Tuesday 1 December 2015

Llawr Sglefrio Caersŵs [Caersws Ice Rink]

Gwerddon yn yr anialwch iâ Cymreig (An oasis in the Welsh ice desert)

Leaflets have been everywhere in Aberystwyth advertising the new Caersws Ice Rink. We decided to go one night with our Dutch cleaner Grietje1 as they had a promotion offering half-price entry and a free advocaat for Dutch people. All the way there on the train we practised our Dutch, so that when we got to the entrance Grietje could do the talking, and all we had to do was stand behind her nodding, and saying things like Verkoopt u postzegels?, Hottentottententententoonstellingsterrein and Deze mevrouw betaalt alles to each other. This worked depressingly easily, and we all got discount entry and enjoyed our advocaats (although this last bit was challenging).

The rink is a good bit of entrepreneurial innovation by Powys County Council. Recognising the rapidly declining benefits of solar investment, and the precarious state of the County's schools, a large solar farm and medium-sized primary school (Ysgol Walter Watkins) were flattened to make way for the new development, thereby killing two birds with one stone (or lladd dwy frân â'r un ergyd as it is said in Welsh). Early ambitious plans to employ Daniel Libeskind as architect dissolved in acrimonious and rather vulgar arguments about how much you pay for the design of a frozen puddle; the resulting structure, while not perhaps a likely award winner, blends well into the countryside backdrop. The rink is one of the geographically best placed in Wales (see below), with comparatively good public transport in the form of buses and trains, while the Llangollen canal is only 30 miles distant, and Birmingham Airport can be reached in less than three hours.

Unusually, the designers did not use the normal "flat" ice approach, opting instead for a scale model of the nearby Pumlumon range in the Cambrian mountains, presenting the skater with ravines and crevasses aplenty.

Possibly intimidating for beginners, this certainly adds to the fun! An interesting economy measure is to have "one size fits all" skates for hire which can take a little time to get used to. Grietje has twice won the under-12 section of the 200Km Elfstedentocht,
the second time in a Scooby-Doo costume, and so it was no surprise that she brought her own skates. She also brought her Scooby outfit and it took some persuasion on our part to stop her putting it on. She eventually succumbed to reason, and the promise of being allowed to wear it on the journey home to mingle unobserved with the "last train" drinkers returning from Machynlleth to Aber.

Not much expense has been spared within. In addition to the novel ice design, there is a creche, bar and cafe. Unfortunately these were closed for refurbishment during our visit, so a review is not possible. (Grietje was actually rather miffed by this as we had promised her stroopwafel:

We tried to placate her with a one-day old marmite sandwich, but she just stamped her foot and shouted "Dat lijkt niet op voedsel" - all very embarrassing). There is a notice at the rink explaining that customer toilets will be installed in a few months time, but meanwhile there are facilities in the nearby Buck Hotel, although the landlord takes a dim view of skaters using them unless you also buy a drink or two. During our visit, most gentlemen just popped round the side of the building, which seems quite convenient.

So there it is for all your skaters, whether experienced, learners or just would-be's: the brand new Caersws ice rink is easy to reach, novel in many ways, and well appointed. Arriva run trains (in both directions) at least every two hours and there are several buses. This is an attraction to rival Aberystwyth's new bandstand.
Dutch nights are the first Tuesday of every month - Veel geluk/Pob lwc!

1. Some of the names in this article have been changed.

There are two other ice rinks in Wales:

Wednesday 2 September 2015

A 2015 face recognition challenge

Robert Fripp in Aylesbury, 1st September 2015: a review

Face recognition technology has come a long way, but given my own face, the best of systems would have matched at least half of the capacity audience at the Aylesbury Waterside last Tuesday evening. Yes, King Crimson were playing.

At 7.40, 7 people, dressed as for a funeral, came onstage and played, ultimately leaving at 9.40 to have a cup of cocoa and an early night. Rather like GYBE they chose not to say anything, but they did turn on the lights so we could see (and count) them. Mr Fripp played thousands of notes, the odd one of which that now and then - heard in isolation - could maybe have been played by someone else, but not many.

