September 2008 Archives

The perils of contact juggling

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Yes, I know the balls come with warnings about placing them in direct sunlight on account of their propensity to act as magnifying lenses.

Yes, I know I came frighteningly close to setting my nether regions on fire by absent mindedly placing a ball in my lap whilst doing some multi-ball work on a bright summers day.

But, honestly, what does it take for the message to sink in? I only ask because I managed to set the bag I carry my acrylics in on fire today. Again.


But I might want to be a spectacle!

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I'm increasingly fond of St. James's Park both as a space to practice, and a place in it's own right. It's on my route to and from work which makes it easy to spend time there. It's not the largest park in London by any measure, but it has a character I find lacking in behemoth like Hyde Park and Regent's Park.

It helps that it was one of the first places I visited in London, late on a summer's eve. Standing on the bridge across the lake, looking out at Whitehall across the aptly named Duck island as a light mist wreathed around it, is a memory that stays with me. The whole scene had a dreamlike quality I found rather appealing.

Being a consistent sort, I've carefully delineated my practice space. Between two trees on the north side of the park, not far from the Mall. It's a quiet enough area, but still close enough to a few thoroughfares that I can attract the attention of the odd passerby. And some passerbys are quite distinctly odd - a woman ran by me screaming a few days ago. As far as I could tell she was terrified of the squirrel that was chasing her. But I digress.

As I stood between my trees practicing my praying butterfly, a trio passed by me. One of them seemed inclined to stop and watch me, but another of his companions was less impressed, reeling off a list of all the places she'd seen contact jugglers performing and expressing a voluble desire to move on.

Her companion seemed slightly embarrassed and tried to issue an apology on her behalf (rarely a good idea - apologising for other people), saying she didn't want to make a spectacle out of me.

"But I might want to be spectacle!" I called after them in mock protest. I received a smile, but they continued walking away.

"Dismissed!" I cried out after them.


"Publicly humiliated!"

Because, you know, nothing expresses dismay quite so strongly as quoting a Disney villain....

To all things an ending. This evening we held the wake for my old company. It didn't die completely even though most of its employees were made redundant back at the end of June, but instead it stumbled zombie-like onwards, with a small caretaker staff in place to keep it ticking along whilst a buyer was sought.

Tonight it all ended, as those few remaining employees finally headed for the hills, and we held a party in the now very empty office to celebrate/commiserate/bitch about the investors who left us in the lurch.

Spirits were high all things considered, and I left behind one final legacy.

This requires a small bit of backstory. The office was a converted townhouse in the middle of Mayfair. It's an old, listed, building, and in the middle of it is an ancient and impossibly sheer staircase. It's currently missing bannisters, and likely contravenes a number of health a safety regulations. Nevertheless, I gazed upon this staircase for the first time, and one thought immediately sprang to my mind, as I'm sure it sprang to the mind of many others before me: Slinky!

It's true. Never before have I seen a staircase so ideally suited for a sending a slinky spring tumbling down. And so I did. Many times.

Happy times.

So I may have moved on, but as I said, I left one small thing behind me. Sitting at the bottom of that absurdly steep staircase waits a single, solitary slinky spring.

May whoever takes over the office appreciate it as I did.

Being fictional was a huge advantage

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Rewatching The West Wing in the run up to the U.S. presidential election is an interesting experience, the fourth season in particular where Bartlett is standing for re-election. It's not just the fact that he's standing against an obvious W analog (the folksy republican governor who's not exactly the sharpest tool in the box), but that showrunner Sorkin passionately advocates through his proxy characters on the show that the election should be about intellect, that the people we elect should be the smartest people in the room, and damn any claims of elitism.

It's not hard to see parallels with the current election where undue attention seem to be given to the topic of porcine beautification over subjects which ought to be more relevant to the electorate.

The West Wing may be fading in relevance now, but Sorkin revisits Bartlett's character in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, conjuring a meeting between his fictional president and the current democratic hopeful, brimming with his trademark dialog and some familiar pet themes.

When animals attack

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Contact juggling is a interesting way to attract attention. I don't actively court an audience when practicing in public, but I will play up to passer-bys when they stop to watch (and don't think you can get away by watching from behind - I know you're there!).

Attention can come from unexpected avenues however. I was in the park at the weekend, merrily minding my own business as I practiced my outside elbow stalls (coming along nicely, if somewhat slowly, thank you for asking) when I felt an odd sensation on my leg. A decidedly unfamiliar sensation.

