Thursday, 25 September 2014

I made a deal with god

Dear blog fans... as you probably know, I am the indoorsy type. I'd rather watch a sitcom than go surfing. I'd rather cook by gas hob than by camp fire. I'm as delighted by a beautiful sunset as the next person, but do tend to think they're best viewed through restaurant windows, with a delicious cocktail in hand.

My brother, however, has a dedication to staying indoors that makes me look like Steve Irwin, so I was more than a little surprised when he rang me up about six months ago, asking for my tips on how to buy concert tickets that are guaranteed to sell out in seconds. When it transpired that the tickets in question were for Kate Bush, I was delighted. I had been planning on trying to get a ticket for myself, naturally, but a poor girl's seat at the back, and possibly on my own as even the poor girl tickets were too expensive for most of my recession challenged friends.

When my brother does do something, however, it is clear that he does it in style - he planned to buy the most expensive, best seats in the house... and after thinking about it for a few minutes (and securing the promise of a loan from said brother), I remembered countless years of peering round poles, cursing myself for forgetting my binoculars and promising myself that next time, I would get a better seat... and I decided to join him.

Fast forward to last night at the Hammersmith Apollo, with the ticket money a dim and distant memory (after all, what else would I have spent it on? Probably only cola bottles and glitter), it became crashingly apparent that we had made the right choice - and in fact, that our choice had been even better than we had realised. We were in row H. However, for reasons unknown, there were no rows A-D. Seating started at E. We were almost close enough to touch her - and indeed, I did have to mentally straightjacket my arms a couple of times to resist trying to pull her off the stage for a cuddle. She seemed so good natured that I couldn't be certain she'd mind, even. But I'm pretty sure the burly security guards wouldn't have liked it too much.

The only time I've ever been approaching being that close to a genuine musical deity was when I saw Prince at Ronnie Scott's earlier this year (see my blog from February 2014), which obviously was in itself a dear diary moment of epic proportions. Ronnie Scotts, though, had been standing up and kinda shovey, and people's heads were in the way. Plus, Prince could get lost under a milk bottle lid, so you've got to be good looking, cos he's so hard to see, as Macca once said. This was entirely different. Kate, in all her gothic glory, was elevated above us on a huge stage. Her audience was well-behaved, watchful - and, for what it's worth, overwhelmingly white. They stayed still and so you could position your head between the heads of those in front and see perfectly.

She opened with Lily, one of my favourite songs from the Red Shoes, which is one of her best albums - followed by the Hounds of Love, which made me shout and bounce around in my seat until I suspect my seat mates became concerned for my health. It was a little unusual being surrounded by people whose appreciation was shown by gently tapping their knees rather than screaming out the words and throwing their arms wide, as I am used to, but I think I mostly managed to camouflage myself into looking like I belonged.

Watching Kate so close up was endlessly fascinating. She's bigger than she used to be, but damn, she wears it well. She looked like statuesque royalty, composed and serene. The Platonic ideal of a Very Important Person.

Kate Bush is two people. The eerily tortured singer who seems to belong to a world of vampires and velvet... and the completely unpretentious, overwhelming lovely woman who thanked us effusively for every round of applause and couldn't contain her joy at our voracious love.

At some point during King of the Mountain, complete with backing singers (one of whom was her adorable, baby faced, ginger topped son Bertie, of the eponymous song fame, fact fans!) imitating the wind that is whistling through the house, I wondered if she might throw in a costume change or two, or if she was a bit above all that kind of frippery.

What followed on almost immediately from that thought was a sensory overload of frippery of the very best kind, the likes of which I have never seen before and doubt I shall ever see again. Kate and her band played the whole of The Ninth Wave, the difficult second side of The Dreaming, a bizarrely beautiful fever dream of distortion and dancing.

But more than just playing these songs, they were performed in a play in which Kate was stranded in a sea populated by skeletal fish, where her rescuers (aka backing singers) had high vis vests on their chests and long, whip-like rats' tails hanging from their behinds. As she sank beneath the water, her husband (pretend) and son (actual) were haunted by her presence in a rocking house prop worthy of Michel Gondry, with razor sharp, aqua coloured lasers created the illusion of the ocean all around. A helicopter made up of sound effects, moving search lights and flares interrogated the audience, searching for Kate and her crew. The story culminated in Kate's death, as she clung to a buoy in a dark and stormy sea that genuinely gave me the fear - but her body was carried by the skeleton fish within feet of our seats, almost close enough to kiss, so I quickly recovered.

As, thank god, did she! The first half closed with The Morning Fog, and with Kate thanking us again and beaming all over her still stunningly beautiful face.

The second half of the show utilised the second half of Aerial, 'The Sky of Honey,' a 45 minute experimental concept string of songs which features a very bizarre rhyme about paintings not drying. I have to say, I didn't dig this half of the show quite as much. Being a Bad Fan, I didn't really like Aerial that much the first time round (I could never get past that bloody song about the washing machine) and had only listened to the Sky of Honey a couple of times since securing the tickets. It is beautiful music, but I missed The Dreaming, and The Sensual World, and You're the One, and This Woman's Work, and Army Dreamers (all unplayed) really quite badly.

