The Almanac

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas. Our tree has been up since 1st December. The lights have gone up around the house, the Christmas CD has gone on and the Christmas sheet music has been dusted off. This year my wife and I have decided to do all our shopping in local shops. We don’t tend to spend huge amounts at Christmas, but we always like to buy a few presents to open. I have made a start on buying presents. If you are also thinking about presents then I can definitely recommend The Almanac – A seasonal Guide to 2019 by Lia Leendertz.

Here’s what the publisher says about it:

“Lia’s new book is The Almanac: a Seasonal Guide to 2019, the follow up to her bestselling 2018 edition, which revitalized the almanac tradition for a new audience. It partly follows the pattern of the old rural almanac – sunrise and sunset tables for the whole year, tide timetables, moon phases and information on the sky at night – but also features seasonal recipes, folk stories and songs, a peek inside the beehive each month, a seasonal cheese of the month, and the names of each month in all of the languages of the British Isles. It is a celebration of the British year, and of 2019 in particular.”

Last year’s Almanac was hugely successful. I’m sure you saw it, you probably bought a copy. If you didn’t then you missed out on a real treat. But don’t worry you need not miss out on it again, as there’s a new one for next year. Why am I telling you this? Well I actually feature in this year’s book!

Earlier in the year Lia reached out to me to ask If I could help her with music for the 2019 edition. She really wanted to include some traditional folk tunes in the new book but needed someone to arrange and transcribe 12 tunes. I am not one of the world’s greatest musical arrangers, but I do know my way around Musescore so was happy to help out. Because of copyright reasons there were quite a few tunes that we were not able to feature, but in the end I think we got a really nice mix of traditional tunes. Each one themed to link in with the month in question. So there are song’s like; “A Rose in June”, “Soul Cake” for October, and “Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day” for February.

Some of the tunes were  a simple transcription of music that Lia had, whereas for most of them I had to come up with my own arrangement by listening to many different versions of it. This was simple enough for some, but really tricky for others. In fact due to our house move in April I get very close to Lia’s deadline on the last one and needed help from my old piano teacher. I also got her to sanity check my formatting as this is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this before.

We tried to make the music simple enough for a relative beginner to play on either a recorder, violin or even to sing. And Lia has recorded a version of her singing the tunes on Audible.

Despite it taking a lot longer than I thought it would (mostly due to my own slowness in making the arrangements) it was great fun. I’m really glad to have been involved in such a lovely book. It’s not the first time I’ve had something published (my wife’s two books feature some of my photos), but it’s the first time I have done anything like this. At the end of the process Lia was going to assign the copyright of the music to me, but I thought that it could complicate matters for her for reprint’s or extracts etc. So I just told her to keep all the text copyright, which as I say makes thing’s simpler for her, plus she did come up with some of the sheets, and also I did get a bit of help anyway. I got a nice acknowledgement at the end. And I have always thought if you can help someone, then you should. Plus I try to live my life as much as possible saying yes. You never know what may come of it.

Anyway there’s still time to get lots of copies of the book as presents either for yourself or your loved ones. You won’t be disapointed.

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Up north

It has happened. We have moved up north, or if you are a southerner and want to be patronizing you can say “ooop north” in an affected accent. Last year family circumstances meant that we were having to spend a lot of time doing very long drives to go and see family who haven’t been in the best of health. We came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to be sustainable and that we needed to move nearer. I have been very fortunate that my work have allowed me to become a full-time homeworker (previously I was doing 3 days in the office). So that as long as I can still get into London in a reasonable time and occasionally into Bristol I get to keep my job and don’t face the added hassle of getting a new job as well as a new house. So we have sold our house and are temporarily living with my parents till the purchase of a new house can go through.

A word to anyone selling or buying a house. It’s a stressful time at the best of times, so don’t make it worse by messing people about. Try to keep hold of your morals. Or if you have questionable morals then get some fast. I am sadly no longer a hippy, but I do still like to believe in karma. We got done over on the purchase of one property. We later got invited by the same agent to then do over the person involved. Despite the fact that we got the opportunity to get back in on the purchaser of the house we lost out on, we stuck to our morals and declined.

We have started the process of buying a new property. So hopefully we will soon have our own place. My parents have been great so I really can’t complain, but it will be nice to have our own place again. Especially because at the moment all our furniture is in storage, which means that Humphry my piano is currently in a warehouse on the outskirts Leeds. This is the longest I have gone without playing since I started learning 10 years ago.

