Coffee Shop Gestures, or Random Acts of Kindness

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Why obsess over constructing a perfect moment, when true surprise comes from sudden spontaneity? A few weeks ago, I found myself at an Italian cafe near Trafalgar Square with an absolute gem of a girl. My mind was poring over how to make our weekend unforgettable in every detail, when the waiter approached us out of the blue. I assumed he would offer to take our plates, but instead he crouched down and mentioned that the lady next to us had just paid our bill.

You may be aware of these so-called “random acts of kindness,” such as the Free Hugs campaign, a social movement based on selfless compassion for one another. There’s also the Jewish concept of “mitzvah,” the secondary meaning of which denotes to a moral deed performed as a religious duty; colloquially, a deed done out of generosity. You see these random acts dotted throughout the headlines of news sites, as if such selflessness is a real rarity in this day and age.

Now, it’s impossible to analyse the act without considering the lady in question, who we had no prior connection with. She was by herself, with a programme for the West End production of The Lion King- perhaps she noticed the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory programme on our table, and saw some of her in us? That would mean the act was not truly “random” (the only reason the waiter could provide for the act was that the lady thought we looked like a lovely couple)- yet does that mean it is any less of a selfless act?

The biggest question we had to answer, startled as we were, was whether to acknowledge the lady as she made her way out of the restaurant. Our minds went back and forth, but the waiter had also mentioned that she wished to remain anonymous, so eventually, when the lady did emerge, we decided not to thank her. Sometimes it is nice to have your gestures shrouded in anonymity. Even so, we couldn’t help glancing in her direction as she left, our minds

In truth, random acts of kindness in this day and age really do take you aback. Unfortunately, we are often suspicious of anything being offered to us freely; we always expect to have to do something in return. Furthermore, we all like to think we’d do something selfless on instinct, expecting the best of ourselves on instinct, but how often does that actually happen? When was the last time you did something truly selfless?

Think about it, because honestly, those random acts have such an incredible impact on the bestowed. Our conversations kept going back over it throughout the evening, but it also put us more at ease with one another, as if the lady’s deed was a blessing on our blossoming relationship. So next time you’re struck by inspiration, be it in an Italian café or wherever you are, don’t let it fizzle away; just take it and go with it. It’s amazing how something so random can end up having so much meaning.

My thoughts on Bestival 2016

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What would be your response to seeing the Chuckle Brothers playing the main stage of a major music festival? Given the crowd’s rapturous response to their seasoned shambolics (complete with Barry miming on the drums), it was a mix of triumph and humored bemusement. This was my second time at Bestival which, ever eclectic, had proposed a “future” theme.  Admittedly the brothers were early on in the day, but the heart-warming nostalgia guaranteed by a set chock full of “to me, to you” and “no slacking” was almost at loggerheads with this.

Oh dear oh dear, you might think. But actually, among a sea of futuristic artwork, glossy spaced-out costumes and (perhaps most importantly) a whole host of new talent, the odd dot of reminiscence in the form of legendary performers- be they acclaimed artists or the silliest of children’s entertainers- was much needed. Heck, 2016 has been a tough year, particularly in popular culture; we need a slice of sentimentality every now and then- not just to remind us of what has been, but of what can be done.

Despite me and James getting there quite late on Friday, we were still able to find space for our tent without having to walk too far into the festival. However, if you go down with more than one after the first day… well, I crave your confidence, your optimistic outlook on the ways of music festivals. Forcing ourselves to set things up properly rather than just dash off to enjoy the music was probably the toughest part of the whole weekend, even more than packing everything up on Sunday morning in the early, hungover stages of a post festival comedown. AND it was a pop up tent.

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Bestival, Chuckle style.

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Bestival and chill.

Maybe my regular attendance of Glastonbury has warped my expectations of other festivals, but the main stage certainly seemed small. For reference, it was on par with the Park stage at the aforementioned Somerset series, and it was much smaller than the main stage at, say, Reading or Leeds. In a way though, you can argue that this puts it on more level footing with the other stages of the festival; that it is on par with the rest, rather than trying to stand out.

