30 August 2011

Whisky & Bears

Also known as: A Continuation of the Tale of My First Trip to Scotland, otherwise known as Part 2. See here for Part 1.

Having finished the last draft (I hope) of my thesis, I find myself with what is known as "a breather," in which I intend to catch up on all the things I've let slip. Such as you, dear reader. This breather will quickly be cut short, sadly.

I have to move out of Opal next week, and though I'm a little sad about that, I'm excited about my new place. Then I have to look for work. I know, I know. Work's for suckers.


It feels like ages ago that I sat on a train from Glasgow to Prestwick, anxiously brushing my hair and re-applying my eyeliner and mascara. My nerve was unravelling like a spool of thread hurled down a stairwell.

I was worried about meeting Mark's brothers. To be fair, one of them (Paul) is Mark's identical twin, to whom he is very very close, and the other (Steven) is his older brother, to whom he is also very very close. I'd already met Mark's parents (in a fluke accident involving strange timing and a Wetherspoon's), so I was only a little bit nervous about meeting them again. But Paul. It struck me then, and I might not be right, that Paul's opinion might matter more to Mark than anyone else's. Excepting, of course, his own. Or so I hoped.

And all that ugly nervous energy was completely wasted. Mark's brothers are super nice, friendly people who didn't take some unreasonable dislike to me at all.

During the next few days in Prestwick, I had such a lovely time walking along the coast in Troon, hanging out with Mark's friends and family, and drinking the occasional gin and tonic, that I didn't take a single picture.

There was a lot to think about. Riots had broken out down south, and we were glad that Paul was on holiday in Prestwick, rather than in his little apartment in London.

But other people (well, one person) took some pictures. I reproduce them here, without permission, but hopefully with gracious post-facto approval...

Mark and me at a bar called Caprice. Bonus: some people we don't know in the background.

Mark, his brother Paul and their friends. I'm sure you can tell which is Paul. If not, go read the beginning of this post again, you not-very-comprehensive-reader, you.

I didn't get any beautiful Scottish landscape shots. Next time. Until then, I will tell you this. The western coast of Scotland is gloomy on a rainy day, a beautiful kind of gloomy. Prestwick is a pretty suburban town with an international airport, charming little houses that all seem to have back gardens. The McWilliams back garden is especially pretty.

Okay, it's the only one I saw.


On my last full day, Mark and I visited Edinburgh. It was a gorgeous day, and we visited a tartan-facturing place. A tartanmill? A tartantuary? Tartanactory? I'm not sure.

I watched Mark do that thing that white people do, where they relate their surnames to ancient things, and know fairly well that they actually are from those ancient things. Weird. Brown people simply don't do genealogy like this, readers. We don't. We definitely do not have different patterns of cloth that are officially registered by the national government that once (and still do) represent our families. It's just another one for my "White People Is Crazy" list. Don't worry. My "Brown People Is Crazy" list is way longer. Stay posted for examples, coming forth in the next few days.

Then, we met up with his absolutely flipping hilarious friend Eric, and Eric's girlfriend Ailidh. She had to return a text, so she's in the background, holding the red jacket.

We saw the Scottish Parliament building, which is very strange looking on the outside. Mark suggested it looked like the opening titles of Saved By the Bell. From other angles, the likeness is more obvious.
But it's stunning on the inside. 

And I truly love that they put whisky bottles into the wood panel patterning. Design genius.

And Edinburgh is a beautiful town, with lovingly preserved old buildings and streetnames like "Fleshmarket Close." It's a charming place, and I can see why so many of dearest friends have, at some point in their lives, called it home. I wouldn't mind calling it home... but it is a bit hillier than Manchester. That took some getting used to. After a life in hilly cities, just one year in a flat one, and I've completely lost my hill-ankles.

Since the Fringe Festival was on, the whole town was busy and vibrant. We saw two men sitting at a card table outside a bar, offering free custom sonnets, written while you wait. They called themselves Whisky and Bears. I could not pass that up.

One of the guys was tall and jovial, with a funny moustache an apron and a hat. He told us how it worked: we pick three things, tell him our names, and he writes a sonnet. Right there. Then he reads it to us and hands it over. For free.

I hope that I will never in my life be able to pass that up. 