It was difficult on entering the auditorium not to notice three very large drum kits prominent at the front of the stage. Hmmm. As it turned out, they produced greater width than depth in the percussion, and were both a visual and auditory spectacle. These chaps knew what they were doing: impeccable and utterly faultless timing. We especially enjoyed the section where each drummer had three sticks in each hand - perhaps they each had three foot pedals going as well, it was hard to tell.

The mellotron defines a musical era. Of course, the electronics to produce that sound would now fit in something half the size of a box of Swan Vestas, and this was duly done in Aylesbury. When I saw Mr Fripp in Exeter in 1972, the stage was dominated by two mellotrons which took up slightly less space than three drum kits - a slight shame that this spectacle has fallen into history.

After exceptional applause and a delay befitting their egos, KC played a long encore. Local boy Jakko Jacszyk had a convincing Lake-a-like voice and the irony of playing In the Court ... was not lost on us. Nor yet was the über-irony of playing C21 S.M. 15 years into the century. Then the house lights came up, and I repaired to the King's Head with Spike and Matthias, where I forebore to sing word perfect versions of Cat Food or Ladies of the Road, both of which Mr Fripp had carelessly overlooked to exhume.

When I saw Mr Fripp in York in 1974, he maintained as always his silent still position at the rear of the stage while the orchestrated mayhem took place in front of him. Near the end of the show, he condescended to come to the front and gaze at us, saying "You do realise, if I were a guitarist from Slade you'd be throwing underwear at me by now"; then he reassumed his position and said no more. Amusingly, I travelled through Wolverhampton to see yesterday's gig.

As previously advertised I'm going to see them again in Birmingham on Monday week. Cannot wait.

Sunday 26 July 2015

The Ilala: paradise afloat on Lake Malawi

Planning my trip to Malawi, I found a description of the Ilala. "Oh Roger", said Kevin, "just look at the dents - you've got to go for a ride on that".

We went for a ride on it, alright! Space really does not permit a full description of the Ilala experience, but here are just a few of the highlights.

  • Booking for this (up to) 5 day trip is not something you do in advance - queue up with the others. There is a range of accommodations available and we took advice by going to the top of the list: the Owner's Cabin. Beds! En suite! More on this later.
  • The Ilala has lifeboats and lifejackets, so is very safe. More on this later.
  • We quickly found a map of the route:
    Some parts of this map were accurate.
  • On board catering had First and Second Class saloons: clearly, we were in First. No complaints about the menu, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate. "English breakfast" includes - of course - salad.
  • Shipboard entertainment was endless but informal. A group of South Africans boarded at Nkhotakota and asked the bemused bar steward (when he surfaced) for the deck quoits. I rather thought they were taking the Michael, until they explained that on their last Ilala voyage in the mid-80s, Deck Quoits had indeed been available.
  • The Ilala is a ferry, not a pleasure cruiser. This doesn't make "pleasure" against the rules of course - especially when watching it stop at intermediate points, at most of which there is no jetty, or water enough for tying up at shore. So it creeps up on the shore, stops engines, blows about in the wind a lot, and drops the lifeboats to ferry people to and fro. I do mean drops; also, the ferrying includes bikes, large sacks of maize, job lots of plastic buckets, etc etc. When it's breezy, this in Europe would be regarded as a high-risk activity, but in Africa it's routine for the regular travellers, and high entertainment for us. The picture shows the boats part loaded: they are very clearly marked "22 persons", and we think this number is intended as a minimum as we usually saw more than 30, plus attendant baggage.
  • When you're on a trip like this, you keep thinking "Well, I've never done that on a boat before." Quite a long list. "Having a bath on a boat" was a first, so we wasted no time in using the bathroom, which contained a lot more plumbing than is normal. The toilet flush [sic] was actually a tap mechanism; the bath taps did not work; the shower (out of view, above the bath) delivered a stream of tepid fluid. Bendigegig!
  • One of the Europeans to join us at Nkhotakota was an 18-yo from Cambridge; as a result of his trip planners reading the Ilala schedule [sic], he had arrived at Chipoka 4 hours after it departed, having taxied there straight from arrival at Lilongwe airport after an overnight flight. So he had to drive (= be driven) up the lakeshore in hot pursuit [pun]. Consequently he had gone 48 hours without sleep - let me tell you this makes people look pretty grim, and probably explains his confusion about the sun rising in the east - "But we're in the southern hemisphere - shouldn't it rise in the west now?".

