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You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

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If this is a mid-life crisis, I’m quite enjoying it.

I took part in my first Obstacle Course Race (OCR) in 2013, as a group of colleagues ran the Tough Mudder event. I surprised myself by how much I liked it, so did it again last year, but a combination of TM’s openly-relentless commercialism and injuring my foot just 3 miles into the 12 mile run left me somewhat deflated.

So I pledged to renew my enthusiasm and entered a ‘smaller’ event (there are tons to choose from all over the UK), which had received excellent reviews, and looked quite a lot like Tough Mudder, but without quite so much running, and lots more obstacles. I tried to corral a team of colleagues, but through a toxic combination of inertia, personal circumstances, illness and plain laziness I arrived at the RockSolid Race just outside Exeter last weekend, running solo…

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015

That’s what I’m going for…

Nobody does #rocksolidrace alone…

I was more than a bit nervous beforehand, as I struggle on obstacles like Monkey Bars and the 8-foot walls. But the RSR team have a great social media style which is a million miles away from the testosterone-fuelled corporate behemoth of Tough Mudder (more of which later). This event is friendly, it seems organised for its runners.

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015 Twitter

And of course they’re right. Around the course people help each other (like in TM) over things and through things. At every 6/8-foot wall around the course, the volunteer marshals were brilliant, all chipping in to give people a boost up. The final wall came about 3/4 of the way through, so everyone is knackered when they reach it, but the lady manning the obstacle (surely no more than 5’3″ herself) cried

No one walks around my wall…!

…and insisted on giving a boost to anyone and everyone who needed it, no matter what their size.

The clue’s in the name…

If I wanted to run 12 miles around a muddy wood, I could do that quite easily close to home. But I don’t, I want obstacles, and the 10km RSR course included 38 obstacles, which I Reckon is a great ratio. I was running on the 2nd day of the event, meaning there’s a lot more mud. 1,200 people have churned up the tracks already, so what was simply a steep hill on Saturday becomes a treacherous slide on Sunday. And I love it that way. The RSR obstacles are a brilliant mix of natural terrain, ‘created’ terrain and man-made monsters.

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015 Course Map

OK, so this is really small. What it should label is MUD, HILLS, COLD WATER, and STUFF TO CLIMB OVER or THROUGH

There were huge piles of hay bales, tyres or logs, walls and A-Frames, tunnels, cargo nets, logs to carry, and a cruelly-twisted uphill sack race, cunning in its simplicity but agony on the legs.

#bemoremud

Best of all, there was a lot of mud and a lot of water. Our first taste (literally) of the former came early in the race (#6 on the map above, innocuously titled “River Run”). I’d assume this meant splashing through a stream, or something. When I reached the bank there was carnage. To reach the stream we had to cross a small ‘pool’, maybe 4m wide, but the ‘pool’ was in fact a sticky swamp, full of waist-deep, thick, sucking mud. How my trainers stayed on I’m not sure. This is probably the closest to drowning in quicksand I hope to experience. I ended slithering across the surface like a worm, until I got hauled out by someone standing on firmer ground. Later we crawled through muddy pools where the water was thick with mud and weeds, and it did not smell pretty.

It’s March and I’m running knee-deep up a river, but at least the water is clean…!

Did I mention how cold the water is in March? Blimey. I was grateful for the chance to run between obstacles to get my circulation going. The course had most of the mud in the first half, and most of the ‘cleaner’ water later, but there was a lot of this too. Crossing a lake via huge unstable ‘stepping stones’, wading through chest-deep water, a skip full of ice-chips, more (clean) streams to run and crawl through, a fantastic slide into another lake, followed instantly by a 12-foot leap into the other side of the same lake. It was relentless but brilliant.

