I have a think about female falsetto

August 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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This is a semi-serious attempt to talk about falsetto singing in women, which is a new subject for me, so I’m sorry if you are a) only here for the LARFS or b) someone who actually knows about this stuff*.

It all started with Kate Bush. I’m not a fan, but I watched this BBC4 documentary the other night. It’s full of people going ‘Wow! She sounded so WEIRD! And it was so HIGH!’ And then I went and made a cup of tea, and found myself singing Wuthering Heights, and thinking ‘Actually, it’s not that high. I can sing it, so it can’t be. But it SEEMS really high. What’s going on?’

I started to wonder about falsetto. We associate falsetto with men singing in high registers, like the Bee Gees, and of course lovely delightful countertenors. But what about women?

Up until recently, many singing teachers argued that women didn’t have a falsetto, mostly because falsetto doesn’t add significantly to their range in the way that it does for men (and therefore lacks the ‘stunt’ appeal). But this description of falsetto points out that falsetto isn’t about singing high, per se; it’s a different way of producing a sound. Anyone can produce a falsetto, and you can do it through most of your range**. Some women use it to produce notes that are above their normal range (though this also gets confused with ‘whistle register’, which is yet ANOTHER method of vocal production used to do Mariah Carey-style 5-octave stuff) but others are using it for more interesting, less talked-about effects.

So, in the Challenge Anneka spirit, I thought I’d have a go at producing it. This turned out to be a very good idea, as if you know what (female) falsetto feels like, you start to understand what it sounds like. This WikiHow article says you need to lift your eyebrows. Okay… Iestyn Davies is a bit more helpful. He tries to teach Alan Yentob to sing falsetto here:

Iestyn & Alan Yentob

Iestyn suggests Alan uses a ‘Dame Edna voice’ to get the feel of falsetto. Dame Edna’s not very high-pitched for women, so here’s an example of me trying to sound ‘girlish’ instead:

Then trying to sing in that voice:

Falsetto is described as sounding ‘thin’, ‘ethereal’, ‘airy’. You run out of breath a lot more quickly. It’s a bit easier to hit the high notes, but moving around is more unpredictable (falsetto is also described as being harder to control, which means for many people things like vibrato are out of reach).

So here’s Kate, doing Wuthering Heights:

That sounds to me like falsetto. Thin, breathy, girlish, no vibrato. So then I thought about other singers. Here’s PJ Harvey doing a terrifying song where she spends most of the time speak-singing, but listen out for her falsetto when she sings ‘Jesus, save me’:

So far, so up-the-top-end-of-the-register. But Peej turns out to use falsetto in other songs, too. Listen to this one. Not as high-pitched, but still sounds falsetto to me:

And when I listened to the next one, I got really excited, because this is low. That first note is the E above middle C, so it’s near the bottom of soprano range, and in the middle of alto. And yet that sounds like falsetto to me. Compare with her voice at ca. 2:45, where the song changes and she sings ‘When I’m not with you…’; suddenly her voice is richer, fuller, you can hear the vibrato, and yet it’s the same range:

The boyf couldn’t hear this when I played it to him, so I did my own version. Sorry, Peej fans. ‘Normal’ voice first, then falsetto:

What’s interesting about both Peej and Kate Bush is that they’re using falsetto, not to sound beautiful, or to hit particularly high notes, but to create a particular effect. Kate, in Wuthering Heights, telling the story from the point of view of the ghostly Cathy; Peej, taking on various ‘girl’ characters, all more or less deranged.

Twitter came up with some more examples. Here’s Debbie Harry doing Heart of Glass, where the ethereal falsetto matches the dreamlike sound and sentiment of the track. (thanks @Cheyneyk):

(Am I imagining it, or is ‘Once I had a love, and it was a gas’ in falsetto, and ‘Soon turned out to be a pain in the arse’ in normal head voice? Nice contrast…)

And then there’s Joanna Newsom – I might need answers on a postcard about this one, but it’s jolly lovely (thanks @ATreeWithRoots):


* Please tell me if you know good things I can read on this. I can’t find much, and I’ve been googling around all day.

