Symonds Yat dance weekend – the good

On Saturday morning a group of us headed over to the Hay Festival. Originally only two of us were planning to go, but we’d been explaining its literary nature the night before, and at breakfast a few others asked if they could join us. The Hay Festival is a week-long event, run by the Guardian, at which authors and thinkers debate, lecture and engage with anybody who wants to come along. I’d never actually been before, and was looking forward to it. Hay-on-Wye turned out to be further away than I’d anticipated, and after a lengthy journey via the sat-nav’s favourite country lanes we parked in the wrong car park and walked up to the festival site.

It was a gloriously sunny day, and we wandered beneath the tents. While the others bought “sheeps’ milk” ice cream I wandered into the official bookshop, and looked up to see Neil Gaiman:

Queue for Neil Gaiman

He’s one of my favourite authors, and for a few moments I hovered in front of a woman I later realised was Anne Fine, and took a couple of pictures. I had Fragile Things in my bag, and made to join the signing queue, but a lady ahead of me was turned away as they’d closed the line. She was most annoyed, wanting to know why. I wasn’t, strangely. It would have been cool to get something signed, and I even had something not-too-stupid to say – I was going to wish him luck with his new dog – but I didn’t mind not being able to say hi. Maybe I’m not as dazzled by celebrity as I used to be.

I think the Hay festival isn’t designed to be something you just turn up to. There’s a huge amount going on, but most of it is scheduled and ticketed, and the most interesting things were sold out well in advance. I’ll certainly go again next year, but shall plan ahead. We walked around the stalls for a while, and just before lunch caught the shuttle bus into Hay.

This is an incredibly obvious thing to say, but there really are a lot of bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. I can’t understand how I’ve never been before. I’ve also no idea how they all stay in business. One in particular was enormous, and I nearly got lost upstairs. Every aisle looked like this:

Shelves and shelves

It was too much, actually. I could easily spend ten minutes going through the contents of an individual shelf, and spend days in there without realising. I’ll have to go back with Abi. None of the bookshops we visited had any comics or graphic novels, strangely. I wonder whether it’s because they’re too niche, and keeping a decent stock would require a reasonably detailed knowledge of a subject your average book lover doesn’t find interesting…I can’t think it’s a snobby thing.

The town itself was decked out in bunting, and it was a lovely day to walk around. Despite numerous warnings from Lynsey, I got sunburnt. No excuse.

We had some good times dancing, too. It’s rare to have a ballroom not in the basement, and it was nice to dance in the evening sunlight:

Packed dancefloor - 4

On Sunday we drove home via Ross-on-Wye, complete with steampunk fish and enormous houses, and Ledbury with Mrs Muffins and happy dogs. I also drove into this particularly evil bit of kerb:

Evil kerb

on my new-last-week tyre. Whoops.

But the best thing I saw all weekend was the people who ran to Harry’s side on Saturday night. Although ultimately unsuccessful, they knew what to do and didn’t hesitate. I was barely aware what was happening, and they were already working. They’d undoubtedly deny it was brave, but anybody who has the ability and presence of mind to react and help in such situations has my full admiration.

Not a weekend I’d want to repeat, but there were good times too.

Birthday Macaques

Thanks you to all the people who’ve left encouraging comments about my receiving an offer for the photography course. I’m still trying to decide what to do, but the support and advice is very much appreciated 🙂

I had a great birthday weekend. I’m currently listening to one of my presents: Jarvis. I’ve always admired his voice and songwriting style, although I only have the one Pulp album. I haven’t had a proper chance to get into this, his first solo project, yet, but I’m already in love with “I will kill again”. I also received Rodrigo y Gabriela, which I listened to while driving on Saturday and enjoyed, then played on my proper speakers this morning and was blown away. I can only imagine their guitars were designed for playing doorbell chimes at the gates of heaven. Wonderful stuff – many thanks to Skuds for plugging them on his blog!

Late last week I invited various friends to a party using the following ditty:

The 19th sun of the fifth month – it’s May!
bounds into the sky, screams ‘dude, I’m all yay!’
as at the hour of ten, in Dorridge-based houses
a group they do gather in glorious trousers.

They flee in their whizzers, across the country,
an hour they drive, and celibacy
isn’t a virtue nor even a crime –
forgive me my father I needed the rhyme –

and their journey resembles the Faraway Tree,
but less of dear Moon-Face and more of Monkey
Forest that they find with the use of their (wo)menthumbs
is swirling and gorgeous and not far from Trentham.

