Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Lucky for Some

In which Friday the thirteenth passes without any major incident
Pretty much before I recovered from my last trip to London, I found myself planning the next one. I bumped into Becky S. in Thereisnospoon on the Friday afternoon. While we chatted by the bar she mentioned that she'd never been to London. I asked her when she was free to join me. She suggested that a Friday might be best for her. I looked at the calendar for October, and suggested Friday the thirteenth, always assuming she wasn't superstitious. It turned out that she isn't, so I booked two coach tickets straight away. However, the weekend before she told me that she couldn't make it after all. I told her not to worry, and gave Rhian first option on the spare ticket. Luckily she had the day off, so we were good to go.
We set off early from Aberdare and arrived in Cardiff before 8.00. It gave us time to get some odds and ends in Sainsbury's before walking up to the coach stop opposite Cathays station. It was a bit of a damp morning, but the BBC had given a better forecast for the other side of the country. We sheltered in a doorway until the coach arrived, and were just about the last two to board. Once again, unfortunately, we found the basic flaw in National Express's online system. Even though I'd booked two tickets in one transaction, it appears that Britain's biggest coach operator can't yet arrange to reserve two individual seats to correspond with the booking. About a quarter of the 'empty' seats were occupied by luggage (which theoretically should have gone in the overhead racks), so Rhian ended up sitting behind me. We made good time to Chepstow, and passengers boarding there had more difficulty finding adjacent seats. We hadn't even crossed the Severn Bridge before I Tweeted National Express. I pointed out how unfair this was, and asked if, in the year 2017, they really couldn't find a viable solution to the problem. So far, no reply.
We got to the Earls Court set-down point just after 1130. The weather was a lot more pleasant, and although it was quite windy at times there was no sign of rain moving across in our tracks. We called into Tesco and spotted a couple of new books we fancied. I suggested that they'd probably be on offer in Waterstones, and as we were heading to Trafalgar Square anyway we could have a look when we got there. We walked to West Kensington station, Rhian topped up her Oyster card, and we caught the Tube into the centre. At Victoria, I pointed out the time and reminded Rhian that if we'd stayed on the coach, we'd still have been the best part of ten minutes away from the platform.
We jumped off at Embankment station and walked up Villiers Street towards Charing Cross. Angela and I had a very strange experience in the Princess of Wales some years ago, but that's a story in itself. We decided not to call in for a pint, but headed to Trafalgar Square to have a look in Waterstones. We hummed and haahed over the new Dan Brown novel, but as it's only in hardback we decided to wait a while. We did the same with Ben Aaronovitch's new book, as a hardback would break the nice sequence of books on my shelf at home. Rhian picked up a couple of thrillers (both of which I'm going to borrow when she's finished them). I found the second volume of Prof. David Kynaston's social history of Britain since 1945, which I've been looking forward to reading for ages.
We could have spent a lot more between us, but we didn't want to carry heavy bags of books with us all afternoon. We both commented on how great it is to browse in a well-stocked bookshop, and on the irony of having to travel two hundred miles just to have that pleasure.
Back in Trafalgar Square, Rhian was a bit disappointed to see that the main features – Nelson's Column, Landseer's Lions, and the fountains – were cordoned off for some sort of special occasion. With nothing particular in mind except a late lunch in Ye Old London Tavern (our semi-local pub, just downhill from St Paul's Cathedral), we decided to go exploring. We walked towards Admiralty Arch, and saw the first sign of the new security precautions which have been installed after the recent wave of terrorist attacks. Large steel barriers will stop vehicles veering off the approach road to Trafalgar Square – or the approach road to Buckingham Palace, depending on your point of view. We walked into The Mall, and stopped to admire some of the many statues which line this historic route through the heart of the British establishment. Through an opening to our right, Rhian spotted a very tall column bearing a statue. I didn't recognise it, so we decided to investigate it.
It turned out to be a monument to Prince Frederick, Duke of York, the second son of George III. Quite by chance, Rhian had found her way into a fascinating corner of Westminster called Waterloo Place. I had to concede defeat and pull out my trusty A-Z to check exactly where we were. I must have found my way there by accident when I was new to London, because the name sounded familiar, but I hadn't set foot in it for over thirty years. The whole square is lined with statues of military figures, and flanked by some quite beautiful buildings. (I'm not an expert on architecture, but I think they must be Georgian.) My eyes were drawn to the decorative friezes on both of them. I tried taking a couple of photos, but without a tripod it's tricky to get in close.