Rocksolidrace Exeter 2015

Bruised but not broken at the finish…

By muddy runners for muddy runners…

I Reckon RockSolidRace is a far better event than Tough Mudder. It has more, and more varied obstacles. It doesn’t have some kind of overweaning adolescent need to promote its Toughness or Bigness or Whatever three times a day. It feels closer and smaller (because it is), but best of all, is the feeling while you’re there, at the event, that the race is organised by runners for the people taking part. A few comparisons…

  • I booked this 3 months in advance, paying £46. To enter the TM August event today would cost me £95 + £7 booking fee.
  • RSR charges £5 for carparking, while TM charges £10 (or even more in 2015)
  • The car park at RSR is a couple of minutes from the event, unlike my 2 experiences at TM where we were at least 15 minutes away
  • Bag drop is just £1 with staff on hand to supervise and secure your belongings, carkeys etc. TM cost £3 and felt much more like a free-for-all
  • Spectators can see RSR for free and many seemed to bring their own picnics. This year at TM spectators have to pay £10 each (+ booking fee), or £20 if you turn up on the day, and last year were actively discouraged from bringing their own food
  • RSR offers free hot showers and decent changing facilities. This is a complete God-send…
  • One of RSR’s sponsors, Tideford Organics, gave out delicious free soup for all the runners afterwards. Other food was available for less than £7…
  • The bar stocked ale, lager and cider (unlike TM which was restricted to sponsors’ brands) and cost £2-3.50 , not £5 for an alcoholic ginger beer.
  • I like the finishing token better…
RockSolidRace dogtags

Better than an orange headband…

TM seems to have examined every opportunity, every moment to charge money/generate revenue, and gone ahead. I’m sure this makes them very successful, but I Reckon it doesn’t make for a great experience. Last time left me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, and not just from the mud.

I loved my first RockSolid Race, and I really hope to be back next year. If you’re thinking of giving Obstacle Course racing a go, definitely consider this one. In fact, if you only want to try one event, definitely go Rock Solid.

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More moments of human experience are recorded every day than in entire decades in the 20th century; or something like that. I made it up, but it’s mostly true. The ubiquity of digital cameras and phones mean we snap and share more trivial, routine and everyday occurrences than ever before. Apparently Facebook’s photo library was 10,000 times as large as the entire Photo Archives of the US Congress more than 2 years ago! In my own experience, we have countless more pictures of our younger daughter (born November 2005) than our eldest (born June 2002).

Compare and contrast these well-known pictures of the crowds in Rome, awaiting the announcement of the new Pope, from 2005 and from earlier this year.

St Peter's Square new Pope announcements 2005 2013

Spot the lone phone in 2005 (bottom right)

I’ve experienced the same phenomenon at events from school nativities to a Radiohead concert. It seems we would rather concentrate on holding our phones steady, out in front of our faces, than actually using the senses with which we were born. Are we so obsessed with recording every experience, as if not recording it would mean it somehow hadn’t happened?

During our holiday to France in July/August, we visited one of the more spectacular natural sites I’ve been privileged to experience; the Gouffre de Padirac. Located not far from the river Dordogne, in an area blessed with more than its fair share of natural beauty (especially subterranean!), this is properly breathtaking. I’d read on Tripadvisor that photos inside the caves are not permitted, and many reviewers bemoaned this, complaining about how it’s mainly a scam to encourage visitors to buy the ‘official’ pictures that are taken during the visit to the cave (like you get at many theme parks and other attractions).

And while I have some sympathy for that cynicism, I applaud the policy. The approach to the caves is impressive enough. For a start, it’s a massive hole in the ground that is largely unchanged since the caves were discovered. What those people must have thought is beyond me, as it’s genuinely awesome.

gouffre de padirac from the surface

a long way down, and this is just the ‘entrance’

…and from the bottom of the stairs!

gouffre de padirac

Using my iPhone panorama…!

As soon as you descend into the tunnels that lead to the caves proper, photography is banned.

This means visitors have to be present, be there in the moment and use their actual physical senses to experience and remember the journey through the caves. We have to concentrate to take in the majesty and grandeur, the sheer scale of a 94m high cavern, whose ceiling is barely visible, yet even there it’s 10m below the surface. This cave is taller than any building in Bristol…

If we were waving our cameras and phones around, we would surely miss the details and natural intricacy of the plate-like stalagmites, the delicacy of the light and shadow, the reflections off the river and pools along which we travel through the caves. The lights from countless phones were a blessed omission from this natural wonder, not unlike the days in 2010 when an Icelandic volcano erupted and caused the grounding of flights across Northern Europe, resulting in clear blue skies with no aircraft tracks.

My photos of the entrance don’t do justice to the reality, but they’re infinitely better than what I could have achieved inside the caves. Instead, I shared my daughter’s approach: walk slowly, look all around, all the time, breathe in the air, remember the coolness compared to the midsummer heat on the surface, marvel at the glory of nature. She loves taking ‘mental pictures’ to remind her of what she’s seen. As she walked through the caves I could hear her muttering “click”, “click” to herself, and I smiled.