** and laryngoscopy shows that women sing falsetto, too.

Ratha! Supper Cross comes to Framley Hall

August 25, 2014 at 7:31 pm | Posted in cycling, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Cyclocross is one of the most accessible branches of bike racing. Women, men, old and young participate with equal gusto. However, there is one sector of society that is still under-represented in ‘cross: the upper class.

In the interests of inclusivity, I’m promoting a new event. Ratha! Supper Cross provides an opportunity for ‘cross racing in the beautiful setting of Framley Hall. Course highlights include:

Ha-Ha, Heaton Park - geograph.org.uk - 490439

Shoulder your bike for the Ha-ha Challenge

Rose thorns - 01

Don’t fall off in the Rose Garden


Bunny-hopping ability will gain you advantages in the Vivarium

Rock garden (6172688208)

Sketchy under-wheel in the Japanese Rock Garden

Inspired by the Glyndebourne model, the race is split into three sections, with intervals allowing participants to make the most of their glorious surroundings.

Ratha! Supper Cross begins at 5pm. After fifteen minutes of racing, there will be a twenty-minute interval. (Interval drinks, from High-5 to tequila, should be ordered in advance, and will be handed up in the last lap.) After a relaxing stroll around the course, participants return for a further half an hour’s racing before the ninety-minute dinner interval, where they are encouraged to change into evening wear in the Portaloos and make their way to one of our Michelin-starred French dining establishments (L’Hut Scouting, La Chippée, or our newest acquisition, Le Café Au Centre De Leisure L’Autre Side Du Ring-Road). Alternatively, riders can set up their picnic tables in the grand Ratha! tradition; please bear in mind that prime spots (the Dense Clump Of Trees, the Only Flat Bit Of Grass) may need to be booked early.

Participants then return for the final fifteen minutes of racing. Podium presentations will take place in the Orangery, for warmth: staff will do their best to remove all the tarantulas, but please watch your step.

Ratha logo


August 20, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Posted in music | 9 Comments
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After all that anticipating, the day finally arrived. The train journey was hyperventilated away in SECONDS, and I arrived in Lewes to brilliant sunshine and a room booking cock-up. Luckily the White Hart had a space. ‘We’ve got a gym, sauna and swimming pool.’ Always pack your cossie.

I changed into my Opera Outfit, packed my handbag according to the list of instructions I’d left myself*, and tripped down to the station to catch the Glyndebourne shuttle bus, feeling a bit like Eliza Doolittle. Would I maintain my cover? Or would I, overcome by emotion, leap out of my seat and yell COME ON IESTYN! MOVE YER BLOOMIN’ ARSE!

A nice chap called Justin befriended me in the queue. Me: I’ve been DESPERATE to see this so I’m DEAD excited. Him: I’m not much of an opera buff. Tell me about it. Me [enormous breath]: WELL… He left me graciously at the bar, probably to go for a quick lie down.


Dress code infringements are frowned upon


Selfie, taken shortly before being frogmarched from the premises by smiling chaps in perfectly-pressed shirts

Glyndebourne is what Dr No would build if he were an opera fanatic: a modern, 1200-seat opera house in the middle of someone’s Sussex garden. I wandered around with a bitter lemon, looking at people unpacking coolboxes and taking pictures of each other by the lake. (I loitered by one group for a while as I thought they were speaking German; they just had really strong Essex accents.)

The sun shone. The bees buzzed. Men in kilts ambled past. Suddenly, it was five o’clock, and impeccably-coiffed chaps with startling grins were ushering us in. Finding myself sitting next to an elderly Austrian couple, I excitedly engaged them in German conversation. Me: You are come to England special-like for the opera only? Them: Yes, we came for Rinaldo because we love Handel and we’ve never seen it. Me: Ah, that is cool. Them: You like Handel, then? Me: Very! And I love the, how you say, countertenors.