And evening: once the moon’s a mere whisper,
we’ll eat, therefore laugh (I am no sophister)
we’ll pierce the future with games (or a Ball),
so come one and all to the end of this
poem, with a cute little stanza that employs mis-
direction and know well if you can
come along, this lark it will rock: be better than

Slippy Sarah’s golden gherkin,
a menstrual minstrel’s mouldy merkin,
Roland Rivron’s lucky garter,
all nothing next to Andrew’s parter-y!

Which had the desired effect of appalling people sufficiently that they quickly replied with various levels of abuse, and on Saturday we headed out in an M6 convoy.

Monkey Forest, at Trentham Gardens near Stoke, is a free-range reserve containing 140 Barbary Macaques, of which only 10,000 exist in the wild. There are no barriers – the macaques regularly cross your path as you stroll around the grounds – and it’s surprisingly cheap: £5.50 per person is pretty good when you consider Warwick Castle is £13. I really enjoyed it. As well as the obvious attraction of (not actually) monkeys, the guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and with it being cup final day there were very few people around 🙂 I took over 150 photos with my cheapo 300mm1 lens and was happy with some of the results:

Just like us

The masseuse hits the spot

Macaque Yoga

This seemed bigger before. I don't know what happened.

I is Tarzan

One particular macaque took great exception to being photographed. I guess to him I’m the paparazzi. My favourites are, inevitably, the babies:

What is? Is for me?

Dual huntings

Oh dear

Macaque biologist

I wanted to go on the nearby Aerial Extreme rope course, but it turned out to take 90 – 150mins to complete, so I decided against it. I’ll just have to go back! After this it was back to a friend’s house to do very silly things with another of my presents: a remote-control Dalek:

Uninvited Guest

Checkmate

It has a button specifically for ‘EXTERMINATE’. It is fun times.

I had an excellent day, with wonderful company, great cookies and some very exciting presents. I must say a big thank you to the extremely kind online chum who bought me the surreal DVD – I’m very much looking forward to watching it! I am a very lucky person all round.

  1. 480mm with my 300D’s cropping factor []

Derren Brown – Mind Reader: The Evening of Wonders

Derren Brown programme coverHalfway through the second act, Derren Brown called out my name and told me the first song I ever played on a guitar. It was quite the thing.

Derren Brown is a ‘psychological illusionist’ memorably described by Charlie Brooker as ‘clearly the greatest dinner party guest in history’. His TV shows regularly feature a mixture of street magic/psychology and elaborate, often controversial, events. He’s certainly the most interesting TV magician of recent years, and last night I saw him at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Like his TV shows, the act was described as a mixture of ‘magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship’1, and lived up to the billing. We were told that during the show a gorilla would come onto the stage, steal a banana from a stand at the front, and most of us wouldn’t notice. So it proved. We saw an audience member forget information given to her moments before, a floating table drag four volunteers around the stage, six rapid-fire games of 20 questions in which he never asked more than 4, and a series of baffling three-digit-number predictions. Somebody’s phone rang and he said “don’t answer, it’s really bad news”.

Derren Brown is unquestionably on the side of Good. He says up front “I do not have psychic powers, and I may well trick you”, then proceeds to do so. People who claim to have psychic powers and use the same tricks to make money are unquestionably Evil2, the opposite are great entertainment. Some have questioned whether he goes too far: there’s plenty of genuine psychology, but also a fair amount of magical trickery wrapped up in the same patter. I was lucky enough to get an insight into this. At the end of the first act we were told to watch out for ushers with 150 cards. Recipients were asked to write a question for Derren on the card, seal it inside the supplied black envelope and note their initials and row on the front. They were then to check the envelope was truly opaque before walking onto the stage and placing it into a glass bowl, which remained in full view of the audience throughout the interval.

Obviously, I wanted to do this. So I did. I moved fairly quickly and was able to grab a card before they ran out. The card asked for my name, birthday and a question for Derren. He’d said it could be literally anything, so I wrote “How did the bee ‘waggle dance’ evolve?”. The back of the card then asked for a private piece of information to further test his abilities, so I filled this in too then quickly headed to the stage, dropped my envelope into the bowl and made it back to my seat just before the lights dimmed.