I can’t wait to get my hands back on him. I hope he has survived being stuck in a warehouse. I know that if we get the new place I will be super busy, but I will be keen to devote time every day to play. It also means that I am on the lookout for a new teacher. Having only ever had the one, it will be interesting to see who another works out.

I d hope to revive this blog, so will keep anyone who actually reads this posted……

It’s been a while….

My last post was back in May! It wasn’t my intention to stop blogging. I knew I wouldn’t be doing anything in June and July because I had a big holiday planned. But I had plans to come back and publish some of the photos from that holiday and carry on with the blog. That didn’t happen.

The holiday was 5 weeks throughout most of June and half of July in Scotland. This was to celebrate my 40th Birthday. If you follow me on on Instagram, you will have seen some of the photos that I took from there.

The reason for not coming back to the blog afterwards was more to do with other things going on in life at the moment. One of those things is that we are trying to sell our house and move area to be nearer to family who need us. This has proven to be much more stressful that it need be, for various reasons, that I am not yet comfortable in fully sharing.

I will try to come back to the blog more often as I do miss it.

Anyway, this was just a quick note to say that I am still alive… 🙂

 

Rodrigo y Gabriela

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I have written in the past that I used to listen to a bit of heavy metal as a teenager (Mostly Metallica), but not really anymore. I mention this because a couple of weekends ago we were round a friend’s house and she had a mix of various different music on. At one point some incredible guitar music came on. It was apparently a Mexican duo called Rodrigo y Gabriela. They have an interesting back story. He was playing in a heavy metal band in Mexico City when they met. She joined the band, but after a few years the band split and the two of them decided to get away and moved down to Ixtapa to play background music in the tourist hotels. They would frequently sneak in heavy metal tunes in, but could get away with it because they were playing acoustic guitars; the tourists being none the wiser thinking they were getting ‘authentic’ Mexican guitar music.

After a while the good life of living in a beach resort got a bit too much for them and they fancied a change. An Irish girl that they met in Mexico suggested that the Irish music scene was so good that they could try there. She told them that since she was going to be away they could live at her house. So not speaking any English they upped sticks and moved to Dublin. Sadly they arrived at her’s to find a note on the door saying that they couldn’t stay there. The taxi driver took them to a cheap hotel and then they hit the bars to offer themselves up as musicians. As anyone who’s been to Dublin knows there is not a shortage of musicians in the bars so they ended up busking.

After not too long their busking started to to draw in huge crowds. On some occasions the police had to come and move on some of the crowds which were spilling out onto the roads and generally creating blockages. Their popularity in Ireland spread such that started getting gigs in pubs and eventually they began producing albums. Their second album went straight to the top of the Irish charts in 23rd February 2006 knocking Johnny Cash off the number one spot. This is the album that covered Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and Metallica’s Orion although most of the song’s were originals. Those familiar with Orion will remember that it is an instrumental from the Metallica album Master of Puppets. as a teenager I used to have the t-shirt of this album which featured rows of white grave crosses. I bought this in the early nineties from the Arndale Centre in Manchester. This was before the IRA blew the Arndale up with the biggest bomb on Great Britain since the Second World War and at stroke got rid of the hideous cladding and kick-started the regeneration of the city.

Anyway back to Rodrigo y Gabriela. It is really difficult for me to sum up their sound. You just have to listen to it yourself. Unless you saw it you wouldn’t believe that it was just two people playing, I guess part of the reason for that is because Gabriela performs percussion using the guitar as well as playing it normally. If all the talk about Metallica has put you off. Don’t let it. If I hadn’t mentioned it you wouldn’t say heavy metal, in fact a lot of people describe their sound as flamenco, although they shy away from this description. I spent a week at work listening to all their music after being introduced to them. I can heartily recommend you do the same too….

They have now moved back to Mexico. They are no longer in a relationship with each other but still perform all over America and the world as a duo.

Technology

I like technology. I make my money through technology, however I am fairly analogue with quite a few things. I don’t have an e-reader. Have never fancied one, much preferring the real thing. Yes I know that you can take 2000 books on holiday with you, but come on, how many do you actually need to take? I would argue that one is sufficient anyway. Plus I have never had a book reboot on me or smash if I drop it. Likewise with walking maps. Sure I use google maps for car journeys, but I would never set off cross-country up a hill without a paper map. Paper rarely runs out of batteries.

