Archive for the ‘ Ramblings ’ Category


Today is Advent Sunday in the church calendar, the day when preparations for Christmas officially begin.  Of course, in the retail world, preparations for Christmas began as soon as the Hallowe’en stock was removed, or in some cases even earlier.  And other aspects of festive activity have also begun in earnest – baking of cakes, rehearsals for nativity plays and pantomimes, switching on of lights and selection of presents.  But in the church, Advent Sunday is the day when we are supposed to begin spiritual preparation, looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth, or rather of his incarnation.

As well as the opportunity (sadly missed this year) to get cracking with singing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, the start of advent means something very specific.  In my house, it means decorations!  The boxes of sparkly, shiny objects, the Christmas trees, the sack of cuddly toys with a vague Christmas theme and the bag of tinsel will not make an appearance until this day of days.  And then, the level of activity is high.  Furniture must be moved (unearthing long-forgotten dog toys in the process), lights must be strung on the plants in the front window, nativity sets must be compared and re-arranged, and tinsel must adorn every possible location.  The cellophane will be removed from this year’s edition of Carols For a Cure, and the tracks will be listened to and variously enjoyed, discussed and laughed at.  A lengthy conversation about the optimum date for viewing the Muppets Christmas Carol will ensue.  There is little that is overtly spiritual in all of this, but it is an important time for the household, a few hours to share and enjoy, a ritual which has become an essential part of the rhythm of our lives.


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Dream error

I had a dream.  In my dream, I arrived at a community centre I had never seen before.  It was a grey, shabby sort of place but had plenty of car parking.  I knew why I was there – it was this was the next venue for the small-scale touring production of Guys and Dolls I was performing in.  Obviously.  In the twinkling of an eye, I was inside, changing into costume in an impractically small dressing room alongside other cast members, some of them people I have worked with before, others without names, yet still familiar.  In my costume, which included a brightly coloured shirt and a gangster-style hat, I then sat in the small hall, watching my castmates run through part of the show which needed some attention.  They sang the number ‘Too Darn Hot’ and some tweaks were made to the choreography to make it fit the space available.

It wasn’t until I woke up that I thought to question any of this, and there was one burning issue in my mind.  Not “why would you put on a pocket-sized production of Guys and Dolls when you need at least a dozen men?”  Not “what on Earth was my role in the production?” – there is no obvious part for the Singing Librarian in this show.  No, the question I asked as I awoke was “what on Earth was ‘Too Darn Hot’ doing in Guys and Dolls?  Which is a very good question, as it’s normally found in Kiss Me, Kate.  My subconscious mind really should have known that!


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Smells like the past

Smell is a strange sense which has a power we often underestimate.  Today, I went into a room at the library, and after inhaling one lungful, I was instantly transported back in time over 10 years to the home of a childhood friend.  I can’t work out exactly that it was, but some combination of paper stock and cleaning products must have emulated the mix of smells found in his hallway.  That room has not affected me like that before, and may well not do so again.  Naturally, I texted him to tell him of this event, and may have unsettled him for the rest of the day – certainly he said it was the most random text he’d ever received!

Other smells do that to me, but in ways that I can pin down far more easily.  The smell of Pears soap takes me back to summers at my grandparents’ house in Norfolk, but then Pears still is Nanna’s brand of choice.  A particular tree transports me to my first year at university, but only because the very odd-smelling tree had a relative very close to my halls of residence.  Various food smells as well can spark reminiscences as the cooking aroma wafts past.  It is always the smell of something cooking, not something on the plate – perhaps because most food-related memories worth keeping happen in homes, not in restaurants.  Certain places punch you in the gut as soon as you breathe in as well – hospitals most obviously.

Music is usually what sparks my synapses most readily, but today was a reminder that our noses have a mysterious power which easily beats our eyes, ears and hands.  Smells can make us nauseous or induce ecstasy, or they can take us back in a fraction of a second, in a most unexpected way.

The godfather

Today, I hosted my godson’s 1st birthday party.  Or rather, his party was held at my house, with most of the actual party arrangements being made by his parents.  I contributed some cheese straws and currant cakes to the food table and did plenty of hoovering both before and after the event.  The trail of destruction left by 12-month-old children and their relatives is quite something!