After a couple of tricks he explained the procedure. By looking at the handwriting on the front of the envelope he hoped to ascertain the personality type of its owner. We were to stand up, and he’d then read our body language and try to figure out what we’d written. And then proceeded to do so. He picked out apparently random cards, sometimes using them, sometimes discarding them, and called out the initials so the owner stood. He told people the pets they had, the password for their computer, their occupation and what they’d been doing that day. About half-way through he took off his microphone earpiece, in case anybody thought he was being fed answers, and wrapped bandages around his head to completely blind himself. And then continued with the act. The following exchange (transcribed as accurately as I can remember) happened shortly after:

DB: [picks up a card] A guitar! Andy..Andrew…does that match anybody?
Me: [standing up and receiving the microphone from a scurrying usher] Yes, that’s me.
DB: A Taurean, right?
Me: Yes. [gasps from audience]
DB: This is something musical, something to do with the guitar. I’m getting…It’s the first song you played on the guitar, am I right?
Me: Yes.
DB: Ok. About fifteen years old, right?
Me: No.
DB: It is older?
Me: Oh, me or the song?
DB: Never mind, one question at a time. Sing the song over in your head. Over and over. Try to project it to me.
Me: [actually doing so]. Ok.
DB: I’m getting something about…pain, is that close?
Me: Yes, very.
DB: And lots of pain. I can’t quite figure it out. There are many people in pain? Something like that?
Me: That’s very close.
DB: I can’t get the title I’m afraid, what is it?
Me: Everybody Hurts. [audience go into shock]

I was very, very impressed. The rest of the show was most entertaining, but I couldn’t quite get over him managing to detect that kind of information from what must have purely been the tone of my voice – it’s astonishing that people can give away that much information!

Later, I changed my mind. There’s no doubt that the guy has an uncanny ability to read people, and I was prepared to accept that handwriting could give away very obvious facts like gender, leaving him to discern the rest from body language, but blinded he couldn’t possibly have known my guitar fact and name. So it must have been trickery, rather than psychology. I’m confident I’ve worked out how it was done, starting from the age-old magical principle that there is no limit to the trouble a magician will go to. I’m not going to go into it here – I see no reason to, and am still bound by the old magician’s code anyway – but the clues are there if you want the intellectual exercise.

It is momentarily crushing to realise you’ve been fooled. I bought into the psychological aspect, and when I realised this was a falsehood I felt tricked. But not for long. Once you figure out the secret you can see the myriad of ways he worked to throw people off the scent, and it was remarkably well done. The subtlety and panache of just that one trick was stunning, and his performance impeccable: I believed every second of him not being able to figure out the song title. There was plenty in the show that was clearly trickery, but I have no idea as to the mechanics. Other effects gave every impression of being purely psychological. I had the advantage of extra knowledge in the routine I was involved with, and if each of the others was as carefully constructed, which they must have been, it was a hell of a creation. My admiration far outweighs the initial resentment.

Derren Brown’s obfuscation of psychology and trickery is edgier than most magicians’, but I don’t have a problem with it. You don’t have to be a great logician to realise it’s impossible to get a psychological reading of somebody’s handwriting if you’re blindfolded, and throughout the show he was at pains to say he doesn’t believe in psychic ability and is highly skeptical with regard to the paranormal. I can’t think of any statements that were outright lies and not magician’s misdirection. There’s plenty in psychology that is astonishing – much of it is well highlighted in his more spectacular TV work – and anything that draws attention to it is fine with me.

A good magic show is a wonderful thing, and there aren’t many classier than this. Highly recommended.

  1. the programme is also “100% natural: we have used organic paper and done away with nasty chemicals or artificial inks.” Gotta love those natural inks. []
  2. it’s likely that some believe they have some genuine ability, but that’s not an excuse []

Torquay pictures

I’ve finally finished uploading photos from the Torquay dancing weekend. There are a bunch of images from our trip to Paignton Zoo, which aren’t of great quality as I hadn’t a telephoto lens1. There are humping monkeys, though.

My favourite shot of the weekend is definitely this:

Budleigh JUMPINGS

I love jumping pictures. There’s a whole flickr group devoted to them.

All importing, editing and captioning was completed in Adobe Lightroom (using heretical colour modes) and I’m very impressed. I’ll try to write a full review before the trial runs out.