I mention this because we have had a few tech issues recently. Our home PC died last Wednesday. Given that this is what my wife works on she was pretty scuppered. Fortunately I am pretty good at backing up so when it failed to boot we were only looking at losing a few days works of work (unfortunately the stuff that was currently being worked on). Luckily it was the motherboard so I was able to recover all the remaining data from the hard drive, now there was the little matter of getting the PC back up and running. Sadly the motherboards are no longer order-able. The PC is only 2 years 9 months old, so out of warranty, but that didn’t stop me pursuing the retailer under the Sales of Goods Act. To be fair to them, once I proved to them the motherboard was faulty and unrepairable, pointed out to them that I wasn’t going to go away and reminded them how much I spend with them each year they came good. In fact really good! I was expecting a partial refund, but they actually offered a full refund, which should wing it’s way over to me as soon as I return it. In the meantime my wife had to work on our tablet whilst a new laptop was ordered and delivered. A few weeks ago this wouldn’t have been possible since we didn’t own a tablet. We have resisted buying one for years given that most children that we know even have one, but recently had to bite the bullet.

We had to head up north at very short notice due to a family illness and whilst up there my wife needed something to work on in between sorting out family so we picked up a Samsung Tab A 10.1. I am so glad we did. As well as being useful to my wife for email, web and document editing when she is out and about, it will also be useful to me for the piano.

I have said in the past that I am rubbish at memorizing music, so end up relying on sheets most of the time. That’s mostly fine for at home but no use if I am out and about. I said ‘mostly’ because on longer pieces I end up with quite a few page turns which are always a fumble, or 5 sheets sellotaped together across the piano.  This is where I think the tablet will come into it’s own. I should be able to digitize my current sheets into PDFs and turn a page with a simple swipe. The other advantage is that they will be much more portable.

I am currently scanning my sheets into Adobe reader, although I have quite a few to get through if I am going to digitize everything. I could go down the route of an app like MobileSheets which not only displays them, but also catalogues them. I have a Youtube friend who uses this along with a bluetooth pedal so that she can turn the pages with her foot instead of having to swipe the tablet, thus keeping both hands free for playing, which I think is a cool idea. although since I am a bit cheap, I will see how I get on with Adobe reader and a simple hand swipe for now….

How about you; are you purely digital, or still holding onto analogue?

I’ll be there for you…..

There can’t be many people that haven’t seen at least one episode of Friends. The song above was written partly by the producers of the TV series, although is played by and credited to The Rembrandts. It sounds like just the quick jolly intro for a comedy series that it is, but if you listen to the lyrics the sentiments of the song are actually pretty spot on.

I link to this song because I was thinking about a friend over the Christmas and New Year period. We have the kind of relationship where we don’t really see each other frequently, but I have have always been there for her when she is struggling. She has had quite a bit of health issues so I am always there for her if she needs me. She has also had a number of relationship and career problems that again have needed someone to listen too, and have a shoulder to cry on. I kind of see that as the most important part of a friendship. Of course it’s nice to go out with friends and do cool things, but really it’s about support through the hard times where friendships really count. I tried to reach out to her in the lead up to and over Christmas period, but didn’t really get very far. She has got a new partner, which is great so I can well understand why there’s less time for friends. But there’s always time to send a quick message even if not to make/return a call. The fact that she hasn’t bothered to get in touch has made me come to feel a little sad.

I have known her most of my life, although we haven’t lived near each other for years. Since we were teenagers in fact. We normally see each other once a year, and we did pop over to her town in the spring because she was having a rough time, but since then and despite me sending her a few ‘don’t be a stranger’ type messages she hasn’t been in touch. I don’t think this is a case of her trying to get rid of me, just that she knows that we have the kind of relationship that can be picked up again at any time. But I’m not sure what I can do to get her to initiate a message or a call. It would be nice for her to check that I am OK once in a while.

Any ideas would be gratefully received….

 

P.S There are some great sitcom theme tunes out there. I must do a post about them some time.

Nearly there

Well it is Christmas Eve Eve. I have finished work for the year. I was working last Christmas (on-call), so I get this year off completely. We were given this afternoon off from work as well which is nice. I was already planning on working from home today anyway to avoid the maniacs on the road hell-bent on driving at crazy speeds through the terrible weather and bad traffic to shave a minute or so off their journey. I do hope they actually make it to wherever they are going.

