Category Archives: Lists

Well, hello there 2010

Big Ben

New Year's Eve. A bad time for the overambitious

I pretty much hate New Year’s Eve. Being a relentless overachiever, it’s the ultimate deadline – and one that I’ve usually failed to meet. By the time Big Ben chimes, I can only think of the things I have left undone. This tends to make me very bad company at NYE parties, and usually means I drink too much and get maudlin.

I have not written a book this year (although I have written most of one…), I have not written a song every month (although I have written a few, including the surprise geek-pop hit The Science of Love), I have not lost 2 stone (although I have made a lot of delicious chocolate brownies), I have not degreased and re-oiled my bike regularly (although I have saved around £700 by cycling and running to work).

So, for the record, here are my resolutions for 2010:

-Finish novel and send to agents/publishers
-Learn to use Ableton audio software
-Write 5 songs
-Keep blogging regularly
-Do some more standup comedy
-Play as many gigs as possible with the Shadow Orchestra and Sunday Driver
-Take better photos (just bought a new camera – wooo!)

Those should be doable, I reckon. What about yours?

Top questions about the harp

The harp at the Big Chill. On a truck. Oh, the glamour.

(Shamelessly tarted up, rewritten and reposted from my old Myspace blog)

I get asked the same questions all the time when I turn up somewhere with my harp in tow. So here’s a first pass at a “Harps and Harpists” FAQ.

How do you get it around the place?
Using a combination of a wheely trolley, brute strength and fluttering my eyelashes at burly men.  It also has wheels on the bottom of the instrument itself so I can push it around on stage.

The wheely trolley is brilliant, and it can climb up and down stairs with ease. A word to the wise – don’t try and get a harp up a spiral staircase. It’s messy.

Isn’t it really heavy?
Yup.  I had to have the neck (the curvy bit across the top) replaced a while ago and now it feels like it weighs twice as much. Pulled muscles and backache are my way of life.

Apparently the new neck is made of Panzer Holz (translated as ‘panther wood’), which claims to be “damped sandwiched bullet-proof wood”.  So I’ll be safe in case of any gigs turning nasty. Especially useful, given that I live in Hackney in an area charmingly nicknamed “Murder Mile”.

Do you get blisters?
Yes, but only when I’m not playing often enough. Or if I’m playing too much.  My callouses are coming along nicely now, and my fingertips have the texture of shoe-leather. When I go away on holiday and don’t play (or do too much washing-up) the tips of my finger start dying and I start chewing on them. It’s not a pretty sight.

As an aside, one of the highlights of my musical life was Jarvis Cocker fondling my callouses at the Hammersmith Apollo

How many strings has it got?
Ooh, loads. 45? Something like that- it depends on the make and model of harp. And yes, you do have to tune every single one. I have no sympathy for the guitarists in my life, and even less for bassists.   An electric tuner is a harpist’s best friend, and I live in fear of the day I turn up to a gig without mine or it dies on me. It’s getting pretty old now – it’s at least 15 (which is about 80 in electronics-years) – perhaps I should get a new one.

Why are they different colours?
The red ones are Cs, the black or blue ones are Fs. It helps me to navigate round. If you want to piss off a harpist, shine red light on them while they’re playing- they can’t work out where they are at all. I’m looking at YOU, lighting engineers I have known and hated… We’re not asking for no red lights just to be prissy.

What do the pedals do?
Accelerator, brake, clutch, reverse, raspberry slush-puppie dispenser, autotune and heat-seeking missile launcher.

(At this point I normally ask the questioner if they know anything about music…)

They change the pitch of the notes, meaning you can play in different keys. There are seven pedals on a harp, each corresponding to the seven notes of the scale (A,B,C,D,E,F and G). The harp has seven strings per octave (A,B,C… you get the idea). Each pedal has three positions, so you can play a flat, natural or sharp on any of the seven notes.

So, in theory, you can play in pretty much any key, and you can put in accidentals and stuff like that, and play in major or minor keys.  If you watch a classical harpist playing, you’ll see their feet moving almost as fast as their hands.  Luckily for me, most of the stuff I play stays in the same key. This is good, because I’m lazy.

