Tuesday 12 November 2013

Lorem Ipsum

Normally, when I make books, I get the text, edit it, then lay it out on the page, finding images and fitting them around the text appropriately. Other times, I am required to design the pages first and fit the text in afterwards. I much prefer the former way of working, as I believe the text should come first. The visual elements should be secondary and complementary. One thing that makes me feel old – with increasing frequency these days – is my staunch inability to ditch my outdated bias towards content over style.

When it is necessary to do the design work first, InDesign lets you flow "dummy" text into the pages, so that you can see how the typography will look before you get the real text.

In publishing terminology, this dummy text is known as "Lorem ipsum" text. It consists of tiny fragments of a treatise by the 1st-century Roman philosopher/polititian Cicero, entitled De finibus bonorum et malorum ("On the Limits of Good and Evil"). These phrases are then swapped, scrambled, expanded and randomized to produce a unique text of any length.

It's fascinating to read. As literature, it reminds me of Finnegans Wake translated into Latin. Undergoing endless permutations, it never repeats, yet it retains the grandly oratorical and ironic style of Cicero's original. It is, therefore, an eternal treatise, an everlasting monologue on good and evil. Due to its aleatory mode of composition, no two versions are identical, so any "Lorem ipsum" you create is individual to you. It is surely to be declaimed, chanted, out loud, like a poem, a meditative incantation, slowly with feeling. Try it. Remember to breathe.

