I compete at a BARBERSHOP CONVENTION

December 1, 2015 at 5:23 pm | Posted in barbershop, barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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October felt like it was a year long. But finally, we’re here: on the coach, in the dark, on our way to the Ladies’ Association of British Barbershop Singers’ annual Convention, to try to win our fifteenth national championship. It’s uncharacteristically quiet. Most of the White Rosettes aren’t morning people, I’m guessing; those with a penchant for staying up until the small hours singing and guffawing don’t tend to be.

The Rosettes’ in-coach service, Catering To The Elite, do the rounds, offering a variety of drinks and snacks including the very popular Cheese Scones With A Cheese Topping. We perk up a bit. By the time we reach the second service station, we’re spotting chorus buses in the car park and eyeing up women in matching fleeces in the Costa queue. The back few rows even do a bit of singing when we get back on.

We'll have one of these, next year. BUS OF CHAMPIONS

We’ll have one of these, next year. BUS OF CHAMPIONS

The quartet competition’s well under way when we arrive in Bournemouth. The convention centre’s about three minutes’ walk from the hotel; apart from a swift detour to take a beach selfie on the morning we leave, this stretch of tarmac is all I see of the town. It doesn’t matter, because there’s such a lot going on indoors.

We quickly get used to the rhythm: when you can come and go, where to find people, the little audience-participation rituals. Watching quartets is FASCINATING and I miss Liz, who is still en route, because I need to discuss absolutely every aspect of each performance with her RIGHT NOW. Eventually we drag ourselves off to find dinner. The waiting staff are inexplicably grumpy when seventeen of us turn up after we booked a table for nine, but they gradually thaw, finding us extra chairs and flirting hammily with us in that old-school Italian-restaurant way. We serenade them with Orange-Coloured Sky, and get a round of applause.

Saturday dawns bright and mild, but this is no time for skinny-dipping. There’s WORK to get on with. The information sheet, terrifyingly, has ‘Hair and makeup done by 9am’ on it. We do them, and even fit breakfast in, too. There’s time for a long, gentle warm-up, with lots of breaks for good-luck-card-reading and bad jokes and false-eyelash application. We sound terrific. There’s a real sense of ‘Bring it ON!’ in the air.

The chorus competition goes on all day, but it’s not our turn until the middle of the afternoon. So for now there’s a fair amount of sitting around to do, interspersed with checking the time and going for a bit of a walk and making nervous conversation and trying to eat something. It’s a bit like being in labour. But once the clock crawls round to half past one, we’re off. The afternoon is mapped out for us with military precision. 13:52: arrive at dressing room. 14:37: leave dressing room. 14:39: arrive for photos. 14:49: leave photos. We get changed in our little corner of the hall. Michelle checks my makeup. ‘Very nice!’ My neighbours are astounded at this, the first instance in recorded history of a White Rosette not being told they need more blusher.

Barberbuddies

Barberbuddies

We move on to photos, and suddenly it all feels very serious. I worry about the photographer: he looks about twelve, and he has to back right up against the curtain to fit us all in. We’re not allowed to sing here, so we speak the words, going through the choreo, beaming for our imaginary audience. Each minute lasts about a week. Jenny holds my hand. Another move, into a warmup room with a ceiling so low I can touch it. We sing. It sounds weird, in here, like hiding in a cupboard behind everyone’s winter coats. Water, loo break, try not to be sick. Then a long corridor, and a wait on tiptoe. We’re outside Lemon Squeezy’s dressing room. LEMON ACTUAL SQUEEZY. I drink some more water, and have a coughing fit. Up and out and onto the risers. At last, we’re behind the curtains. The stage feels tiny. The lights are very bright. Sally is backed right up against the microphone. I remember the story of a quartet member who stepped clean off the stage, one year. The audience are whooping and hollering. Someone looks at me and mouths, ‘OK?’ Yes. Yes, I am. I’m fine. I feel light, and astonishingly confident. It’s like finally leaving for the airport after months planning an epic holiday, knowing it’s too late to go back for anything you’ve forgotten. I am ready.

CONTESTANT NUMBER TWENTY-TWO. FROM LEEDS. UNDER THE DIRECTION OF SALLY McLEAN. THE WHITE ROSETTES!