How do you transport a harp?
I have an estate car. It fits just fine.  You can also get a harp in an Austin Metro. You can’t get anything else in there as well, but it just about fits.  Ask me how I know…

I know for a fact mine goes in the back of a Renault 19, but it’s annoying to get in and out. And you can fit two concert harps in the back of an old VW Passat. The harp has also been carted around on the back of a flat bed truck at the Big Chill 2006. I got to ride with it, like some evil carnival queen, waving at my minions. It was brilliant.

Aren’t they really expensive?
Yes, if you have an expensive harp.  I was lucky that my parents bought me a reasonably cheap secondhand one when my Granny died about fifteen years ago.  Sometimes I think my Mum still wishes she had got a conservatory instead.

What make is it?
Mine’s a Salvi Orchestra. It’s quite small, and not a big concert harp with a fat bottom and gold wiggly bits because I can’t afford one (though if anyone from Salvi or Lyon & Healy is reading this…)

How do you amplify it?
I currently have an Accusound pickup stuck up the inside of it, and I use an LR Baggs para-acoustic DI. After many years of buying pickups, DIs, preamps etc etc etc and discarding it for being crap, I believe this is the dream combo.  I get a really loud, clean sound through most PAs, from a tiny pub to a massive club like KOKO.

Does it have a name?
Hmm, not really. I know that a lot of harpists name theirs, and I name pretty much everything else I have except my musical instruments. It would probably be called “Nutty” if anything, as it’s got a walnut veneer. That’s not a particularly classy name though.

Can you play “Angels” by Robbie Williams?
No. On second thoughts, maybe if you paid me enough.

What about LFO/Stevie Wonder/Thriller…
See answer above…

Are you an angel?
No. Please find a more original pick-up line.

It looks like a giant oven glove!
Gosh, aren’t you observant…

Are you alright with that? Can I give you a hand?
Errrm, actually it’s a lot easier if I put the harp in the car and lug it about. For a start, if anyone drops it, it’s going to be me (so I won’t end up on a murder charge for killing the careless MoFo who damages it…) and also I know exactly how to put it in the car, and how it balances. Thanks for offering though.

Don’t you wish you played the flute? Hahahaha
Yes. Yes I do.  Now leave me alone.

(Edited to add in extra questions from the forumites)

Best gigs, worst gigs

Blisters - an occupational hazard for a harpist

Burst blisters - surprisingly not the worst thing that can happen at a gig

I’ve played quite a few gigs in my time – some of them good, some of them godawful. Obviously, while I’d like to pretend that every gig I every play is super-brilliant, the reality is sometimes very different. For the record, here are the highs and the lows. Feel free to add your own experiences in the comments.

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Things I love and hate about flying

Sunset over London, from flight AC848

Sunset over London, from flight AC848. I was kind of expecting to see sunrise earlier that day.

I started writing this post with a pen and notebook (oooh, Old School style!) while waiting in Toronto airport with a defunct laptop for my flight home, armed with a pleasant glass of white wine and some pretzels.  I was musing on the joys of plane travel, and pondering my pet hates about long-haul.

Little did I know then that my flight would be delayed for around 12 hours, due to a massive (and hugely impressive) storm in the area that cut local power and grounded all flights.  The sight of immense lightning forks flashing across the sky was just incredible – there are a few pics here.

Unfortunately for me, a prime view of Nature’s Own Light Show entailed an uncomfortable night’s “sleep” on the terminal floor, plus lots of crying children and exhausted grownups. I finally got home late last night, feeling grotty and annoyed.  But hey, I got a free cheeseburger!

Things I love about flying

  • The idea of airline meals. Free food! Free wine! I was so thrilled the first time I flew on a plane as a grown-up and ordered a gin and tonic.  I’m easily pleased.
  • Following on from this, flying is also an excuse to drink at any time during the day. If you’re suspended in the atmosphere in a tin can, it has to be five o’clock somewhere.
  • In-flight entertainment. Or at least, the idea of it. Seat-back telly! Choose-your-own film! Eight hundred and seventy three things you don’t want to watch or listen to for the next eight hours. But somehow, your neighbour always seems to be watching something more interesting.