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You’ve loved something for a long time, it’s important and familiar to you, you think you know it inside out, and then it surprises you.

This has happened to me twice in the last month, in very different ways, but both have thrilled and moved me. The more recent was a week ago, when as a wedding anniversary treat to ourselves, we went to see a performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London, as part of the annual BBC Proms summer season of concerts.

This is a massive piece. Titled “Resurrection”, it is scored for a huge orchestra including an additional offstage brass section, two solo voices and (only in the final few minutes) a big choir. Performances usually last around 90 minutes, so it can be a feat of concentration and endurance for both players and audience alike. Rachel and I were both lucky enough to play it at university. In my final year, I played 1st horn, and it was probably my finest moment as a horn player. The final chords and audience reaction from that night in March 1992 are and always will be (one of) my ‘happy place’ moments.

Mahler 2 was also one of the first pieces to make it onto my Desert Island Discs list I did a couple of years ago; and while other choices might change with time, I can’t see this being displaced. I saw it performed at the Proms many years ago with the National Youth Orchestra. As is their want, they employed an enormous orchestra and choir, which made a superbly epic sound.

Last week, the surprise for me was not the scale and volume of Mahler 2 was, but its intimacy.

The Royal Albert Hall is a massive space. A huge dome of a hall, it holds almost 6,000 people, and there’s probably nowhere in the audience that gives a ‘perfect’ experience. You can be a long way from the stage, meaning you get nicely balanced sound, but you miss out on the immediacy of the performers and conductor, who seem to be tiny figures in the distance..! Alternatively, we sat in the reasonably high-up Circle, in line with the middle of the orchestra on stage. We were behind the 1st violins, facing the cellos: we could see amazing personal details in the performers’ faces, witness the physical efforts involved, and had a clear eye of Mariss Jansons the conductor. It was wonderfully intimate, but the sound balance was definitely different from what was broadcast on Radio 3.

The offstage brass were clearly playing somewhere quite close to where we were sitting, so instead of  a distant presence, they were up close and personal. When the mezzo-soprano soloist makes her limpid, beautiful entry in the 4th movement, we struggled to hear her at first as she was directly below us, facing away. And overall, some of the epic wall of sound that the brass can create felt diminished from our position.

On the other hand, the dramatic strings opening of the symphony was astonishingly intense: we could see clearly the focus, concentration and violence of their bowing. The detail in the woodwind scoring was crystal-clear, and the early choir entries were breathtakingly precise, as we could hear them breathing as one, then barely making a sound. It was a privilege to be able to see the communication between the conductor and the orchestra. And I had a terrific view of the French Horn section.

The performance was outstanding; the final 3 movements (more than 45 minutes of epic music that truly encompassed Mahler’s aspirations to contain the entire world!) were played without a break. For something I have loved for more than 20 years it was breathtaking. It surprised me at moments I didn’t predict, small moments of detail from individual instruments that I’ve not noticed before, or simply a slightly different way of playing the notes that I had thought I knew very well from start to finish.

The final chords didn’t overwhelm me as I had expected, but instead midway through the marathon final movement… The music seems to stop, when the trombones and tuba play a quiet, very low chorale. They’re joined by pizzicato strings and the trumpets, the music builds to a stunning climax with the full orchestra and the French Horns soaring above the sound with a fabulous fanfare, schalltricter auf!

(watch from 7’00″…)

This provoked not just a gentle tear escaping from my eye, but tingling right across my neck, back and arms, and spontaneous sobs that I could barely stifle. It took me a couple of days to fully ‘process’ the experience, but it’s something I won’t forget for a long time.

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What a difference a week makes. Last week I seemed to be carrying the weight of the world around with me. A few days in Dorset with my family, lovely friends and lots of sunshine and I’ve rediscovered all sorts of simple pleasures. Or rather, I’ve allowed those simple pleasures to re-establish themselves.

On The Beach…

Golden Cap sunset Seatown Beach Anchor Inn Dorset

We went camping in Dorset, to a site a couple of hundred yards up from Seatown Beach in Dorset. We’ve visited the area before, but these three days turned into something special. Seatown can’t really qualify as much more than a hamlet, with maybe a dozen houses, a campsite, a beach carpark (field) and a pub. The beach itself is made up of millions of tonnes of pebbles, so isn’t really conducive to games or sports (besides fishing), and it shelves pretty steeply, so not exactly child-friendly for paddling. But we loved it.