I noticed his accent and asked him where he was from, and he said he'd escaped Texas 10 years ago and was living in Munich now. My best memory of Texas is from a road trip my family took when I was about 7. We shared a bottle of Big Red soda, a failed attempt by the Big Red chewing gum company to make a foray into carbonated beverage.

The guy, Rob, exploded with a big huge laugh at the idea of Big Red soda, so we chose Big Red.
We chose E.T., because I have a zine about E.T. that makes me laugh everyday right now.
And we chose tartan, because we had tartan on the brain.

Rob's friend Matte stood by with a coffee while Rob wrote the sonnet, mumbling to himself and occasionally laughing at his work. And when Rob was finished, he spoke it for us, while Matte played the accordion!

Did you know, reader, that the accordion is one of my favourite instruments? 

This was a beautiful, beautiful moment. We tried to get it on video, but we were unsuccessful, so instead, I present you this:

Big Red is really chewy, also hot!
Unfortunately the weather here is cold.
I'd hoped it would be sunny, maybe not,
But it is nice here, just like y'all, is that too bold?

That tartan that we see here on the street

Is wonderful and me feel so glad,
Some people like to wear it head to feet,
Just don't let them hear you call it plaid.

I left my daughter just to do this show,
And every day she keeps on calling me,
And asking, "Papa, when will you come home?"
A little like that foreign guy, E.T.

I hope you find your sonnet quite a lark!
Good luck to you sweet Nija and good Mark.

cheers, Rob & Matte, Whisky & Bears
(right before he wrote that line about the tartan, we had actually *just* seen a girl band fully dressed in tartan dresses. And get this: they were from "Gallery Serpentine," an Australian goth shop that was on Enmore Road in Sydney– the same road I worked on for two years! What a coincidence, right?)

Despite our best-laid plans, Mark and I only left ourselves about 10 minutes to eat dinner, so we decided on a takeaway. Now, I will be honest with you, reader. I am a student. I live in the UK. And I had not yet eaten food from a kebab/pizza/chips/burgers takeaway. Hell, I had not eaten from any takeaways. This was my first.

It was actually a pretty delicious pizza. Mark got some chicken thing. We ate sitting on the footpath, on some concrete steps. And when I say "we ate," reader, I mean "we scarfed." We scarfed takeaway food on a footpath.

It doesn't sound romantic, does it? Well, to be fair, it wasn't.

The Richard Herring comedy show was hilarious. Entitled "What is Love, Anyway?" as an homage to Howard Jones and to the question we all start asking ourselves the moment someone we don't really even like says they love us, this comedy show broke my face. I couldn't breathe. He read us some poetry about love he'd written when he was 17. That is always funny. Always funny. I liked his comedy... it didn't do a lot of making fun of anyone but him.

After the show, we ran to the train station, hoping to catch the early one back to Prestwick, but we didn't make it, because I am short. So we sat in Glasgow Central, re-telling Herring's jokes to each other, laughing, yawning, and not thinking about the next day, when I would get on the train to Manchester.

We didn't know it yet, but the riots had already spread to Salford, Manchester's poor conjoined twin sister...

29 August 2011

A Kickass Ring

A few weeks ago, I visited Scotland. I wanted to visit Mark, and I had never been before, so you know. Two birds with one Starburst, as it were.

That is a deep cut. Allow me to remind you what I'm talking about. Taken at Sydney's Taronga Zoo.

Mark grew up (and his parents still live) in a town called Prestwick. It's in Ayrshire, on the West Coast of Scotland. To get there from Manchester, you have to ride to Glasgow and change trains, so decided to spend a few hours in Glasgow on our first day, before heading on to Prestwick.

Glasgow, as many of you already probably know, is a little bit wonderful. It's pretty, but a bit rough. People fight in the streets at night. It's got nice pedestrianised areas, but it's got some trashy-looking streets, too. There's something about that mix that makes me go all wide-eyed.

We spent most of our time in Glasgow walking along this big pedestrianized street, with huge old buildings. The first floors had mostly been modernised into glass-fronted shops, but if you looked up...

Glasgow is, of course, filled with Art Nouveau details like that, largely because it is the home of the Glasgow School of Arts, best known for The Four or the Spook School. Now, The Four are not a terrorist group or a boy band. They were artists: sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald and their husbands, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair.

