Tuesday, May 19, 2009

No Pors Here

I am in an Internet café and the keys are sticky. There is a sign above by head that reads:


It is duly signed:


I voluntarily removed myself from Ben's house today, as he is busy applying for jobs and things, and so does not need me hanging around putting the cat on his head. All three of us tire of that quite quickly. We also tire quickly of me diving onto the computer as soon as he so much as lifts his hands from the keyboard. So I have left him in peace. Although I strongly suspect that as soon as I shut the front door he was frantically searching for some illicit porographs.

I like Internet cafés. I find the proximity of strangers makes it easier for me to blog, and write in general. Perhaps because, over the years, most of my blogging has taken place whilst avoiding work in busy offices. This is better, though, because I don't have to constant threat of senior members of staff asking awkward questions that force me to lie badly about a report that is "nearly done" or fabricate some kind of "problem with the photocopier".

Guerrilla busking was cool. I found it very nerve-wracking, what with all the daylight and in-the-middle-of-the-street-ness, but I'm so glad we did it. We were without a loop pedal in the end, but it didn't seem to matter. It was a bizarre feeling, singing to people in anoraks, leaning against bicycles or pointing cameras through the light drizzle. Some people stopped and put money in the hat, others just looked away quickly, as if somehow making a spectacle of oneself in the street might be catching. I loved the whole atmosphere of it, though. It felt so naughty. Although later on I was told that at no point did anyone try to stop any of the acts. It might have been more fun if we'd had the chance to stand up to some angry policemen, but that, I have been assured, was not the point of the day. There was some music played and money raised for an excellent cause.

The following day (Saturday) I went to work. To get to the café I walk through Piccadilly Gardens, and there I saw something that made me feel quite shouty. A big P.A. system, a huge red banner, and about thirty people wearing red t-shirts. Emblazoned across the t-shirts and the banner were the words "JESUS SAVES! (Manchester)." People were whooping their applause as one man finished speaking into the microphone by saying "If Jesus wasn't alive, I wouldn't be either!" He passed the mic on to someone else and he began in a similar vein. "I love Jesus! Who here loves Jesus?" More applause, and a bit of hugging.

Shoppers were crowding around, clutching bulging Primark bags and looking baffled. Probably about one hundred people had gathered so see what all the fuss was about.

Now, Piccadilly Gardens can't be an easy place to set up a camp like that without council permission. There is no chance that this demonstration, the message booming and echoing around the busiest part of Manchester on the busiest day of the week, was not sanctioned. Somebody looked at this proposal and thought it would be appropriate for a Saturday afternoon in one of the UK's most ethnically and religiously diverse cities, to allow people to spout their particular brand of propaganda into microphones turned up to eleven.

Jesus Saves! Fine, I thought, speak your beliefs. Fine, if the council thinks it's acceptable to have this group speak, then that's alright. (Although it isn't.) But, in the name of equality, surely they must offer the same opportunities to everyone else with a belief system. The Muslims, can they have a go? How about the Buddhists? And, pray tell, are you extending your microphones to the Scientologists?

I am all, as they say, for freedom of speech. But get a sandwich board and a megaphone, like the rest of the fucking crazies. If the council is allowing one group to take over a city centre on a busy shopping day, but not another, that is discriminatory and wrong.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I came to spend my Saturday night writing strongly-worded emails to the council. I wonder, have I got this wrong? Is it no worse than a big advertising campaign, coming down to who has the money to buy their way into people hearts and therefore wallets? I couldn't find anything about who it was, or why that particular day, so if anyone knows or can tell me anything about it I would be very interested.

So this Saturday I am singing at a wedding for someone in Coronation Street, in Salford Catherdral. Yikes. My solo is "We've Only Just Begun." I am quite scared.

But my fear will have to wait, as I have been here now for over an hour and I've got a hankering for some hardcore porography, so I'll have to go home.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gorillas! Busking!

Do you live in Manchester? Do you have a job that allows you to work whenever you like or, if you so choose, not at all? Do you have an appreciation for crispy duck pancakes with a musical accompaniment?