The curtains open to a surge of cheering and applause. I’m grinning my face off. Sally brings us together, and we sing. I think about Rachel’s advice: ‘Keep your eyes on The Boss. She’ll give you everything you need.’ The ballad is beautiful, transcendent. The uptune is fast and utterly furious. It’s all over in seconds.

Marvellous fabulous White Rosettes on the Convention stage

Marvellous fabulous White Rosettes on the Convention stage

In the dressing area, I’m suddenly a mess. (Liz is too. We have a word for this: barbersob.) I can’t stop crying. People ask me if I’m OK. I don’t think I am, and it’s all a bit odd. Despite my normal, everyday state being somewhere west of bonkers on the anxiety scale, I’ve felt eerily calm all day. But the emotion finds its way out, somehow, once you’ve run out of fingers to plug all the little holes in the dam.

Back in the auditorium, there are more choruses, then presentations and speeches. It’s a bit of a blur. There might be bingo, or Vic Reeves singing in the club style; I’ve no idea. Anxiety levels are stratospheric. Hannah and Alys distract me with complicated barbershop family trees. We wait for maybe a decade before the results are announced.

And we did it. We really did it. A fifteenth gold medal. Everyone cries and hugs and texts. I look around for Liz, and she’s there, just in time. Champions. We are champions, too, now.

I’ve never won anything in my life. Well, no, that’s not true: I won my piano age group at the North London Music Festival, aged about nine. It’s been downhill all the way, since then. So this feels marvellous. All the hard work, all the rehearsing and sweating and concentrating and doubting and weeping and practising choreo in our socks in the kitchen. It paid off.

A fairly raucous evening ensues, once we’ve performed IN THE ACTUAL SHOW, which is an utter thrill. We accessorise our outfits with gold medals and enormous grins. There is a lot of singing in the bar. I hit the wall at about two o’clock and roll off to bed; apparently they’re all still going strong at four. They’ve got energy, and heart, and staying power, these White Rosettes. Though it’s predictably quiet on the coach again the next morning.

Beach selfie feat. GOLD MEDAL

Beach selfie feat. GOLD MEDAL

Come and see us LIVE on 12 December in Harrogate. It’s going to be ace. Until then, you can watch our GOLD MEDAL WINNING performance:

 

I learn some CHOREO

September 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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The White Rosettes, not content with being utterly marvellous musicians and the loveliest people on the planet, are also pretty nippy on their feet. My friend Sarah: “I can’t believe you have to do all those MOVES as well as singing!” Me: “Not moves. CHOREO.”

Choreography is VERY important for barbershop choruses. The 220-page Barbershop Harmony Society Contest And Judging Handbook defines Presentation as ‘communication via the transformation of a song into an entertaining experience for an audience.’ The judging criteria talk about ‘believability’ and singing ‘from the heart’ and creating ‘rapport with the audience’. (You aren’t actually allowed to look at the audience most of the time – glancing away from the director is called ‘eyeballing’ and is a Distraction for the judges, which loses you points.) You create this connection with your audience by a) picking a song you can sing well b) singing it well and c) using your faces and bodies to reinforce and amplify the emotions of the song.

Some songs need delicate handling. You really can bring people to tears by standing and singing, not just beautifully, but like you mean it. But others cry out for a bit of The Treatment. Done well, choreography turns a good performance into a showstopper. Here the Rosettes are, doing Cruella De Vil:

And while you’re here, you should have a look at The Westminster Chorus doing Mardi Gras Parade:

It’s the kind of thing that makes sane people suddenly remember an urgent appointment at the other end of the country. Something about being on the risers warps your judgement, though. Perhaps it’s the altitude. You find yourself going, “Cartwheels? Of course. And I can hide those rabbits up my jumper, no bother.”

It’s the end of August. LABBS Convention, the big competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses, is a suddenly-very-countable eight weeks away. The songs I was struggling to learn a few weeks ago are now embedded in my brain. I know my bums from my dums, and my oohs from my ohs. In fact, it’s all so automatised that Sally can sing any bit of the lead line and I can come in with the bass, without even thinking. This would be kind of impressive, if I didn’t have so much else to worry about. You know the rubbing-your-stomach-and-patting-your-head thing? Try rubbing your stomach and patting your head while reciting key quotations from Hamlet, converting cake mix ingredients for an 8” round tin into a 9” square one in your head, and doing the Charleston. Backwards. In heels. Ginger Rogers, you didn’t know the half of it.