We were both intrigued by this grand building. There's nothing on the front to identify it, but I had a feeling that it might have been a gentlemen's club. (Pall Mall and St James's probably aren't what most people think of when they hear the word 'clubland' these days.) There were a few people coming and going, and Rhian suggested asking at the little enquiry desk just inside the door. I didn't need to get that far, though. A brass plate next to the door announced that it was the Athenaeum Club, founded in 1824. Not bad for a random guess, is it?
We took a few more photos, and I suggested walking down Pall Mall to St James's Park. There are some fantastic buildings along this road, including a very tall, narrow brick building sandwiched between the fine stone buildings on either side. I wondered what it had originally been, and made a mental note to do some research when I got the chance. A little bit further along, I think Rhian was quite surprised to find that the Royal Automobile Club really is a club when we passed their ornate headquarters.
Mother's next-door neighbour kindly gave me three books on London a while ago, and one of them includes a number of walks around the West End and the City of Westminster. There are some intriguing little alleyways throughout St James's, and they are (or were – the books are about twenty years old) lined with quaint shops and businesses that have been there for generations. I'm definitely going to explore this area in more detail when I get the chance.
We cut down between St James's Palace and the Queen's Chapel. I remarked that there's a slice of history waiting around every corner, if only you take the time to look. We spotted a large open space enclosed on three sides, and wondered what it was. Rhian had her next target in mind, so we came out on the Mall and walked down to Buckingham Palace. I know everyone's seen it on TV, but as usual the photos don't do it justice. Even before we reached the palace itself, we were blown away by the sheer size of the Queen Victoria Memorial.

We photographed each other standing in front of the memorial, just to give ourselves a laugh when we saw how small we looked. It's hard to imagine the craftsmanship that went into executing this extraordinary piece of marble.
Needless to say, even in the middle of October, the palace and the memorial are magnets for tourists. I had a brief chat with a young Chinese couple who were taking photographs, and I heard no end of unfamiliar and vaguely familiar accents while we were walking around. (Rhian got quite frustrated trying to take photos. She's so short than people kept blocking her sight lines when she was lining up a shot.)
We took a few more photos of the palace itself, and Rhian spotted a lady in a very smart hat walking towards a limo parked just inside the gates. I expect if we'd bought a copy of The Times, the Court and Social column would have told us exactly who was visiting that day.
We strolled over to St James's Park, one of the most pleasant London parks, and walked along the lake towards the Houses of Parliament. As we were approaching, we could hear church bells in the distance. Yet again, I'd managed to plan a trip without knowing that there was something exciting going on. The following day, pilgrims from across Britain were going to visit the shrine of St Edward 'the Confessor', the founder of Westminster Abbey. His feast day is 13 October, and the abbey was making the occasion with a full peal of bells. Rhian used to be a campanologist, so to hear the bells of London's most historic church in full voice was a real treat for her.
We walked around to the west side to take some photos, but how do you even start trying to fit it all into the frame? The detail on the stone carvings is incredible, and it's hard to imagine the whole thing being executed with just hand tools, nearly a thousand years ago.
We walked across Parliament Square, pausing to look at the statues of David Lloyd George and Sir Winston Churchill on the way, and arrived at the entrance to the Palace of Westminster. There was a heavy police presence, and the Old Bill weren't afraid of showing off their weaponry to the public. It was quite strange to see the clock tower covered in scaffolding, too. It didn't deter hundreds of people from trying to take photos, though.
We walked past the Foreign Office and up into Whitehall. Rhian has always wanted to see the Cenotaph, so we made that our next port of call. Like the Queen Victoria Memorial, it's much bigger in real life than it looks on TV.
It also doesn't look much like the war memorial in Aberdare (see For the Fallen). The basic shape is similar, but the details are quite different. So much for Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC's claim (on the tourist information board near Aberdare station, for instance) that ours is 'an exact replica' of the one in Whitehall. Ours wasn't designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, either.
We walked past the entrance to Downing Street, and Rhian was surprised to find how close it is to the Cenotaph. We were also a bit puzzled when we couldn't see a convenient balcony from which the Royal Family can watch the proceedings on Remembrance Sunday. I'm sure one of my many books on London will contain the answer, though.