As the high tide recedes, we simply threw stones into the water and marvelled at the different types of splash; kind of like the story that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow – we cut our cloth etc… Even better, we simply sat and listened to the shimmering sound each wave made as it pushed up and sucked back millions of pebbles a few feet at a time. Eleanor described it as

…the sound of a thousand maracas…

which almost brought a tear to my eye. Stick that up your knowledge-based-curriculum Michael-bloody-Gove.

At low tide, a series of streams appear in the steep slopes of the beach, as a river finally finds its way through the pebbles and into the sea. This proved excellent fun for children of all ages, trying to diver the course of these channels, attempting the impossible by hauling larger stones to create dams, marvelling as the force of the water broke through every man-made barrier. Then, before we left the beach for the day, we gathered up bits of driftwood for our campfire brazier.

And all the time, just yards away, is the fantastic Anchor Inn. We had lunch in the sunshine and supper in the fading glow of a sunset here. The food is great – I especially recommend the crab baguettes. The local Palmers Ale from Bridport is smashing, the staff were all great and the setting is among the best I’ve ever enjoyed. Watching the sunlight shift shadows across the cliffs and the light change almost every moment as the sun descended behind The Golden Cap was fabulous.

The South West Coast Path

South West Coast Path Seatown Dorset Golden Cap Thorncombe Beacon

From the slopes of the Golden Cap to Seatown and Thorncombe Beacon

Apart from the pub and the beach, the other Best Thing About Seatown is the fabulous walking right on your doorstep. We climbed the Golden Cap on Thursday, and went East towards Eype on Friday. Neither of these is more than a few miles there-and-back, but the climbs are steep, the views breathtaking (and let’s not forget we had two young daughters with us). I love the way the Jurassic coastline undulates so dramatically, how the path ahead (or behind) is visible for miles as is climbs grassy cliffs and plummets through gullies.

Thorncombe Beacon Jurassic Coast West Bay

From Thorncombe Beacon to West Bay and Chesil Beach…

The real treat was our second walk up to Eype and specifically to Down House Farm. I’m reluctant to even mention this gem of a place, as I’d like to keep it as secret as possible for the next time I return, but frankly I’d like to help them thrive. The café is outstanding, with wonderful cream teas and cakes, but also lovely salads and light lunches, and a fabulous (non-alcoholic) ginger’n’apple punch. Their courtyard is idyllic, a real sun-trap with amazing views. On our way there we took a “wrong” turning across Eype Down and into the woods that cover the hillside above the farm. We kind of got lost wandering around the interlinking paths within the woods, but also were completely spellbound by the seemingly never-ending swathes of bluebells. If you’re ever in this area in May, you simply must see these woods – they’re beautiful.

Eype Down Bluebells Woods Dorset

Camping Lessons (2013)

I’ve talked before about camping as a learning experience, and this time was no exception. Here are a few nuggets…

  • Our Ikea Stovetop coffee pot is a tremendous camping accessory. Proper coffee in the morning is a delight.
  • Combine that with my new tip for continental camping breakfasts, and you’re in glamping heaven. Take a  wide/shallow pan with a lid. Line the pan with a sheet or two of foil, and get it good and hot. Either on a very low heat or even turned off, you can warm croissants and pains au chocolat in the pan with the lid on (check them frequently in case they burn). Classy stuff, and almost no washing up.
  • Braziers are better than barbeques. Just cook your burgers in a pan, and have a proper fire instead.
  • Wessex FM is a radio station I wouldn’t have believed still existed until I heard it. It was on constantly in the washing-up and toilet blocks, and alongside the ubiquitous Maroon 5, Emili Sandé and Daft Punk, there was a truly classic list of oldies, including If I Could Turn Back Time, Let’s Hear It For The Boy, Easy Lover, When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going)… I almost felt like I was at a wedding reception; in 1994.

All this, and I’ve not even mentioned terrific fish & chips on the beach in Lyme Regis, Purbeck ice cream, and the quiet joy of my phone battery dying, meaning I was cut off from the hourly chatter of online news. I do love Devon & Cornwall, as we’ve been there many times, but this stretch of Dorset coastline is closer to us, less crowded and ‘spoiled’, and, most importantly, I feel happier, calmer, better for having been there.