  1. I have plenty of other excuses 🙂 []

In London for Darwin Day

Yesterday was Darwin Day, and I headed down to London for an evolution-themed afternoon. I met up with a coruscating someone just before lunch, and we headed across town through at-times-heavy rain. We tried to see Darwin’s grave in Westminster Abbey but balked at the £10 entrance fee – maybe we’d have paid that between us, but each is extortionate1. Sheltering from the rain prevented us quite making it to Crockatt and Powell as we had an appointment at the Natural History Museum.

Natural History Museum FoyerWe’d booked tickets for the Explore Tour, which takes groups of seven behind the scenes of their huge and newly-built Darwin Centre to see some of the 22 million specimens on 27 kilometres of shelves. It was excellent. We saw Archie the Giant Squid, who lives in a £25,000 glass tank built with the help of Damien Hirst – apparently the source of expertise in glass cases – and has possibly the largest eye in the animal kingdom as well as suckers ringed by spikes. There was also a coelacanth, a section of the Thames whale – all the UK’s dead whales and dolphins are sent to the NHM for post mortems – and, possibly most exciting of all, type specimens collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Our knowledgeable tour guide got drenched by the rain while showing us in and out, but was cheerful and friendly throughout. It’s a free tour that can only be booked on the day, and I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

I’d forgotten how grand the NHM is – it reminded us both of Hogwarts, although sadly the stairs remained stationary. We walked around various exhibits while avoiding scurrying children, and had a great time. Plus, of course, there was the foyer dinosaur, who never fails to impress.

The rain held off for the rest of the day, happily, and all too soon it was time to head back. We had a little trouble finding the platform at King’s Cross, mind:

Platform 9 3/4

Children were running into it as we left. Ouch.

Cephalopods, evolution, grandeur with an air of magic, and great company – what more could you ask for from a day?

  1. to be fair, the Church of England clearly need the money []

An Evening at Strictly Come Dancing

What do you notice in this picture?

Me and Lynsey in the background of Strictly Come Dancing

Given the presence of the utterly divine Karen Hardy (in yellow) and – I’m reliably informed – the equally appealing Mark Ramprakash, you might be forgiven for not looking at the background. But if you did…

Close-up of me and Lynsey in the SCD background

I’m on the left, Lynsey’s on the right. Yeah, we’re small and nigh-on unrecognisable, but come on, if I don’t get to say ‘look, it’s me on tv!’ on my blog, where do I get to say it 🙂

A couple of months ago we managed to get hold of four tickets for Strictly Come Dancing, and after a nervous wait for them to arrive Lynsey and I headed down to London yesterday morning. We checked in with the kind friends who’d agreed to put us up for the night, then after a large lunch got changed into the ‘Smart/Glamorous dress’ specified on the tickets and caught the Tube to Shepherd’s Bush. After taking a few minutes to figure out the correct direction, we arrived at the BBC Centre and joined the queue next to the ‘audience entrance’. Our friends from the dance group arrived a few minutes later, and shortly afterwards we were shown into the BBC foyer, where there were seats and tables as well as a cafe and the BBC shop.

SCD StudioThe screens in the waiting room showed old episodes of SCD to get everybody into a dancing mood, and after forty minutes we were shown through the main doors to join a queue across the front of television centre. This didn’t go down terribly well as it was a cold night and most of the women had checked their coats in the foyer, but we were only there for a few minutes, made more entertaining when somebody spotted Anton practicing in a hallway and there was a flurry of whispers as we tried to work out who he was with – it didn’t look like Jan. We went into Studio One and were diverted up the stairs to the balcony seats on the right-hand side of the studio. It was surprisingly small! The dance floor itself was tiny, and I guess they must use wide-angle lenses to make it look larger. The whole studio was also darker than it appears on-screen. We were directly opposite the judge’s table and very happy with this view! A group next to us complained they couldn’t see all of the dance floor. Had they actually leaned forward a little they’d have seen there was only 2/3 of a metre hidden, so it was no big deal. They ended up leaving after the first half of the show. Grumpy!