We walked up towards the Old Admiralty Buildings and found a couple of Household Cavalry soldiers on guard duty. These are another iconic London sight, of course, and tourists were eagerly taking photos while the soldiers remained impassive and their horses tried not to look interested. It used to be a sign that you were getting older when policemen looked younger than you, but these lads looked barely old enough to shave.
We cut through the courtyard and emerged on Horseguards Parade, facing the Old Admiralty Building. This, is turned out, was the open space we'd spotted earlier on. Rhian has always wanted to see the Changing of the Guard, but it's so early in the day that we'd never get there in time. We've pencilled in an overnight stay for next year, so with any luck we'll be able to take that in. There's a museum devoted to the regiment here as well, so we can visit that afterwards and make a real day of it.
We walked back into Whitehall and returned to Trafalgar Square. Just opposite Charing Cross station, we were able to catch a bus along the Strand and Fleet Street. We went straight to the upper deck to take in the many historic buildings which line the route. We jumped off at Ludgate Circus and made our way to Ye Olde London Tavern for a late-ish lunch. We've eaten there three times now, and I've never been disappointed. It's a bit pricey by Aberdare standards, but London is a treat and we treated ourselves again.
We walked back to Ludgate Circus, and then headed along St Bride's Street, Shoe Lane and St Andrew's Lane to Holborn Circus. I wanted to see if Rhian could rise to the 'Find the Pub' challenge in Hatton Garden. She failed miserably, so I took her through Bleeding Heart Yard and into Ely Place by the concealed entrance. The Leaky Cauldron (from the 'Harry Potter' books) might not exist in real life – although I'm a Muggle, so how can I be sure – but Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is the next best thing.
The first time I tried to find it, it took me about a quarter of an hour of wandering up and down Ely Place (see Life in the Slow Lane). It was midweek, and the place was fairly quiet. This was a Friday afternoon, though, and the hubbub of voices from Ely Court gave the game away as soon as we approached it. The outdoor smoking area was packed, and the pub was almost full as well. We ordered our drinks and found a small table in the corner of the lounge. Rhian liked the place straight away, and decided it was definitely worth making a detour for.
We stayed until about five o'clock, and then headed out to make our way back to Victoria. I'm starting to know my way around the City at long last, and the twin domes of Smithfield Market make a convenient beacon pointing towards Farringdon station. The ongoing Crossrail work makes it a bit tricky to walk to, but we got there in good time to catch the Tube to Kings Cross. We let one train go, in fact. It was the Friday rush hour, and the semi-fast Metropolitan train to Amersham isn't one you'd catch if you had a choice. A few minutes later an Uxbridge train pulled in, which wasn't quite as packed. We changed to the Victoria Line at Kings Cross and shot through to our destination in no time. I know the best route to the coach station as well now, and we were in the queue in good time to get seats together.
I don't know if I'll be able to squeeze in another visit this year, but the more I learn about the world's greatest city, the more I want to explore it. Now that Rhian is single again, we're free to discover its secrets at our own pace. I'm sure we'll be lunching in Ye Olde London Tavern again before too long.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Zero Degrees Proof

In which The Author doesn't sponsor an acquaintance
About three weeks ago on a Tuesday afternoon, Clare and I were walking to Penderyn. We were bored, it was a sunny day, and she'd never walked up the old Mineral Railway Line from Hirwaun. I met her in the village and we went exploring. As we were strolling through the narrow tree-lined lane, with rolling farmland on either side, she told me about the time she and her older brothers were drinking '100% alcohol'.
I told her that they almost certainly hadn't been drinking 100% alcohol. I remembered our old Biology teacher, the late Terry Smith, correcting one of the lads in our class when he made a similar claim. According to Terry, drinking pure alcohol wouldn't do you any good (to put it mildly). If they had been able to get access to pure ethanol, Clare probably wouldn't have been there to tell the tale.
They'd probably been drinking something which was 100 proof – a rather different proposition. In the UK, measures of proof haven't been used for ages. Instead, we talk about the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV). Historically the UK and the US used different standards to define alcohol proof anyway, which makes things even more complicated. And in the US they don't use the term 'degrees proof', as we did over here. Stating the ABV avoids this confusion and makes much more sense, doesn't it?