There’s a palpable sense of ‘Right, then!’ in the air. As someone with a background in dodgy amateur dramatics and terrible orchestral playing, I’ve done a fair bit of rehearsing in my time, but I’ve never experienced anything LIKE the pace and intensity of these White Rosettes rehearsals. It’s terrifying and exhilarating and completely exhausting.

Even with seventy-something of us on the risers, there’s nowhere to hide. Sally sees everything. She throws out little reminders to people between takes: “Hands lower down. Right, not left. It’s up in the air, not in front of your face.” Predictably, she catches my eye just as I smack Hannah round the chops. Damn. Damn. Sally: “Welcome back, everyone who’s been on holiday. I Hope You’ve Had A Nice Time.” She’s kind of joking. We laugh, shiftily. It’s not just me looking a bit scared.

Jane’s answering questions. “The first time, the arm goes down behind the person in front of you. The next time, it goes between the two people in front.” Ah. Okay. I put my arm out and down. If I stretch a tiny bit, I can reach the singers two rows forward. I wonder if this is a Distraction I’ll get marked down for (‘Please address the problem of freakily long limbs on the fourth row’), or whether it can be put to use in some Mr Tickle-themed comedy moment.

white rosettes banner

NOT choreo, just a bit of fun in a warm-up. Spot the Distractions. Yup, that would be me

Sally’s cracking the whip. “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME KEEP LOOKING AT ME I DON’T CARE IF YOU FALL OFF THE RISERS DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF ME.”

Jane, unperturbed, is adding new bits. “Right, do this, starting on the left. Hmm. Now do it the other way round. Okay, now do it the first way again.” She videos us. I immediately do absolutely everything wrong.

Now we’re going through a different song. YES. I’ve been practising this one at home. BRING IT ON. Right. All good so far. Yes, that’s right. Oh. That move. Oh yeah. Too late. Argh. Sally: “Don’t go on autopilot. NEVER go on autopilot.”

Yup. My mistakes come when I allow myself a nanosecond to think, “I got that RIGHT!” I spiral gloomily into meta-meta-meta-awareness, trying to stop myself worrying about trying to stop myself critiquing my own performance as I go along.

In the break, Karen must have noticed my air of abject terror. “It’ll come together. It always comes together.”

Back at home, I watch tonight’s video. In between absently thinking, “Gosh, I’m so ridiculously tall,” it hits me how Rachel is right when she says every single person matters. We’ve all got our homework to do, and our small but crucial contribution to make. And when we all get it right, it gathers you up and sweeps you along, and it’s completely thrilling to watch.

I run through it in my socks in the kitchen, cracking my head on a light fitting and knocking over a bottle of wine. But the final chord makes me well up every time. Blimey. This is going to be AWESOME.

labbs convention hall

Convention. IT IS COMING

accidento’s Guide To Transparency In Pro Cycling

July 21, 2015 at 9:03 am | Posted in cycling | 4 Comments
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In the latest of my handy Guides, I explain why you shouldn’t worry about transparency, but just go back to shouting ‘That’s ADAM, not SIMON!’ at the telly. Ah! Doesn’t that feel better?

1. Power data cannot be released because it is DEEPLY PERSONAL. Skilled analysts can ascertain riders’ sexual peccadilloes, how they like their tea, and how frequently they call their mothers from power data. One prominent rider got into trouble with his sponsor when his power data revealed that he spent the whole of the 2013 Mont Ventoux climb muttering under his breath that he’d be better off riding a Raleigh Vector.

2. Power data cannot be released because it is a TRADE SECRET. If teams knew other teams’ power data, it would be the End Of Cycling As We Know It. Which would be awful.

3. Power meters are, like, totally unreliable anyway. Which is why everyone puts $6,492,830 p.a. into their development, and everyone uses them, and even people who regularly come thirty-fourth in local cyclocross races fantasise about owning them.