The room filled up and we began star-spotting. Colin Jackson and his sister sat next to the judge’s table and Erin, his partner in series three, came out to say hello dressed in fluffy slippers 🙂 We later saw Julian Clary and Georgina. Many, many people moved back and forth, it’s amazing how many bodies it takes to make a tv show! The floor manager then introduced himself, the judges – Craig was booed, Bruno and Len cheered – and the orchestra. Incidentally, Craig Revel Horwood is a big guy! He dwarfed the other judges. Bruce Forsyth then walked out to loud applause and began warming up the audience. He told a few jokes, sang a song, and actually acted as compere for the entire evening, which I really liked. We were made to feel part of the show, rather than just being there to watch it. During the live show he was continually joking with the audience up to the final second before he was on-screen, and sometimes actually continuing, to the presumed bewilderment of the tv audience.

Finally the show began, and we all cheered and clapped loudly as Tess Daly appeared, then continued as the dancers descended the stairs. This was the first time we’d seen them, which was probably a deliberate move by the producers. Anton, unsurprisingly, got a particularly large cheer. I noticed that all of their make-up seemed much more pronounced, presumably because that’s the amount you need when on-camera. Then we were off and running into the main show, which flew by.

Setting up JamiroquaiI was so intrigued by the workings of a tv studio that I almost forgot to concentrate on the dancing. It was fascinating: a guy with a steadicam would sprint onto the floor during the routines, circle the dancers, then get out of the way as fast as he could; as soon as the screen cut to the week’s training footage make-up artists would appear and dab at the judges for a few seconds; huge boom arms would swing and glide around the studio, and hand-held camera operators would dash back and forth between the floor and the orchestra.

I don’t claim to have any deep knowledge of dancing, but after two years of learning I think I’ve picked up a few aspects of technique. I have trouble judging performances on tv, though – I never seem to notice the flaws that everybody else does. I found it much easier when I was actually there, and a couple of times the judges said what I was thinking, which was cool. The dancing looked more impressive than it does on tv, too, I guess because they seem more like actual people.

I liked Emma & Darren’s Viennese waltz a lot, as well as Carol Smillie, but wasn’t terribly impressed with Claire and Brendan. I think the audience were turning against Brendan – he was booed a little when he walked on, and when he had a strop during the point-scoring there was little reaction at all.

Then, though, came the final contestants: Mark and Karen. I admit I have a slight bias as I already thought they were fantastic, but imho they really brought the house down. As soon as their salsa music began the whole audience started swaying and clapping more than they had for the other routines, and once they leapt into the dance it was completely mesmerising. But then disaster struck – the microphone got caught and they had to stop. Bruce rushed on and Mark begged to be given another chance. The audience went mental. There was no way we were going to let them say no – I think we’d have revolted 🙂 I imagine the decision was made very quickly, but then something had to be done to guarantee the problem didn’t recur, so the sound girl had to dash onto the stage and sort it out. The floor manager was also shouting directions – did they make it to air? The dance began again and the atmosphere was really quite something. Everybody was moving and clapping in time with the music, and the routine was even better the second time around. We all went nuts when it finished, more so when the judges awarded them 36 points. The whole routine can be watched here.

Jamiroquai preparing to singThe first half of the show show ended, and we were sent back to the foyer for crisps and warm orange juice. Thankfully we’d had a large lunch to make sure we didn’t go hungry – 4 until 10 is a long time to go without eating properly. We waited there, watching a silent Robin Hood on the big screens (is better without the dialogue anyway), until being allowed back in 45 minutes later. Jamiroquai were rehearsing and there was some confusion over whether we should be there, but by then it was too late so we all sat down. Lynsey and I took the opportunity to snap a few photos. Full-size cameras were banned, but I don’t think they minded cameraphones provided nobody used them during the actual performance or important rehearsals. The full flickr set is here.

A sadly-hatless Jay Kay said hello and they filmed ‘Canned Heat’ live-to-tape. We’d been told to clap along with our arms in the air, and did so until they ached, then had to do it again after a sound problem with the first take.

Our balcony seats turned out to be the location for the second half’s introductory shot with Bruce and Tess setting the scene. It was a little dark but I got a couple of blurry shots:

Tess and Bruce Bruce chats to the audience

Again Bruce was chatting to everybody, as well as looking over the balcony and remarking upon the low-cut nature of women’s dresses 🙂 I didn’t dislike him or anything before, but I came away really admiring the guy.