And so, to business. Rinaldo’s a tale of Crusades, heroes, maidens, boats, magic, Furies, and people falling in and out of love quicker than you can sing ‘He is more handsome than I’d imagined!’ This production set the story in a schoolboy’s imagination: Rinaldo dreams of fighting glorious battles and winning fair maidens in his school uniform.


Spot of light bicycle maintenance, just to make me feel at home

The staging was brilliantly inventive: clever use of (often quite simple) ideas and props. The Furies were a bunch of rebellious teen freak-chicks; journeys were mapped out in chalk on the blackboard; the army went into battle on bicycles; the final skirmish was a football match. (The elderly Austrians didn’t think much of this. Them: This modern malarkey doesn’t suit Handel. Me: Ah! But think you not the fantasticality of the story means one cannot it seriously staging?)

The singing was breathtaking. I’m still enough of an opera newbie to be totally blown away by the fact that people are up there making this surreally beautiful noise, live, for my listening pleasure (never mind all the riding bicycles, cracking whips, and writhing around tethered to beds that they’re engaged in while doing it). Act I ended with Iestyn Davies pedalling hard as his bike soared towards the rafters; that he did this while singing Venti, turbini, prestate perfectly is beyond my understanding. Listen to this version for an idea why:

Highlights… well, the highlight for me was obviously Iestyn. In a kind of C18th ultramarathon, Rinaldo is barely off the stage, and Iestyn was mesmerising throughout, his gorgeous voice infinitely flexible and expressive**. Four (4) countertenors was a TREAT, and I was fascinated by differences in vocal qualities. Argante was indisposed, and his role played by Aubrey Allicock; I loved his richness of tone. I’m not always a big fan of women’s voices (me, to the boyf: Are there any operas that only have men in them?) but Christina Landshamer and Karina Gauvin sounded lovely to me; Lascia ch’io pianga rang round my head the next morning.

Some voices got a little lost towards the back of the stage, and the (brilliant) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sometimes overwhelmed the singers (perhaps historically-accurately, according to @stuckinoregon). The cast got up to lots of ‘business’ while the main action was going on: although this was beautifully done (e.g. the tender, credible silent conversation between Rinaldo and his lover Almirena after their reunion), it could be distracting. But these are minor niggles. We were vastly entertained. For all I’ve read recently about How To Behave In Classical Concerts, the audience was rowdily engaged. Arias were loudly applauded; visual gags raised snorts; there was a groan of ‘Here we go again’ laughter as baddie Armida announced herself suddenly in love with her captive, Rinaldo. (Their subsequent duet, which translated roughly to ‘Come here! / Get OFF me!’, was received with giggles.)

As an opera, Rinaldo’s pretty upbeat; while there are some beautiful arias (and moments of loveliness in other bits), it’s not the kind of thing that makes you sob into your Pimm’s. So I was surprised to find myself full of tears at the end. I hid in the loo for an America’s Next Top Model-style weep***, and wondered what was wrong with me. The expectations and build-up had been so intense that people on twitter were worrying about me:

stuckinoregon's tweet

but it had all gone astonishingly well. All the bits of the day I’d been worried about turned out, instead, to be little gifts. The trips on the bus; the sitting next to cantankerous-but-chatty Austrians; the way you’d keep going off and having a wander round the gardens or a glass of something, then there would be MORE OPERA! Even the dinner interval was a delight, despite my lonesome status. I was assigned to a table of People Who Don’t Mind Sharing****. They turned out to be two retired women (‘We’ve known each other for forty years, so we thought it might be fun to chat to someone else’) and we had an unexpectedly jolly time discovering overlaps in interests. And then of course the opera itself; I’d been so crazily overexcited about it, yet it was better than I’d dared hope.

So it felt a bit like I’d been to a secret island hideaway, where Dr No, grown mellow in his old age, presided genially over beauty, serendipity and harmony. And I just cried because it was over.