4. All sorts of things can affect power readings. Having one leg stronger than the other; riding over ley lines; phases of the moon; sitting a bit wonky on the saddle; the sun being in your eyes; not being ready. Just knowing I was only a mile from home was responsible for a 0.5w/kg spike in my power data the other day. I’m just saying.

5. VO2max testing was invented solely to heighten the dramatic tension in American Flyers. Just like Vangelis soundtracks and Keira Knightley doing keepy-uppies, it has no application in real-life sport.

american_flyers1

NOT professional cycling

6. Weight can fluctuate by KILOGRAMS, like, every MINUTE. Nobody weighs themselves in professional sport, because sport cares about its people, and it’s more important that they feel beautiful on the INSIDE.

7. Heart rate is REALLY complicated. It’s down low sometimes, then it’s up high sometimes. NOBODY understands this. So weird!

8. On no account should anyone other than a trained professional employed by a cycling team attempt to interpret ANY data. This is DEEPLY dangerous to Cycling As We Know It. Mathematicians are NOT qualified. Nor are sports scientists. I don’t care how many PhDs you’ve got. Stick to what you know. Quantum physics? Yeah, that. Run along.

I do some stealth barbershop

July 2, 2015 at 7:16 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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boater

Have boater, will barbershop

Well, all right. Donning red jackets and boaters isn’t exactly inconspicuous. The ‘stealth’ aspect was because we were barberbombing the Street Sundae, when a glorious riot of street performers takes over Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Arts Festival. An Arts Festival volunteer approached us with a clipboard at one point. I feared a ticking-off, but she just said, ‘If you’d let us know, we’d’ve put you on the programme!’ Oops. We did mean to. Sorry.

My fellow Remingtons and I had met an hour or so earlier to drink tea and run through bits of repertoire. We ended up with a short list of songs that a) we all knew b) we could do without the sheet music and c) we felt were appropriate in style. (Liz: We can’t do that one, it’s not barbershop. Chrissie: I don’t think anyone’s going to wave the Trades Descriptions Act at us. Me: MR SANDMAN! Everyone else: No. NO*.)

Then we headed out (via the chippy) to scope out potential sites. We started off under the clock opposite the Town Hall. It was a bit windy, and our advertising sign (The Remingtons! Hebden’s very own Ladies’ Barbershop Sextet!) kept blowing over, but a few people stopped to listen, and someone tried to get us to come and sing at his event for free, which was encouraging. Excitingly, the Arts Festival volunteer bounced up and said she had an ACTUAL SLOT for us in the PROPER PROGRAMME at the Marina, as someone had dropped out. Gosh! A quick move into the Town Hall itself, where we serenaded the coffee-drinkers on the terrace with Ain’t She Sweet? and Don’t Fence Me In. We were getting into our stride now, adding choreo to Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue and hamming it up outrageously in Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines, Nellie.

On to the Marina, via the Wavy Steps where we did a quick couple of numbers before being moved along politely by another volunteer who was waiting for a proper act to show up. The Marina was occupied by a bluegrass group who looked very settled. The volunteer came up to us again: ‘I’m really sorry, but they’re running over.’ Hmm. It was VERY windy, and there was nothing to reflect the sound. They were amplified, and we (of course) are not, because a capella, so we decided to cut our losses and ambled off to the park.

20150628_143159

Boyf: You’re just like, ‘Ooh! Someone with a CAMERA!’ Me: I was ENGAGING the AUDIENCE

This, our last barberbomb of the day, was the most successful. At the end of the canal bridge, with lots of stone to reflect the sound and trees to cut the wind, we could hear ourselves, and so could our little audience (which included the boyf, our boiz, Liz’s husband and their son, a chap with a grin, a woman who recorded some of it on her phone, several dogs and toddlers and a couple of mountain bikers). And you know what? We didn’t sound at all bad. Some audience reactions:

10yo: Mummy, I LOVED it! That was AMAZING.

7yo: Can we go to the playground yet?

Boyf: There are some good voices in your group.

Liz’s husband: It sounded crisper when there were only four of you.

Woman I know from school: That was LOVELY! I didn’t know you sang! It was beautiful!

.

N.B. We’re available for weddings, private functions, parties in wine bars, etc. Go on. Give us a call.

* This is because all the parts are fiendishly difficult apart from the lead, which is me.