Delays on entering the festival meant that we missed Skepta, much to my annoyance and James’s jubilation, but Major Lazer were satisfying Friday night headliners. From the first bounce of “Pon De Floor”, we were treated to all manner of shapes and speeds; even gimmicks like Diplo zorbing across the crowd were enjoyable enough. The only big let-down was the short, acoustic version of “Cold Water,” courtesy of MO, who had played the Big Top earlier. As one of the late contenders for summer anthem, I felt this was a missed opportunity.

After enduring the rain for Chuckle Brothers,  me and James escaped Saturday’s awful weather with a few hours in the Big Top; this is Bestival’s second stage, so more musical tricks than circus treats. My highlight was Beaty Heart, one of the first band’s I’ve heard who truly consider the texture of their innovative electropop, with “Flora” prompting swathes of slow grooves across the tent. Then the rain faded away for Craig David, his comeback continuing to catapult him further into our consciousness with his lively, pure feel-good R’n’B. Another mix of past and future that you can’t explain, but it works.

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The Cure’s Bestival set: “Just Like Heaven,” you may well say.

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The People’s Front Room, Bestival’s best kept secret.

Now, some bands yearn to make their festival slot a special occasion in some way, such as celebrating an album anniversary by playing it from start to finish. Instead, The Cure embraced the best of their back catalog- nearly three hours of it in fact- and delivered a spectacular set that took in all corners of alternative, from psych to disco to indie and back again. From the impassioned jangle pop of “Friday I’m In Love” to the sludgy bass intro of “Just Like Heaven” sending up wistful cheers, the highlights were predictable, but no less enjoyable for being so.

Sunday meanwhile, in the grand festival tradition, was a bit of a blur. Me and James spent lots of it exploring the less-trodden western corners of the festival, wandering through the Ambient Forest to the top of the site to take it all in. Pick of the day had to go to Will Varley on the Magic Meadow’s Invaders of the Future stage. It was a slightly difficult set in a sense because of its close proximity to the main stage, but Varley’s folk was equally rowdy and enthusiastic, doing very well in keeping the crowd with him throughout.

Coming back on the ferry late that evening, drifting in and out of sleep and reveling in the foul-language nostalgia of Teesside Tintin, I reflected that Bestival does feel a bit like a holiday getaway, bowing out the summer in spectacular style. Granted, it WAS slightly smaller this year (as festival organizers openly admitted on social media afterwards), but the festival still felt like it was giving its all throughout. Although I will admit there was a particular hideaway that underlined most of the fun across the weekend: The People’s Front Room.

Fashioned as an otherworldly nineteenth century salon, this tucked-away gem offers a heap of talent across funk, jazz, and all manner of genres for that matter, to be enjoyed from one of the plush armchairs or the Persian-style carpets. Leave your wellies at the door and immerse yourself. Being so close to the artist, it offers an unparalleled level of intimacy- despite the venue doubling in size since last year’s Bestival. It’s easily my favourite find from the fields. For me, festivals are about the hidden delights you stumble into; maybe Bestival is right in pointing to the future, to see what you come across next.

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My Harry Potter Cursed Child Book Review

It’s official: Harry Potter is Lord Voldemort. His soul split into many pieces and hidden into books, theme parks and now a West End show, he will never die. But can the script alone do the show justice, and is it a worthy successor to the seven stories that preceded it?

I dissected this and a whole lot more in my Cursed Child book review on my YouTube channel. Give it a watch and see what you think!

 

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My return to Liverpool

 

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Traipsing through the University of Liverpool campus on a bright Saturday in July, I had completely forgotten I was slap bang in the middle of graduation season. Determined to get a photo of Abercromby Square for nostalgia’s sake, I found the gates locked, and had to twist my hands through the railings to get a half decent picture. Inside the square, a vast canopy covered much of the area, ready to welcome the new graduates relinquishing the reins of student-hood; some striding forth, others tottering more anxiously. If anything could make the two years since my graduation feel like a long time ago, it was this.

I was up on the Mersey for two days, just enough time to refresh my memory of the city. Even the train journey up from London Euston, a path trodden so many times in between terms, had a bolstering familiarity for it. You know you need to re-evaluate your emotions when you’re sighing at the nostalgia of a trip with Virgin Trains, a luxury rarely experienced by us luckless commuters in the South East. Before long I’m catching up with my fellow Bido Lito! alumni, music connoisseur and all-round-good-guy Laurie at Bold Street Coffee, and the ball’s rolling like nothing has changed.