The irony is that each individual's personal meditation upon the limits of good and evil is itself limitless. An eternity is required to grasp such divine forms. Like William Wordsworth, all we can achieve within a human timescale is a Prelude to the Immortal Poem of Eternal Revelation. These texts, therefore, are about the process of search, not the product of revelation. They represent the ultimate comic tragedy: the triumph of style over content.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nunc sed luctus mauris. Mauris leo justo, malesuada quis semper sed, laoreet et erat. Etiam pellentesque erat libero, vel vulputate lacus cursus sed. Duis euismod tellus sed nulla scelerisque, vel semper arcu dictum. Suspendisse cursus felis quis mi tincidunt pretium. Morbi consectetur semper dapibus. Cras tempor diam et tempor fringilla. Pellentesque ornare luctus faucibus. Nulla quis pharetra elit. Aenean et gravida ipsum. Maecenas imperdiet molestie lacus, non pretium augue sagittis vitae. Donec pellentesque ullamcorper nulla, sit amet interdum nisl pharetra eget. Pellentesque risus sem, facilisis in vestibulum ut, pretium vel libero. Vestibulum porttitor vestibulum nulla, et aliquam risus adipiscing vitae.
Vivamus mauris diam, ultricies quis urna facilisis, bibendum gravida orci. Ut purus sapien, sollicitudin sed euismod at, congue et turpis. Praesent et arcu consectetur, mollis purus sit amet, blandit massa. Proin diam massa, gravida non dui non, vestibulum dignissim nisi. Nunc tellus purus, suscipit vel hendrerit eget, dictum a tortor. Ut eu hendrerit lorem. Mauris luctus massa at orci imperdiet eleifend.
Morbi suscipit libero nec lorem molestie, a semper nunc varius. Proin faucibus facilisis dolor aliquam luctus. Curabitur ornare dui ut imperdiet bibendum. Nam quis porta eros. Quisque mattis, leo et aliquet sollicitudin, justo diam ultricies dui, ultricies tincidunt lectus justo at ipsum. Morbi gravida nisi in arcu dapibus, eu condimentum arcu cursus. Mauris tempus augue velit, et fermentum quam malesuada eu. Sed tempor sapien felis, quis rutrum turpis porttitor at. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Mauris imperdiet orci nec feugiat feugiat. Phasellus ut porta turpis, sit amet facilisis nunc. Proin nec lorem posuere, laoreet elit vitae, tincidunt neque. Aliquam elementum ante magna, sed elementum neque porta sit amet. Sed feugiat dictum orci, nec commodo neque porttitor in. Quisque dictum arcu pellentesque auctor tincidunt. Integer tempus, orci vitae porttitor porttitor, diam eros vehicula nulla, at sollicitudin elit augue et velit.
Praesent porttitor at lorem vel convallis. Pellentesque sit amet dui faucibus, aliquet velit eu, facilisis nisi. Nullam faucibus semper lectus. Morbi nisi felis, pellentesque non suscipit a, porttitor sed lectus. Proin sed magna eget leo adipiscing condimentum sagittis in orci. Fusce ornare urna magna, id facilisis elit consectetur nec. Sed a eleifend orci. Nunc aliquet ut metus non condimentum. Nam accumsan enim enim, non lobortis nibh rutrum nec. Sed vestibulum ante a pretium egestas. Quisque ac ipsum accumsan, gravida quam sed, euismod dolor. Quisque quis justo nisi. Quisque orci erat, venenatis at diam quis, auctor rutrum ante. Vivamus laoreet arcu erat, et blandit ligula ultrices sit amet.
Fusce a tortor aliquet, vehicula tortor nec, tincidunt tortor. Suspendisse porta, velit vel eleifend tincidunt, justo ante ornare risus, sit amet posuere sapien libero at dolor. Nulla venenatis pretium tortor nec dapibus. Fusce blandit lacus sed lorem accumsan mollis. In posuere arcu nec tellus elementum, at iaculis nulla pharetra. Curabitur quis tellus vel leo ullamcorper mattis. Nam vestibulum volutpat neque sed eleifend. Proin augue odio, lacinia quis tincidunt eget, mattis ut eros. Fusce non tristique nisi. Donec lacinia, nisl at accumsan dapibus, est dui interdum velit, facilisis rhoncus leo mauris non risus. Duis massa nisl, varius vel dolor et, pharetra volutpat eros. Nullam varius sapien nulla, ut viverra nisl dictum eu. Morbi pharetra nunc lorem, et sagittis augue fringilla nec. Integer sed feugiat enim. Quisque vel risus lorem. Etiam eget justo vehicula, pulvinar nisl nec, semper metus.
Etiam vestibulum auctor est, nec commodo quam posuere lobortis. Proin consequat nec libero consectetur feugiat. Quisque id gravida purus. Duis vitae nulla sed velit lobortis lobortis. Duis id sapien odio. Proin adipiscing lacus at purus fringilla, ac commodo diam rutrum. Donec risus mauris, suscipit ac elementum sed, tristique non massa.
Donec dui lorem, pharetra ac velit vel, accumsan viverra arcu. Fusce convallis nec mauris at fermentum. Integer in sapien eu elit faucibus congue. Nulla quis tempus risus, id adipiscing justo. Mauris ac augue quis eros luctus laoreet. Aliquam neque diam, interdum sed mi vitae, commodo gravida sem. Maecenas sed urna id dolor consectetur egestas nec in libero. Vivamus risus odio, porta vitae turpis ut, pharetra eleifend sapien.
Fusce adipiscing metus at est iaculis semper. Vivamus varius vestibulum nulla. Maecenas volutpat viverra posuere. Nullam consequat suscipit auctor. Nulla in odio sit amet libero lacinia fermentum sed a nisl. Nunc at nunc mattis, posuere sem non, aliquet turpis. Suspendisse dui ante, facilisis vel massa sit amet, euismod vestibulum diam. Vestibulum mauris orci, laoreet id placerat ac, laoreet lacinia justo. Donec semper tempus arcu, ac tempor velit egestas ut. Donec nec lobortis tortor. Ut non sodales augue, eget tincidunt nulla. Praesent tincidunt purus accumsan accumsan fermentum. Donec a turpis dolor. Pellentesque orci elit, dignissim eu rutrum at, accumsan nec augue. Curabitur felis libero, elementum vitae accumsan sit amet, gravida ut urna. Aliquam ut sagittis mi.
Donec et convallis elit. Maecenas et imperdiet libero. Nam ac laoreet arcu. Pellentesque rutrum mollis velit et viverra. Nunc gravida vel leo id lobortis. Proin metus quam, posuere ut fringilla id, dapibus quis mauris. Nulla scelerisque nisi vitae nisi consequat, vel porta lectus dignissim. Cras pharetra vitae dui a eleifend. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Sed dignissim magna sed tellus malesuada vulputate. Etiam interdum commodo dui, non hendrerit lectus mattis sit amet.
Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae; Curabitur pellentesque lacus eu ipsum consectetur luctus at sed quam. Mauris justo diam, venenatis in porta id, molestie at nibh. Praesent vel elit quis massa ullamcorper tristique convallis vitae lorem. Morbi sed purus elit. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Mauris sodales nec mauris et molestie. Nullam vel quam non risus sodales vehicula sit amet eu metus. Mauris sollicitudin arcu sit amet nibh sagittis luctus. Aenean aliquet odio a est luctus suscipit.
Nullam sit amet scelerisque dui, ut hendrerit metus. Maecenas lobortis scelerisque quam vitae adipiscing. Proin quis blandit odio. Etiam vestibulum dignissim varius. In semper, urna eget porttitor malesuada, ante mauris convallis leo, vel lacinia eros nisi id erat. Ut tincidunt pulvinar turpis, eget iaculis orci accumsan at. Nunc at nisl quam. Integer rhoncus egestas erat a porta. Nulla vel quam lacus. Sed varius erat ante. Vivamus nec viverra tortor, vitae porta nisl. Vestibulum placerat turpis vitae turpis condimentum, nec euismod felis placerat. Pellentesque et ullamcorper justo. Nunc bibendum malesuada nisi sed vestibulum. Cras faucibus, lectus id tincidunt laoreet, purus elit ornare metus, sodales aliquam nulla eros vitae ipsum.
Donec semper odio dui, vitae ullamcorper magna aliquam vitae. Integer sit amet vestibulum lacus. Aenean sed malesuada diam. Cum sociis natoque penatibus et magnis dis parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Morbi orci tortor, euismod ut ante et, sodales eleifend neque. Curabitur tincidunt nulla dapibus, sagittis nibh sit amet, adipiscing sapien. Vivamus luctus mauris sit amet imperdiet malesuada. Nunc varius placerat condimentum. Suspendisse arcu lectus, suscipit id neque ut, consequat gravida odio. Etiam molestie eleifend risus. Aliquam rhoncus placerat odio, ut porta erat molestie sit amet. Pellentesque turpis est, bibendum quis mauris sit amet, vulputate dignissim turpis.
Vestibulum non ante sed ipsum placerat rutrum. Phasellus non pharetra tortor. Vivamus nec risus quis massa vulputate sagittis id at nulla. Nunc at fringilla dui, eget consectetur libero. Fusce nec dui magna. Nam auctor, massa at rutrum mollis, dui justo fermentum turpis, quis egestas nisi risus vitae lectus. Nunc pretium condimentum lectus, nec auctor arcu malesuada at. Donec placerat tellus augue, at imperdiet quam viverra non. Sed ut eleifend mauris, id facilisis justo. Vestibulum lectus nisl, euismod a semper vel, pellentesque at magna. Maecenas ligula odio, viverra a pulvinar id, dignissim at urna. Fusce gravida imperdiet orci quis dignissim. Maecenas at nisi molestie massa euismod tincidunt sit amet sed nisl. Sed gravida metus quis eros scelerisque dapibus.
Morbi egestas arcu turpis. Maecenas eget sem quis ligula egestas varius sit amet ullamcorper tellus. Nulla facilisi. Etiam eget eros imperdiet, ultricies libero porttitor, eleifend neque. Nulla vulputate sollicitudin sapien non feugiat. Mauris vel orci nibh. Nam in odio mauris. Donec ut nibh venenatis, convallis nulla ac, accumsan nulla. Mauris vitae consectetur tortor. In pretium id sapien vitae ullamcorper. Praesent varius orci enim. Pellentesque commodo quam augue, consectetur elementum augue tempor ac.
Proin at augue interdum, volutpat neque et, aliquam odio. Sed euismod eu nisi sit amet elementum. Ut sed metus elit. Cras feugiat risus at sem pharetra, iaculis gravida arcu pellentesque. Sed eu ipsum ut est gravida commodo semper sit amet sem. Donec dui tortor, ullamcorper euismod turpis volutpat, interdum eleifend urna. Maecenas volutpat mauris in tincidunt ornare. Nunc vulputate lectus eget urna commodo fringilla. Integer id velit lorem. Suspendisse id suscipit eros.
Duis fringilla a tortor vitae facilisis. Maecenas sollicitudin viverra risus volutpat consectetur. Duis venenatis a nulla a suscipit. Integer eu imperdiet neque. Mauris id faucibus purus. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae; Etiam blandit felis odio, non vulputate magna lacinia eget. Aliquam porttitor interdum enim vitae ultrices. Cum sociis natoque penatibus et magnis dis parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Sed ante urna, placerat viverra purus et, posuere luctus est. Vivamus suscipit velit nibh. Proin lobortis, odio ut vestibulum pellentesque, ante mauris tristique dolor, sit amet rhoncus nunc purus in elit.
Nunc viverra ullamcorper justo, sit amet lacinia elit tincidunt vel. Sed sit amet auctor lacus, et fermentum metus. Etiam ut diam a sapien imperdiet adipiscing in gravida odio. Curabitur vulputate fermentum leo ut lacinia. Curabitur condimentum lacus non enim commodo elementum. Proin at semper tortor. Vestibulum eget accumsan magna. Vestibulum dignissim nibh id ante vestibulum tristique. Nullam porttitor risus ac orci lobortis consequat. Praesent eleifend dapibus mattis. Maecenas ut varius tellus. Fusce eget malesuada lectus. Etiam sit amet sem lobortis, tempor massa vitae, interdum erat. Aliquam sodales malesuada nisl, at cursus enim aliquam non. Aliquam sed lectus porta, fringilla lorem vel, placerat tellus. Ut ut dolor nisi.
Nullam vitae facilisis purus, a molestie arcu. Nullam vitae nunc ac lorem rhoncus aliquet. Praesent tristique rutrum rhoncus. Proin sollicitudin congue orci ut tincidunt. Pellentesque accumsan facilisis nisl, non fringilla libero rutrum vel. Praesent vitae odio diam. Cras ornare suscipit nisl rhoncus fringilla. Suspendisse sodales felis eget nisl consectetur pellentesque. Suspendisse potenti. Praesent ac tincidunt sem.
Aliquam blandit turpis vel fermentum tempus. Donec sodales tellus eu orci auctor, et placerat ante cursus. Fusce eu rutrum felis. Nullam sed ligula eu orci blandit blandit. Maecenas fermentum vestibulum lorem eget dapibus. Mauris iaculis est in accumsan auctor. Pellentesque vel felis in nunc dictum dapibus. Quisque pretium et magna nec pellentesque. Nulla sit amet laoreet erat. Sed suscipit urna est, ut semper arcu dapibus eu. Vivamus at augue nec augue placerat ullamcorper quis quis justo. Proin feugiat neque ac felis fermentum, non sagittis ligula elementum. Aliquam scelerisque libero eu tortor pellentesque, id vehicula elit tempus.
Nullam ultricies vel dolor vitae hendrerit. In eget fringilla turpis, a dictum leo. In lectus ligula, congue id accumsan sed, feugiat eu tortor. Pellentesque vel viverra nulla. Morbi in dui eget leo mattis adipiscing at et magna. Pellentesque venenatis fringilla tellus, sed malesuada erat fringilla vitae. Sed vehicula libero vel leo semper luctus. 