If you have answered 'yes' to the above questions, then I really must insist that you make you way down to the pagoda in Manchester's glittering China Town at four thirty this afternoon. There you can witness me and my be-hatted companion, Ben, performing a twenty minute set of our own devising, to the rain-smeared streets and, I imagine, a certain number of bemused-looking Chinese people. (Although if you are not free then, there are plenty of other acts on around the city - have a look.) In spite of a small but fairly drastic hitch when we realized that there is no power for the loop pedal, we're excited about it. We're doing two of my songs ('Song for Lori' and 'Surrender'), one of Ben's poems ('Bullets') ('Bullets'! He's so street!) and a mash-up version of Summertime. In one of the verses of Summertime I am going to beatbox! Well, I'm not, not really. I am going, in fact, to sing the bass line while Ben sings the lead, but to me it totally counts.

The drastic hitch arose this morning, when Ben was scurrying about packing things for his workshop. He frantically texted about it, trying to sort it out, whilst I sat on the bed, said "um" quite a lot, and tried to compose my facial features into 'concerned but not panicking'. It is still uncertain whether we will get the extra power. If not then we will just have to not use the loop pedal (there is an amp and two microphones, so it will not be so bad).

Over the past few days I have been down to That London and back, singing at the Dorchester, seeing friends, seeing my Mum and Dad. I managed to cock up my travel arrangements on a fairly massive scale, which culminated yesterday in my lovely Mum* driving me to Milton Keynes to try and bypass the Peak Times Of Death. I had an off-peak return Manchester-London, but had forgotten that those arch-warlords at National Rail deem that anyone travelling after three-fifteen in the afternoon should be forced to pay double the fare. I remembered this whilst having lunch with my Mum. I sat bolt upright, clutched my head and shouted "PEAK TIMES!". (She later told me that in the thirty seconds before I told her the source of my considerable consternation, she thought maybe I had forgotten to buy a copy of some little-known publication centred around the goings on of a National Park in Derbyshire. "I thought maybe they'd done an article on Ben... or something.")

Being the wonderful and kind person that she is, she drove me to Milton Keynes, an expedition that turned out to be completely fruitless as they charged me a peak ticket there as well.

Feeling glum and carrying a big rucksack and a heavy amp, I trudged to the ticket barriers, which were being manned by two identikit, acne-ridden teenagers with mid-nineties haircuts and suits that they were clearly hoping to "grow into".

I put my amp down to retrieve my ticket from my purse. The one on the right barely glanced at my ticket, but took a big sidelong look at the amp. He took a moment to think of something witty to say.

"That's a big amp" he eventually managed.

I looked at him and nodded slightly.

"Yeah. It's pretty heavy, too."

He had nothing left to add, clearly having exhausted his mental capacities earlier on in the conversation. I sighed and made a show of picking up the amp again, and began to make my way to the platform. Luckily his mate was there to pick up from where he'd left off.

"Cheer up, love."

I turned and stared at his sullen, twatty little face and laughed, bitterly. As I walked away, I said (under my breath) "What would cheer me up would be an offer of help with what is, as was helpfully pointed out just a moment ago, a very heavy fucking amp. Not being told to cheer up by a spikey-haired little cock monkey like you."

Luckily I got a good seat on the train, bought a gin and tonic, and took my frustrations out by telling the woman across the aisle from my to turn her music down. I suspected that when I got up to go to the toilet she turned it back up again, but the initial victory was mine.

So I am off to decide what to wear for my busking debut! I suspect it will involve bright colours, as today the sky has chosen "Manchester Grey" for its palate. I actually wanted to find two gorilla costumes, although Ben's would have to be rather longer than mine. I would wear mine with stilettos instead of feet, and Ben would have to wear a hat.

I have three hours to make it happen.

*Look! My Mum's on TV! (She's the nutritionist.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Australia (Warning: This Post Is Almost As Long As The Film)

It's May and things are going from good to better, to bad to worse, to great, to alrightish-once-I've-had-this-cup-of-tea-and-oh-is-that-a-muffin? to just life. I have far too many things to say in one post, so I will attempt to whittle them down. (I have failed to do any real whittling. More wittering that whittling, really. Sorry.)