There was an actual occasion for us to experience- the Liverpool Biennial, the largest contemporary art festival in the land, transforming the city’s landscape across ten weeks every two years. There were all kinds of exhibits dotted around Liverpool’s centre, but the highlight had to be in the Oratory at the Anglican Cathedral. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “Rubber Coated Steel” was minimalist in its approach, a shot of a corridor with hooks dragging forward startling images, the only audio being the cold, blunt mechanisms, and subtitles along the bottom.

 

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But an unexpected treat was to be found in the ABC Cinema on Lime Street; not just in the films on display, but in exploring the Grade II listed building itself. Closed since 1998, the downtrodden exterior can be a bleak greeting when you arrive into Liverpool’s train station, yet inside it truly feels like a capsule from another time. On leaving, the only downside is your longing to restore it to its former glory. Biennial is great at tapping into moments like that, but more than anything it gives you the impetus to explore some of Liverpool’s best kept secrets, with a real sense of the past and the future colliding, especially at the cinema.

The next morning, I decided to check out a few sites I had missed the day before, with Sefton Park being the biggest draw. Ah, Sefton Park. Such a huge open space, so many things to different occasions. Serenity. Open-minded exploration. Slacklining above the pond. Obscure but oh so brilliant reggae bands in the tropical conditions of the Palm House. Any way you want to relax and unwind, it caters for the occasion. Following this, a catch up with my favourite past reviews editor of Bido Lito! (that pink magazine was imperative to shaping my Liverpool experience) did much to prove that no matter how much time passes, friends will always be up for a laugh.

Granted, it was good to see some of the Liverpool landscape is changing for the better- strolling down Penny Lane for sentimentality’s sake, it was a relief to see the long-neglected shelter in the middle of the roundabout is finally being resurrected- something I always thought was one heck of a missed opportunity- and also the school at the top of Smithdown Road opposite Toxteth Cemetery, having been the site of barren patches of nothing for so long. Change, where needed, is incredibly healthy for an area, and it was good to see Liverpool was showing no signs of slowing.

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It sounds predictable, but Liverpool was such a formative experience for me, and not just at university. My first steps into the world of employment saw me pushing leaflets through letterboxes around Toxteth and Kensington; not the most strenuous of work, but you got a decent amount of exercise and I had plenty of time to listen to podcasts or bands I would be reviewing that evening. Working behind the bar at Chester racecourse, or stacking shelves at the Anfield Asda while dabbling in community radio at KCC Live, and the odd street team shift at Juice FM. All of that defined me so much more as a person.

Well, at least I can confirm it’s official: one and a half years away from your university city is enough to make you feel nostalgic when checking out the old haunts. As much as I love my new home of London, there’s an intimacy that gives Liverpool so much spirit. More chummy than cosy mind; excitable to the last, and always up for a laugh. But then, Liverpool was never just somewhere to study; it filled me with confidence that my own independent mind was not something to shy away from. I hope it keeps changing, but only for the better, and never so much that I fail to recognise while I fell in love with you in the first place.

 

I Can’t Give Everything Away: The Art Collection of David Bowie

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Musician, actor, curator.  Artist, icon, Bowie. There is no one word that defines him other than his name; such was the broadness of his interests, his pursuits, his (sound and) vision. Certainly, he will be mostly remembered for his music, and not everyone will have fond memories of the Goblin King, but to encapsulate what a pioneering, influential figure he was, there really is no other option in terms of providing an explanation.

It’s half a year since he’s gone and there’s no sign of his spirit disappearing. The Aladdin Sane lightning bolt atop the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury; a box set “Who Can I Be Now?” featuring songs from his “American phase,” out this Autumn; even a musical based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” coming to London in October (although admittedly Bowie co-wrote the show before his death). But his art collection? That truly is a new side to him, one that has only been hinted at before.

