Friday Fun with secrets

My goodness, I love a good secret – and getting the opportunity to share it. Thus, I was overjoyed to stumble upon a whole series of TfL secrets. I’m hoping that they’ll do one for each line, but thus far there’s District, Central, Bakerloo, Northern and Victoria. As the Bakerloo one is the most recent, let’s start with that:

I watched them all in one go and adored them. Some of the secrets were things I already knew about (like the abandoned platforms at Highgate) but others were completely new to me – and have already added an extra frisson of excitement to my tube travelling. For example, after discovering that a station I use regularly possesses a heritage map that I’d never noticed, I made a stop to photograph it after a run last Sunday. Here’s Temple heritage map, helpfully labelled ‘not for journey planning purposes’:

Heritage Map

Another secret – albeit a not well kept or exciting one – about London, is the way in which each of the city’s boroughs got their name. It may not sound that thrilling, but I was amused for a good few minutes. Did you know, for example, that Brent has the most ancient name of all the 32? Or, that Islington should really be Islingdon, like Hillingdon? Fascinating facts for your next dinner party, right there!

Something else people tend to be secretive about are “women’s issues” – but that’s not something this blog subscribes to. Thus, it was with great joy and delight that I recently stumbled upon an advert for a new feminine hygiene service that goes against the traditional flow of such commercials – Camp Gyno:

“It’s like Santa. For your vagina.” may go down as the best line uttered in advertising history. If you make it through the ad (and why shouldn’t you?) you may also find The Hairpin interview with its creator fascinating too.

Finally, a little musical refreshment which this week comes from an eerily good children’s choir that I’d never heard of until I read about them on an American blog – despite the fact that they’re based in London. The Capital Children’s Choir are something rather special and I highly recommend losing yourself in their YouTube back catalogue for a while. Yes, it’s basically precocious children having way too much fun in the Abbey Road studios, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! My personal favourite was their Stevie Wonder tribute:

The boy who takes up the solo line at 2:05 is utterly fabulous – it’s worth sticking with it till then. Also keep an eye on the drummer who looks too small for the kit…

A deserving, if dubious, honour

The British have an odd Christmas tradition. For some reason, massive importance is attached to the song that achieves number 1 status in the charts during the week before Christmas Day. I really don’t get it – especially when you look at the list of songs that have acquired this honour and realise just how much dross it includes (I offer you Exhibit A: Mr Blobby and Exhibit B: Bob the Builder.) 
When thinking about this post, I was fairly sure that I’d only ever contributed to one Christmas number 1 (and even then, when I say ‘I’, I mean my sister bought the tape from Woolworths) – that being the Christmas classic Stay Another Day by East 17. (It is Christmassy because the band wore fur edged parkas in the video and there’s some nice tubular bell work, and that is all.) However, looking at the list reminded me that I’d also bought the 20th anniversary recreation of Do They Know It’s Christmas (don’t judge – my Godson was born they day they recorded it and I was feeling sentimental). Anyway, the point to this post is that I think I’ve probably just bought this year’s too…
No, not Dominick The Donkey (though it has been a Christmas highlight for several years and I was tempted), but the Military Wives singing Wherever You Are. If you’d told me a month ago that I’d do this, I wouldn’t have believed you.
If you’re reading this on the blog itself, on the right-hand sidebar you’ll find a list of my most popular posts. Number 1, by a long way, is a four year old post about Gareth Malone, specifically, the amusing ways in which people had googled him, resulting in their landing upon my original blog about his second TV series. Every time he reappears on our screens my stats spike – in fact this has become almost my default way of discovering what he’s up to (well, that and his Twitter feed). For a little while this blog was almost the top entry if you googled his name – terrifying. Anyway, as much as I dislike what he does for my stats, I do love him and his work. Watching him bring people together in singing is utterly inspiring and I think his passion for community singing is infectious.

However, his latest series had me conflicted – in fact, I didn’t begin watching it until it had finished. (I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s the bonus of iPlayer.) This time he was working with military wives and it was the ‘military’ bit I had an issue with. Being a pacifist, I find the media’s obsession with the military difficult. I don’t believe that we ought to have troops in Afghanistan and I think that the waste of human life is atrocious. But, I read brilliant reviews of the show, so thought I’d give it a go. 
What I discovered was three hours of the most moving TV I’ve seen in a long time. Military life is by no means glamorous and those left behind by soldiers serving overseas have a miserable time – often left on bases miles away from their families, with little support. Moving bases regularly also makes it difficult to build any kind of community with the other families, even when you’re all going through the same hideous experience of having loved ones fighting in a war zone. The show captured this perfectly and I was moved to tears on more than one occasion. Think I’m a sap? [You’d probably be right.] What about this clip of the women and children welcoming the soldiers home:

Plus, the project also demonstrated just how transformative singing can be. Several of the women featured didn’t believe that they could sing, or that they had anything to offer to the choir – but through Gareth’s determination not to let them give up, and ensure they felt valued, they realised that they did have worth. Take Sam, for example (she’s the lady with the tattoos in the above video) – she was amongst a minority of wives who had previous choral experience, yet genuinely didn’t seem to believe that she had a voice worth hearing. Any time she sang on her own there was a flurry of apologies as she felt she was messing up, it was heartbreaking to watch. In an amazing triumph over adversity (nerves, low self-esteem and family illness) she came to sing the solo in the choir’s Royal Albert Hall performance – a performance that I defy anyone to sit through dry-eyed.