And the city is covered with typefaces they designed and filled with a style they largely created. In fact, Glasgow is so suffused with Art Nouveau, I could imagine it getting a bit tiresome after awhile. Just like I imagine that after a very long time living in Barcelona, I would be annoyed by all the Gaudí stuff everywhere... No, you're right. I would never get tired of that place.

We spent a lot of the day in the Gallery of Modern Art, because I'd heard of a British contemporary art exhibition going on there. I don't think Mark generally goes into art museums, but he was quite happy that I'm the kind of person who does, because the building was amazing.

Some of the exhibition was really fantastic as well, but the building took my breath away.

We sat outside and had some coffee, and Mark got bored waiting for food, so he took pictures of me. This is what I look like lately.
That's right. Sarcastic. That's how I look. And very sunny.

Glasgow is also a place where tall poppies tend to get cut down pretty quick. And you can't get much taller a poppy than Wellington. So, the built a statue to him, and then quickly proceeded to develop a tradition mocking said statue with a traffic cone and a funny hat on top of it. Ah, Glaswegian spirit, I suppose.
Mark had a job interview the day before we went to Scotland with a law firm called Leathes Prior in Norwich. So, while we were in Glasgow, every text, phonecall and email carried a jolt of excitement and nerves. Suddenly, he looked at his little screen... an email... from Leathes Prior. I told him to open it RIGHT NOW, MISTER. He looked at me after a few moments, and said, "I've been offered..." I screamed as loud as I could manage, given that we were in an art gallery, hugged him, and said, "Let's get out of here, you gotta call your mom, let's go have a pint!"

On the way out, I stopped into the gift shop. Sometimes gift shops have cool things. Not usually, but sometimes. Mark was in a daze over getting the offer, and my eye caught on the ring I'm wearing in this picture. It's like a giant red button.
I wasn't sure about buying it, but Mark said I should. It was cute and only £3, he said, I should have it. So, I walked over to the counter, handed it over with some cash. As I was getting my change, Mark said, "Oh! Oh, no, wait, I wanted to buy that for you!"
"Too late," I said, "Be quicker next time."
"I was distracted about the job," he said, "I really wanted to buy you that."
"Here," he said, trying to hand me some money, "Let me pay you for it, then it'll be like I bought it."
That is not ok. Am I right, ladies? I'm right.

It was better this way, too, because poor Mark felt bad all weekend, every time anyone said they liked my new ring. And everyone liked it. Because it is a kickass ring.

After getting the big news, we tried to walk around Glasgow a little more, but I felt like Mark was really looking forward to seeing his family and celebrating his job. I would have been happy to just go, but he insisted on walking up to the Cathedral (which would have been beautiful, I'm sure, but was mostly covered with scaffolding).

The gardens were pretty, though.
And we caught an awesome bagpipe band rehearsal.
And on the way up there, I found another fabulous door, to go into my ever-growing collection, and someday photobook, entitled Awesome Doors I Found While I Was Looking for Something Else.
A close up.
Eventually, though, we couldn't bear the excitement alone any longer. We headed toward Prestwick, where a congratulatory celebration was waiting.

More tomorrow! Prestwick! Edinburgh! Readers! I'm back!

04 August 2011

Audio Obscura

A little over a month ago, when I went to a literary event at Piccadilly Station, I did not imagine I would have occasion to attend another, not just within the same year, but within the same quarter of one.

Manchester, however, is a city full of surprises. The Manchester International Festival was full of exciting, cool events. 

Audio Obscura was put together by renowned poet Lavinia Greenlaw, and again used the backdrop of Piccadilly Station to introduce questions of private lives in public spaces.

Mark was coming into town that weekend, so I met him at the train station. We got our headphones, hit play, and started walking around the station, listening to a pre-recorded 1/2 hour soundscape loaded onto an .mp3 player.

Now, I really enjoyed Station Stories. I thought it was awesome. And I was hoping to be duly impressed with this event as well.

But I just wasn't.

The 1/2 hour soundscape, by virtue of being pre-recorded, rather than performed, felt less dynamic. It was decidedly less interactive, as people who were unaware of the event didn't involved at all (compare that to how David Gaffney's story forced unaware people to get involved). Which also meant that listening to Audio Obscura also felt more insular.

