Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Normal service is resumed

Showtime Challenge is done. I'm back. I'm exhausted.

That about sums up the last five days, but I realise it's somewhat lacking in detail. We started rehearsals at 7.30pm on Friday and 48 hours later the curtain went up at the London Palladium in front of 1500 people. In that time I think I slept for about 9 hours. Getting up at 5.30am and getting home after midnight; shepherding 120 cast members across 8 floors of our rehearsal building; grabbing a coffee and a sandwich as and when we could; organising the dressing rooms at the theatre; working out how to get a dozen cockney dancers from the wings into the auditorium aisles for their part in The Lambeth Walk halfway through the show - these were all things that resulted in the most profound exhaustion I've ever known. My feet still ache from pounding up and down flights of stairs for two days.

But we did it. Me & My Girl was fabulous: the cast were staggeringly talented, the choreography amazing, the singing superb, the people involved truly inspiring. We got a 4 star review in the Evening Standard and we raised a lot of money for the Anthony Nolan Trust, despite one of our hosts being Les Dennis (sample put-down to a would-be heckler: 'I like to do my act the way you like to have sex - alone'. Not ideal for a family audience, even if it were funny. Luckily Mel Giedroyc was much better).

There's something wonderful about being reminded of what it's possible to achieve with a dedicated group of talented people in a short space of time. Makes you think there's probably very little that can't be accomplished in 48 hours if you put your mind to it. And makes me realise I waste a lot of that potential most weekends, but nevermind.

I'm taking a few days off work to recover and press on with the Christmas knitting. Of course I keep being sidelined by things I want to make for myself but as someone kindly pointed out, you have to do that or knitting becomes a chore.

So today I've made a snood-type scarf and a matching hat out of some squishy and delicious Rowan Big Wool. Despite the current cold snap I am going to be seriously warm. Will try to post some pics tomorrow when my dongle is feeling more obliging.

I've also sourced some wool for one particular present that I'm very happy about. Watch this space for a Superman-inspired gift...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

I'm obsessed

with this.

Isn't it amazing? Probably the most ridiculously cute thing ever. And every time I look at it I hear the Bob Marley song. You can't help but smile and feel the urge to set out a feeder in your back garden (if I had a back garden, of course). Officially the happiest looking cardigan I have ever seen.

And if you're on Ravelry you can enjoy this fabulous jumper version.

I've only tried Fairisle knitting (with all the colours) once. On a pair of mittens that I still haven't finished (you can see them on the right). I've always been a bit scared of it. And steeking (where you actually cut your beloved, hard-worked knitting to make the armholes) frankly terrifies me. But this may be the project that persuades me to try again. The birds are calling to me. And Jamieson's wool is sooooo cosy and in a million gorgeous colours and not too crazily expensive and....

Enough. I'm convinced (aren't you?). It may be foolhardy, it may be complicated, it may be the final nail in the 'barmy knitter' sign on my forehead but I'm knitting the damn birds.

And who knows. If I manage that, maybe I'll be brave enough to try this...

'...singing don't worry 'bout a thing, cos every little thing gonna be alright...'

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Storming Prague

That's the bar, not some kind of Eastern Front military manoeuvre on the Czech Republic. Obviously.

Yes, Tuesday's knit night was a resounding success with 7 knitters in attendance, 3 of them newbies to the group and 1 of them learning to knit for the first time. The lovely Andine (whose beautiful name I'm no doubt doing what Brits do best with French and mangling beyond recognition) managed the neatest first knit I've ever seen; Kathryn is obviously an excellent teacher. We also had out first random visitor - Annie popped in as she has just started knitting and spotted us in Prague the other week (and turned out to know one of us from the Guides in Durham many years ago - how's that for random?). We officially conquered the big sofa by the window, and will no doubt be taking over the rest a table at a time...;)

I was especially glad as I'd had a bit of a strange Tuesday - I'd spent most of the day reading about war, genocide, refugee camps, torture, gender inequality that proves the Middle Ages are alive and rocking - essentially all the worst things humanity is capable of. I should perhaps point out that this was for work, and that the text in question also had many tales of hope, love and generosity amidst the carnage. Needless to say though, it left me desperate for a stiff drink and some good company. So my thanks once again to the charming Hoxton Knitting Group for a fun evening.

In other news I am powering through the Central Park Hoodie (in lieu of the chocolate brownie and at least one of the gold stars) inbetween Christmas presents. I'm aiming to finish it in time for Bonfire Night when it will be crisp and chill for the fireworks. That's the plan anyway.