Something like Jack Daniel's (around 80 proof) contains 40% ABV. Absinthe, the infamous tipple formerly enjoyed by the avant-garde set of Paris, can reach an ABV of 74%, or around 148 proof. There is a brand of rectified corn spirit called Everclear available (here and there) in the US, which reaches a staggering 75.5% ABV. At the time of writing, it's banned in Alaska, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Washington, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. I bet there'll be a few people in Aberdare making a beeline for the states not on this list once they read this.
But I digress …
As anyone with regular access to social media will know, the calendar is quickly being filled up with special 'Years', 'Months', 'Days', and even 'Hours'. The United Nations seems to have partly been responsible for this, when it declared 1959–60 as 'International Refugee Year'. Quite what this was supposed to achieve in practice is anyone's guess. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 65.3 million people displaced by conflict throughout the world. So, yeah, they did a bang-up job of resolving that particular issue six decades ago.
There's a full list on the UN website, and they make for interesting reading. Taken collectively, they sound rather like a six-year-old girl's letter to Father Christmas, or the pipe dreams of a Miss World finalist. Since the beginning, we've had (to name a few):
  • International Co-operation Year (1965) was another rip-snorting success at the height of the Cold War and in the midst of decolonisation.
  • the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Prejudice (1971) proves my theory that half the people I meet in Aberdare still think they're living in the 1960s.
  • World Communications Year (1983) was devoted to 'Development of Communication Infrastructures' – have you tried getting a mobile phone signal in Cwmaman or Penderyn recently?
  • the International Year of Peace (1986) – yeah, right!
  • most laughably of all, 2001 was the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations – when it wasn't busy being the Year of the Twin Towers Attacks and the Start of the Last Crusade.
As if these aren't far-fetched enough, 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, and 2013 was the International Year of Quinoa. (I'm not making this stuff up; follow the link and see for yourself.)
Anyway, logging into Facebook or Twitter will produce a welter of similar annual or one-off special days. According to the trending hashtags on the latter site, today is simultaneously the Day of the Girl, National Coming Out Day, and World Obesity Day. That's an obvious (if rather unkind) triple celebration for one of my recent romantic near-misses. It's also Ada Lovelace Day, marking the often overlooked role of women in the development of science and technology.
Yesterday was something else; so was Monday. I can't really remember what the special occasions were. It doesn't matter anyway, because they will have had as much impact on the world as did the International Year of Idealistic Pie-in-the-Sky Hippy Bollocks (1968, in case you're wondering).
It used to be only the Roman Catholic Church that made up a feast day for every occasion, simply to relieve the boredom of poverty, drudgery, near-starvation, plague and premature death. Whenever they wanted a small celebration, an obscure saint could usually be found somewhere to provide an excuse to use red ink on the calendar. (This gave rise to the phrase 'red-letter day'; according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 'In almanacs, and more commonly in ecclesiastical calendars, important feast-days and saints' days were printed in red, with other days in black'.)
And, by Goddess, there were some really obscure saints. Try these for size, whom I've found by randomly flicking through The Book of Saints (7th edn, ed. Dom Basil Watkins. London: A & C Black.):

  • St Cointha (feast day 8 February)
  • Blessed Dominic-of-the-Holy-Rosary of Nagasaki (10 September)
  • St Eusebius of Cremona (5 March)
  • St Phaebedius (25 April)
  • St Mageldisil (30 May)
  • Blessed Otto of Heidelberg (28 December)
  • St Raphael-of-St-Joseph Kalinowski (19 November)
  • St Theophilus de Signori of Corte (19 May)
  • St Wulstan (19 January)
See – every day's a potential holiday if you're a good Catholic. It reminds me of a great stand-up routine from early in Woody Allen's career:
I was thrown out of college, and when I was thrown out of college I got a job on Madison Avenue in New York. A real dyed-in-the-wool advertising agency on Madison Avenue wanted a man to come in, and they'd pay him ninety-five dollars a week to sit in their office, and to look Jewish. They wanted to prove to the outside world that they would hire minority groups, y'know. So I was the one they hired, y'know. I was the show Jew at the agency. I tried to look Jewish desperately, y'know. I used to read my memos from right to left all the time. They fired me finally, 'cause I took off too many Jewish holidays.