The song they sang had been written by Paul Mealor (he’s the John Rutter of the 21st century), based upon letters written between them and their husbands. It’s simply beautiful and in the best tradition of choral singing. Within minutes of the final programme finishing I was humming the melody to myself. Thus, when I discovered it was being released in time for Christmas Number 1 I was actually pleased – this song, more than almost any other (except the original Band Aid single) deserves the strange honour, and so does the lovely Gareth Malone. Yesterday’s mid-week chart had it at Number 1 and I suspect it will stay there, an excellent antidote to the dross of previous years.

Friday Fun with Research (& some singing)

I’ve always said that ‘fun’ is subjective and I freely admit that many of you may not find random pieces of research as fun as I – a professional researcher – do. [I will now pause while certain friends guffaw at the notion that I consider myself a ‘professional researcher’. I get paid for doing research, end of story.] However, there is no doubt that research at the more spurious end of the spectrum can be really quite ridiculous.

So, two pieces that have recently caught my attention…

Firstly, apparently ‘God wants you fat’ (as the title of the Hairpin article where I found this research said). Apparently, “[F]requent religious involvement appears to almost double the risk of obesity compared with little or no involvement.” The research itself is unclear as to how this link occurs – suggesting that religious people might reward themselves for their good works by indulging in treats, or that it’s to do with generally feeling relaxed.

That’s not the reason – had the researcher never been to a church function? Have they not experienced the amazing ability Christians have to make every single event revolve around food? There’s a reason why there’s a Christians Against Quiche group on Facebook, people! Heck, at my church they hand you yummy baked goods as soon as you walk through the door, not to mention the exceptionally scrummy meals served after the evening service. It’s not rocket science – hang around church long enough without saying “No” to at least some of what you’re offered and you will gain weight. [To spread this out across other faiths, I will also say that hands-down the best Indian meal I ever ate was in the Gurdwara in Southall.]

Secondly, a map showing the average bra size of women in different countries. (I’m certain this will be of interest to both genders.)


I genuinely found this fascinating – who knew that there might be a difference between the populations of the UK and Ireland? Also, I had a slightly blonde moment on first discovering it. Honestly, the question that sprang to mind was “how did they get a decent sample of women to reveal their bra size?” – about two minutes later it dawned on me that the data was probably gathered from bra sales figures. For a supposedly intelligent person I can’t half be a twit at times.

And now, for something completely different. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as fun as I first thought it would be, but it’s still kept me entertained for the duration of writing this post. When I first saw the url http://choirsmakemecry.tumblr.com I thought “Wow! Disastrous choral performances that are so bad it’ll make you cry! Excellent…”, because clearly that’s the mean, vindictive kind of person I am. It’s actually a collection of good choir performances that are so beautiful they might make you cry. Have to say I’ve not welled up during any of them, but hair has stood on end and I’ve jiggled about with joy a little.

Ok, I confess, the primary school choir singing Badly Drawn Boy had me slightly emotional (and they did actions, and swayed, and sounded good – get me a tissue, quick!). Everybody Hurts is always a tearjerker, but as the website says:

Also, the site (inevitably) features He Who Cannot Be Named, who of course I still love and deeply respect and this performance of his boys choir is especially wonderful. (I dare not use his name – he was on TV again last night and caused another spike in my blog stats as people googled his marital status/sexuality.) 
Enough soppy music – enjoy your final working Friday for three weeks! [Unless you’re not British, or happen to be ordained and therefore have a rather hectic Friday lined up for next week.] 

Show choirs – how the Brits have missed out

On Monday night I missed out on two TV gems – the penultimate episode of Glee and Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America – I’d have been severely miffed, were it not for the fact that I was in musical theatre heaven. (Enjoying Sister Act with my sister, how appropriate.)

Catching up on Gleeful the following day, I was alternately fascinated and horrified by the insight it gave into a world that Brits knew little about until the arrival of Glee on our shores. Basically, show choirs seem to exist to give US teenagers the opportunity to fulfil musical theatre fantasies that we have to recreate in our own homes. For example, I witnessed a girl singing Defying Gravity with full, twirling skirt à la Wicked’s Act 1 finale – we have to make do with jumping on/off furniture to emulate the same moment… [When I say ‘we’, I know at least two other people who do this, so it’s not simply my own fantasy!]

The show began by illustrating the supreme naffness of British choirs. I’ll refute the ‘naff’ label – we have an admirable choral tradition in the classical vein, we’re just not much given to showing off in an all-singing all-dancing style. After all, where would He Who Shall Not Be Named be without our passion for traditional choirs?