WP_003672Eager readers are no doubt wondering about the FANGIRLING opportunities afforded by Glyndebourne. My top tip is to get the last shuttle bus back into Lewes as this, the BUS of CELEBRITY, contained not only Iestyn but also Tim Mead (who kindly but firmly deflected my attempts to make him laugh with beard banter) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (who I rugby-tackled as he got off at the end). I managed to corner Iestyn and burble incoherently at him (‘Oh it was MARVELLOUS and you RULED and I LOVED it and I don’t have any more words’) while probably hugging him a bit too often. Thank the Lord he’s such a stoic.

* good job I did this as otherwise I’d’ve packed three tubes of toothpaste and a Gideon Bible, I was in such a state

** yes yes I KNOW but LOOK the critics agree with me

*** the one where you weep facing the floor so your eye makeup doesn’t smudge

**** (@sallyhinch commented that this was better than People Who Definitely Don’t Want To Share, and we agreed it was probably safer than People Who Are Very Keen On Sharing).

I get ready for GLYNDEBOURNE

August 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
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You may not have realised this but I’M GOING TO GLYNDEBOURNE!

WP_003086After putting up with me burbling on for WEEKS about how Rinaldo features FOUR (4) countertenors, which is basically UNHEARD OF, and one of them is ineffably marvellous IESTYN DAVIES, and it’s written by utter genius HANDEL and this is ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME chance and other stuff mostly in ALL CAPS, @spandelles buys me a ticket as a birthday present. Proving, once again, that he is the world’s best boyfriend.

Despite people warning me to pace myself, offering me training plans etc., I’m still ready to POP with excitement/ terror. I even have a Handel nightmare:

night terror

I decide to distract myself by sorting a few things out. It turns out that when you go to Glyndebourne there are an AWFUL LOT of things to sort out.

1. Outfit. Glyndebourne, terrifyingly, suggests ‘formal evening dress’. I google this to find out what it is. After a frenzied evening trawling through maybe 175842 dresses online, I realise I can put together a fairly respectable outfit from things I already own. None of them are in any sense ‘evening attire’, but I’m hoping if I sprint everywhere, they will blur enough to fool bystanders.

2. Handbag. Ransacking the house turns up three neon backpacks, several well-loved Carradice saddlebags and a Power Rangers lunchbox. Hmm. Tiffany, who is a Proper Girl, recommends TK Maxx. The boiz run about like CRAZY PEOPLE while I yell STOP THAT YOU PROMISED TO BE GOOD YOU BUGGERS and try to remember what colour my dress is. Against all the odds, something completely perfect leaps into my arms. The boiz take turns to cuddle it all the way home.

fyopera3. Accessories. My Loom Band bracelet collection may not cut it. I buy some divaesque dangly earrings, and a necklace which supplies you with all the letters of the alphabet so you can construct your own words. TOO MUCH POTENTIAL.

4. Tights. The less said about this the better. I now have some. That’s five hours of my life I won’t get back, Leeds.

5. Travel and accommodation. Thrillingly, I book a room right in the middle of Lewes, and fantasise wildly about singing in the shower and being Discovered. Or looking out the window and seeing Tim Mead walking past. Hi, Tim! Lots of Sussex people immediately volunteer to meet me for coffee, which is cheering.

6. Dining. This is utter MINEFIELD. Glyndebourne operas have a 90-minute interval, where you’re supposed to have a jolly champagne-sodden picnic with your chums. I’m going on my own. I toy with the idea of stalking the grounds with a Subway, coaxing people into doing voxpops into my Dictaphone. Then I see Glyndebourne has introduced ‘sharing tables’ especially for Wilhelmina-No-Consorts like me. I’d like a little more information on my potential tablemates, but beggars can’t be choosers:

glyndebourne sharing table

I cautiously book a meal, choosing the options which seem least likely to jump off the plate and down my front.

lightkeeper's doggerel 27. Homework. I read the synopsis on the Glyndebourne site, which makes no sense at all. I put this down to its overuse of passivisation and unclear reference, and go to Wikipedia instead. @Lightkeeper helpfully writes me some notes in a language I can understand.