    My favourite thing on the in-flight entertainment - the map and stats (once a geek...). Unfortunately I think someone forgot to reset the trip - 115000 miles is about two-thirds of the way to the moon

    My favourite thing on the in-flight entertainment - the map and stats (once a geek, always a geek...). Unfortunately I think someone forgot to reset the trip - 115000 miles is roughly two-thirds of the way to the moon

  • The World of Smell. I *heart* the Duty Free Shop. However, it’s actually cheaper to buy my fragrance of choice in Superdrug, so I just steal a few squirts of something I would never normally buy and spend the flight reeking like a cheap whore.
  • People-watching. I am such a nosey-parker, and I love the opportunities provided by the microcosm of life within airports. Watching a man in a pin-stripe suit trying to force an angry cat back into its carrying cage, after  said cage had been X-ray scanned, without getting his suit ripped to shreds, was particularly funny.
  • Dinky travel things. Petite travel shampoo, toy-sized toothpaste, miniature soaps – I love them.  Bloody annoying to use, but they look so cute.

Things I hate about flying

  • Sleeping on a terminal floor. Sleepovers are fun when you’re seven years old. Not so much fun when in your thirties. Still, I was better off than the poor pregnant lady I sat next to on the flight who’d also had to bed down on the floor, as the airline had only managed to bag 25 hotel rooms to cater for the passengers from two full jumbo jets.

    Dawn at the aiport. Another sight I didnt expect to see on my journey.

    Dawn at Pearson airport. Another sight I didn't expect to see on my journey.

  • The reality of airline meals. Whether you choose chicken or beef, it always smells faintly like reheated sick.
  • Packing. Regardless of my dinky toiletries, I am rubbish at packing and end up just shoving everything in, in the style of a demented MC Escher, except with balls of yarn instead of salamanders. Annoyingly, my suitcase got soaked in the Toronto Tornado, and all my beautiful new wool got wet. The house now smells like a damp sheep.
  • Security checks. You have to get everything scanned now.  Even baby milk has to be officially tasted to prove it’s not a liquid explosive. But how do they know your shampoo isn’t a liquid explosive? Chuck it in the eyes of a handy nearby bunny?
  • “Travel flu”. Just getting on a plane is guaranteed to make me feel snuffly and ill, thanks to the collective efforts of everyone’s shared germs, and my crappy sinuses. On the flight out to Canada, I fell asleep with a pillow round my neck and overheated – I woke up convinced I had swine flu and was set to infect the whole of Toronto.
  • Destroying the environment. Yeah, this one’s pretty bad. I do carbon offsetting and recycle like mad. Surely that must count for something?

Canada – Good things and bad things

Toronto Island. Literally 10 mins from the heart of Downtown. Beach! Lake! Ice cream!

Toronto Island. Literally 10 mins from the heart of Downtown. Beach! Lake! Ice cream! Goats!

It’s time to pack up my belongings in my ludicrously over-sized suitcase (at least wool makes handy padding material) and get ready to go back home to Blighty.

I’ve had a brilliant time here in Toronto vising my sister, her family and friends, and I’m really sad to be leaving. Time to start saving for another plane ticket, I think, instead of spending it all on yarn…

Good things about Canada

  • Lucy, Dan and baby Chloe!
  • Spelling. As a spelling pedant, it pleases me no end that Chloe will be brought up in a country with colours and neighbours, and the letter Z –  pronounced “zed”, not “zee”
  • Cinnabon cinnamon roll store. Oh my God these are good. There is a Cinnabon on Oxford Street in London, but they don’t taste the same (I went there purely in the name of research, you understand…) Cinnabon is probably the main reason I can never move to Canada. I would become so fat they’d never let me fly back home.
  • A knitting-friendly society with great yarn shops, helping me to get my knitting mojo back
  • A reasonably favourable exchange rate (I hope…) enabling me to buy cute shoes, lots of new clothes, cookies cutters and – of course – yarn