Tonight I will make the mince pies. My wife has already spent part of the day baking something up that I am not allowed to see. Classic FM has been pumping out the carols all day. We will pick up the meat and veg from the farmer’s market shortly and that’s us set. I will no doubt play a little more from the Nigel Hess Silent Nights book.

Once in Royal David's City - Nigel Hess;s arrangement from 'Silent Nights'

Once in Royal David’s City – Nigel Hess;s arrangement from ‘Silent Nights’

Christmas is a nice quiet one this year. Next week we are off to meet up with friends and we also have my parents come down for 3 days. It will be nice to see them, and I am hoping for decent weather as we won’t want to sit in the house all day. Especially since the countryside round here is so pretty.

Our chances of getting a white Christmas appear to be nil. which is a shame, but hey you can’t have everything. We got to see snow back in November on our Scotland trip. See the below photo from Ben Lawers:

The top of Ben Lawers

The top of Ben Lawers

Tonight we will start our annual board game Christmas championship with a game of Ticket to Ride.

Tomorrow we pick up the fresh fish, we will do a nice walk and have lunch out. We started the tradition a few years ago of getting lunch out on Christmas Eve, and this year we are planning on heading over to the Chapel in Abergavenny which we have had a brew in and admired the menu, but never tasted.

Last year I made a few new years resolutions. I didn’t stick to the scales practicing, nor have I memorized 10 pieces, but we did manage to swim 100km. (102.5km to be precise. Which i am very pleased about. I even have a graph (with a baseline) to prove it many thanks to a friend who is a whizz with excel.

2016-12-23-15_41_10-swimming-tracker-with-chart__ic-xlsx-excel

what are your Christmas/New year plans?

Christmas is definitely coming….

I have written in the past that we decorate the house on the 1st of December, but this year we were a bit cheeky. We weren’t able to pick the tree up on December’s first weekend as we were up north visiting family, so we got it on the 26th November. We have gone for a Nordmann fir again. They are fantastic trees that never drop their needles. Last year ours lasted 2 months. It had to; given that we collected it super early (the start of November) because it was needed for a Gardener’s World photoshoot. The magazine is out now by the way, so if you live in the UK then do check out the results of last years work.

nordmann fir

The ever dependable Nordmann Fir

The plan was to decorate the tree on Sunday the 4th December, but we caved in and did it on the 29th November. Only a few days early. We read a really snobby ‘etiquette’ article in the Sunday Times this weekend that said that the earlier the decorations go up the more downmarket the household is. Oh dear. Sorry everyone…

I have also made a start on the Christmas piano tunes. They are great because they are sight-readable by me. Mostly I am still using my Bumper Book of Christmas Songs, but I am interspersing it with other older carols that I ‘inherited’ from the person I bought the piano off. I am also trying some jazzy Christmas tunes. I have said in the past that I would like to play more jazz, so this is my nod to that.

Ideally this post would have been accompanied with a video of me playing I Wonder as I Wander. The Appalachian Christmas carol that I am still working on.  But I don’t feel that it is good enough to record just yet, so you will have to wait for that treat.

We have already done our Christmas shopping. We don’t spend a lot on each other as we already have enough ‘stuff’, but we do like the magic of opening presents. So have got each other quite a few small things. We have also carried on the tradition of getting a new decoration for the tree. A couple of years ago we got this hand painted star:

Hand painted in Kashmir

Hand painted in Kashmir

Last year we got the robin in the background. And this year we got the below. A needle-felted pheasant who appears to have a lot of character.

pheasant decorationWe have also bought a new board game it’s called Ticket to Ride. It was recommended to us by Dave Gorman, who once traveled the length of the UK playing strangers at board games. See the book about his exploits here. So his recommendation was taken seriously. Anyway we had a go at the game at the weekend and is a good one. It will definitely get a place in our usual Christmas games tournament, along with the usual family favourites.

What about you? Have you started Christmas already? What are your plans?

 

Leaving a sour taste?

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I have been baking bread now for the last decade. For the last 3 years I have been baking sourdough loafs; at least 3 a week. So I am pretty good at them. Back in August 2013 I wrote about how to make a sourdough loaf, but I thought I would expand on that given what I know now.

There are two methods that I use for making sourdough bread depending on whether I am at home or out and about on the day of baking.

If I am going to be away from the house during working hours then I will use the kneading method as mentioned in the previous post. However if I am going to be in the house I will use my preferred method which is the no-knead approach. This gives a more holey, slightly chewier textured loaf, and is outlined below.