I go to a WORLD PREMIERE

June 7, 2015 at 5:49 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
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The day started fairly unpromisingly. My +1 had cat problems and couldn’t make the wandering-around-the-V&A-in-the-afternoon bit of our assignation, so I found myself in St James’s Park on a sunny Saturday feeling a bit lost, and wishing my kids were there so I could buy them ice creams.

tiffany's cat

Cats. Making people late for stuff since 1473, probably

Things improved swiftly when Tiffany arrived – ‘We spent half an hour trying to get him into his box then gave up’ – and we sallied forth for pizza and wine and a good gossip. At the venue, we stripped off (gad, it’s hot in the Barbican, etc.) and immediately ran into Sanae, Sakie and Adrie; it turns out the key to finding your friends at gigs is not to sit in the cheap seats. I’m pleased to report the Barbican’s new FanFinder™ seating app works, as Adrie was in the seat right next to mine. We earned a few disapproving looks from nearby ladies for squawking and giggling before curtain-up.

Anyway. ROW D. Some people always sit at the front (I’m looking at you, Sanae) but this was a new experience for me. I felt a bit self-conscious, as if Iestyn might think, ‘Why does that woman keep STARING at me?’ But given that I couldn’t hear much last time I went to the Barb, it was a good move. The programme hung together nicely – Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move, which muses on love and rejection; Britten’s Lachrymae, a set of variations on the Dowland piece for viola and chamber orchestra; and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, portraying Mary’s grief at seeing her son on the cross. These laid the ground for exploration of similar themes in Sentences, Nico Muhly’s new meditation on the life of Alan Turing.

Well. The Dowland and the Vivaldi were lovely, of course. Iestyn sang, as ever, so beautifully, expressively and perfectly that I’m beginning to doubt he’s actually human. I can get a bit grumpy during the instrumental bits in gigs ‘cos, well, SINGING. It’s the THING, isn’t it. (I know this is unreasonable of me.) But I enjoyed the Britten very much, not least because I could see all the detail of Laurence Power’s sparky playing and his interaction with the Britten Sinfonia.

We spent the interval queueing for the loo (as you do in the Barb) and wondering what to expect from Sentences. I’d read the Telegraph piece and listened to the podcast. Adrie had been to the pre-concert talk (‘there was a lot of hand-waving’), and we’d read the programme notes, but we were still none the wiser, really.

typewriter

Percussion section

For all that the piece featured knitting needles, a typewriter and crotales (don’t worry, I had to google them, too), it was unthreatening. Most of the contemporary stuff I’ve been to in the past was much harder work for the audience, but I found that freeing; I would give up trying to follow it, and just experience it. Sentences had tunes and harmonies and themes I could understand, but in a way this was discombobulating; I was caught between ‘lie back and let it wash over you’ and feeling I should try to work out what was going on, to spot developments or recapitulations. Eventually I settled, more or less consciously, on the micro approach, and came away with an impression of textures: layers of fizz and crackle, filmic strings and woodwind, moods that shifted between sombre and shimmering, Iestyn’s voice looping and merging with itself.

Nico seemed to tower over the orchestra, beating a time I barely comprehended with Wing Chun blocks and punches, then stooping to add keyboard lines, one hand still conducting above the fettled piano. Again, it was terrific being up close; his energy was palpable, and Iestyn was alive and engaged, counting under his breath, giving away little grins and frowns. It made me think how unusual it is to see this at recitals, and how I miss it; I spent a few years going to wiggy out-there free improvisation gigs, and one of the things I loved was the sense of the music being created before my eyes, the conversations between performers in a glance or a nod or a smile.

The let-down for me was the libretto. Nico’s Old Bones is brilliant, weaving found texts into something incredibly moving, and I’m in love with his settings of folk songs (the encore was one of these, The Bitter Withy, which is breathtakingly beautiful). I wanted something realer or subtler or more out-there than the words Adam Gopnik came up with for Sentences.

sakie's picture of iestyn and nico

Curtain call picture by Sakie Plunkett. Click to visit her blog.