Tuesday 20 August 2013

For I will consider my Cat Elliott

Most people think that Elliott is named after T.S. Eliot, the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. This is untrue. Elliott ("two ls, two ts") is the name that was assigned to him by the Mayhew Animal Home, "Obviously," we were told as we took him away, "you'll want to come up with your own name for him." Why? Elliott is a perfect name.

Elliott and I share many character traits. We are both scruffy, bad-tempered, lazy, cowardly and habit-driven. Like me, he is stoical and avoids confrontations at every cost. Like him, I am both introverted and attention-seeking. 

It is probably no coincidence that we're so alike. I am his principal role model, and I can see myself reflected in him. In some ways he is the truest reflection of me there is. Unlike self-portraits that I consciously construct myself, he doesn't seek to flatter me. The status relationship is coolly practical rather than emotional. His affection for me is entirely on his terms rather than mine. I have far more to learn from him about what I will put up with than he from me.

He was born on New Year's Day 2008, making him, in cat years, almost exactly the same age as me.  When he was little, he was skittish and shy, but he is entering a more comfortable middle age. His reputation among local cats is now assured, this having been achieved not through screeching fights and growling stand-offs, but rather by having the patience to simply wait until he was the largest cat in the neighbourhood.

Although he remains just as messy and grumpy as he was when he was a kitten, he has lately taken up some new hobbies. He spends much more of his time on windowsills, showing himself off and keeping a close eye on the weather. When out and about, he is more active now than when he was a younger. He catches birds, plays with string and goes on adventures. By far the most remarkable of his new achievements is his sudden enthusiasm for climbing, which has really taken off in the last three months. Although he doesn't have the physique for lithe verticalism, he will propel himself up fences and trees like an unguided rocket.

Seeing myself reflected in Elliott, I find it encouraging that it is not too late to learn fresh skills and adopt new habits, while simultaneously reaping the rewards of apathy.

Friday 9 August 2013

I am a Filthy Pervert

It's time I confessed: I am a filthy pervert.

I've been spending too much time online, returning to the same few websites. What began as an unhealthy obsession has degraded into a debilitating addiction. After each session, I feel clammy and ashamed.

I've been reading Edinburgh Fringe Festival reviews. All of them. Not just reviews of my friends' shows. Not just the comedy shows. Not just five-star or one-star reviews. All of them. And there's no shortage. The more of these I read, the less I know about the shows, about the Fringe, about criticism, or about creativity in general. My enthusiasm for life in general diminishes with every mouseclick. Yet on I go, ushered on by a demon wearing a lanyard: Broadway Baby, Three Weeks, The List, The Scotsman, The Skinny, Fringe Review...

I begin each review with a quantum of curiosity, but with each passing sentence, that initial interest sours into irritation, then boils into anger. Then I hate myself, rub my eyes, remind myself that I need a holiday, and click on the next review.

I confessed my addiction to Alex Fradera at his birthday drinks last night. He advised me to take a place on the next step of the critical staircase, and begin reviewing the reviewers. This proposal only makes sense if reviews of reviewers are themselves reviewed by higher reviewers, and so on, up the pyramid, until the eye of an all-illuminating God delivers his final judgment upon the entire edifice: "Yes" or, more likely, "No".

While the content of the reviews is invariably at hilarious odds with the star-rating (which is presumably added by a hungover editor afterwards), it's hard to categorise them in any other way with equanimity.

Five- and four-star reviews tend to numb my muscles and give me the sweats. Like a cake covered in too much sugary icing, the delighted superlatives bury the content of the show. Rarely do gushing reviews negotiate or explain anything. I feel as if I am a weary parent being dragged into a toyshop by a spoilt child. "C'mon! This is where you must go!" It's off-putting.

I have far more sympathy for the recipients of one- and two-star reviews. I like to think that somewhere underneath all those Anglo Saxon sighs, tuts and eye-rolling, I might excavate an idea of that performance that had (at the very least) good intentions and a plan (however misconceived) that someone once thought was worth pursuing. I may be wrong. I can only guess. I will never know. A kitten dying of cancer is less sad than a world-weary two-star review.

The vast majority of reviews, however, sit clumped together in the middle, like an embolism in the bloodstream. These reviews are the ones most likely to include erudite references, make extravagant assertions about the purpose of the artform, or to compare a show you haven't seen to another show you haven't seen. Even-handedness erodes to box-ticking analytics.

Not all reviews are badly written, sneering, unhelpful, narcissistic, biassed or bland. But all reviews have that depressing aim of attempting to summarise, in an easily digestible nugget, the divine delirium, the insane miracle that is in the nature of every performance, good or bad. Why, then can I not stop reading them?

When will my perverted gaze be satisfied? When will I finally be able to turn off my computer monitor, open the curtains and face the refreshing light of day knowing that I have read enough? What am I searching for in all these reviews? Perhaps I'm hoping to attain, by means of a reductio ad absurdam, an ultimate glut, a point at which I will have transcended, despite myself, any criticism myself. This is the stratagem of the smoker or the alcoholic who attempts to poison their body so much that the notion of any further intake causes them to shudder. Is it possible for me to reach that point, is there no limit to the quantity of toxic material I can digest?

I'm certainly becoming desensitised. Words repeated endlessly leak significance until they become almost empty syllables. And the claim that the opinion of critics is meaningless becomes itself meaningless when repeated enough. The reviewers have me ensnared in this paradox. I have joined them, these accursed souls, sitting in their specially reserved circle of hell, leaning back in their chairs in the dark, with their arms crossed, drool on their chins and glazed eyes.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Violence in Comedy

Did you hear about the shrimp that went to the prawn's cocktail party? He pulled a mussel.*


I've had it on my mind for a while now how strange it is that the language of comedy draws so heavily on the language of violence – primarily fighting, warfare, rape and murder. A punchline is never recited; it is delivered, like a blow to the audience. A salvo of rat-a-tat jokes is aimed with razor-sharp accuracy, with quickfire delivery. Uncompromising performers pull no punches and their jokes hit their targets.

On arrival, an audience who is unprepared to laugh have their guard up. These defences must be broken down, bit by bit, until they are left helpless with mirth. They're at the comedian's mercy. They're being slaughtered. They're killed. If the routine fails, however, then it's the comic who dies on stage.