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The first time I saw Thom Yorke play was in a corridor in a Hall of Residence at Exeter University in 1988. He was strumming a guitar to something like a Beatles song, and other drunken students were singing along. Before last Monday, the last time I saw Radiohead was under a semi-tropical cloudburst in Oxford’s South Park in July 2001. It’s been too long.

I understand why people don’t like Radiohead. Their songs can be non-traditional at best, Thom Yorke’s vocal style isn’t easy on the ear, and their musical experimentation leaves many people cold. Not to mention that they’ve been accused of being the inspiration for bands like Coldplay and Muse, in which case they do have quite a bit to answer for.

I understand why people don’t like Radiohead, but after seeing them in concert last week, I’m more convinced than ever that those people are wrong. This was the most affecting and effective performance I’ve ever seen. Radiohead are like an arthouse film auteur in a morass of lowest-common-denominator blockbusters-by-numbers. Here are a few reasons why I Reckon they’re the best, most adventurous and interesting band around…

Nothing is like the album…

If you turn up to Radiohead and are disappointed by not hearing all your favourites exactly as they sound off the album, maybe you shouldn’t be going to see them in concert. You’re clearly missing the point. Go and see The Rolling Stones instead.

Intimate, shuffling tracks from The King of Limbs (like Bloom & Lotus Flower) become super-charged, blasting soundscapes with driving beats and amazing lighting colour palettes. Feral and Idiotèque always promised to be dynamic live songs, and now they become genuine explosions of energy, complete with strobe lighting in bright green and white, a wall of sound and bass reverb, smashing percussion, and Thom Yorke’s manic stream-of-consciousness vocals and dancing ‘like noone’s watching’. Good Morning Mr Magpie also transforms from a subtle, almost gentle song on TKOL into a furious, breakneck rage, full of clanging guitars, as though they’d switched on their ‘Spinal Tap’ amps and turned everything up to 11.

Alternatively, Like Spinning Plates (almost completely electronic whirring and beeps in the studio) becomes a showcase for Thom’s rolling piano arpeggi with a beautiful hymn-like quality set to warm red-orange lighting. In Give Up The Ghost, he layers up different vocal lines such that he’s singing a four-part chorale with himself. This is one of my highlights of the whole show, wonderfully intimate, simply gorgeous.

Rhythm & Percussion

I’ve always thought Philip Selway was the most under-rated member of Radiohead, especially as traditional drums took a backseat to programmed beats and electronica during Kid A/Amnesiac. His performances on In Rainbows are nothing short of miraculous, and increasingly rhythms are at the heart of everything that Radiohead do well. They now have a ‘permanent’ second drummer onstage, and indeed in some songs four members of the band were beating out repeated, shifting layers of rhythm and syncopation. The overhead video images stayed fixed on twitching drumsticks, focusing our attention on every rim shot, every ripple of the hi-hat cymbals.

Radiohead Live Concert 2012 Tour

“Are you lost yet…?! Good!”

Just over half way through the concert, after a couple of rarer tracks strong on pulsing electronica and hypnotic lighting effects, Thom pauses to ask the audience how they’re keeping up. Apparently Radiohead get criticised for not playing more of their singalong songs more often, which I Reckon is like complaining that JK Rowling should write more of those nice books about wizards. From my vantage point it did feel like many of the people down in the standing section weren’t exactly getting into the music. Were they waiting for Creep or High & Dry?

Radiohead have never made consecutive albums that sound alike (except perhaps Kid A and Amnesiac, compiled out of the same recording sessions). Their tours don’t present their ‘greatest hits’ so much as their current musical world and its interpretation of their entire catalogue.

On Monday night at the O2, the 24 songs were culled from six albums spanning 15 years, plus two tracks not on albums and two new songs. So far, so very much like most other bands’ setlists. But the Big Difference is the choice of songs; nothing from the anthemic, verse-and-chorus The Bends, and only Karma Police representing anything like a ‘normal’ song. Many choices are the more obtuse, awkward, even inaccessible tracks. Both the extraordinarily bass-heavy Myxamotosis and the ambient twinkling and inaudible lyrics of Kid A came in the first five songs.