It was all over by 9:20pm, which was a bit of a surprise. I tried to get Tiffany to go dancing, but she had to be up in the morning to play her piccolo. Sigh. Still, there’s always the FANGIRLING, right? I’ll admit my heart sank when I saw Iestyn would be signing CDs after the gig; I know I’m being selfish, but in my experience fangirling is much more successful when there isn’t a queue and your fanobject isn’t protected by a desk. We managed to say hello, despite the best efforts of some chap who thought he had more right to be there than we did (not for the first time, I regretted forgetting the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society badges). Never mind. I’m sure there won’t be any desks on the Glyndebourne bus.

accidento’s Guide To Voting

May 6, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Posted in advice | 3 Comments
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Still agonising over your choice today? Help is at hand! Follow my simple voting guide and place your cross with confidence.

First question: Is your constituency a safe seat? (You can check here.) Yes? Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones – FREE to vote with your heart! Go, examine the manifestos in minute detail! Quiz your candidates mercilessly at the hustings!

Of course none of this will make a sod of difference because the outcome’s already certain, so (unless you happen to support the outgoing MP, in which case you have my permission to look slightly pleased with yourself) you might as well wrap your voting slip round a brick and chuck it through the UKIP candidate’s window. In fact, that’s probably a more effective gesture than using it to vote.

So, you’re in a marginal constituency? DAMN. This should be the sexy scenario, right? Every-body wants you! Every-body wants your love! Leafleters and canvassers are all OVER you. Lock up your baby in case someone tries to kiss it.

The SINGLE good thing about being in a marginal constituency is EDDIE ACTUAL IZZARD might show up.*

Other than that, it’s rubbish. If you like the outgoing MP, you have to fret about all your neighbours suddenly deciding they’re going to vote for the Stop Costa Coffee Coming To Little-Itching-Under-The-Armpit party, letting the rival in by mistake. If you don’t like the outgoing MP, you have to vote tactically, which is like that time you were in the school play and you had to kiss Martin Notyourtype while your real love, David Blindtoyourcharms, flirted carelessly with the third years.

But! you cry. There are other options! I could spoil my ballot! Or maybe not vote at all!

Firstly, spoiling your ballot: No. No. Believe me, over-worked up-all-night vote-counters are NOT separating that pile of dog-eared scraps into ‘people who are definitely making a considered gesture about the inequity of the first-past-the-post voting system’ and ‘people who don’t understand that you only vote for one person’. Really. You’re wasting your time.

Secondly, not voting at all: They’re all the same, right? You can’t tell them apart! Except, well, you can. They may all be bastards, but there are degrees of bastardry. As Dave Walker points out in his cartoon, even if you don’t vote, plenty of people will, and you might not like their choices. And also, Emmeline Pankhurst.

dave walker cartoon

So, there you go. I suggest you hold your nose, vote, and then join the Electoral Reform Society. Or move to Scotland. The SNP have definitely pledged to get rid of midges and snow. Definitely.

*Edited in 2017 to add: even if EDDIE ACTUAL IZZARD doesn’t show up, you might still get JEREMY ACTUAL CORBYN.

Image result for jeremy corbyn hebden bridge

 

I go to YORK for the Women and Cycling conference

May 2, 2015 at 7:19 pm | Posted in cycling | 7 Comments
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Women And Cycling 2015 attracted delegates from all over the place. Kersten England (Chief Exec of City of York Council) said the aims were to ‘share experiences of what’s working’ and ‘build a network of people who can make a difference across disciplines.’ We had short talks from six people in the field (which Carlton Reid summarises nicely), then a set of roundtable discussions*.

It did start off a bit gloomily. According to surveys, 75% of women want to do more exercise. What stops them? Well, Survey Woman doesn’t like the word ‘sport’, for a start. She doesn’t like competition, doesn’t have time to exercise, doesn’t feel facilities are designed for her. She fears being seen as sporty and ‘butch’, but she worries about being ‘rubbish’, too. She’s pretty risk-averse. She doesn’t like intimidating-looking bike shops, though you might entice her into places that are open and airy and don’t have much stock in them. She ‘thrives in a no-pressure environment’.