But back on topic (for a moment): T.S. Eliot was wrong; October is the cruellest month. The autumn in Wales gets going in earnest; it pisses down with rain most days, and when it's not pissing down you're just dodging the showers. You have to put the lights on at five o'clock (if not earlier), and the clocks go back an hour at the end just to make matters worse. You can't even go to the pub for a quiet pint without bumping into a load of bloody students pissing away their first loan instalments. Over the last couple of years, this horrible month has been made even less bearable by hordes of born-again clean-living individuals trumpeting their achievements via social media.
Because October isn't just thirty-one days of misery any more. Oh, no – these days you have to get healthy as well. If you do venture out for a pint, you're bound to be up against someone self-righteously sipping a soft drink and announcing to anyone who'll listen that they're doing 'Sober October'. If you smoke as well, your visits to the outdoor shelter will be greeted by cries of derision by people who are quitting the demon weed.
If you don't already know about these things, Stopober encourages people to quit smoking. Sober October does exactly what it says on the tin (of diet Pepsi, naturally) and encourages you to take a month on the wagon. Stoptober is supported by pharmacies and the primary health care sector, with advice and support available to anyone wanting to take up the challenge. Sober October goes a step further, and encourages you to get sponsored for not drinking for 31 days. The money raised goes towards Macmillan Cancer Support, which is a very worthwhile charity.
A couple of years ago, I asked Rhian if she fancied doing Sober October with me. She laughed in my face. When I asked her about doing Stoptober instead (I've never smoked, and have never been interested in starting) she thought it was an even more ridiculous suggestion.
I thought it was a ridiculous suggestion as well, to be honest. I once – many years ago – decided to spend a year off the booze, apart from my birthday (when it's daft not to go to the pub) and rugby internationals (when it's simply rude not to). I stuck to my word until about this time of year, which surprised everyone I knew, as well as me. But it was the academic season in work, and we were besieged by new students who (Goddess knows how) were even more condescending and less well-educated than the ones from the year before. The brave face was starting to wear a bit thin.
It was coming up to lunchtime one particularly stressful Wednesday when Laurie looked at me and said, 'I think you need a pint, mate.'
I said, 'I think you're right!'
And that was the end of that. Still, ten months and a bit was pretty good going, especially when you consider that bookselling was always a fairly boozy gig anyway. But they only had my word for the fact that I wasn't going home and sinking half a bottle of vodka every night.
You see, these special fund-raising months have one major flaw: they rely on a degree of honesty and trust that's often lacking in society.
Let's take one example of a really good sponsored event – the London Marathon.
You register way ahead of time; you train every evening and every weekend to get in shape for it; you set up a JustGiving page and ask all your family and friends to sponsor you. Everyone knows it's happening, because it's on the TV. You turn up on the day, run 26 miles and a bit, collapse into a foil blanket, get your medal for completing the course, and ker-ching! Anthony Nolan, or MIND, or Macmillan, or Shelter, or the RSPCA, or whatever your chosen worthy cause is, gets a nice cash injection from your efforts.
And that's exactly why it works so well. You might get to be on TV, if you're lucky. Even if you don't appear in close-up, you're somewhere in the mass of thousands of runners, walkers, wheelchair athletes and pantomime horses making their way through Docklands and back into the City, then onto Westminster and the finish line. You've got your medal to show that you've done it. When you get back home, you can go to everyone who sponsored you with a clear conscience.
In preparing the ground for a sponsored event I'm hoping to organise next year, I've taken the difficulty of charting one's progress into account. If all goes well, there'll be a large number of people undertaking a challenge which will take them the length and breadth of the Cynon Valley over the course of a few hours. I'm expecting that a fair number of people will bale out before the end. (I know I certainly would.) With this in mind, I've split the course into ten stages. Entrants will receive a 'token' on completing each stage. It makes the accounting easier all round.
Suppose, for example, that Tom, Dick and Harry sign up to take part. I sponsor Tom 10p a stage, Dick 10p a stage, and Harry 10p a stage. Tom finishes the entire course, so I pay him £1.00. Dick crashes out after Stage 7, so he raises 70p. Harry gets injured after two stages, so he gets 20p. If anyone decides halfway through that they'd rather spend the afternoon in the pub, they simply hand in their five tokens and collect half the sponsor money.