Glyndebourne posts some pictures from the opening night on its Facebook page. Once I realise it contains bicycles, I know it’s all going to be fine.

iestyn on a bike

my night tweet



I do some SINGING (aka, I Heard My Neighbour Weep)

July 31, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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I sing constantly. In the shower, at the bus stop, on my bike, at my desk. (Yes,  I’m aware that this is intensely irritating. I genuinely don’t know I’m doing it half the time.) I’ve passed the habit on to my kids, who hum ‘Thunderbirds’ while building Lego spacecraft and ‘Happy’ while digging up the things I’ve just planted.

But for all that, I’ve never liked my voice. I can’t trust it to hit a note precisely, to hold on without wobbling. In the spirit of Giving Stuff A Go, I find myself looking out of a window in Colden, with a teacher at the piano, trying to stop shaking long enough to get a sound out. She asks me what I want to sing: my list includes Dowland, Velvet Underground, Gluck and Dagmar Krause. So far, so midlife crisis.

Of course, I’d overlooked that voice exploration is bound to be more personal than, say, having my ‘cello bowing technique critiqued. Is it my voice I don’t trust, or myself? What’s with the confidence issues, anyway? Tell me about your childhood…


Nothing to do with me

I decide, in typical fashion, to ignore all the rattling of subconscious cages and just practise. Practising is the BOMB. Proper, give-it-some-welly singing turns out to be a mad, zen-like, out-of-body experience. I gaze out at the neighbour’s hedge, doing my warmups. Mee-mah-mee-mah-meeeeeee*. Within a few steps up the scale I’m in the ZONE. The privet blurs. The clouds slow. Half an hour passes. I don’t notice the window cleaner arriving (though he compliments me when he knocks for his cash, possibly fearful I might break something with a high F).

It’s like being taken over by some malevolent force. I tune back in suddenly and think, blimey. Am I making that noise? It’s not that it’s beautiful; there’s just such a LOT of it. Down at the bottom of my range, my sternum thrums and my teeth rattle. Up at the top, I double-check my feet are still on the ground.

Pilates mat class setup

Scenes that some readers may find disturbing

I never thought I’d learn to meditate. Anything where I have to think about my breathing is guaranteed to freak me RIGHT out. I’ve wept in Tai Chi, in Pilates, even in the lying-on-the-floor bit of aerobics classes (though that may have been the teacher putting on I’m Not In Love, come to think of it). But this is surprisingly close. At the end, my ears hum and my eyes won’t focus. I float about for an hour or two, saying things like ‘Hey, that’s just the way it is,’ and ‘Hmm? Cup of tea? That would be AWESOME.’

I’m learning to breathe properly, and control the breath. To understand what tension feels like, and realise that I can drop it. I’m starting to feel in charge of the sound that comes out of my mouth, which is bizarre and brilliant. I can’t escape thinking about how this relates to, well, everything. Normally, I put my fingers in my ears and squinch my eyes shut when Life throws me Lessons, but here they’re so BLINDINGLY obvious, even an idiot in full denial like me can’t fail to be whacked around the head by them.

The Life Lessons of Singing

1. Commit. Like cyclocross remounts, if you believe, you might do it. But if you don’t, you definitely won’t.

2. Relax. To quote my teacher, ‘Don’t worry about sounding nice; just get the sound out.’ Realise what tension and ‘holding back’ feel like, and just decide to let them go.

3. Do your thing. Sing in front of people. It sounds fine. (And if it doesn’t, they mostly won’t care. As my granny said to my Dad, anxiously primping in front of the mirror, ‘Who’s going to look at you, dear?’)

4. Try to love a challenge. Quoting my teacher again, ‘Enjoy the high notes.’

5. Give yourself the occasional gold star. Note progress. Be pleased with yourself.

singing selfie

The author, thrilled

6. Feel thrilled by what you can do. I sound better if I sing at the top of my range or right at the bottom, and avoid the octave or so in the middle**. I took the plunge and pitched the Dowland up a tone, meaning I hit a high G*** at the end. It feels like the edge of the world. The utter KICK of going for it and getting it. I did a bit of jumping around the kitchen. (Then I did it a few more times, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.)