I also found it a little harder to make sense of the accompanying theatre for this half of the show. Was it about her art being her child and breaking away from her? Or was it about Kate turning into a bird? I was a bit confused, but still, it was sumptuous music, and there is something very reassuring about realising that pop stars don't get any less mad the older they get. And let's face it, mad pop stars are always the best. (With the exception of Lady Gaga. How I wish she'd make music that had even half the kick of her frankly thrilling visual image.)

The show ended with Kate playing a grand piano had that seemingly been smashed through by a silver birch tree and then leading us all in the 'yeah-ee-yeah-ee-yos' of Cloud Busting. We were at a show right near the end of the epic 22 night run, so I don't know how she managed to still look so genuinely thrilled that we all knew the words and were eager to scream them back at her, but she pulled it off so convincingly that it bought tears to my eyes. Kate, you are the very definition of a lady, and I shall love you until the day I die. Never get normal. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

The unusual world of academic conferences

Academic conferences are a strange beast. In theory (and if it's theory-led, it must be robust, yes yes?), such events are a chance to rub shoulders with your most valued peers, to hear from the greatest minds in your field, to socialise with your academic idols. And true, they are all those things. But there is more, so much more, lingering beneath this perfect surface.

When I first started going to conferences alone, I was downright terrified. It was like the worst first day of school ever... a school where you have to stand up in front of kids six or seven years above you and try to speak aloud what you had previously thought were the most magical meditations that ever you mused in 15 mere minutes whilst those older kids all sharpen their claws and think about ways to rip you limb from limb, intellectually speaking. And then you must sit and eat lunch with those same kids, pretending that nothing happened and we're all friends here.

I spent the first conference I went to alone hiding in the toilets during the breaks for fear that someone Terribly Important might speak to me and that the resultant horror would cause me to lose control of my senses and start blurting out nonsense about which series of RuPaul's Drag Race I think is the best. (Incidentally - definitely the first. No-one will ever top Ongina, and you know it just as well as I do.)

I'm over that fear a little now, and have reached the stage where I mostly enjoy conferences. Certainly, the ones where I'm surrounded by my fellow qualitative, leftie contemporaries are nothing short of glorious. But I just returned from a different beast altogether - a much more mainstream, quantitative conference, populated by Big Wigs with a both capital B and a capital Double You.

Ninety per cent of the qualitative work there was consigned to the humiliation of a poster session (in which those magical musings I mentioned earlier must be boiled down into a sheeny soundbite and Velcroed to the wall, whilst you stand awkwardly alongside looking hopeful that someone will be transfixed by your efforts, the proverbial puppy waiting to be taken home from the pound - excruciating stuff for authors and punters alike), whilst the oral presentations were all given by people who think that if it's not been proven by a Randomised Control Trial, it's nothing more than pixie dust, blowing in the wind. Hence, I knew very few people and was out of my depth all over again.

The oral presentations are, along with the keynote speakers, the ostensible reason one attends these shindigs in the first place. It's definitely not all about getting your institution to pay for three days of unlimited food and freely flowing alcohol, oh no no. And as I said at the start of this blog, the presentations really should be a treat, a chance to hear the latest work from the people who are basically celebrities in your little corner of academia, legends in your own lunchtime.

However... with all the endless buffets and the hot, sticky rooms, I can't be the only person who finds myself constantly battling sleep in these things? My head doing that heavier-than-a-baby-grand thing, my eyelids doing that droopier-than-Pete-Doherty's-willy thing? (Well, re the latter... I imagine. I can't think that horse would help a fella fulfil its namesake in the old trouser department, but I've no personal experience - answers on a postcard if I'm wrong. This is science, after all, I'm open to peer review.) I live in constant fear that one day my body will betray me in the worst way possible during one of these things and I'll let out a snore louder than bombs and forever be known as the girl who fell asleep whilst Dan Zahavi told us what the actual secret of the universe is.

The applause at the end of a session usually jerks me back awake, and then come the questions. Ahh, the 'questions'. Which, as we all know, are not really questions at all - no-one ever really wants or listens to the answer. Instead, this is just the chance to point out, in the most polished and poised language available, that the speaker might know some stuff, but I know a bit more, so here's where you're wrong. Always prefaced with the obligatory, 'thank you so much for that talk, it was fascinating.' And postfaced with 'so blerty ner ner.'*

Lunch is always a trauma, served as it is minus alcohol - the squares. Being the awkward wheat free meat free person I am, I always face an epic struggle to find any food I can actually eat at conferences, meaning that by the time I have wrangled with a outraged kitchen staff member who clearly never got my three-times-emailed request and have been handed my dry as a bone, raw onion filled, gluten free sandwich (some of this blog is exaggerating for effect - this last is Actual Fact), I have to face a canteen full of people who have seemingly known each other since the maternity ward and are roaring with laughter over jokes I could never understand and so face the choice of trying to find a seat alone, taking my horrible lunch to the ladies and trying to moisten it up a bit with my tears, or being brave, sitting down and joining in the joke. I rarely opt for that last option.

Ah, but the conference dinner... that makes it all worthwhile. The wine comes out, and so does the gossip. The intellect elite love a good bitching session as much as the rest of us mere mortals do. The music gets turned up, and the dad dancing begins. Your single serving friend (thanks for that one, Chuck Palahniuk) suddenly becomes family. And you book your space for next year before the night is out.

*Well, it might as well be.