Bringing the music to life

While the stage set up looks pretty simple, the performance and presentation of these 24 songs is outstanding. A screen wall behind the band rises almost the whole height of the cavernous O2 Arena and create dramatic backdrops. Above these is a row of crystal clear video ‘squares’ that holds images, often cropped, of the band members, or sometimes elaborates on the visual theme for the song.

Radiohead O2 London October 2012

Hanging above the band and in front of the wall are more of these video screens. These move around between songs to form sometimes a low, intimate ceiling, focusing our attention on the band, or at other times a more epic feel, a grander space. The 12 screens offer awkward angles, voyeuristic viewpoints and closeups of Thom’s face, over Jonny Greenwood’s shoulder, fragments of the band and their performance. They are compelling and brilliant.

I am in awe of Mario Rimati for his beautiful set of images from a recent concert in Italy.

Each song has its own very deliberate lighting and colour palette to accompany the new arrangements. The restless, relentless 5/4 pulse of 15 Step starts blue and becomes a shocking pink midway through. After Thom introduces The Daily Mail as a song about “a quality newspaper” the stage is washed in furious red. Climbing up the Walls is perhaps the most disturbing song on OK Computer, and is genuinely menacing onstage as the distorted guitars and wall of sound are complemented by visual distortion in a sickly green, which again seems to explode into bright orange. The patterns during the spectral The Gloaming are spiky and harsh, while Separator and These are my Twisted Words are pulsing, softer patterns in red and turquoise, which constantly swirl and twist, creating almost hallucinatory effects, and probably motion sickness in some people…

Only when Nude opens, around halfway through the concert, do the images become static, giving our eyes some relief. This song (one of my favourites from my favourite album) is amazing, layers of sound building and building, topped by Thom’s astonishing falsetto that breaks through and silences the whole arena…

You’ll go to Hell for what your dirty mind is thinking…
Building to a Climax
The show, full of eclectic song choices and unapologetically avoiding the so-called ‘Hits’ is beautifully plotted. I Reckon any long-term fanboy (or girl) will have loved what it represented; a genuine, open and honest picture of where Radiohead are right now. As the main set finishes in a manic explosion of Feral and Idiotèque, the first encores start with the throbbing, virtually arhythmic piano chords of Pyramid Song, with Jonny Greenwood playing a guitar like a cello. Then there’s a brand new song, Staircase… I’m not sure how many bands choose to play new songs in a concert encore?! This features kinetic bass and percussion, which only serves as a warm-up for the frantic, furious Good Morning Mr Magpie, and a breakneck version of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, which leads into the wonderful Reckoner, lit with dazzling silvers and golds.
This is dedicated to all of you…
The final few songs completely blow me away: the haunting vocal layers of Give Up The Ghost give way to a truly awesome version of There There, and the evening finishes with Everything in its Right Place. This is the song that opened Kid A, the album that followed the monster OK Computer, and shocked pretty much everyone in its apparent demolition of everything Radiohead had been, with its near-absence of guitars, melodies & choruses. Live, it’s an exercise in distortion and displacement. Thom’s vocals loop and fragment as if the sound system is broken and gradually the band leave the stage until only whirring electronic effects remain. It’s a stunning, complex, perfect finale.

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Among many great scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant Pulp Fiction, one of the most famous features Jules and Vincent, two hitmen, discussing the little differences that Vincent encountered on his recent travels in Europe. Having just spent 2½ weeks in France myself and had a thoroughly good time, here’s a handful or two of little differences that I (mainly) love experiencing every time I cross the Channel…