Naturally, I am failing comprehensively to transfer any of these insights into the rest of life. But, you know. Baby steps. I’ll keep you posted.


* Shutting the door on the boyf, who’s asking me why I’m singing ‘mummy, mummy’, and giggling.

** This is officially weird, by the way

*** It’s high for me, OK? I’m basically some kind of freak tenor-countertenor hybrid.

Sneak preview: Strava for singers

July 27, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Posted in cycling, music | Leave a comment
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Singing practice can be a lonely business. Just you, the score and a surprised window cleaner. Why not get social? The newest app in the Strava family lets you upload your training, track your progress and match your efforts against fellow hopeless amateur singers all over the world. Take a look at my latest activity file:

strava singing headerRumours abound of notoriously competitive professional singers downloading the app, so don’t be disheartened if your QoM (Queen of the Mezzos) is mysteriously taken by Paula Murrihy. You’ll just have to train harder to get it back. To the piano!

Bike-based classical music demystifier

July 25, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Posted in cycling, music | Leave a comment
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If you followed me for the cycling content, you might be a bit bemused by my sudden foray into classical music overenthusiasm. Relax! Music is just like biking. It’s all about finding the right event. Use my handy guide to decide which type of musical offering will suit you best.

1. Opera is the audax of the classical world. Characterised by incomprehensible content and sections that are much longer than they look on the map, you’ll need endurance, a comfortable saddle, and a plentiful supply of snacks. Short naps are advisable.


Act 1, scene 713: Chorus cycles round and round the roundabout seventy-three times in slightly varying orders

2. Groovy contemporary ArtMusic installations: Think of these as cyclocross. Hard work, loud and excitable, you’ll spend more time than usual on your feet, but they’re over quite quickly and someone might hand you up a beer.

3. Recitals. Held in small, intimate venues, recitals are like criteriums: a chance to get up close to your favourites. You might even get an autograph; you should bring a CD for this, as Sagan-style body-part-signing still guarantees ejection from most concert halls. And when the performers surprise you with a ‘spontaneous’ encore, remember to act like you didn’t know it was all worked out in advance.

4. Introduction-to-the-orchestra afternoons, community gamelan projects, Gareth Malone-style choirs, etc.: these are the Go-Rides of classical music. Designed to get people participating who’d otherwise be sitting in the pub, diehards will insist grumpily that they always raced with the Cat 1s and it never did them any harm.

Starting Line

Having an excellent time. Wrong


5. Early music conventions: these are Tweed Rides. Everyone goes to enormous lengths to source genuine equipment and use it in an authentic way. This generally means looking impressive, but getting a bit overheated and suffering unexpected chafing.

6. ‘Modern’ programmes, including anything that uses video, audience participation, or the good bits from otherwise dreary works: These are essentially sportives. They’re fun, accessible and popular, so purists will look down their noses at you for not doing things properly. Look on this as an added bonus.


I pass some essential legislation

June 23, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Posted in cycling | 4 Comments
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Well. Gosh. I’m… I don’t know what to say. Thank you! Thank you SO MUCH. I haven’t got a speech prepared, of course… Golly. Er… I’d like to thank my agent (Tish, darling, you’re a miracle worker), my fans (I <3 you all), my social media team (you GUYS!), and my big brother for failing to swap me for a bootleg copy of Donkey Kong all those years ago.

Corona1.jpgAnyway! On to business. Now I’ve been elected King of Everything, I’m looking forward to making a few changes around here. I’m pleased to introduce my very first piece of legislation: the Sunday Driving rules.

Sunday Driving rules

No driving on Sundays*.


Exemptions MAY be granted under certain STRICT conditions. To apply for exemption, please fill in this form and submit it in triplicate four weeks before your intended driving-on-Sunday date.

1. Name …………………………………………………………….
2. Address …………………………………………………………
3. Vehicle registration …………………………………………
4. Fill in and sign the following DECLARATION, to be witnessed by an upstanding member of your local community (Breeze ride leader, bike shop mechanic, cycling blogger, etc.):

I, …………………………………, hereby apply to be allowed to drive on Sunday the …… (day) of …… (month) 2014 ONLY.