I have a biased perspective, but I think my godson is an absolutely delightful child, full of smiles and with a very cheeky face.  One current idiosyncrasy which I particularly like it that he will bounce up and down when something takes his fancy – a quite charming way of expressing excitement.  The last time I saw him before the party, he bounced up and down with glee every time I started a Newton’s cradle going – who would have thought that a few metal balls on wires could provide more than a moment’s interest for someone so small?

At the moment, being a godfather is a particularly strange thing, and until the young man is, well, a little closer to being a young man, I am not entirely sure what it means.  I pray for him regularly, but as I already prayed for his parents regularly (and indeed used to pray regularly *with* his father when we lived a little closer to one another), this is not exactly surprising.  Even when he’s older, I believe that his faith is his own choice.  I will talk to him about Christianity, as I’m sure his parents will, and I will do my best to model my beliefs in my speech and behaviour, but even if it were possible to force him to make God a part of his life, I wouldn’t want to do so.  For now, I can offer cuddles and the occasional random present.  Later, I can offer a listening ear (as his mother puts it, I can be ‘Switzerland’, neutral territory for him in all matters) along with the occasional random present.  I hope to be able to share my love of theatre with him as well as my love of God.  But ultimately, my role is to love him and to support both him and his parents in whatever ways become relevant as the years go by.

Chip shop etiquette

The British do not like to complain.  There seems to be something in our national psyche which makes us prefer to put up with things than to lodge any form of complaint.  If we do speak up, we tend to apologise, no matter how little blame can really be attached to us in any given circumstance – “I’m terribly sorry, but my vegetarian soup has chicken drumsticks in it.”  We love to grumble, whinge, whine and moan amongst ourselves, but actually complaining, engaging with the source of our frustration in any way, well that seems to be beyond us.

I found myself in two situations in fish and chip shops recently which made me think about this strange national characteristic.  On the first occasion, I asked for a plain sausage and a portion of chips.  Come to think of it, I almost always ask for a plain sausage and chips, being a creature of habit.  I was therefore vaguely surprised when a battered sausage appeared, but I chose not to say anything.  My mind merrily started justifying this – I don’t actually dislike battered sausages, they only cost marginally more, and I probably ought to be less predictable.  Any reason not to say anything about it – why complain?  More recently, in a different establishment, I had the usual exchange.  The sausage (plain, this time) and the chips appeared, and the man behind the counter asked “salt and vinegar?”  “Just salt, please,” I replied, as I loathe even the smell of vinegar.  “Just salt?  OK, boss.”  The salt was shaken, but then as fast as lightning, the vinegar came out and the vile acid started to spread across my chips.  Alarmed, I cried “no, just salt!” but the damage was already done.  The man stopped in his tracks, murmured an apology and started to wrap the chips up.  I think I must have gone into full-on panic mode at that moment, and was unable to keep my horror from registering on my face and a further squeak from escaping my lips.  The man looked up at me, and our eyes locked for a while, before he eventually asked whether I wanted a new portion.  I was deeply relieved, and assented.  Of course, in true British fashion, I also proceeded to stammer some sort of apology and found myself nervously laughing about how much I hate vinegar.  I thought it best not to comment on the fact that my new portion was somewhat smaller than the original one had been.  And I couldn’t get out of the shop fast enough.

Isn’t it strange?  I truly cannot stand vinegar at all, but if he hadn’t asked if I wanted a replacement portion, I would probably not have challenged it, and would have walked out of there with a portion of chips which I wouldn’t want to smell, let alone eat.  We really are deeply programmed to avoid confrontation.  And yes, I did feel guilty over the wasted chips, even though it was not my mistake.  I really am exceptionally good at feeling guilty.

Autumn ends

The summer growth, uniformly verdant, gave way.
Many-hued warmth crept in, creating vibrant variety.
But this too passed, one by one the colours faded.
They leave behind the skeletal remains, a delicate filigree of empty branches.
Suddenly sunlight can fall on ground that was alien territory
And the world takes on a sad beauty as autumn ends.