    Cute shoes - very cheap too

    Cute shoes - very cheap too

  • Toronto Island (see pic) – a sandy beach right in the heart of Downtown. Such a great day out, and they have a children’s farm with goats, pigs, donkeys, horsies and bunnies.
  • Lucy’s basement. It’s cool, dark and comfy, and I sleep like a baby while I’m here. Not a normal baby, as they hardly sleep at all. A very, very heavily-sleeping baby – maybe like a baby with narcolepsy.
  • Raccoons. I know they’re a massive pest in Canada, but as far as vermin go, they’re so much cuter than our British rats and manky urban foxes. Apparently Toronto is also facing a possum invasion – how cool is that?
  • Calmer drivers. After living in London for 8 years, I expect to narrowly escape death every time I step onto the streets. Over here, pedestrians have right of way, and don’t they just know it?  Also you get all-way stops, where everyone at a junction has to stop, and whoever got there first gets to go ahead, which makes for a very polite motorised society.  Dan has just got back from China, and apparently over there, the bigger car gets right of way at a junction, which sounds like crazy talk to me.  And what happens if they’re both the same size? Do you have to play scissors, paper, stone or something?
  • Ice Wine. Delicious dessert wine that’s sticky and sweet, with an aftertaste of gasoline. I can’t get enough of it.
  • Cheap sushi. My all-time favourite food.
  • A whole shop dedicated to selling Hot Sauce
  • Awesome meat. I highly recommend Lucy and Dan’s barbequed Tri-tip, a cut we can’t get in Britain because they cut up the cows differently there. Remember – meat is murder. Tasty, tasty murder.
  • Laughing at the Americans – practically a national sport for the UK and Canadia. (Edited to add – of course I don’t mean all Americans, including good friends and family from the US of A. I mean the ridiculous stuff. A great source of hilarity for us this week has been the “Birther” movement in the US right wing, and in particular, the “generate-your-own-fake-Kenyan-birth-certificate industry“)

Bad things about Canada

  • The price of alcohol. It’s all good stuff, but good grief it costs a lot
  • The toilet paper is too soft. I’m not going to go into grisly details, but Lucy and I had quite a prolonged discussion about Canadian vs UK loo roll. I find it too soft here, and lacking in substance. At least it’s not the kind of tracing paper stuff we used to have at primary school that wasn’t even remotely absorbent
  • A six-week garbage and recycling collection strike. The streets reeked by the time they finally came to collect it.
  • I have to go home :*(

Good evening Ludwigshafen! Inselsommer 2009

Well that was fantastic. After a lot of stress (thanks, Piccadilly line, I’ll be sending you the bill for my blood pressure medication…) I made it to Ludgwigshafen am Rhein in one piece, via Frankfurt and Mannheim – only to be greeted by streets lined with this poster:

ZOMG! Were famous!

ZOMG! We're famous!

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Off to Germany

This cannot be good for them

This cannot be good for them

I’m off to Germany tomorrow morning to play at the Inselsommer festival in Ludwigshafen (nope, me neither… near Mannheim, apparently) with Sunday Driver. The rest of the band are already out there, and apparently there are massive posters of us plastered all over town.

I am currently trying to pack both clarinets (bass and Bb) into a tiny suitcase ready for travel, and I am not entirely sure they fit. Bloody cabin baggage restrictions.

Things to remember take with me:

  • Passport
  • Clarinets, shaker, recorder, and magic musical spoons
  • Joel’s guitar (I am terrified I’ll forget this…)
  • Clean pants and socks
  • Less than 100ml of any fluid EXCEPT MY OWN BLOOD, DAMMIT
  • 200 hastily-made and badly-printed flyers explaining why on earth we’re dressed as Victorians and Raj-era Indians
  • Passport. Did I already say that?

Things to remember to steal:

  • The pile of Euros left over from Ricky Fabulous‘ last jaunt to France