In the morning pour 200g of your sourdough starter, 520g of bread flour, 270g of water and 10g of salt into a large mixing bowl. For my bread flour I always use organic. You don’t have to of course, but do make sure it is ‘strong’ flour. How much of each flour you use can be varied as much as you want so long as it all adds up to 520g. I typically use about 260g of strong white and then make the rest up with either strong wholemeal or wholemeal spelt, or a mixture of both. Of course for a stronger flavoured, but slightly denser loaf you could use less white and more wholemeal.

Give it a mix and then cover the bowl with cling film. About an hour or so later (no need to be precise) take the cling film off, stretch and fold the dough four times (once in each direction), put the cling film back on and give it another hour or so.

Repeat 3 times.

After the last lot of folds you can put the dough straight in a floured proving basket and then let it prove for 3 hours.

Put it in the oven for 45 minutes at 230 degrees and you will have the perfect tasting and looking loaf.

This is a wholemeal spelt loaf made with my no-knead method

This is a wholemeal spelt loaf made with my no-knead method

Note that it might sound like it has been lots of work, but if you add it all up its 3 minutes of mixing the ingredients together, and 1 minute of folding 4 times. That’s it. What could be easier?

I use a baking cloche nowadays so I put the cover on for the first 35 minutes in the oven and take it off for the final 10. If you don’t have one, keep an eye on it in the oven getting too coloured. If need be turn the oven down a bit.

 

A quick note on the starter. Loads of people will tell you about feeding and cossetting your starter. Ignore them. I leave mine permanently in the fridge. I take it out to use some of it in my mix, and just bung some more flour and water in to replace the 200g that came out. Then it is straight back into the fridge. It can be left completely alone in there from a few days to a few weeks without coming to any harm, and comes straight back to life after being mixed with some fresh flour.

 

 

 

Africa

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So, that’s Christmas* sorted then…..

On Sunday we had a friend over to ours for lunch and a walk. She is called J. and is the author behind the cotswoldsgirl blog. I have been following her blog for some time, but it is only recently that we have started to meet up. This was our second time, the first being back at the end of August, which I did start writing about but never finished the post. That time we met for a walk in the Malvern Hills which is within an hours drive of both of us. This time she came to our house so that a) we could feed her, b) we could show her the sights of our county and c) so that she could play on my piano – Humphry.

She is also a pianist, having had lessons as a child and has recently bought her own piano to go in her new house. It was actually through piano that we met. I was searching in wordpress against the piano tag, and a steamy post of hers which featured a piano popped up. We have stayed in touch through the blogs and given that we are similarly minded, both cool and fortunately fairly local we have started to meet up.  She very nicely brought some flowers, which was appreciated by my wife wellywoman, as she never receives flowers anymore, since she started growing them herself.

Along with the flowers she also brought some sheet music. Hence my initial statement. One of the books she brought was called The Most Requested Songs of the 80s the-most-requested-songs-of-the-80sThis is a fantastic book, which I have now requested as a Christmas present. I am not short of sheet music. It would take me at least a decade to learn all the music that I currently own, but that doesn’t stop me coveting new music. Especially books that contain all the classics seen below:

backofthe-most-requested-songs-of-the-80sWhen J. was over she treated us to a rendition of Africa by Toto. This worked really well for solo piano. I am under strict instructions from my wife to learn this one first, but to be honest there are loads of them that I want to play. We tried to play a few as duets, but I was a bit rubbish at sight-reading. So in the end we went with playing With or Without You by U2. I was playing the left-hand, as that was relatively straightforwards. In fact I felt a bit like Mr Bean playing Chariots of Fire in the London 2012 Olympic ceremony;

as the left hand was a bit repetitive. But the overall piece was a pretty good version of the original, and it is always lovely to play duets.

What do you think of the book? Is there anything you would like me to learn?

Another treat of the day was the walk. We took a wander along the towpath of the Brecon Canal. It’s quite a picturesque place to walk, and this time had the added bonus of a male kingfisher. He was quite shy, so every time we got close he flew off a bit further down the river. Even with a 300mm lens he was tiny in the resulting photos: close enough for me to identify him as male**, but not close enough to get a decent shot. We have seen them on this canal before, but not that frequently. So it was lovely to see that they are still around.

How was your weekend?

 

*sorry for using the C-word so early on.

**the way to tell male and female kingfishers apart is that the males have all black beaks, whereas the females have orange bottom beak and black on top.