This November, Sotheby’s will be auctioning over 400 pieces of work from Bowie’s collection, many by some of the most celebrated British artists of the twentieth century. Before that, it will tour Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong before a full exhibition in London in the week leading up to the grand sale, which is expected to bring in a cool £10 million- and that’s just the value of the paintings, before you take into account the previous owner.

For now, a preview of the exhibition has opened in the art business’s Mayfair branch, and with the luck of the draw giving me a day off on its opening morning, me and my housemate decided to head down. Thankfully, it wasn’t too packed- this is after all, only a preview, with just over two dozen pieces on display from the full collection- but there was still an excitable buzz as we meandered the halls checking out the pieces.

Not surprisingly, one of the highlights is Damien Hurst’s “Beautiful, shattering, slashing, violent, pinky, hacking, sphincter painting,” what I now know to be one of his trademark “spin” paintings. The vibrancy of so many colours, twisting around the circle in such a wild, enigmatic manner, made it impossible to miss this piece, an explosion of unrestrained creativity.

I also greatly enjoyed Ettore Sottsass’s ‘Casablanca’ Sideboard, another piece that refuses to blend into the background- except that this was a piece of furniture. So often now we pick out sets of matching chest of drawers, bedside tables and the like, almost for want of uniformity and order, but the jutting shapes and bold colours of this piece are entertaining to behold.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the most astonishing revelation that Bowie had an unusual record player, but the sleek, insatiably stylish Brionvega Radiophonograph by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni was something to behold. Accompanying it was a list of “25 Albums that could “Change Your Reputation,” according to David Bowie,” originally from a Vanity Fair article in 2013. I’m ashamed (but also not surprised, if I’m honest) that I did not have any on the list, but that will also make for interesting listening at some point in the future.

And there, in among the displays, are striking poses of the man himself- constantly reminding you that these particular pieces of art will forever be embedded with a unique context. Why did he buy them? How did they fit into his collection, his style, and his overall outlook on life? The further you look into these things, the more they befuddle you; at its simplest, it offers another definition of Bowie for us to ponder over.

Bowie me

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My first time at the Proms

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A man reaches for a Tupperware of grapes during the interval, as the smell of wine hangs thick in the air. It’s my first time at the Proms- officially as a “Prommer” too- and of all the concerts, gigs, live events that I’ve been to, this is one in particular that is unavoidably informed by the atmosphere. Of course, classical music can be enjoyed anywhere- and maybe likening it to the grandiose architecture of tonight’s venue plays into a certain snooty stereotype – but the ambiance of the Royal Albert Hall really lends to the feeling of the Proms as an occasion, one to celebrate.

And yet, here I am with my flatmate Gavin for the cost of seven pounds. Yes we’re technically standing (though many choose to sit down even during the recitals), but in terms of encouraging people from all backgrounds to experience classical music, the cheap price of the tickets is really promising. There was no queuing for hours either- this is the first year the Proms have started selling these tickets online, on the day of the prom itself. Granted, you can only buy one each, but if you organise it in advance it’s a relatively straightforward process; you really haven’t got an excuse not to give it a go.

The main difference here is that Gavin really knows his classical; he was so determined to hear two of the pieces at this particular prom that he was originally planning to go by himself until I jumped at the chance. I really enjoy classical, but I suffer from a naivety about the different composers, pieces and periods. Sure, I could throw a handful of names at you, but I wouldn’t feel confident debating it. However, your own experience can surprise you at times, and I was happy to find I actually knew the first piece on the bill, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero;” I just wasn’t aware of its name. Gavin wasn’t a huge fan of its repetitive nature, but I liked the way it built with the number of instruments throughout.

After this came Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor,” an early twentieth century composition with the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging of its kind. As the grand piano was wheeled out, Gavin was craning to see who would be rising to the challenge, and was taken aback by the youthful appearance of Behzod Abduraimov. For such a complex composition, it soared and shimmered throughout its forty two minutes, with an abundance of keys giving the effect of a waterfall. Only the back of Abduraimov’s shirt at the end betrayed how difficult it must have been; the fact he returned for an encore was even more commendable.