Too much convenience

Watching television last night, I saw several adverts which disturbed me for different reasons, often because they didn’t seem to do a very good job of explaining what it was they were actually advertising.  The worst offender, though, was one where the product was very clearly identified.  I was just perturbed that the product existed.

The product in question is a Prepared Ingredients pack from Waitrose for Delia Smith’s Christmas cake recipe.  Now, Delia’s recipes are greatly loved in this nation, and many Christmas tables will include at least one Delia offering (I remember the year when there was a national cranberry shortage just because she had championed them, meaning everyone rushed out to get a supply).  And almost without exception, a home celebrating Christmas will have a Christmas cake, whether home-made or shop-bought.  Either is fine.  Home-made takes longer, of course, but ultimately tends to taste better.  Shop-bought is ideal for those with limited cooking facilities or very little time on their hands.  But the idea of a packet mix for Christmas cake (they even pre-soak the fruits in brandy) really unsettled me.  When the people I was with found this amusing, I realised I needed to work out why I didn’t like the idea.

I should perhaps say up front that I have never made Christmas cake, as I have never been the person responsible for Christmas in any household (if you see what I mean).  I have made many other cakes of all shapes and sizes, but have never invested that extra time which Christmas cakes require in preparing the ingredients and then topping up the alcohol levels over the weeks running up to the big day.  So maybe I have no business commenting on this mix.  But if I may be permitted to have an opinion, it seems that a packet mix for this particular cake misses the point somewhat.  It is *supposed* to be an effort, a big production and an ongoing process.  Pre-weighed ingredients I don’t mind too much, though part of the joy of cake-making is in deviating from the recipe, in substituting one ingredient for another or deciding that adding a particular flavouring or a bit more flour would improve things this time around.  A packet mix would seem to discourage the personal touch.  The thing that really tipped me over the edge was the pre-soaked fruit, a truly strange thing.  If you don’t have time to do the things like pre-soaking the fruit, you probably don’t have the time to mix and bake the cake either.  And everyone will understand if you have to buy a cake.  It may be strange (in fact, I’m fairly certain it is strange), but this half-way house does not seem like the best of both worlds, it seems like a strange compromise.  I wouldn’t look down on anyone that chooses this option, but I’d have thought that anyone pre-disposed to make their Christmas cake would have no problem preparing, weighing and measuring their ingredients.  Perhaps not.  But it seems I need to avoid ad breaks on ITV for the next six weeks, as repeated exposure to the advert may cause me to go into permanent rant mode.  And nobody would want that.

A moment of silence

Yesterday, Reed posted about observing Armistice Day at work, about how she has to go and find a quiet spot in order to observe the 2 minute silence at 11 o’clock.  Once upon a time in the Library of Doom, we would observe this mark of remembrance and respect.  Notices would be posted on the doors advising students that there would be the 2 minutes of silence, and at 11 o’clock, everything would stop.  We would step back from the issue desk if necessary, we would leave the phone unanswered and we, along with the rest of the university and many millions of people beyond, would cease our chatter and activity for 120 seconds.  To say thank you.  To mourn.  To hope for a better future.

Now, in our shiny new building, there is no official observance, so anyone who chooses to remember must do so with some difficulty.  This year, I left my desk and stood on one of the walkways connecting our two wings together.  Last year, I had gone somewhere private, but surely part of the point of the act of remembrance is that it is public, corporate, shared?  Standing there, head bowed, I could not help but be aware of life in the building carrying on regardless.  Movement, conversation, telephones.  At the end of the 2 minutes, as I turned to go back to the office, I caught sight of someone on the ground floor putting his hat back on, making a comment to a friend and moving off.  It seemed he was surprised that the building had not come to a halt.  For my part, I was not surprised, but I did still find it sad.  Sad that we cannot put our important business on hold for just a brief moment to pay our respects.  I may not support every war that our nation has entered in to, but I am deeply thankful for those many men and women who have risked and given their lives over the years, and I long for a world where wars never need be fought again.  If we can’t spare 2 minutes to turn our thoughts to these things, I think it says something very sad about our society.