Australia flew by in a flurry of dismal attempts to be upgraded on planes, gingham tents in garages, small, energetic dogs, beaches, kangaroos, sunsets, beer, sushi, birthdays and suspended vegetarianism. It was marvellous. My impulse when attempting to describe three weeks of holiday in a few sentences is to launch into detailed descriptions of the weather. I am going to resist, though, and try and tell you what the holiday itself was actually like. I will aim for brevity. (Again, FAIL.)

There were four of us visiting - Ben, his Mum, his Dad and me. Laura (Ben's sister) and her partner Rob live in a wooden floored house in the suburbs of Melbourne. Ben and I stayed in a delightfully-constructed gingham gazebo in the garage. (However, unlike any that I have seen, this garage was free of dusty boxes of crap, which made the experience considerably more pleasant for us.) Some days Laura and Rob were working, so we all took ourselves off on adventures around Melbourne. I hadn't realized quite how nice a city Melbourne would be. I have been to Sydney, Cairns, Brisbane and Darwin, and I must say I preferred Melbourne to all those places. It seems small and friendly, whilst also managing to be lively and a bit glamorous. What a clever balance to strike. At first I was a bit suspicious of all the happy, trendy people in the bars and cafés. It all seemed a little too perfect. Laughing trendily and sipping at excellent wine, they all had a joie de vivre that confused me. It seemed odd to me that nobody was screaming at their children or swearing at passers-by. Their skin was tanned, and not at all the shade of grey to which I have become accustomed. The sun was out, and yet all the men appeared still to be wearing their tops, and none of them were proudly sporting third degree burns. It was baffling.

I quickly found that, even without these simple home comforts, I felt pretty relaxed in Melbourne. Ben and I traipsed about taking pictures of the amazing graffiti in the lanes, and went to the achingly cool Until Never gallery. We did this on our own, so as not to bore his parents and sister with our joint love of street art, but there were plenty of family trips as well. We spent a few nights on Phillip Island, where we watched the penguins on their twilight journey from the sea to their hillside nests. We sat on the beach with our binoculars, peering at the little birds as they huddled together and ran across the sand. The following day we went to a wildlife reserve. By that point I had started to feel a little interesting-animaled out (we had seen some extremely soporific koalas that day), so trailed into the wildlife reserve without a great degree of enthusiasm. I was wrong, though, as it turned out to be brilliant.

Kangaroos and wallabies boinged freely about, eagerly nibbling the feed we had been given to offer them. At first I found the kangaroos inexplicably scary. I think it was the way that they could be right over there, looking idly at a piece of grass and contemplating life, then suddenly, at the merest rustle of a paper bag, they would have bounced over in a single, terrifying leap, nosing into your hands and slapping their great tails in the dust. I did a lot of hiding behind Ben's arm, until he managed to shake me off and I was on my own, nervously being eyed by ten hungry marsupials. They paled, though, in comparison to the emus, who were also freely stalking the sixty acre park. Huge, ungainly things, I couldn't help but interpret their cold stare as that of a gangster who is planning to wreak some terrible revenge on you, but who will psychologically torment you first by silently standing behind you while you are warily feeding kangaroos. Walking through the mob of emus (that is the actual collective noun, I looked it up) all I could think was I CANNOT OUT RUN THEM. THERE IS NOWHERE TO HIDE. Ben fed one, and it nearly snapped his hand off. I crept back to the kangaroos, who suddenly seemed like adorable newborn kittens in comparison.

My birthday was lovely. Ben made french toast for breakfast, complete with maple syrup, strawberries and cream, and delicious coffee. The rest of the family went off belt shopping, while Ben and I caught the tram into town, and wandered about, happily going to galleries and sipping Champagne. We saw some of the most amazing photography I've ever seen, an exhibition called On The Quiet Water by Yang Yongliang. (The photos on the website do not do justice to the incredible power of his work. It is somehow at once peaceful and apocalyptic. He combines ancient and modern methods to create awe-inspiring, delicate pieces that held us enraptured as we walked around.) After a delicious day, we needed to go back to Laura's, to meet up with the family, have a small slice of the lemon cake Ben had made for me the previous day, and go out for dinner.