Successful shows are often a knockout, a hit, a smash, a smash hit.  A mega-successful show is a "blockbuster", using the word for the large aerial bombs used by the Allies in the firebombing of Hamburg in the Second World War, each literally wiping out a city block.

I find there to be something a little unhappy about the way the aggression metaphor is pursued so relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if there exists any other way to describe the way comedy works. Must an audience be beaten into submission to get a laugh? Is this trend a reflection of a macho sexism that persists throughout the comedy scene? Or are comedians, all haunted by an impossible dream that impels them – the dream of a perfect joke, a perfect show – merely acting out the scenario of reaching their goal at last, and only by invoking the finality of death can they adequately express it? A desperate and dark fantasy, that.

I'd be intrigued to know if the same language is pursued among non-English speakers. Either way, whenever I read a tweet bragging that "We killed it last night,"  or "I nailed it," or "We stormed it," from someone who in real life is the sweetest, most generous person you've ever met, I shudder slightly.

* Ken Dodd, of course.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Working Alone

Ken Campbell used to explain why he ended up doing mainly solo shows: "I'd like to collaborate with other people, but they prefer it this way." I often identify with that, but working on my own requires vast resources of energy and discipline. I am a big fan of energy and discipline. I love telling people about the importance of energy and discipline. I am a massive hypocrite.

I can feel myself potentially heading into one of those long summer funks, when many of my friends depart noisily to Edinburgh or Chicago to work on terrific ambitious projects, and I'm left kicking my heels and wondering what I want to be doing – a question I don't find easy to answer.

I've never been able to understand people who define their goal as "comedy" or "being funny". For me, this doesn't help me orient myself. If you're only going for laughs, then you really don't know what you're going for. A performer going for laughs is like an athlete going for cheers. For me, being funny can't be an objective but only a by-product of being honest. It shows that you're on the right track. (Of course, I'm not dismissing comedy or comedians. There's only one thing more absurd than trying to be funny, and that's trying to be serious.)

My aim is really to find an authentic voice for myself. I've had a bit of success lately with a few cabaret acts that have proven popular with audiences. In fact I've had the pleasure of hearing crowds roar with deep laughter at my antics. That's a good sign. I've stumbled into this kind of stunt rather by accident, which is probably the best way of going about it.

I'd love to collaborate with some new people, especially on improv projects (solo improv gives me toothache). But right now I'm feeling the fear of being at the starting line of a lonely Marathon I haven't trained for. With no one but my nose to guide me, the only direction is forward into the unknown.

Sunday 30 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 5

I was very tired at the end of a long week and the rain was a bit more persistent. London seemed glum but I was excited about the khöömii I was about to practice. I had seemed on the verge of a breakthrough the day before. It's not easy finding opportunities to practice, though I found that the toilets at my office have a loud extractor fan. While I'm sitting there, I can tune myself to the tone of the fan and sing quietly to myself and listen for the overtones. If anyone was listening outside the door, I can't imagine they would think the sounds were coming from me.

I finally found a notice explaining that the performers in Russell Square are RADA students, and that the First World War outfits were for a free outdoor production of As You Like It. Tonight it was going to be A Midsummer Night's Dream. The actors were standing around under umbrellas, not looking as happy as they had been the evening before. I wasn't that hungry, so I crossed over to Torrington Place to pick up a bottle of water and pop my nose into Waterstones. They had an English translation of George Perec's dream diary, La Boutique obscure. A cheaply printed paperback for £13.99. They knew I'd pay that, goddamn them.

Of the original fourteen students, only nine turned up to this last class. That was fine, as it meant that it was easier for me to hear myself during the group singing.  We did our own warm ups Most of my instruction so far from Michael, but tonight Candida came to hear me, and corrected my shakhaltai – it was getting a bit nasal. We did a good half hour of constant singing. One of the students, a French female viola player, could already control enough overtones to sing "Frère Jacques".

I find just maintaining one note then switching to another a tricky business – I tend to warble. But there's no way you can figure out the tongue position for each harmonic in your head. You have to feel it. Your body learns without your mind's intervention. The ability to listen to oneself with relaxed intensity is an essential skill, and not one that comes naturally to someone like me, who enjoys all the many distractions that living in London offers. The more listening you can do, the less you get in your way.

We watched an extract from a documentary about khöömii, made in 1982 for Mongolian TV, which incuded interviews with a young Tserendavaa, the khöömii master who taught Michael and Candida. Although he has an international reputation, and conducts numerous performance tours, at home he still works as a herdsman. It was delightful to see the Mongolians working, singing and playing. Many of the men wore immaculate jackets, shirts and ties and fetching hats. The children practised their khöömii in the outdoors and rode horses without saddles. There was also stunning photography of the mountains, the lakes, the endless plains apparently perpetually wreathed in mirages, and of river water dancing over rocks. Today, Mongolian gers (yurts) come equipped with solar panels and satellite dishes.

The style of khöömii I have been learning is only one of many. Tagnain khöömii uses the palate as a resonator, but similar effects can be achieved in the nose, the throat, and, most impressively, from the chest cavity. In addition to overtone singing, there is also undertone singing, in which the harmonic an octave below the fundamental note is heard – a Tuvan technique known as kargyraa. Candida demonstrated this – it sounds much more impressive and ethereal when done by a woman. The most famous exponent of kargyraa is Albert Kuvezin, of Tuvan rock group Yat-Kha. Here he is covering Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart".