I solemnly swear that I will stick to A roads and motorways, venturing only onto smaller roads when the above are not available. (I attach my proposed route and understand that it is subject to official approval.)

I further declare that I have a legitimate, unavoidable reason for driving on this particular Sunday (e.g. piloting an emergency vehicle, participating in a remote cyclocross race, staffing the Rapha coffee van). I understand that the following are NOT considered legitimate reasons, and will result in the immediate rejection of my application:
a. Tootle to a country pub for lunch
b. Trip to the garden centre
c. Taking all those tetra packs to the dump
d. Visiting every supermarket within a twenty mile radius looking for barbecue skewers
e. Going to sodding IKEA
f. The sun’s out, Deirdre! Put the top down and let’s go for a spin!
g. Going The Pretty Way
h. Driving anywhere to go for a walk, fgs

Ducks Crossing at Symonds Yat East - geograph.org.uk - 1029734I also hereby declare that I will smilingly and uncomplainingly cede priority to all non-motorised road users, including (but not restricted to) cyclists, pedestrians, horse riders, mobility scooters, runners, inline skaters, skateboarders, sheep, pheasant, ducks, frogs and wayward footballs.

I am aware that driving in contravention of any of these declarations results in immediate and permanent revocation of my licence, and enters me into a weekly draw to appear on Celebrity Masterchef as an ingredient.

Signed ……………………… (driver)

Signed ……………………… (witness)



I go to the OPERA

June 18, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Posted in music, reviews, tv & film | 4 Comments
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I’m an opera newbie. My Dad was obsessed with Verdi and Puccini, but I never paid much attention (though I realised halfway through a school trip to La Bohème that I knew all the words to Che Gelida Manina from hearing him singing it in the bath).

But it’s sucking me in. As usual, I blame twitter: in my new experiment with classical music fandom, I’m following a gaggle of writers, performers and enthusiasts, and they’re all obsessed with it. They’re being terribly nice to me, sending me YouTube clips and reviews and blogposts, and being lovely about the fact I don’t know my arias from my Elgar. And the excitement is catching.

So. Benvenuto Cellini! Directed by Terry Gilliam! Everyone was in a flap about this. No chance of going to London to see it, but happily it’s part of the ENO Screen season, and was broadcast live in cinemas last night. Now, I was a bit nervous about this. I remember watching televised dance, and being wound up that the cameras never seemed to be where I wanted, and I couldn’t get the perspective I needed. But the trailer looked stunning, and it was the ideal excuse for a night out with a good mate. We got our gladrags on and downed a glass or two of prosecco (just to get in the Glyndebourne spirit, you know).

As we wandered in, the audience on screen were finding their seats too, standing on each other’s feet, sitting on their bags by mistake and offering each other Murray Mints. One portly chap stood and wearily hitched up his trousers (I wonder if that’ll make it onto the DVD). The cameras squinted over people’s shoulders at their programmes while we listened to the strange meanderings of the orchestra warming up. I tried to spot @joshspero, who was on the balcony somewhere.

josh conv re celliniThe lights dimmed, and we were off.

The opera, like all good operas, contained a number of essential elements: 1) star-crossed lovers; 2) rowdy drinking scenes; 3) women in elaborate underwear. I liked the staging very much: the space was used cleverly, the crowd-scene choreography was great, and there were lots of visual gags. The script’s a daft romp, with lots of implausible events, wild emoting, railing against fate and so on; the principals played along with unironic gusto and almost managed to make the story credible. Minor characters tended towards Coarse Acting hamminess, but once I’d reminded myself the scenes were designed to be peered at from the back of the upper circle, this bothered me less. I wasn’t too thrilled by the music: I’d expected some memorable, sing-this-in-the-shower type arias, but nothing stuck with me (except, perhaps, the one where the dissolute sculptor yearns for a pure life among goats, which probably sounds a bit more solemn in French). But the singing was truly marvellous; I’d convinced myself years ago I didn’t like operatic voices, all silly vibrato and peculiar pronunciation, but things have changed – or I have – and I was swept away by some performances. Willard White’s bass-baritone Pope was mesmerising, like watching a limbo dancer (lower… lower…), Michael Spyres was a clear-voiced and almost loveable Cellini, and Paula Murrihy stole the show in that other operatic staple, a chick playing a chap (this is called a ‘trouser role’, which just makes me giggle like a loon).


