth the effort?

While the spirit is crystal clear and smooth to the taste, the wine base gives it a sharpness that is not present with the more usual grain bases. It is certainly different but the astringent qualities of the base are not to my taste. To the nose it has a very floral aroma and the initial impression when one rolls the spirit in the mouth is of a very flowery concoction. I assume that this is the vine flower, which assumes a dominant position in the mix. It is only in the aftertaste that the, to me, more interesting flavours, principally juniper and ginger, come to the fore.

I didn’t find it unpalatable but I wouldn’t place it among my favourites, not least because it seems to have strayed some way from the tastes and sensations that one would associate with a gin. But there is clearly a place for a summery, floral-heavy gin and if that is your bag, it is worth a try.

The bottle is a dumpy with a light green coating towards the shoulder, a nod to the colouring of vineyards in the spring, apparently. The top is a hideously large, green screw cap. The lettering, on the other hand, is in a modern style and gives a rather stylish flourish to what otherwise would have been an unremarkable bottle.

Book Corner – September 2018 (4)

A Room with a View – E.M Forster

Forster’s A Room with a View is a wonderful book and I enjoyed it even more second time round than I did forty years ago. Published in 1908 it was his third novel. Set in Italy and England it can be read as a conventional love story – should Lucy Honeychurch follow her heart, if only she really knew what it was, or hitch herself to a boring, conventional chap? – but it is also a delightfully withering attack on the mores of Edwardian society.

This book can be seen as a coming of age story and one that highlights the transformation of women’s role in society. The forward behaviour of the lower class George Emerson in Florence – good God, the bounder only went to kiss her – throws her into confusion, a direct assault on her rather prudish, Victorian set of values. Almost on the rebound, she attaches herself to the conventional ie boring and controlling Cecil Vyse. As the second part of the book progresses, Lucy’s mind is in turmoil. Has she done the right thing? The efforts of her chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, and Emerson’s father persuade her otherwise and a disastrous liaison is terminated.

Surely one of the key passages is this from Chapter 16; “This desire to govern a woman – it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together… But I do love you surely in a better way than he does.” He [George Emerson] thought. “Yes – really in a better way. I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in your arms.” It highlights the change in the way that men, at least some, were beginning to see women and is in stark contrast to the conventional Vysian approach. Reading it today many women may blanche at the rider but at the time it was a real step forward.

Not for nothing is the book called A Room with a View. On arriving in Florence and at the Pension Bertolini run by an eccentric cockney landlady, Lucy and Charlotte bemoan the fact that they have been allocated rooms without the promised view of the River Arno. To stop their “peevish wranglings” Emerson senior offers to swap rooms. This provokes a bout of debate about the propriety of accepting the offer – I would have withdrawn it straightaway – but the two females eventually accept and get their rooms with a view.

Perhaps the only passage where Cecil Vyse shows a scintilla of self-awareness also features a room, albeit a figurative one; “When I think of you it’s always as in a room. How funny!” To her surprise, he seemed annoyed. “A drawing-room, pray? With no view?” “Yes, with no view, I fancy. Why not?”  Just as a room without a view of the Arno was unacceptable to Lucy in Florence, so, we are meant to assume, a chap who is likened to a room without a view is not the right one for her.

The book has some glorious moments of comedy. Forster skewers the social mores of the middle classes and the ignorant British tourist abroad whose aesthetics are dictated by the pages of their Baedeker guides. Lucy buys a postcard of the Birth of Venus but thinks that the naked Venus rather spoils the picture.

And some of the minor characters are wonderful – the ostentatious novelist, Miss Lavish, the jettisoned copy of whose story of her time in Italy opens up a whole can of worms, the chaplain, Mr Eager who is rude to Italians and the Miss Alans, the progenitors of the current crop of grey-haired world travellers.

The dialogue is crisp and sharp, the descriptions are acute and the book progresses at pace. It is no wonder that this book is regarded as one of the finest in English literature.

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Eleven

Migingo Island

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake – Lake Superior is the largest – and with a surface area of 68,800 square kilometres, is Africa’s largest. In the lake, about 3 hours by boat from the Kenyan shore and twice the journey from Uganda, there is a little archipelago of three islands, Migingo, Ugingo, which lies 660 feet to the east of Migingo, and Pyramid Island, two kilometres to the south.

Migingo is nothing much to shout about. It is a rock, barely 2,000 metres in size and was barely inhabited. No one really cared about it or paid it much attention, least of all as to who actually owned it. But that all changed in 2002. Aerial photographs from the time show a mass of shanty buildings, nestling cheek by jowl on the rock and a population, at its peak, of around 500. Ownership now became an issue and sparked a bitter dispute between the Kenyans and Ugandans.

Why the change?