We finished the session, and the course, with a group sing, sitting in a circle. Again I found it difficult to make out my own overtones among those of the whole chorus, but it didn't seem to matter so much this time. I am very grateful to Candida Valentino and Michael Ormiston for introducing me to tagnain khöömii. From here on in, daily practice will help me more than anything else. The word "practice" was one of the very first English words that Tserendavaa learned when he came to the UK, because it was the answer to most questions that anyone asked him.

Friday 28 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 4

It was drizzling in Russell Square so I grabbed a bite to eat in the little café. The theatre group who have been rehearsing outdoors there all week were preparing for their first performance, and an audience of about 50 were gathering on picnic rugs, huddled under umbrellas. The cast didn't seem too disheartened by the weather threatening to spoil their opening night. They were all dressed in First World War costumes, playing joyful, enthusiastic warm-up games under a nearby tree. I've never seen First World War soldiers looking so happy in the rain.

I arrived at SOAS on the stroke of 7pm, but was only the second student to arrive. Slowly people drifted in, and at 7.15pm we made a start with only six of the fourteen students. This put me in a grumpy mood. I find it hard to understand how grown ups can find it so hard to muster enthusiasm to do joyful things. If actors in the rain can do it, why can't overtone singers?

This khöömii course is an introduction to one particular style of Mongolian overtone singing. There's no follow-up course starting immediately afterwards. Michael and Candida are not asking us to sign up to anything. Their job, then, is to inspire us to play and to practice, so that we can proceed under our own steam. With that in mind, we were introduced to a recommended daily 15-minute series of exercises. A warm-up for the body, the breath and the voice, followed by alternating bouts of overtone singing (2 mins) and shakhaltai singing (1 min), before combining them into proper tagnain khöömii.

Walking us through these exercises took up most of the allotted time for the class, due to multiple interruptions by latecomers, questions and digressions. It seemed that I had only just begun to achieve a good pure overtone sound before it was time to stop. I am impatient, but my journey is only just beginning.

The new material in the class consisted of an introduction to hearing the various specific overtones. We listened carefully as Candida demonstrated, beginning with the eighth harmonic (exactly three octaves above the bass note) and shifting up and down in steps. It is impossible to glide from note to note, as multiples of the lower frequency can only be achieved in integers. The jumping from one note to the next is identical to the way electrons jump from one energy state to the next in quantum mechanics, emitting photons of light. At a fundamental level, the universe is not composed of stuff, matter, particles. It is made of vibrations, harmonies, music. 

So the scales that make up overtone singing are pure tones, in tune with the harmony of the universe. By contrast, the Western "tempered" scale is an elegant cultural construct and a compromise. Mongolian music will always sound strange to us, but when we sing harmonics we are literally attuning our physical bodies to a transcendent, mathematical reality. It is the closest we can get to Platonic truth. 

So why not show up on time?

Thursday 27 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 3

There seemed to be a mixed mood among the students last night. A midweek lull is to be expected, I suppose, and several people arrived late for the class.

Michael filled the time by getting out some of his musical instruments – like most teachers, he enjoys going off on tangents and showing off his erudition. I enjoyed his collection of jew's harps.* I hadn't previously considered this a Mongolian instrument, but of course it employs many of the same resonant overtone qualities as khöömii. Variants of this most ancient of instruments exist in almost every corner the world – including Turkey, Hungary, India, the United States, Scandinavia and the Philippines. I've been listening to jew's harp music ever since and am in the process of assembling an eclectic jew's harp playlist. In addition to samples of traditional styles of world folk music, it includes examples by Fairport Convention, The Muppets, and, most surprisingly of all, a series of concerti by Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1812), who taught Beethoven.

Much of the class was given over to recapping. After some "toning" chanting (which was perhaps a little overexplained), we went back over the overtone singing of Day 1 and the shakhaltai style of Day 2. After some practice, we listened to a bit more cultural background, before getting on with combining everything we'd learned so far.

It is impossible for a khöömii teacher to explain how to get all the elements right at once, because there are so many variables: the pitch of the tone, the volume, the constriction, the breathing, the placement of the tip of the tongue, the vowel sound, the shape of the mouth and the position of the jaw, not to mention the completely unique shape of each individual's head. Most of the work must be done through diligent trial and error. But why use the phrase "trial and error", when we have the simpler (and infinitely more positive) word "play"? For the first time, I felt like I was making clear, controlled harmonics. The guiding principle is to fall in love with whatever works. Feeling it in your heart will motivate you; intellectualising it will paralyse you.

The class overran a little, which made up for the late start, and I sensed everyone was feeling much better. Certainly everyone had made enormous progress. As I walked home, it seemed to me that I was hearing overtones everywhere: in the squeal of a buses brakes, in the laughter of a group of tourists, in the wind rolling down Calthorpe Street. Were my ears really this well attuned, or was it my imagination?

When I woke up this morning and checked my emails, I found that I had ordered myself an expensive jew's harp from an online music store.

* Wikipedia explains that while some people object to the name "jew's harp" – as the instrument has no connection with any judaic tradition – other people believe that to refuse to call it a "jew's harp" is more offensive.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 2

The sun was shining, so I ate a sandwich in Russell Square. I like public spaces that allow lots of people to do a wide range of things simultaneously. Some martial artists were practising moves with mimed swords. Some small boys were kicking a football about. A girl was photographing flowers. A drama group were doing something strange involving rope, a guitar and drum, a stepladder and foliage. A man tried to show off to his girlfriend by walking straight through the fountain in the middle of the square, and regretted it immediately afterwards. I was practising my overtone singing.