  • Fresh fruit and veg in the supermarkets (especially down South) is massively superior in quality to the UK. Certainly they have the climate for tomatoes, nectarines, avocados and so on, but the food seems fresher, tastier, more real. It doesn’t have the bizarre uniformity we get in the UK, and actually seems ripe and ready to eat on the day of purchase
  • In all the towns we visited, they still persist with the (ahem) old-fashioned approach of shutting shops at lunchtime; similarly, on-street parking is often free over lunchtime. Most of the supermarkets don’t open on Sundays. How do they cope?
  • Dunking a croissant or pain au chocolat into a bowl of coffee for breakfast
  • Spending £5 every day on bread and croissants. The daily visit to la boulangerie is a real treat, but it needs careful budgeting!
  • I love seeing coloured shutters protecting houses from the heat of a Southern French summer
  • There doesn’t seem to be any great compulsion to compare prices on everything and anything. One petrol station might charge up to 10% more than another only a few hundred yards down the road, something which, in the UK, would probably spell doom and closure for the expensive one
  • The French love a bit of Direct Action. Four years ago we were in Reims when we were treated to the sight of White-Coated (rather than white collar) protests. The local Pharmacists were angry at what they saw as the increasing encroachment of supermarkets onto their traditional areas of specialist advice and expertise. This time, we were in Carcassonne where the workers at a major nearby ice-cream plant were protesting against the proposed closure of this plant by its new venture capitalist owners. Crude hand-drawn cartoons, badly amplified megaphones and trestle tables made up the slightly shabby but very noisy event at the main entrance gateway to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The broadsheet French newspapers are never knowingly underwritten. Libération was always my favourite when I studied in France 20 years ago, and I still like it now. Take this extract from a recent article commemorating the 30th anniversary of ‘The Thriller in Manila’, between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali…

Ali, c’est Achille aux pieds légers et aux bras lourds. Les pieds sont moins légers qu’il y a onze ans, du temps du match contre Sonny Liston, mais le jab est toujours aussi performant, et ces coups sortent comme des jets de lumière, à sa vitesse. Achille a 33 ans, l’âge du Christ. Et il a toujours sa tchatche. Il convaincrait les marchands de vider le Temple pour lui, mais le Temple, c’est lui.

This roughly translates as…

Ali is Achilles, light-footed but with heavy arms. The feet aren’t as light as 11 years ago, when he fought Sonny Liston, but his jab is just as powerful, and these blows flash out like jets of light, and just as fast. Achilles is 33, the same age as Christ. And he still has his chat. He could convince the merchants to empty the Temple for him, but then, he IS the Temple.

When did you last read anything like that in your paper? Achilles and Christ in the same paragraph. Beautiful, overblown, nonsense!

  • When, how, and (more to the point) why do French men grow up thinking that it’s perfectly OK to stop your car at the side of the road, get out, and just take a p**s next to your car, in full view of traffic?
  • Why does France persist with those awful ‘footplate’ toilets? Even at the stunning Viaduc de Millau, only constructed in the last decade and a fairly major tourist attraction, the toilets are primitive holes in the ground, with no paper provided. Near where we were staying in the Pyrenées, the local council had amazingly created a sandy beach next to a small lake, marked out safe bathing areas and provided a lifeguard 6 days a week: but the toilets had no doors or paper, or actual toilets beyond the hole in the floor.
  • On the other hand, I love love love French markets. For the saucissons secs, the fruit and veg, the live animals, odd clothing, poulets fermiers, cheese and so on. We really enjoyed our local Sunday morning crush in Esperaza, walking back laden with food for lunch.

Esperaza Market

  • Similarly, motorway service stations are very different in France. Probably because of the distances between major towns and cities, there are hundreds of aires dotted around the motorway network at regular intervals, ranging from landscaped picnic areas to full-blown affairs. But even these larger things aren’t much like those in the UK. When we returned home, we experienced Reading Services on the M4 on a Friday evening; a huge carpark rammed full with vehicles disgorging hundreds of people inside, swarming around fast food outlets. In France, far more people seem to travel with their own food; bread, ham, fruit, cheese. The service stations have more expansive grounds and outdoor seating. They feel less like a commercial conveyor belt for you to refuel on calories and caffeine, more like somewhere to stop and relax, recharge for a while.
  • But then when French motorists get back in their car, they have a very strange way of driving (especially further North in the country). Most motorways are two-lane, and if you’re overtaking, God help you to be going more slowly than someone behind you. The standard plan is (rather than slow slightly to retain a safe gap) accelerate right up to the back of the car in front, wait two seconds, and flash your lights impatiently.
  • Avenues of plane trees towering over long straight roads, with fields of vines or sunflowers alongside.
  • Stargazing in Espereza is something wonderful. No light pollution, clear skies. Thousands of pinpricks across the night sky, with the Milky Way scattered through the middle.
  • The city centre of Orléans is unlike most in the UK. The Medieval Quarter is full of restaurants, bars and cafés, packed with tourists and locals, students and families. It was often noisy, with music playing out across the terraces and streets, but nowhere did I see people drinking in packs, maurauding from bar to bar.

Orleans Rue de Bourgogne

Vive la différence!

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