I'd rather do it that way than pay someone in advance to do a challenge that they might not complete (or take it on trust that they've done it). When my good friend Neil R. climbed Pen y Fan (the highest mountain in southern Britain) ten times in one day to raise money for charity, I was happy to pay up. He posted regular updates of his progress on Facebook, and you don't make that sort of thing up anyway. You've got to be pretty damn serious about the endeavour before you sign up for it. On the other hand, I sponsored another friend to do a tandem sky-dive back about this time last year. As far as any of us know, she's yet to leave the ground.
Next month is the even more bizarre Movember, where guys grow ridiculous facial hair (Moustache-November – geddit?) to raise awareness of prostate cancer (and presumably to raise money as well). That's going to be a non-starter in Aberdare, where half the males under forty are already sporting ridiculous facial hair. Maybe we could sponsor girls under the age of 25 to sort their fucking eyebrows out instead.
Which brings us back to Sober October. When one of my friends asked me to sponsor him a couple of years ago, I agreed because I knew he was serious about it. A mate of his had succumbed to a particularly aggressive cancer, and his sudden death had hit all the boys hard. A couple of the others have done sponsored walks or swimming events to raise money in his memory. That's fair enough. But now it seems that everyone is trying to grab everyone they can for sponsorship.
Last week, one of the barbints in Thereisnospoon asked me if I'd sponsor her for Sober October. I said I'd have to think about it – partly because about half a dozen other people had already asked me, and I can't afford to sign up for every appeal that comes my way. If she'd been a good friend, I might not have thought twice about it, but she isn't. We know each other to say hello to, but that's about it. I wonder how many other regular punters she's approached to sponsor her – and, more importantly, how many have said yes. I shouldn't think there are very many names on her form.
The other reason, of course, is that I'd have only Mandy's word that she'd managed to stay off the booze for the entire thirty-one days. Obviously she can't drink when she's in work, but what's to stop her from sneaking to the off-licence on her way home, or catching a sneaky glass of wine over Sunday lunch? It isn't like any of the challenges I've outlined above, where there's some sort of control mechanism in place to make sure people can't cheat. You might as well ring up the Guinness people and tell them you've just broken such-and-such a record. Without any outside agency to measure your progress, it's going to be your word against theirs.
And that, I fear, is where Sober October falls down (no pun intended). Stoptober could yield a definite result, in that someone successfully gives up the habit and makes a positive impact on their health and wealth. If, on the other hand, they head straight to the shop for twenty Lambert & Butler on 1 November, then the experiment was a failure.
The only fair way to determine whether someone has completed Sober October is for him or her to have a full battery of blood tests (including a liver function test) on 30 September. Then they go back on 1 November, have the same blood tests, and you can compare the results. In the meantime, they have to agree to the sort of random testing that people working on the railways have to go through.
And if you're a serious drinker, is just one month off the sauce going to make that difference anyway? The damage has already been done. I knew a man who'd spent four whole weeks 'drying out' at Whitchurch Hospital (see Rehab), only to return to Aberdare and head straight to the pub for a pint. Trebles all round! Another triumph for the NHS! No, not really. The poor bugger was dead a few months later. It seems that all Sober October really gives you is another opportunity for one-upmanship.
With my fund-raising idea, at least you get the tokens to show you've completed at some of the course. If it does come off, it's going to be properly organised and scrutinised to ensure nobody can cheat on the day.
To this cynical mind, however, Sober October is very much like an alcohol-free drink. There's absolutely no proof.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

I can't explain, This is not how I am

In which The Author buys himself an early Xmas present
My regular readers already know that, of all the many rock bands I've listened to in my life, Pink Floyd's impact has been the deepest and most enduring. (I've gone into detail previously, especially in On the Up and Making One's Own Luck.)
I've loved them since I was doing my O levels and I've never outgrown them, because their music is timeless and wonderful. Also, the older you get, the more meaning you discover in their lyrics. In fact, for a non-musician (although watch this space), I've got far more pleasure from Pink Floyd's music than you'd imagine. I'm fairly sure I'm the only person ever to have sung 'See Emily Play', 'Time', 'Money', 'Us and Them', 'Wish You Were Here', and 'Comfortably Numb' (both vocal parts) at Thursday night karaoke. I used to joke that, if I were ever to enter Mastermind, I'd like to take Pink Floyd as my specialist subject – simply to have an excuse to listen to their entire back catalogue for weeks on end.