The class this week largely put overtone singing to one side, in favour of another element of tagnain khöömii that is typically Mongolian: shakhaltai. This word is translated as "squeezing", and refers specifically to a tightening of the superior pharyngeal constrictor muscle. Everything else – the jaw, the back of the mouth, and the larynx – is kept loose, relaxed, open and resonant. Michael introduced the idea in the following terms: "Sing an eee sound, but rather than your usual eee, sing the eee you would sing if you were at a cocktail party and had just met someone you hated, but were pretending to get on with." The result is a sound that is unfamiliar to Western ears. It appears to come from deep within, a constricted effect achieved by Rob Brydon with his famous "Small Man Trapped in a Box" act:

Paradoxically, this constrained voice, properly supported, has great resonance, and khöömii can be used to communicate over long distances in Mongolia. Michael advised me, as a performer, to focus on my inner support – my diaphragm and breathing – rather than strain to reach the back of the audience. There is a deeper life message here as well. We might achieve our objectives with more ease if we directed our attention to where we are and what we already have within us, rather than where and what we would wish to be.

Once introduced to shakhaltai, a second concept was brought up: dandilakh. This word has no equivalent in English. (How would you explain the word "lah-di-dah"to a non-English speaker?) Its aim is to loosen the tongue and to practise the shakhaltai style with a range of broad vowels:

LEEE – la - la – LEY – la - la – LAH – la - la – LAW – la - la – LOOO

and back again.

To practise my dandilakh, I was partnered with a Polish girl called Anka. She grabbed a pen and scribbled the Polish equivalents of these vowel sounds on the cribsheet. As on Day 1, we spent a good half an hour getting to grips with it. Anka was shy, but a natural. I feel like I made a pretty good stab at it. The room rang merrily with "LEE-la-la-LEY-la-la-LAA-" etc. until the couple sitting next to the window collapsed into hysterics. 

This technique is easy for a beginner to overdo, and I can already sense an unfamiliar soreness in the back of my throat. We were advised to abandon all shakhaltai activity between this class and the next, and concentrate solely on practising the overtone singing from Day 1.

This morning, I recorded my overtone singing in my kitchen. The harmonics – a whistling sound over the top of the main note – are ever so faint, but can just about be discerned. What do you think?

Tonight we will put the two together – the overtone singing and the shakhaltai style. I relish the challenge.

Click here for Day 1 of my Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 1

I have had no acting training at all. This is not uncommon among improvisers and comedians, but it is almost always obvious, almost as soon as someone gets on stage, whether or not they have gone to drama school. A good actor is effortlessly compelling to watch. And even mediocre actors have certain qualities about them: they often appear more comfortable, more physically present, and their voices sound resonant and well supported. If these qualities sometimes seem mysterious – it is not immediately clear what they are doing that is special – it is for two reasons: because their skills have become intuitive through plenty of training and practice, and because they relate to very basic, internal functions: breathing, relaxation, listening.

In an attempt to gain an enjoyable and original introduction some of these skills without the expense of time and money that drama classes require, I'm taking a course in Mongolian "khöömii" overtone singing over five evenings this week. It's part of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) Summer School and is led by Michael Ormiston and Candida Valentino, two excellent teachers. Michael immediately dispelled my main misgiving about the nature of the course: teachers of this sort of "intensive" classes often make extravagant claims about skills that can be acquired in a limited amount of time. But not Michael. "We'll show you how to practice, so you can go away and learn" he said, and later, commenting on how some will pick it up quicker than others, said "The important thing is that you start the journey. It makes no difference where your starting point is." Exactly.

After some extensive and fun physical and vocal warm-ups, which I will steal for improv rehearsals, we were introduced both to the internal geography of the mouth, and a bit of background about what we would be learning: tagnain, or palatal, khöömii, considered the easiest of the six or seven styles of khöömii. There was plenty of time set aside for singing practice. When everyone sang at once, naturally harmonizing, the room seemed to glow happily.

The participants couldn't be more varied: classical singers, voice coaches, ethnomusicologists, physicists and mystics. An elderly lady with ribbons and tinsel in her hair cornered me afterwards to tell me about her chanting rituals, excitedly telling me how important it was to shock people with menstrual blood and the word "cunt".

I walked home through Farringdon, feeling energized, stopping off at The Pakenham Arms for a pint. My progress so far has been largely exploratory. This attention has made my mouth and throat seem enormous. I'm playing with the caverns of my lower jaw, becoming aware of previously ignored pockets of resonance at the back of my head, and getting to grips with the different parts of my tongue. When I sing, I can feel the overtones buzzing around my head, but they're barely discernable when I play back recordings of myself. So I've a long way to go before I can produce those glorious clear notes.

I'll be back tonight for more. It's exciting.

Friday 17 May 2013

Meat Artistry

The other night, Dani and I visited Greensmiths on Lower Marsh, where the resident Master Butcher from the Ginger Pig, Martin Kavanagh, was giving a demonstration of meat preparation. Using a collection of impressively sharp knives, cleavers and saws, he took apart a 50-day-aged side of beef. He extracted the fillet and topside, removed the spine and ribs, and took the rump apart, skilfully removing as much fat as possible. The bones cracked noisily and the air filled with a pungent meat aroma, and the small audience's eyes watered as though they were watching an autopsy. Afterwards, a rare côte de boeuf was carved and served up with carrots, broccoli and potatoes dauphinois.