You'll notice at the top of the page I'm giving Twitter a go. No, I'm not really sure either. I doubt any of you are that interested in my every knitting move, but I guess we're going to find out. On the plus side it has pointed me in the direction of a couple of good knitterly blogs and I've tried to give Hoxton a bit of a Spring clean, lest you all get bored and realise you have better things to be getting on with. So please do explore the links, you might find a treat.

One thing I did spot on Twitter though, was a Tweet from some bloke who was clearly mortified to see a man on the Tube knitting. He was so traumatised by the experience, and obviously felt no one would believe his incredible tale, that he took a covert photo with his phone as proof. And then Twittered about it in utter indignation .(NB See how I've embraced the lingo? Dangerously addictive even though you start sounding like a two year old with a curious speech impediment). These days I can understand people being wary on the Underground, I just never suspected knitting would be high on anyone's list of suspect activities. The 140 characters Twitter permits aren't really enough to clarify whether it was the knitting itself that offended him or the fact that it was a bloke doing the knitting. Naturally I'm all in favour of hunting this Twit (ahem) down and skewering him with a cable needle - who's with me? Alright, alright, I know, 'violence solves nothing', 'give peace a chance' yada yada yada.

Ok. We'll go with peaceful protest. Direct action. Passive aggression. Remember to always take your knitting with you on the Tube and let's see if we can really freak him out....

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Me & My Girl

Raise a glass and say a prayer for Eyebrow Productions and the Showtime Team, who are going to stage a West End musical in 48 hours. Better make it a stiff G&T.

On Sunday 26th October The London Palladium will, for one night only, play host to a charity performance of Me & My Girl, in aid of the Anthony Nolan Trust.

The rules are simple: the cast of over 100 and the crew convene on the Friday night for their first rehearsal. Blocking, choreography, set construction and lighting design continue on Saturday and on Sunday they finally get into the theatre itself to rehearse until the audience arrives at 7pm. It all happens in 48 hours. The principal cast are allowed to learn their lines and the music but they cannot practice together or with the director, until the weekend of the show.

Today they were out in Covent Garden to publicise the event and show off their skills, singing a musical medley of show tunes:

They sounded fantastic and attracted quite a crowd, who were loving it:

If this isn't a Handmade enterprise, then I don't know what is. Which is why I'll be mucking in and assisting the company manager. (No, I'm not entirely sure what that will involve either. I suspect a fair amount of crowd control and a hunting down of cast members who've wandered off for a quick fag break. I've been promised a cattle prod and a clipboard so I'm sure it will be fine. A bigger conern is the fact that, like most big theatres, the backstage of the Palladium is a labyrinth the Minotaur would feel at home in. Fingers crossed I'm not the one who goes AWOL...).

It's going to be a fabulous show for a very worthy cause, so grab some friends and join the fun.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sock It To Them

So usually, as you may know, this blog enjoys a natter about fairly whimsical stuff. And although I'm not about to start earnest political debate (or, let's face it, anything too intellectually demanding in general) it seems that even here we can't escape the impending US elections. But before you panic that I'm setting up my soap box, allow me to explain.

It started with the Yarn Harlot (doesn't it always?) who is, of course, the grande dame of the knitting world these days. She has a rather charming habit of carrying a partly-knitted sock around with her (as it's a small, portable knitting project) and photographing it as occasion demands, either in front of a suitable monument/scene/place of interest, or in the hands of charming people she runs into. If you don't knit, I do realise this sounds like certifiable behaviour. Read her blog and you'll get the idea, which is that most people don't realise how many knitters (and their socks) are out there and that we're generally quite nice (if slightly batty) folk and that knitting is a joy to be shared in public. The Yarn Harlot's blog is always fun, but her latest post had me howling with glee, as it brought Tracey to my attention and a moment of genius that I had completely missed.

At the end of last year, Tracey took the sock picture idea to a whole new level.

Yes, that's right. She got Barack Obama to hold her sock while she took a photo.

Just think about that for a moment. (I know, I know, certifiable, but genius nonetheless).

This has prompted the Harlot to set a challenge Read her blog post as it's more fun that way, but the basic question is, can anyone else get a public figure (serious heavyweights only) to hold a sock while the knitter of said sock takes their photo? We're talking heads of state here, so it's not an easy one. But for each picture she'll make a donation to Medecins Sans Frontieres (and since she's already helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for them - with knitters mostly - that's no small offer).

Personally, I'm ineligible as I don't knit socks (one has to draw a line somewhere). Although if I managed to persuade Her Majesty to say cheese whilst holding a partially knitted fingerless glove, I doubt anyone would quibble. Bit of a longshot though, let's face it.