We walked through Flinders Street station, and at once heard the telltale sounds of a group of beatboxers and rappers, otherwise known as a cipher. We watched for a bit, and then, after a bit of nudging from me, Ben joined in, energetically adding his own beatbox sounds to the group. I stood at the side, took pictures and grinned, wishing for the millionth time that I too could magically beatbox without actually having to do the hours of practice it would take for me to be any good.

Eventually we caught the train back, and after a quick turnaround and a bit of gift giving/receiving, we walked along the road to a lovely Japanese restaurant, where we devoured miso soup and edamame, after which they brought out three of those wooden boats piled high with sushi and sashimi. It was amazing, and by the time the taxi cam to whisk us into the city I was heady with sushi delirium.

Ben had found a place called Bennett's Lane Jazz Club, at which was performing a man called Mr Percival. We hadn't heard of him before, but the descriptions on the site of his use of loop pedals and vocal dexterity attracted us. We were not disappointed. As soon as he started his set it was clear just how wonderful his voice was, smooth and effortless. He started by looping the backing to Ain't No Sunshine, building it up with harmonies on top of harmonies. By the time he came in with the first line, we had been waiting in exquisite agony and so burst into applause. He continued like this, using three separate microphones and connected to three pedals, recording and playing back his voice as he leapt across the stage to manipulate the sounds. The most impressive thing, though, was that while he was doing all this, he was chatting with the audience, merrily inviting our participation and jokily making everyone feel completely relaxed. It was beautiful, but also seemed that we were witnessing myriad feats of engineering, using the technology to eliminate any need for anyone else to accompany him.

All throughout the first set, Ben and I were on the edges of our seats. Ben uses his loop pedal a lot in his work, and I love layering up vocals on my tracks, so we were both in awe of Mr Percival as he played with the pedals, and his voice, so expertly. It was no surprise then, I suppose, that in the second set, when Mr Percival was singing Superstition and asked whether anyone wanted to come and sing, I scrambled to my feet and practically bit the microphone out of his hand. Laura shouted out that it was my birthday, so after that he made a few more references to me. Later on, he decided to get a man up on stage, and selected Ben (as the Birthday Girl's boyfriend), who he seated on stage and forced to sing, while Mr Percival came to where I was sitting and began dancing with me. Ben sat, eyes squeezed shut, singing, until he had clearly had enough, and started to beatbox. Mr Percival's head whipped around, and he promptly threw me aside from the ballroom pose in which he was holding me and leapt up on stage.

They did a duet for the next few songs, and the audience couldn't believe it. Ben is an amazing beatboxer, and not unused to being up on stage, so together they whipped up everyone in the room into a voice-wizardry-induced frenzy.

After the show we chatted to him, and he and Ben gazed into one another's eyes, clearly each a bit in love with the other. I smiled, and tried to pretend that I didn't mind that Ben had totally stolen my thunder ON MY BIRTHDAY. I was secretly just really, really proud. Then we all went drinking.

It was a bloody marvellous birthday, all in all.

Actually, it was a bloody marvellous trip. I hated the flights as much as I always hate flights ("Ben, wake up. Wake up. My feet have turned into bear feet. I've got paws! Wake up!") but other than that I loved all of it. We ate in wonderful restaurants and saw some excellent comedy (Tim Minchin, marry me). I developed an allergic reaction to guide book speak ("browse the enchanting language of the enticing tourist information pamphlets, carefully crafted by people who think you're a moron to provide you and your family with an unforgettable experience that will transform you into people trying to work out the best way to end your own lives using a copy of The Lonely Planet"). I loved spending time with Ben and his family, and I love Melbourne.

Manchester had become green in the time we'd been away. Rainy, yes, but greener. Since being back I have found a nice little café job in the Craft and Design Centre, have a few gigs, including doing some Guerilla Busking this Friday. Ben and I are writing a proposal for a commission about words and music, which, if we manage to win it, would be shown at the Summer Sundae Weekender festival in Leicester. I am moving into Ben's house soon, as soon as there is room for my clothes, computer and terrifying costume jewellery collection.

Australia was brilliant, but I found myself glad to be back. Manchester is becoming home now.

I have to go and lie down now, after this epic post. Oh, and also because I have a cold so I need to go and moan quietly to myself whilst trying to learn words and come up with a groundbreaking idea for a commission proposal. Sniff.