Well. It made me really, really wish I’d been there to experience it in person. I hate you, people who live in London. But I got a lot out of watching on the screen: in many ways it was better than being there. Somehow, seeing it all up close brought home the mad, bizarre brilliance of opera as an art form: not just the artistic vision and the organisation and the hard work, but the sheer astonishing fact of people, up there, making this extraordinary, beautiful noise, perfectly, live. Add to that the detail of faces, costumes and sets; the sweat running from the conductor’s sideburns; the glint in an oboist’s eye. Even opera glasses don’t get you that.

Book review: France En Vélo, by John Walsh and Hannah Reynolds

June 2, 2014 at 10:45 am | Posted in books, cycling | Leave a comment
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Francophilia oozes from this book. Part travelogue, part tour guide, it takes you on an idiosyncratic, 1000-mile journey through the authors’ favourite bits of France, with plenty of historical, cultural and culinary detours along the way. Hannah and John know France very well, and their route is largely off the beaten track; I was tickled to see the stunning yet little-known Gorges de la Nesque included, for example.

You get the feeling it would be a giggle to go on holiday with these two. Their enthusiasm for good riding in gorgeous scenery is matched by a healthy interest in the local tipples and a penchant for serendipitous exploring (the list of Picnic Essentials includes swimming gear, and one of the Useful Phrases is Could you fill my bottle with red wine, please?).

france en veloThe book is beautifully laid out. All the pictures of spectacular vistas, inviting streets and architectural gems will induce hopeless nostalgia in anyone who’s visited France, and send readers who haven’t scurrying off to Tripadvisor. Ideal for dreaming over on wintry evenings, you can practically smell the lavender and taste the Sauternes, and the loving detail gives you a real sense of what you’ll experience when you’re there.

It’s a terrific read, then. But would it work as a holiday guide?

Hannah and John suggest ways of adapting the route to your preferences, including dividing it up into different stages depending on how far you want to travel in a day, or doing parts of the route as short breaks. There’s plenty of practical information about each town, including where to shop, stay and get your bike bits from, and I can see all the tidbits of historical and cultural information really enhancing a holiday.

However, the vivid detail that’s so enchanting in your living room might weigh a little heavy in your pannier. The book includes turn-by-turn route descriptions, which would work in a walking guide, but I’m unsure I’d be hauling it out at every junction to check I was going the right way. For me, a different format would have worked better – perhaps a narrower, slimmer volume with directions that would fit in a back pocket, and an accompanying text with the local colour, for route-planning over pizza in the evenings.

I was expecting fold-out maps, and was a bit surprised to find schematic route plans only. So you’ll need to get hold of a set of Michelin maps (not a bad thing, in itself), and spend some time beforehand translating routes from book to map.

The very specific local recommendations in the book may mean it’ll suffer from Lonely Planet syndrome, whereby you arrive in a town to find none of the places you were hoping to eat/ drink/ stay at exist any more. There’s an accompanying website, which isn’t very developed at present – this would be a great place to post up-to-date recommendations, e.g. from travellers using the book. Ideally, the book would have its own app, so you could check directions and local information while on the move.

All in all, though, this is an inspiring read for anyone dreaming of cycle touring in France. Maybe the best approach is to let it stimulate your imagination, and then do as Hannah and John would do – pack a few maps and your swimming gear, fill your bidons with vin rouge, and see where the Mistral blows you.

  • France En Velo, by John Walsh and Hannah Reynolds. Wild Things Publishing, 2014. Rrp: £16.99

I was kindly provided with a free copy of this book for review by Wild Things Publishing.

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