They then ran through a dress rehearsal of the second-half. Various of the dancers changed dresses three times, then did it again in the live show! The rehearsal included the professional dancer’s routine, which was a samba with guest star Zoe Ball. This was excellent, as it starred all of the dancers who’d left the competition, which meant we got to see everybody dance! It ended with Zoe posing theatrically in front of Matthew Cutler. Unfortunately they became attached – her bum to his groin – and after a few seconds of unsuccessful attempts to pull apart Matthew gave up and began pumping away. I don’t know how many people noticed this, but we were in hysterics. Then, bizarrely, came a mock run-through of the final elimination procedure, with couples remaining purely based on their order in line. The first couple were given a cheer, but we felt a bit silly given that it wasn’t real, and by the time it got to Erin there was no reaction at all – she was unimpressed by this, and made all the other dancers clap 🙂 Matt and Lilia ‘exited the competition’, and even did their final ‘Goodbye My Lover’ dance.

SCD dancers on stage for dress rehearsalI’ve missed out something very important, though. The judges appeared for a while before and during the Jamiroquai set, and we waved madly at Craig until he saw us and waved back. We unsuccessfully tried the same with Len. However, there were greater things to come. I wasn’t looking, but just before the elimination procedure began Lynsey and Julie spotted Anton looking their way, and waved madly. I saw them trying to get his attention and joined in, and he waved back. I turned to see Lynsey’s reaction, only to see her eyes widen as he apparently blew her a kiss! She was most excited. I’m sorry I missed it happen, but I’m very happy it did 🙂

There were ten minutes before the show began, during which time the floor manager gave away signed t-shirts to two children in the audience who volunteered to do ‘something’. The first, probably six or seven years old, fearlessly stepped onto the stage and sang a couple of verses of a McFly song to rapturous applause. The second managed not to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for a minute, and was equally well received.

Then came the live show, which went very quickly. The judges gave their opinions on who should leave – Brendan seemed subdued – and the professional routine came and went without the dirty dancing finale. I was impressed that throughout the entire second show, rehearsal and live, the man sitting next to me didn’t move once. No cheers, no claps, no sways. Sure, he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to, but how do you end up even being there if you’re not interested?

After the showFinally it was time to eliminate one couple. Everybody lined up during the Jamiroquai music break, and Tess appeared literally clutching the results cards to her chest. I saw her take a quick peak at the first one, though 🙂 They cut back to live television, and began announcing the names. Tess or Bruce would say something like ‘the next couple leaving the competition is’ and then stare at the floor manager, who would hold up his hand for five seconds or so and drop it when the names should be read out. I have my suspicions about the ‘random order’ of the results – there’s never been a low-scorer made safe in the first couple of names, and the last four are always possibilities – but it was quickly narrowed down to Brendan and Anton. After what seemed like an age Anton’s name was read out, and there were very loud boos. I think this was mostly simply because it was Anton rather than ‘it should have been Brendan’, but there was probably an element of the latter. Poor Jan was terribly upset, and there were many ‘aaah’s.

SCD studio after the show endedThey wrapped up the show and everybody crowded around Anton and Jan. The thing I like about SCD is that it’s all genuine. Nobody disappeared once the cameras stopped rolling, and Bruce and Tess both independently commiserated J&A, before wandering around the floor and chatting to the various people seated around it. They were all still there when we left a few minutes later.

The contestants and professionals were laughing and joking with each other the whole time, no matter whether the cameras were rolling. They genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, which imho is far more pleasant than the infighting and unpleasantness which comes with many shows based around weekly evictions. The atmosphere in the studio was happy and friendly, bordering on ecstatic at times, and even the judge’s criticisms seemed to fit with the mood – they weren’t vindictive, after all.

We left the studio feeling a little sad that it was all over, but very happy that we’d had such a good time. Lynsey and I squeezed onto a packed Tube and made it to our friend’s flat forty minutes later. It was a truly excellent evening, and one I’d recommend to anybody if they get a chance.

St. Annes Dancing Weekend 2006

I had a plan. We’d leave at about 1400 and avoid the rush-hour traffic, reaching St. Annes by around 1730. I was up until late on Thursday night blogging the Richard Dawkins event, so packed hurriedly on the Friday morning before heading to my guitar lesson half an hour’s drive away in Solihull. After that I walked Megan and started preparing lunch. Everything was going swimmingly.

And then I realised I’d left my dancing shoes in Stratford.