It was hard not to feel that Survey Woman needed a bit of a pep talk. Come on, love! It’s not that bad! I did wonder whether a) we were fighting a losing battle, if women really ARE that pathetic and b) whether all the women at the conference weren’t actually women at all. They didn’t look like a bunch of crazy cycling-nut population outliers; there were women who evidently cared what they looked like, women who wouldn’t necessarily dominate a conversation, women who probably felt a bit worried about stuff sometimes, maybe even women who didn’t know one end of a crank extractor from the other. But they were out there, getting on with it, with passion and intelligence and commitment and humour. I felt a bit like Graham from Twenty Twelve: ‘If you ask the wrong people the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers.’ Survey Woman, having resigned herself to her sofa-bound fate, probably didn’t have much idea what might work for her. These people, however, had a lot of answers, and a lot of new questions, too.

150 delegates at Women and Cycling Conference

150 delegates at Women and Cycling conference, 30 April 2015. Picture by Carlton Reid.

Some of the answers were relatively simple: organise events, lead rides, reorganise your shop or website, train your staff. Other answers needed more than just the hard work of individuals: build high-quality infrastructure that allows people to cycle safely with children, encourage more women into the cycle trade, tackle the culture that puts teenage girls off cycling. But the point is, there were ideas. So many ideas. I particularly loved how the roundtables – simply groups of people sitting round discussing a theme – meshed research with the knowledge of those who worked or volunteered in the area and the experiences of non-experts. In contrast to other conferences I’ve been to, there was no floor-hogging by people going, ‘Well, the research says…’ or ‘My many years of experience indicate…’; all ideas and viewpoints were fed into the discussions.

Earlier, someone had tweeted grumpily along the lines of ‘How to get women into cycling? That’ll be a short conference. Infrastructure.’ While there’s obvious truth to this – in particular the need for high-quality infrastructure to allow children to cycle safely in cities – different stories emerged from different places. One council simply got rid of its car park (apart from the disabled spaces) and installed a bike park instead. Elsewhere, a critical mass was needed in order to argue for infrastructure changes where the purse-strings are held by people who see bicycles as a distraction. Differences in types of trips made by women and men were fascinating; the challenge is not just to design safe infrastructure, but to create spaces in which people can ‘trip-chain’ (e.g. come home from work, pick up the shopping, collect the kids from school, all in the same trip). Unexpected reasons emerged for stopping cycling; teenage girls gave up cycling to school, not just for the stereotypical reasons of helmet hair and looking daft, but also because the walk or bus ride to and from school is an essential part of their social life.

We chatted about the continuing difficulties getting women into the bike industry, as customers, bike shop staff, or working for bike-related companies. Chris Garrison tells her Trek dealers that the best way to make women feel welcome is to have women on the staff; if they can’t get women to apply, she suggests asking customers if they’d like a few hours in the shop, emphasising that tech skills can be taught if needed. Isla Rowntree, founder of children’s bike company Islabikes, said for some positions she has no applications from women at all (despite posts not requiring any technical knowledge). So the bike industry still has an image problem, though Melissa Henry from Sustrans said women are better-represented in jobs that emphasise people skills, like marketing and communications. We talked about the dreaded ‘women’s corner’ in bike shops, and the way tabs on some websites read Road, MTB, Urban, Women. Some participants relished ‘women-only’ events and provision, though Sustrans’ Sheridan Piggott said York Bike Belles had welcomed the few men who enquired about joining in their ‘no-pressure’ rides. Bernie Cullen, who was one of the founders of York Cycleworks all-women co-op in the 1980s**, said women-only spaces are needed for ‘counter-cultural’ activities (e.g. learning how to use tools).

women and cycling conference logo

Click here for the full programme

Delegates commented on how great it was to see an entirely-female panel of speakers, and to be largely among women in the discussions. (There were a few chaps about: I greeted Phil from VeloVixen with ‘Hallo, token man!’) I wasn’t too conscious of the female dominance, but someone who’d been to a lot of transport conferences found it ‘refreshing’. (And I did get on the train afterwards and think, ‘Ooh, look at all the MEN. Weird.’)

I’ve never felt like I wanted to go round an entire conference hall, shaking each individual’s hand and talking to them excitedly about what they were doing and what they had found out and what their ideas were. Not until this one. I left wondering all sorts of things, which I might have been able to find answers to if I’d only I’d had the whole weekend. Next year…

* I asked twitter which sessions I should go to, and got nothing approaching a consensus. In the end I opted for Cycling and teenage girls, The bike business: the role women could play, Cities fit for children and Cycling for everyone. So my observations are based on going to these roundtables, plus conversations I had with random people who weren’t quick enough to get away.