    Anyway, hats off to the fellow, who was en route to Mozambique on a summer placement leading choirs (meaning he had some hours of travel remaining).

  • Let's gloss over my exit from the Ilala, which involved discovery of a loose plank at the bottom of the lifeboat when jumping down laden with my rucksack. 15 days on, the ankle is nearly healed. So goodbye Ilala.

    (My African spies tell me it broke down at Chipoka last week - rather sorry to have missed this part of the experience.)

Friday 17 July 2015

Elephants: reproduction, respiration and reintroduction

The image shows a depiction of elephant copulation, acquired in Thailand where this practice remains common. Some time ago, Welsh Celtic elephants (Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) Cambriae) decided to abandon this activity, and this is presumed to be one cause of their extinction. The reasons for their decision remain unclear.

The second image shows a troupe of Malawian aquatic elephants (Loxodonta africana aquaticus) crossing the River Shire (pron. Sheeray) earlier this month. Note the highly developed trunk which has a third eye at its tip, making it useful for vision and respiration simultaneously. Few other mammals have this facility. Rumours persist that a small community of Celtic aquatic elephants survive in Bala Lake, but this seems improbable.

The Bala rumour may become irrelevant next year after the reintroduction of Celtic elephants in Ceredigion: these will be released partly in an attempt to control the virulent invasive plant Miscanthus (elephant grass) that has self-sown in the neighbourhood of the IBERS experimental facility at Gogerddan.

For linguistic convenience, the reintroductions will be brought from Brittany, but they may well be crossed with the famously hardy and fecund Patagonian variety, giving a direct link back to the native species. During the Welsh migrations to South America 150 years ago, Welsh elephant numbers were already in steep decline, but a small number were taken with the emigrants to assist in cheesemaking. They took readily to the Argentinian climate and rapidly interbred with local elephants (Loxodonta americana patagoniae).

Thursday 28 May 2015

Things can only get better

While snacking with the Schwiegerfamilie in MGs, a party of sporty young men appear. One of them has a legend on the back of his t-shirt:
Tro Tawe 'di trefnu eleni
Mae Bangor yn trio bo'n ffyni
Mae Caerdydd yn snobs
Caerfyddin yn nobs
Bydd Aber yn ennill wrth feddwi

Those of us learning Welsh with the inestimable Rhiannon know how difficult a tongue it is, and we must take all opportunities to learn. This short poem will come in useful.

Gall pethau yn unig yn gwella (that's probably wrong).

Friday 24 April 2015

To Manchester, with 4 clear porpoises;
  1. To attend the Mount Sion steam crane on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal near Radcliffe. A wholly successful mission - the crane is present but looks unloved.
  2. To attend the very well preserved remains of a water powered beam pump, also near Radcliffe. Only partially successful, as the pump is on private territory and defended by awesome fences, wire, threatening notices etc etc. Some especially good industrial dereliction to be seen, however.
  3. To see first hand the enterprise No Elephants Please, also near Radcliffe. Unsuccessful - the house is in evidence with no commercial signage visible.
  4. To attend a concert by Godspeed you! Black Emperor in the marvellous Albert Hall. This did just what it said on the tin - as last time I saw [sic] them, they exchanged not one syllable with the audience and performed in darkness. The ambient lighting actually converted this to twilight so on this occasion I could count them. A tight 1h40m during which the building shook once or twice.

    Quick words of congratulation for:

    • The gentleman controlling the film loops - four projectors of the kind I used to see in my school physics lab., and umpteen literal loops of film hung around like laundry.
    • The support act, a gentleman playing solo. For 30m he issued a single tone (with harmonics), with much use of moving spots and strobes. The performance straddled sunset, which certainly created an atmosphere.
Porpoises have also already been seen in Aberystwyth harbour.