Also, the soundscape didn't have clear narrative... it was much more poetic, which shouldn't surprise me, considering it was written by a poet. Several different voices, speaking unconnected thoughts. Occasionally, you'd hear a strand left and picked up again, but just as often, you wouldn't. Maybe it's just me, but I believe in narrative.

I also felt the thoughts being voiced were far too intense. Yes, personal dramas do happen at train stations. But not for most people, not all the time. There was too much anger, too much intensity for it to feel... possible. Only one of the speakers was reciting banal thoughts about not being able to find his platform, which I think is probably far more common. It would have been interesting to intersperse more of that into the soundscape, I think.

But I think the biggest problem for me might have actually been intended. Because no one was performing these thoughts, which were being cast into my brain, I had no one to "stick" them onto. I just ended up putting them on whomever I saw at any point in the station. I was constantly casting about to see who these thoughts might fit with... and I started to feel very irresponsible. Surely, that woman isn't thinking about murdering someone, she's just returning a dress to the Monsoon. It felt voyeuristic, attaching these angry, intense thoughts onto passersby. It felt unfair. Maybe we weren't meant to try to attach those thoughts onto anyone, but I know I couldn't help myself. Neither could Mark. 

We took off our headphones and looked carefully at one another before I finally broke the silence. "That wasn't nearly as good as Station Stories."
He, of course, hadn't been to see that excellent event, but he'd read my blog about it.
"No, it doesn't seem like it was."

We returned the headphones, feeling slightly disappointed, and went to meet some friends down the pub...

More MIF stuff:

Wagner: I had won 4 free tickets to see a preview of the MIF performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle. The performance opened with a specially commissioned new prologue that vaguely told the story of how Wagner wrote the opera, using actors and the symphony. It was brilliant.

Then, after intermission, they performed a part of Die Walküre. The singing and music were absolutely fantastic. My only complaint was that they projected English subtitles on the walls... and when faced with words I can read, I just can't stop myself.

The opera lost a lot in translation, as any song does. But more than that, the words of this opera are banal and boring and they make you wonder why these lyrics are being sung with such passion... 

For example, and these are not quotes, they are just things I remember and thus may not be perfect:

"Brünnhilde, where have you been?"
"I had work to do."


"Father, have I shamed you so that you make me thus full of shame? Have I debased you so that you now make me so base?"

And so on... 

It would be better, for me at least, to just hear the singing, not understand the words, and appreciate the music.

Wu Lyf: I'd heard about this band on my friend Joe Sparrow's blog A New Band A Day. Check it out. It's awesome. He was over them by the time this show happened (he's a hype-maker, so he sees past the hype quicker than the rest of us). But I bought tickets because a) I'd never heard them before, b) they're young and seem exciting and fun, and c) the show was going to be in a tunnel.

I convinced some friends to come along, and in the end, it was a good time. I think I probably like Wu Lyf's music at least enough to listen to it, but:
1) A tunnel is not a good venue for a band. The acoustics were horrendous.
2) A band needs good sound people. Apart from the acoustics, their mix was really bad. You could barely hear the guitar.
3) Depending on where you're standing, the crowd can either be amazing and wonderful or total pricks. 

I began the show standing in a section of the latter. I could not believe all these people had paid and come out to talk to each other. They shouted at each other throughout, not even listening to the music, not dancing, nothing. Once we moved to another section though, closer to the stage, we had a much better time, listening to the band, rather than the pointless shouted conversation of a hipster clique. I really don't get it. 

I went to a bunch of other MIF events, but I don't have anything to say about them except this: I really liked the MIF. I liked how the city felt while it was on. It world-premiered huge amazing shows, and even New York Times wrote articles about Manchester during that month. It made the city hum and buzz and feel alive, and you had a reason to just head into the city and see what was going on. I loved it. I'm looking forward to the MCR Literature Festival and the MCR Science Festival, because I'm hoping they'll just be nerdier versions of the MIF. I can't wait.

Quick note: I don't love doing posts without photos, but I seriously did not take a single photograph of an MIF event. Bad blogger. I will learn my lesson. As of tomorrow morning, I am headed to Scotland, and I will definitely take pictures. I am visiting Mark. At his parents' house. And during the weekend, I will meet his twin brother and his older brother. And his best friends. No pressure, then.