** Me: I used to take my bike to Cycleworks in the 80s! Her: I probably served you!

I go to the GRAND to see FIGARO

January 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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The Rules

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro premiered in 1786, a tad late for a Baroque chick like me. But everyone said ‘Oh, Figaro, such a treat!’, and it was just up the road, and the last Local Opera I went to was a triumph, so what could possibly go wrong? The boiz dutifully signed the Riot Act in triplicate; we left them with my Mum, a stack of fish fingers and a Tintin boxset, and made a dash for the train.

Now, Leeds Grand. That’s a proper theatre. It’s gorgeous: all red and gilt and plush, with art deco lighting and beautiful Victorian tiles. As you meander along the corridor looking for the bar [cough], the curve and gentle rise give you the sensation of being on a very stately boat. And it’s the first theatre I’ve been to since schooldays that has opera glasses between the seats. WIN.

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Squeeee!

I’d done a smidgen of homework – enough to realise that the boyf singing FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO was a cunning ploy to distract me* – but I’d never heard the opera before. Actually, of course, I had; a lot of it, at least. Figaro’s pretty much Now That’s What I Call Mozart – all those tunes you know from the radio, adverts and hold music. My Mum complains that the beauty of the music in Figaro is let down by the triteness of the story. It IS a bit of a romp, with some of my favourite operatic tropes: The Rudimentary Disguise That Somehow Fools Everyone, Even Your Husband; Chicks Playing Chaps (in this case, Chicks Playing Chaps Playing Chicks); and enough mistaken identity, misconstrued eavesdrops, sneaking in and out of rooms and trousers-round-ankles to fill a couple of Alan Ayckbourns. Everyone’s trying to sleep with/ marry/ outwit/ avoid someone, and women mostly triumph** – Figaro even has an MRA-style rant about how fiendish and untrustworthy the ladies are.

Casting this opera must be tricky: everyone needs to be a comic actor as well as look the part. The acting was consistently excellent: Helen Sherman was great as randy pageboy Cherubino, Silvia Moi’s Susanna was lovable and intelligent, and Jeremy Peaker stole all scenes as the call-a-spade-a-shovel Gardener. There were some standout musical performances: Richard Burkhard was a terrific Figaro, with an impressive sound throughout his range, and Ana Maria Labin’s delicious voice made the Countess’s arias things of utter beauty (even if some of them were about writing giggly letters). But I wondered about the matching of voices to some other parts. While Ellie Laugharne’s acting and physical type suited Barbarina perfectly, I wished her gorgeous voice had been given more to do. Quirijn de Lang made a devilish Count (you could almost hear him murmuring, ‘With MY reputation?!’), but I wasn’t sure he quite commanded the role musically***.

Unusually, there was no FANGIRLING to be done this time, so the boyf and I and Hannah and Mr Fish roamed the streets hungrily, looking for a bar that wasn’t going DOOFDOOFDOOFDOOF. The kitchen had closed at Veeno but they magicked up cheese to go with our wine, and the boyf and Mr Fish talked audaxing while Hannah and I tried to pinpoint the exact year in which everyone suddenly decided it was fine to wear patent platforms to graduation.

And the Figaro verdict? Well, I laughed a lot, but remained otherwise strangely unmoved (noteworthy, for me, as I’ve been known to cry at Charlie and Lola). The boyf pointed out that we were under the balcony, so this muffled the sound; maybe that had something to do with it (back to the Upper Circle next time, then). But I came away wondering whether I just didn’t like Mozart much. I know, I know, this is heresy. I can hear that it’s beautiful and clever and witty, but it leaves me cold. It’s a bit like George Clooney: I can see he’s terribly good-looking, and I know everyone is NUTS about him, but he just doesn’t float my boat.

* it’s from The Barber Of Seville. When I pointed this out, the boyf switched to singing AI NO CORRIDA! instead. Okay

** Hooray!

*** if I had the cash, I’d go back later in the run, as this may have been a first-night effect

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