Friday 20 March 2015

Art Deco in Abergavenny/Dead dogs

I was able to use Dirty Protest's Cardiff performance of my play Mae Ben wedi marw (tr. Ben is dead) as cover for a trip to Abergavenny to see their 24-carat branch of Burtons.

These panoramic views are anomalous as the building is in fact apical. That may be clear from geometric oddities of the rectification (but Matthew Brown's Autostitch software is fantastic).

In case it is unclear, the branches advertised in the window lights are: Stockport,Halifax, Leicester, Darlington, Plymouth, Leeds, Wrexham, Manchester, Newcastle, London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Bradford, Belfast, Dublin, Bristol, Glasgow, Cardiff, Derby, Norwich, Dundee, Preston, Northampton, Edinburgh, Reading, Swansea, Portsmouth, Newport, Exeter, Southend, Blackburn, Bolton. It is now a crusade to capture those which I have as yet not seen first hand – many, of course, are victims of the Luftwaffe or town planners [sic].

As luck would have it, there was a magnificent partial solar eclipse this day, in cloudless skies; at its nadir I captured this very fine GviR 2110/1.

NB: The play was very well received by a capacity audience, as were the other seven presented on a platform of "New work by Welsh writers". Me - Welsh? Me - a writer? Bendigedig!
Here is a crap blurrrrrry picture of the excellent Hannah Jarman & Rhys Warrington performing my piece.

And big thanks to Sandy.

Monday 16 March 2015

Re-enacting the battle of Edgehill

Circumstance permitted me to attempt a one-man re-enactment of the battle of Edgehill (Warwickshire, 23rd October 1642) on March 13th. It remains very easy to capture a panoramic view of the battlefield.

Full accounts of manoeuvres can be read in a hundred places; here let it suffice to say that a large proportion of the field is inaccessible as it is owned by the MoD, which seems strangely appropriate. Ergo, no attempt at complete re-enactment was going to succeed, and I compromised with a gentle stroll around the prettier bits together with some isolated theatrical displays. Unsurprisingly, the local churches had some information to give.

Kineton was just behind the parliamentary lines on the day and would have seen a lot of action; I recreated a small piece of this outside the post office. In St Peter's church there's a dinky mermaid on Frances Bentley's tomb:

Radway is stationed at the base of the “edge” (bank) that was strategically important to the Royalist army on the day. Henry Kingsmill was interred in St Peter's church here after falling in the battle (beautifully re-enacted by me, if I may say so).

It reads:
Unsurprisingly, his Mum had to wait for the re-establishment of the Throne in the form of the debauched Charles II before putting this thing up.

Ratley is over the edge and was presumably a royalist haven on the day. Here's a nice picture of Mary Magdalene up to her old tricks (not really part of the re-enactment) in the church of St Peter ad Vincula:

The day was accompanied by a lowlight and a highlight.
  • Both of the Kidderminster restaurants billed as “the best curry in town” were closed, so I had to settle for a steak pie in the 3-Shires Cafe. It was not good.
  • Hard by Radway church was PB 1086272, a type 3204/1, numbered CV35 147 by RM. It's seen some use; in my view these look all the better when they have not been beautified by RM:

Friday 6 February 2015

A red letter day

I recently attended a talk where the meaning of "Red Letter Day" was explained. In illuminated manuscripts, the jolly nice red pigment was reserved for saints - it was important, you see.

Well - today is such a day.

I first saw Robert Fripp in the Exeter ABC in 1971 - dominated by Lizard. Then again in York in 1973/4 with Bruford, Muir and Wetton alongside. Then again in 198x at the Leeds Irish Centre with the League of Crafty Guitarists. To my abiding regret, I had to miss a gig in Manchester in the 90s with David Sylvian when I was ill - now of course never to be repeated.

But this year Spike and I will see him in Aylesbury on 1st September. With every chance of a second viewing in Birmingham.

I wonder if he remembers me?