The suggested inferiority of British school choirs versus the Glee Club tradition got me thinking that perhaps I’d been brought up in the wrong country. It dawned on me that had we had show choirs in good old Gloucestershire, I’d have been Co Show Choir Captain because, being (joint) queen of my year’s music nerds, I was Choir Captain – so surely it goes to follow I could have made the same rank in Glee world? (Given my dancing and acting skills are virtually nil I realise this is a massive assumption to make, but in my head it made sense!)

The role of Choir Captain was an odd one. My co-captain, Clair, was an excellent musician and thoroughly deserved the role. I can’t quite recall if there was some kind of contest for the job or whether no one else actually wanted it, perhaps I got on board simply by being a good friend of hers – it certainly wasn’t owing to any kind of musical genius on my part!

I have few memories of this job, but do remember fighting for badges, mainly so there could be an addition to our prefect (or in C’s case, Deputy Head Girl) badges on our jumpers. Pride came before a fall though, as we were eventually issued with hideous things that we only wore when formality demanded it. Most of the time we acted as music department dogsbodies – taking choir registers, hunting down no-shows, tidying the music cupboards, and presenting end of concert gifts. There were just two moments of glory:

1. Pippin Choir [our school was named ‘Ribston Hall’, apparently there’s an apple named the ‘Ribston Pippin’ which is how this choir got its name…make your own judgement on the kind of school I went to.]
This was a ramshackle collection of 1st years singing a Christmas song chosen & arranged by us (I chose, C arranged). We were completely in charge – rehearsals, performance – everything, a total risk! Thus far, it has been my only experience of conducting, which I vowed never to repeat, not being entirely comfortable with the whole audience only seeing your backside thing…

2. The Boar’s Head Carol [A version similar to, but not as dramatic as ours can be watched here.]
At the beginning of the Christmas concert’s second half, it was traditional for the Upper 6th (i.e. final year) girls to enter singing a somewhat dramatic version of this medieval carol, while carrying a papier maché boar’s head aloft. The Choir Captains were responsible for its organisation and it was the single-most controversial moment of our 6th form career (even after the hotly fought Head Girl contest – that’s a whole other story!) owing to high competition for solos. Reflecting upon this, it seems this tradition was the closest we got to show choir drama…

Americans get divas, costumes, choreographers and trophies – we got cloaks, home-made lanterns and a papier maché pig. It’s really not the same thing at all and I feel a little bit cheated.

Incidentally, you might have been hoping that this post would come with photos. It doesn’t and I make no apologies for that fact. Photos of me, as a teenager, on the internet? Never. Going. To. Happen. 

On bus stops as concert venues

After the slightly intense and long nature of my previous post I thought it would be a good idea to jump back into my normal routine of recounting random happenings in my usual surreal/vaguely amusing way. Oh, and you still have until the end of today to enter the giveaway – if you’ve only ended up here via Sew Mama Sew.

Recently, I joined a local community choir. It’s in turns utterly hilarious, rather hard work and quite bizarre. I discovered it in a typically random way – I met an old acquaintance a few weeks ago who turned out to live in my neighbourhood and he recommended it as I was looking for a more traditional alternative to my regular gospel stuff. He did warn me that it was a little ‘unusual’, but heck, all choirs have their eccentricities because musicians are, by their very nature, eccentric.

My suspicion is that most of this choir’s ‘specialness’ is derived from its unique Musical Director who is a wonderful combination of several Julie Walters’ roles – Mrs Overall of Acorn Antiques, Petula from Dinnerladies and Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot. She’s short with wiry hair and fearsome energy (particularly fearsome when you get stuck on the front row directly in her line of vision), usually wearing a pair of elaborate ballet pumps – so far I’ve noticed leopard print ones and a fetching blue sequinned pair.

What has fascinated me is that one particular woman who I’ve spoken to a couple of times seems to have got the measure of me very quickly. (I also love the fact that, while waiting at the same bus stop after my first rehearsal, she asked me which bus I was waiting for and on hearing it was the P12 replied: “Gosh, that’s rather special!” – I liked her use of ‘gosh’ and appreciation that the P12 is indeed a little bit special.) This week she came up to me during the tea break and began a conversation with “So, I expect you’ll be singing away at the bus stop this evening…”

Now, those that know me well will remember I have a bit of a history of public singing. In fact, I generally will be singing something most of the time. What worried me about her comment though, was that the previous week I had indeed stood at the bus stop singing (quite loudly) one of the folk songs we’d sung earlier. There was no one else waiting, and generally I’d pause as someone walked past, but part of me was a little concerned that somehow she knew about it. In response to her comment, I confessed that I had done that exact thing the week before, but I wondered what on earth had prompted such a conversation opener.

Maybe, she had simply picked up my ‘I love singing so much that I don’t care who hears me’ vibes – an amazingly good judge of character. Of course, I hastened to explain that while I do love singing and will sing to myself as I walk along the road, I am nowhere near as ostentatious as my favourite singing friend who positively adores public singing.

So, whilst I’m merrily labelling my new MD as a total eccentric, perhaps I also ought to be recognising that I have my own eccentricities and perhaps shouldn’t be judging others for theirs…