I mean, of all the things to forget. I had battery chargers of all shapes and sizes, I had spare clothes in case of unfortunate rainstorms, I even had my trusty compactflash/cd-writer in case I filled my memory card. But dancing shoes? No. We ended up leaving at 1500, got caught in traffic and arrived at 1845, fifteen minutes before the evening meal. I am a muppet. Still, I was upgraded to a deluxe room, with a great view of the sea:

View from my hotel room

Last year very few of us had danced in a ballroom before, let alone in front of people we didn’t know, so everybody was very hesitant to step up. Happily there were no such problems this time. The first evening’s dancing was casual dress and good fun, even if some of the music was, um, godawful. Well, that’s not entirely fair; it was square tangos directly from 1930’s Bournemouth and jives slower than java that annoyed me, but I’m picky like that 🙂

The next day we took a trip en masse along the beach, where people were doing this:

Racing Windskurfer

My first thought was ‘waterboarding’, which seems unlikely, so I have christened it ‘windskurfing’.

After invading a coffee shop Lynsey and I wandered around the shops for a while. I found Fabric of the Cosmos and Does Anything Eat Wasps? in a charity shop for under £2 each, which was cool. Then the strong wind drove us back to the hotel, where we sat by the foyer fire watching a very silly Rock Hudson film and reading, before evacuating as people arrived to watch some football match.

Saturday night’s dancing was smart dress, which I always find funny. Women look great, but men? No. There’s a level of ‘smart dress’ at which most men start looking ridiculous…I am prepared to concede that some men can look as good in a tie as without, but no more than that and it doesn’t apply to me anyway. I decided that if I had to wear a tie it was going to be fun, so found one picturing all the characters from South Park 🙂 Everybody took their ties and jackets off after twenty minutes anyway.

All the dancing was great fun, although I struggled a little on some of the ballroom. The crowded floor was tricky at times. The latin was good, though 🙂 Late on Saturday evening came the raffle. Confirmation bias it may be, but I always seem to win raffles. In a room of 60 people and seven prizes I won twice on Saturday evening. The first was a box of chocolates, the second I was told to give to Lynsey. She ended up doing a ‘special surprise’ demonstration dance with another member of the group, and received a loud round of applause.

Avoiding collisions

As with last year, we met up with a dance group from Stafford. They’ve been learning for six extra months and are far superior…or so they seemed last year. This time, it was subtly different. Our teachers differ wildly in style: theirs move quickly and teach many different steps; ours go far more slowly, making sure everybody can achieve each different move, but get through far less as a result. And with the benefit of an extra year’s experience I could tell that what had looked very impressive last year was, on occasion, a little dodgy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not criticising or saying I and my group are all perfect. But what we can do, we generally do well. I feel bad putting it that way, but it’s what happened. Once I realised that they weren’t always more advanced I felt much less intimidated.

Last year we learnt the barn dance, and I struggled with one of the turns. We were partnering members of the other group, and at the end the lady looked at me, said “well, that was different”, and walked off. Not the friendliest person in the world. This year the exact same thing happened, except she got the turn wrong. Ah, justice.

Chris and Steve

I found the last two dancing weekends very tough. My normal social neuroses went haywire and I didn’t cope very well at times, but this weekend was much, much better. I’ve been doing ok in this regard for the last few months, which helps, but I’ve also got to know various other people in my group. For the first time I went to bed not feeling like I should go home. Which is actually odd, as there was one moment where it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to wonder whether I was being deliberately avoided. But only once, and a kind soul did notice and make up for it a minute later. It didn’t actually bother me all that much, perhaps because reality doesn’t compare to the paranoia in my confused little mind, but it’s ironic that the other times I was worrying over nothing, this time I wasn’t over something.

On Sunday Lynsey and I headed over to Blackpool. The theme park is free to enter, but each ride costs a certain number of ‘tickets’, each of which costs £1. The Big One was a 7-ticket ride! We wandered around and figured out which were worth the money. I couldn’t talk her into riding The Big One (if I had a penny for every time I’ve said that) but happily there wasn’t much of a queue so she didn’t have to wait too long. It was excellent fun 🙂

Into the skyBlackpool Tram

After hitting the carousel we took a walk along the beachfront before coming home. Blackpool was a little ’70s for my tastes, but nevertheless interesting to visit. One question remains, though: does anybody have any clue what this is?:

Big Dude With A Sign