Well, it is all to do with a fish, known locally as mbuta aka Nile perch. It grows to around 2 metres in size and can weigh upwards of 200 kg. It is not a native to lake Victoria, it was thought to have been introduced in the 1950s, possibly by the Ugandans, and it has had a devastating effect on the local environment as it is a voracious predator, devouring all before it. But it is also very tasty itself and is much sought after by restaurants in Europe and elsewhere. Local fishermen who land a mbuta can earn far more than they can from their normal catch.

When news broke in 2002 that Migingo was an ideal spot to catch mbuta, it caused a stampede in much the same way as news of a gold find did back in the 19th century. Fishermen built lean-tos on any space on the island they could find and fished the bejeebers out of the lake. Those who were successful earned sums beyond their wildest dreams. Migingo made a belated appearance on the radar screens of the Kenyan and Ugandan governments and a dispute broke out over who actually owned the rock.

The majority of the fishermen who crowded on to rock were Kenyan and it always had been assumed by anyone who paid the island any attention that it belonged to Kenya. But the Ugandans, now that there was some lucrative revenue to be derived from the island, begged to differ and despatched a squad of police to erect and fly their flag. The Kenyans in response despatched their police to tear the offending flag down and install their own. But when they got to the island, they encountered 60 Ugandan marines spoiling for a fight. Fortunately, wise heads prevailed and a sort of solution to the issue was agreed.

Under the legal concept of Uti possidetis, countries emerging from colonial rule retain the territory they held upon gaining independence. We have seen elsewhere how this causes problems when the colonial masters, as the Brits were when they turned their finely tuned minds to the Kenya-Uganda border in 1926. After all, who cared about a few small rocks in the middle of a lake? The mbuta were also oblivious of the niceties of international boundaries. They bred in the shallow Kenyan littoral waters and migrated to the deeper waters around Migingo.

Even before the settlement, Kenya owned just 6% of the lake but dominated the mbuta trade, whilst Uganda, which owned 43%, were minnows in comparison. The resolution to the dispute reflected economic power – Kenya gained ownership of the rock but Uganda has claim to the surrounding waters. This still means that Kenyan fishers need permission to fish in Ugandan waters.

Borders are tricky things but I’m not sure the fish care.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Eight

Jermyn Street, SW1

There was a time if I felt a bit flush and fancied a decent shirt or tie when I would go down to Jermyn Street, the traditional home of some of the best gentlemen’s outfitters that London could offer. Those days have long gone. Running parallel to Piccadilly in the north and Pall Mall in the south, Jermyn Street joins St James’s Street at its west end and Haymarket, after crossing over Regent Street, at the eastern end.

The street takes its name from Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans, who leased the land from the trustees of Henrietta Maria, the erstwhile wife of Charles I, in 1661. The street first appears in the rate books of St Martin’s in 1667 as Jarman Streete, by which time there 56 entries, of which 36 relate to the north side. Some symmetry had been restored by 1675 when 108 names were recorded, 54 on each side. John Ogilby and William Morgan’s Survey of London as rebuilt by 1676 shows that the building of houses had been completed on both sides of the street by then.

But there was one major obstacle for residents. There was no access either to St James’s Street or Haymarket, where the street ended in the east at the time. This was a bit of a bummer and could not have been by design but perhaps was a testament to the expense that would have been involved in purchasing properties in the two main thoroughfares just to knock them down.

By 1746 a solution of sorts had been found, John Rocque’s map showing a narrow opening, labelled Little Jermyn Street, which led on to St James’s Street. It was only around 1819 when John Nash was planning New Street, later renamed as Regent Street, that the western end of Jermyn Street was widened and some houses were knocked down to facilitate access to Haymarket that the problem was resolved. One wonders quite how they coped for so long.

The inconvenience clearly did not put Sir Isaac Newton off from living there. He lived in number 88 – it is still standing – shortly after it was built in 1675 and then at number 87, which doesn’t. About half way down Jermyn Street in the space running parallel with Piccadilly is to be found the splendid Wren church that is St James’, once the most fashionable church in London in its day.

The church seemed to mark a social divide in the street. Most of the houses which had the highest rateable value were to be found to the west of the church whereas the further east you went, values declined, perhaps because of their proximity to St James’s Market. The eastern part of the street seemed to consist of shops with lodgings above them. The poet, Thomas Gray, stayed in lodgings above Roberts’s, the hosiers, and Frisby’s, the oilman.

As well as purveyors of gentlemen’s luxury goods, you will find the oldest cheese shop in London, Paxton and Whitfield, which has been going since 1797, although I believe the cheeses are newer. The perfumier, Floris, is also worth a look, some of the display cases having been taken directly from the Great Exhibition of 1851.

A famous character at the turn of the 20th century was Rosa Lewis, upon whom the TV series the Duchess of Duke Street was loosely based. She ran the Cavendish Hotel, where she was famed for her culinary skills and what was termed as her open-minded hospitality. She is credited as being the originator of the saying “It doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”

Oh, and you will find London’s smallest theatre there, the 70-seater being unimaginatively called Jermyn Street Theatre. It occupies what were the staff changing rooms at the Spaghetti House restaurant.

A fascinating street, even today.