Small pleasures

I love to perform, but I have no desire for fame.  I wouldn’t mind a little more money, but I don’t think riches would really please me.  What makes me happy is experiencing a steady supply of life’s small pleasures.  Life is so much better when it includes :

  • cheese on toast
  • a companionable silence
  • a cuddle with the dog
  • rain on a summer’s day
  • lemon drizzle cake
  • laughing as a conversation takes a logical, but surreal turn
  • sun breaking through the clouds in winter
  • entering God’s presence
  • harmony, even in just two parts
  • the satisfaction of a job well done
  • Cadbury’s chocolate
  • hearing a word you haven’t heard for a while

The list, of course, goes on.  It has just struck me over the last couple of days that I need to relish these things more.  This is not a new thought, nor even a new thought for this blog, but it’s something that it is very much worth remembering.   Savour the sounds of the words we speak and the notes we sing.  Enjoy those moments when there’s no need for talk, but also those times when talk brings us closer.  Appreciate simple flavours and the smallest blessings from the weather, not just the five-course meal and the snowstorm or the rainbow.  The little things in life are what really make the world go around.

My first première

At the start of half term, I had a new experience – attending a film première.  It was a small-scale affair, but the requisite red carpet and champagne were involved, so all was as it should be.

The première was for Marty’s Project, a short film which will be doing the rounds of the amateur film festivals next year, and was a closed affair for cast and crew only.  As each participant arrived, we were photographed on the red carpet before being treated to champagne (or non-alcoholic alternatives) and nibbles.  Once we were all gathered, we made our way into the auditorium and nervously took our seats, intrigued to see what we would all look like and how the film hung together.  Along with the other main members of cast, I was terrified of being rubbish, and worried that my experience of performing in theatre would translate badly to the screen.

Over the next 57 minutes, there was much laughter and a few gasps of surprise from those who had not been permitted to see the full script.  I was ashamed to spot a scene where I had forgotten to remove my glasses (I’d had a strange feeling this had been the case, but apparently none of the other audience members noticed).   We applauded, of course, once the end credits rolled, and after some words from our director and producer (who presented each of the main cast with a card and a DVD copy of the film), we were treated (or subjected?) to the out-take reel.  We watched people pre-empt the call of “action!”, forget their words and struggle with props.  We watched the ‘Future Kids’ try to keep warm on a very cold day of shooting and the travails of the many and varied people who held the clapper board.

Certain scenes took up more of the out-take reel than others.  Most of these didn’t, thankfully, involve me, but there was one scene which I had entirely forgotten about.  This scene took place in a cinema auditorium (filmed in the same place as the Marty’s Project première was held) and featured three of the main characters along with some extras.  Due to the logistics of filming that day, the extras ended up being the director, cameraman, sound man etc. as well as one of the other main actors, well disguised and only half in shot so as to remain anonymous.  Even when the scene (which contained only five words) came up in the film, I didn’t remember shooting it, but as soon as the first out-take from it came up, it all came flooding back.  We were all tired and stressed, and we desperately wanted to get home to watch Doctor Who.  And so, of course, a few seconds of film became a near-impossible task.  We couldn’t arrange ourselves properly to make the shot work.  We had costume issues.  We’d get distracted by what shot number this actually was or the position of an arm which belonged to someone otherwise out of shot.  We’d dissolve into giggles.  We’d regain our composure then dissolve again.  The lines made us laugh.  The reactions of the others made us laugh.  The out-takes form a fascinating Singing Librarian character study.  At first, I’m messing around, but only because the director is as well.  Then, I’m struggling to get on with the business of shooting the scene (you hear me say “So…” quite a number of times, as I attempt to get back on track).  After everyone starts laughing, you see me struggling to contain myself, and managing.  And then, just as everyone else has regained their composure, you can see that I’m still struggling, and I lose the battle.

I don’t think I lend myself to screen acting all that well, but the filming process was fun and fascinating, and the première was a truly enjoyable experience.  I cannot judge my performance, or the film, objectively (but you may be able to – follow the link at the foot of this post to see for yourself), but I’m glad I did it, if only to have had such fun finding geeky t-shirts for my character and getting to walk up the red carpet.


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