Last year the V&A announced a major retrospective of the band's career to mark their fiftieth anniversary, entitled 'Their Mortal Remains'. Naturally, I added it to my list of things to do this summer. Then it went on the back burner because I was busy with other projects. Two months or so ago I was talking to Huw F. He'd just come back from spending a few days in London, and he was very enthusiastic about the exhibition. A couple of weeks later, I was chatting to Barbara in her bookshop in Aberdare. It turned out that she and Adrian, her husband, had been to see it as well. In fact, Adrian was so impressed by the whole thing that he was planning a return visit.
Then I saw some amazing reviews online, and decided I'd try and squeeze it in before it closed. I mentioned it to Clare, whose musical taste is fairly varied. Since we've been planning a trip to London anyway, it seemed like the ideal excuse. I booked the tickets last week, and took advantage of National Express's latest offer to get us cheap coach seats.
As with some other London attractions, we had to choose a time slot for admission. I went for 1.30, giving us plenty of time to get across town in case the coach was delayed. Last week I was chatting to Laura, who keeps the record stall in Aberdare Market. She told me she knew someone who'd spent the entire day walking around 'These Mortal Remains'. This was obviously going to be something special.
We got to the V&A just after 1.00, and had to hunt around for a while until we found the entrance to the gallery. There was already a long queue, and people were arriving for the next slots while we were waiting to go in. We presented our tickets and made our way to a desk where two people were handing out the audio gear. Each of us got a pair of Sennheiser headphones and a wireless receiver to wear while we were making our way around.
When Martin H. and I went to the Sir Peter Blake exhibition at the National Museum of Wales (see Starless and Bible Black), there was a chance to listen to the definitive Under Milk Wood recording in the afternoon. 'Their Mortal Remains' is the next step in audiovisual presentations. With state-of-the-art audio equipment, you can walk around at your own pace, and the soundtrack changes according to where you are in the gallery. Virtually the first thing you hear is the familiar 'found sound' montage of heartbeats, random snatches of conversation, screams, birdsong, and those early 'samples' which feature throughout their records. Then you're into the exhibition proper.
It's a labyrinth of rooms, each one devoted to a particular period of the band's evolution. (Quick disclaimer: A lot of the spaces are fairly dark and I didn't want to use the flash, so a lot of my photos aren't great.)
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, so you follow the band's progress right from their early days as architecture students, travelling to gigs in a van painted with a white stripe. But that's only where the fun starts – because the exhibits are inside a mocked-up van with a white stripe. There's even a letter from young Roger Barrett (later known as 'Syd', of course) explaining how the van came to be decorated in that way.
I've always had a fascination with the psychedelic era, and I was amazed to see how much documentation has survived five decades. There were posters, flyers, cuttings from underground newspapers, and even letters from the BBC, including one complaining that a member of the band had 'freaked out' during a recording session. (No prizes for guessing which one.)
Every so often there's a red telephone box decorated with newspapers, magazines and news clippings from that era. (Here's the one to accompany A Momentary Lapse of Reason, for example.)
I had to chuckle at the one from the mid-1960s, which included the Radio Times commemorative supplement to accompany coverage of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral. Auntie Maggie had kept the same booklet. When we were clearing out her house, we decided to keep that and some other historic papers she'd stashed away. It's in a drawer in my house.
It was while I was in this first space that I realised just why we had the headsets. There are mini TV screens showing early 'promotional films', interviews with the musicians and their many collaborators (including the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and the Hipgnosis design team of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell), and rare footage from the band's live shows. As you move around, the radios and switch to the appropriate audio track. It means that you can explore the exhibition at your own pace, backtracking if you want to, and you're not interfering with anyone else's enjoyment. I went to look at the Atom Heart Mother piece in more detail and lost Clare entirely. (I didn't see her again until I was almost at the end of the sequence. She had to be briefly allowed back in to find me.)