As for heads of state, well I'm not overly keen on the prospect of stalking Gordon Brown to assault him with woollens. Or taking a photo of him for that matter.

Still, I shall keep my eyes open for possible famous faces who might be willing to play along for a good cause. After all you could end up with a fabulous shot like this one.

Scroll down to see the most fantastically bemused expression ever. Can't believe I used to wonder why some people think knitting's a little strange...

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Music Lessons Cont'd

An addendum to my last post, as I've just finished watching a documentary on BBC1 on, yes you've guessed it - the guitar. This evening was a tour of the acoustic guitar and next week Alan Yentob moves on to the electric. The former you should be able to find on iPlayer if you missed it, and part 2 will be on BBC1 next Sunday at about 10.30pm.

And I found another You Tube video that deserves a mention. Seasick Steve has been topping the iTunes charts with his new album and was on Jools Holland recently, but the video I love is from a few years ago when he performed for Jools' annual Hootenanny. He plays a 3-string guitar and stamps a wooden box and shows just how much you can get out of what seems like so little. Just watch the audience suddenly come alive a few beats into the song - behold the power of the Handmade:

Music Lessons

While the Christmas knitting continues on this rainy and miserable loooking day, the book I'm reading at the moment brings us back to the guitar.

Guitar Man tells of Will Hodgkinson's decision, at the age of 35 and with a wife and two small children, that it's time for him to fulfill a longheld dream and learn to play the guitar. He gives himself 6 months to form a band and play a gig.

His musical journey takes him from Cornwall to Mississippi, meeting guitar pros like Bert Jansch, Johnny Marr, Roger McGuinn and PJ Harvey for tips and advice. Plus, it's hilarious.

It's also comforting to see someone else facing exactly the same problems and set backs that I've had in trying to learn to play. The frustration at not being able to get your hands to do what you want; the complete mystery of watching someone play a fairly simple tune and having no idea of how to replicate it; the overwhelming sense that some people are musical and talented and you're just clearly not one of them.

On almost every page is a set-back or experience I've shared at some point (along with a few small victories) so it's great to know I'm not alone. It's a brilliant read for anyone learning, or tempted to learn, any instrument as an adult.

I've hit a bit of a rut with my playing lately and it's tricky when you want to try something more complicated but don't really know where to start. So I decided to go back to what made me determined not to have my guitar just decorating my room, but actually learn to play the damn thing. I'd had it for a couple of years and could play a few simple songs, but watching KT Tunstall's now infamous performance on Jools Holland blew me away:

Admit it, even if you're not a fan of her music it's pretty impressive isn't it? Apart from anything else her timing is immaculate all the way through. God knows how I'm ever going to be able to play like that - and of course a lot of what she's doing isn't actually about the guitar - but it's a vast improvement on the image of a one-man-band after Dick van Dyke.

And it definitely helps to find a song you really love so that you can practice that, rather than trying to learn new techniques in isolation. Which is what led me to a website designed for learner guitar players where various pop folk have made a video teaching you to play their song - Now Play It. Not a huge variety of stuff on there and, as Guitar Man proves, a lot of performers aren't actually very good teachers - they just want to show off and aren't capable of breaking it down and explaining how they actually do it.

But I decided to give Miss Tunstall the benefit of the doubt and downloaded her lesson on Black Horse and the Cherry Tree (a friend had given me the sheet music but that only gives you the chords). And she's actually a really good teacher, who not only explains the techniques she's using, but suggests different exercises to help you master them and goes nice and slowly for us uncoordinated amateurs.

The site is, of course, a horribly commercial way to tap into those teenagers (oh, alright and those of us who should be old enough to know better, ahem) who are strumming away in their bedrooms and who, apparently, are dying to know the secrets of the latest hit from OneRepublic. Admittedly, it lacks the romance and authenticity of a rocking chair on a Mississippi porch. But it's a lot cheaper than guitar lessons and the videos are nicely put together, with chord diagrams etc, so it's one more resource to make use of.

Despite KT's clear instructions, my progress remains pretty slow. I'm still trying to master the strumming pattern and the dampening technique and then there's the fiddly bit of the one-string intro, not forgetting the palm muting and of course the seamless changes from chord to no-chord and - well, as you can see - I've got a way to go yet. And that's just to play it without a loop pedal.

So, for now, please excuse me as I have to take advantage of the neighbours probably being out, in order to master my palm mute without driving them to post a molotov cocktail through my letterbox.

Strum-strum-stop-strum-stop-strum-strum. Strum-strum-stop-strum-stop-strum-strum. Strum-str......