Martin is a skilled craftsman, but also a performer and a engaging communicator. He does his work in the shop window facing street precisely to attract curiosity, because his job is as much about people as it is about animals. He explained how important it was that people ask questions about meat and engage with the topic. (He confessed that the recent horse-meat-in-lasagna scandal had been good for business, as more customers wanted to ask about the origin of their food. The more he could tell them, the more they were interested,)

Like a great artist, he has developed over the years a skill, a profound knowledge of his subject and a distinctive personal style. What makes him different from many "proper" artists is his dedication to sharing his experience as transparently as possible. Rather than mystifying his art, as some writers and performers do, and talking in deliberately ambiguous terms that leave you wondering by what superhuman magic how he does what he does, Martin feels – without any false pride – that to be as direct and honest as possible with the public is an integral part of his job. He trims the fat from both the beef and his speech. And that's a pretty good way to go about your work, isn't it?

Thursday 7 March 2013

Speed Novel Writing

I've mentioned briefly before my passion for French feuilleton fiction of the early twentieth century, which was aroused principally by Fantômas, the epic crime soap opera novel (arguably the longest novel ever written), written between 1911 and 1913 at a rate of one volume per month, non-stop for thirty-two months, by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. I'm proud to say I've read the whole thing in French.

Sadly, my activities these days don't allow so much time for reading avant garde French pulp fiction. Some years ago, I made a start on translating Gustave le Rouge's sci-fi horror novel Prisoner of Mars and its equally bonkers sequel, War of the Vampires, into English, and the promises to myself that I'll finish the job have become an annual fixture. Finally, however, someone else has done it for me, somebody a lot more competent and qualified: Brian M. Stableford, who is both an expert on and a prolific exponent of the genre.

I'd like to quote to you from his fascinating introduction, which I hope gives a flavour of the environment in which these books were produced.

Alexandre Dumas, one of the great pioneers of feuilleton fiction, had set a very conspicuous example in his amazing productivity and his distinctive methods of composition, which routinely involved collaborators. These collaborators sometimes did his background research for him and produced rough drafts for him to expand and polish, but their primary duty was to serve as amanuenses. To a great extent – no one is sure how great is was, because the authors were routinely secretive about it – feuilleton fiction was not so much written as dictated, and the duties fulfilled by the dictation-takers often went beyond mere copying to various kinds of embellishment. Productivity became a matter of pride to many feuilletonists, as did speed of composition; Second Empire writers like Paul Féval and Ponson du Terrail openly competed in the matter of how many daily serials they could compose simultaneously, and Ponson not only thought very highly of himself for being able to do five at a time but boasted that he had got them done in time for lunch, so that he could spend the afternoon doing more interesting things. (His amanuenses, if he used one – he never admitted it – presumably could not.)
By the time Le Rouge got into the act, the art – or craft – of fast composition had been perfected by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the creators of Fantômas, who produced books in ten days flat, spending the first three on planning an outline, the next three dictating and the final four correcting the typescripts. (The invention of the typewriter, including an automatic double-spacing level, had made it easier for shorthand typists to produce easily-correctable copy for their bosses to look over.) Allain and Souvestre were, however, regarded as perfectionists by some of their contemporaries, who thought that outlining and second drafts were for wimps and took a perverse pride in never planning or revising anything. It was not so much that they were proud of being slapdash, but they were sufficiently laid-back not to care about such minor matters as leaving plot-ends hanging loose and vital questions unsettled.

While some of these authors appear to be arrogant hacks of the worst order, their collaborative approach to creativity is pretty liberating. It is a world away from the image of the tortured artist alone in his candle-lit garrett plucking honed expression from his strained heartstrings. It is more like Michelangelo doing the Sistine Chapel with his team, doing the layouts and the faces, and letting the students fill in the drapery and backgrounds. I personally find this style of work hugely exciting. It's not 'slapdash'; it's spontaneous and full of life.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Thoughts of Angel

I spend more time in Angel these days. In the ticket hall of the Tube, there's one of those whiteboards containing a daily witticism – a piece of cod wisdom or popcorn irony that normally makes me groan.

In recent weeks I've been allowing myself to get increasingly angry about these mottoes. It's not their triteness that upsets me; it's the cynicism of the exercise. They're dishonestly designed to give the impression that in some back-office of Angel Tube sits an eccentric, moustached and rubicund Station Master behind a mahogany desk, his study lined with leather-bound books of poetry and framed photographs of steam locomotives. In the corner, a gramophone plays Elgar. Tapping out his pipe, and gazing wistfully at the specks of dust dancing in the morning sunlight, he reaches for his fountain pen and chooses the day's memorable morsel of philosophical wisdom, before giving the brass buttons of his uniform a polish.

But surely these daily sayings are in fact emailed in from from some centralised and overbudgeted TfL marketing department, who have cut-and-pasted them from some crappy Facebook group riddled with kitten photos, then pre-vetted them for customer appropriateness according to a set of satisfaction-quotient criteria. They're then soullessly copied out every day, complete with spelling errors and bad punctuation, by one of the cleaners.

As it turns out, neither of these scenarios is entirely true. For I was rather pleased to stumble across the Thoughts of Angel website, which carries this prominent disclaimer.

And there are details of recent charity fundraising efforts by the station staff, and a few other bits of local news. It's scanty so far, but apparently genuine. And I cannot find fault with creating 'a link between the daily commuters and members of staff'.