It was quite wonderful to get up close and personal to the instruments that had produced some of the most important music of my life. There were David Gilmour's beautiful guitars, Rick Wright's array of keyboards and vintage synths, Nick Mason's painted drum heads, Roger Waters' bass guitars … I took plenty of photos of these, but they're a bit blurred. I'm blaming that on the low light, but I must admit that my hands were shaking a bit as well. It was a fairly emotional experience for me.
We'd gone in just after 1.30, and with my phone switched off I had no idea of the time. I wandered through the spaces without feeling any need to hurry. I found myself marvelling at the complexity of the LP covers. You can only really appreciate them when you see them on a large scale. A twelve-inch square is very nice to look at, but when you see the same images nearly two metres across, your jaw just drops.
If you looked up, from time to time you'd see things like the model aircraft which used to fly over the audience. There were props, models, animations, film clips and beautiful photographs, all accompanied by the highest 'fi' I've ever heard. I think I watched most of the interviews at least twice, and stood for ages while the story of the infamous flying pig (from the Animals cover) unfolded. One of the most remarkable exhibits was a letter from the NASA Space Centre in Goddard, Maryland. It accompanies a photograph of the British astronaut Dr Piers Sellers holding a CD of Dark Side of the Moon on board the International Space Station. It's a fitting piece in the story of the band whose live improv piece accompanied the BBC's coverage of the first moon landing.
There's even a room where you can watch the legendary prism design rotating slowly against a backdrop of the night sky, while 'The Great Gig in the Sky' plays through the sound system. Simply as an art installation, it was the most immersive and well-designed set-up I could have possibly hoped for.
There were plenty of people taking photos, but nobody jostled anyone or complained that their view was being obstructed. Everyone took their time and seemed to be having a thoroughly civilised afternoon. It was pleasing to see how many young people were there, too. I'd worried that Clare might be the only person under fifty, but there really is something for everyone to enjoy. Since the kids are back in school, we can't even attribute this to the 'family trip to the museum' effect. The youngsters were obviously there because they wanted to see it for themselves.
All course, all good things must come to an end, and Pink Floyd were no exception. People had written them off after The Final Cut, of course, when Roger Waters left to pursue his solo career. Instead, Messrs Gilmour, Wright and Mason continued as a trio, augmented by some of the finest session men and women in the business. As I've mentioned elsewhere, The Division bell is the only LP I've ever bought on the day of its release. And, of course, I wept when Bob Geldof pulled off a miracle and got the definitive line-up to play at the Live 8 concert in 2005.
When Rick Wright died, seven years ago last week, it meant the end of Pink Floyd. Without Mr Wright's unmistakable keyboards to underpin the melodies, it could never be the same. At the end of the chronological tour, there was some footage of them recording together. It was beautiful to watch these three old friends doing what they did they best. Knowing that it effectively marked the end of their time as a band made it especially poignant. I had a few tears in my eyes when I was watching that clip, I don't mind telling you.
And just when I thought it was all over, there was an surprise treat right at the end. Everyone took off their headsets and we sat down in a large empty room to watch that Live 8 performance of 'Comfortably Numb'. When I left the 'performance area', I was definitely crying. I'm still a bit emotional just typing this, to be honest.
I bought the exhibition catalogue in the gift shop. There was loads of merchandise on sale, but I didn't want to buy something like a keyring or a badge, which would be easy to lose. I thought an tenner for half a dozen postcards in a box was a bit pricey, too. But the exhibition catalogue will sit nicely alongside my several other books on what is, for my money, simply the greatest rock band of all time.
I found Clare outside the gift shop, and was amazed to find that I'd spent nearly three hours in the exhibition. We decided we both needed a pint (me more than her, I think), so we repaired to the Zetland Arms to look at my photos. As I've explained, they weren't great. Clint very kindly gave me his Canon compact automatic when he upgraded his gear, but I prefer my Olympus. (I know my way around that one.)
In fact, there might be only one thing for it. The exhibition has been extended to the middle of next month. I think that, like Adrian, I might have to pay it a return visit before it closes.
And Clare and I have made a pact to totally own 'Comfortably Numb' in karaoke before Xmas. It's not only my favourite rock song of all time – it was also the song that TV cook Paul Hollywood chose to save from the waves when he was a guest on Desert Island Discs. Kudos to him.
It's the song I want played at my funeral. And if any of you buggers get up to leave before the second guitar solo fades away, I swear I'll come back and haunt you.