Neither of us were aware of Ustvolskaya’s third symphony “Jesus Messiah, Save Us!” but given the uplifting nature of the previous two pieces, it bought a curtain of melancholy that felt out of place; sometimes formidable, sometimes sombre, never really welcomed.  It was intriguing, but fell to Rachmaninov’s shadow. But the fourth! It was a suite from Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” which revived the merrier mood that had started the night. The melodies swelled and dived at such a pace, accelerating up to the gallery before crashing down again, without ever jerking out of place, that it all flowed rather beautifully.

Somehow, I had not comprehended the notion of an encore at the Proms, but after some frenzied foot stomping from the concertgoers, we were treated to two additional pieces. The first neither of us knew, but the second was an unexpected treat that again I knew by ear and not by name- Bach’s “Air on a G String.” Seeing as I have been trying to find the name of this for quite a while, I was rather chuffed to be able to experience it. For me, it’s always felt like a piece of reflection, a time to consider the events that have just occurred. Somehow I got caught up in the notion of an aftermath of a furious battle; quite a contrast to the gentle, contemplative ending it provided to a fine, varied evening of music.

The main thing that I took away from my first night at the Proms is that, because of a lack of lyrics (well, mostly), classical music is something you feel- there were plenty around us, sitting or standing, with their eyes closed as in meditation, just letting the music flow through them. It provokes such a wide range of emotions, that if you’ve not given it a chance before, I reckon you’ll be surprised. After all, movements, keys and composers are just names- the most basic instinct is whether you enjoy it. I can honestly say, as a Prommer, there’s nothing like it.

Jack The Lad #6: End of the line for East Grinstead?

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After the news broke that East Grinstead train station could lose its ticket office, only three years after the extensive renovations were completed, I decided it was time to return to the East Grinstead Courier to air my thoughts. Have a read below and see what you think!

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If it’s estimated that over 2000 people use East Grinstead station every day, you think that would prescribe it a certain level of importance. But imagine there being absolutely no human interaction during that process: dull, grey boxes dispensing tickets to get you through stiff, stubborn barriers, before an android on wheels descends along the train making checks, like a cold, contentious C3PO.

Maybe I’m exaggerating things here, but cuts have a habit of sitting at the top of a slippery slope, and the speculation that East Grinstead may lose its ticket office has been greeted with the exact kind of negative retorts that you would expect.

Looking round the current site, you have to admit how immaculate it looks. And it should do, at a cost of £2.1 million. It’s been there just long enough for any memories of its decrepit former host to be banished from the minds of the many commuters who use it.

There was even a ceremony with the Town Mayor and our local MP present at its official opening in March 2013; it was seen as that much of an occasion, something to make a fuss about. So why is it, less than three years later, that there are talks of closing the ticket office? You might as well shut the whole station building; after all, why do these things in half measures?

Before you start to get really worried, if this were to actually happen it would not be for a long time. According to reports, the station has been listed in the third wave with the station to close outside of peak hours after a longer period of re-education, with a threat of eventual total closure of the office.

But given the size of the town and the station’s position at the end of its branch for the Oxted line, the fact that the idea is even being debated is utterly ludicrous. Sure, some of us aren’t always in the mood to talk to anyone else and appreciate the serene silence a self-service machine brings, but just picturing the prospect throws up all kinds of questions.

What about season tickets, renewing railcards, or even just a question that a machine cannot answer for you? And what if those ticket machines malfunction? It’s no good being an expert in pushing the right buttons if there aren’t any to push in the first place.

If anything, some people just like to have human interaction. You can just imagine swarms of perplexed customers piling into the Bluebell Railway office trying to renew their monthly passes, or the staff at Motown Coffee facing bemused commuters trying to jab “delay repay” forms in their faces.

Then again, you can certainly see why they’re doing it. We’re seeing more self-service checkouts at supermarkets every day, and banks are gradually encouraging us to become more machine-savvy. But you can afford a delay when you’re doing your weekly shopping; if a machine breaks down at a train station and there’s no kiosks, that’s rush hour chaos guaranteed, regardless of any cancellations.

At a time when half of Southern’s customers are unsatisfied with the franchise’s overall service, it’s hard to imagine this announcement having any kind of positive effect. The solution is simple: stop prioritizing profits over customer service, and stop trying to put us off public transport at a time when more of us should be using it.

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