I looked down and saw a squirrel crawling up my jeans. I stared at it. The squirrel stared back. The squirrels in St James's Park are a friendly bunch of rodents for the most part, happily approaching strangers in the hope of obtaining the sort of treats tourists so willingly dispense to scampering squirrels, but I've never known any to pounce someone like this.

Goodness knows what was going through it's furry little mind, but seemed fascinated by my clear acrylic ball. I held the ball out to it, and it crawled up to my thigh, had a quick sniff, then jumped off my leg and scurried off a bit. It didn't move very far away though, and when I began practicing again, it stood up on it's hind legs and watched.

What primal part of a squirrel brain does contact juggling cause to light up in a mass of neural activity? Is it something food related? Does the ball register as water?

Or am I simply so good that even animals stop and stare in awe? :)

All Star Superman

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How do you make Superman relevant today?

The character is over sixty years old, wears his underwear on the outside even now, and has a history littered with absurd anachronisms. Like Mickey Mouse, Superman is often more recognised as a corporate logo rather than as character around whom compelling stories can be told.

DC attempted to revitalise Superman back in the mid-eighties using a story called Crisis on Infinite Earths to wipe out the history of the DC Universe and start everything from scratch. Some characters received greater attention than others. Whilst Batman came through largely unscathed, Superman's history was completely rewritten.

The familiar parts of his backstory remained in place: Last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, rocketed to earth to be raised by a pair of kindly farmers. But the devil as always is in the details. Much of the detritus accumulated by the character were pared away. His history as Superboy was deleted, and once more he became the last survivor of Krypton. Supergirl was gone (along with Krypto the Superdog, Streaky the Supercat and the rest of the Legion of Superpets), as was the bottle city of Kandor. Lex Luthor was reinvented - from criminal mastermind to ruthless businessman.

Even Clark Kent underwent a radical change. Instead of being little more than a clumsy front for Superman, Clark became a real person at last. A Pulitzer prize winning journalist trying to use his abilities to make the world a better place.

The upshot was that many of the more fantastic elements of the character were stripped away, somewhat unceremoniously in many cases. There was plenty of lunacy left, but on a milder and slightly more realistic scale compared to what went before. This was not a Superman you'd find using his cape to tow a dwarf star, for example.

And it worked well enough. For a time.

Grounding the character is all very well, but it can be taken too far. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns for example. Bringing Batman into the real world, as Christopher Nolan arguably managed with this summer's The Dark Knight, is a natural fit. Superman is not. Superman is defined by the fantastic, and it's to the characters detriment to strip that away so completely as Singer did.

Which brings us to All Star Superman, this week finishing a 12 issue run after some 3 years. DC's All Star range is an attempt to use it's most famous characters to tell classic stories, unencumbered by any continuity concerns. Writer Grant Morrison, and artist Frank Quitely, far from ignoring Superman's long and colorful history, positively revelled in it. And the result is possibly the finest Superman story ever told.

It's a wonderful series. 12 issues over 3 years is glacial pace, and most creative teams producing books on such a schedule are usually, and rightly, excoriated. But Morrison and Quitely were given a lot of leeway, such was the quality of their work.

How do you make Superman relevant today? You don't. You simply tell good stories. If modern times have seen Superman's history pared to bare minimum, Morrison and Quitely restored it to it's full glory and beyond. The book is rife with detail and references to old forgotten continuity. The key to the Fortress of Solitude, once a vast monolith placed in plain sight because only Superman was strong enough to lift it, returns as a small key made of a superdense material that still only Superman is strong enough to lift, but this time place under a doormat enscribed "Welcome". Hundreds of other details reference the past, albeit with a postmodern edge. Every toy in the toybox is restored and on display.

The 12 issues form a single book telling one coherent story, the tale Superman's 12 great labours. Without giving too much away, it's truly mythic story and all the better for taking place outside of normal continuity. Ongoing series', such as Superman, are troublesome in many ways. How can Superman's story have a beginning, a middle and an end, when the character cannot? I doubt it's a coincidence that the greatest Superman stories, notably Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow deal with Superman's (possibly) last days. Morrison and Quitely, virtuoso storytellers both, craft a tale brimming with colour and emotion. It's not story of Superman as a man, but Superman as a god, as made evident in issue #10 as Superman completes a labour in way that sent a shiver down my spine.

If you've read a Superman comic and enjoyed it, if you've ever read a Superman comic and felt dissatisfied with the character, if you've ever been curious about the appeal of the character to begin with, this is the book for you.

PS. All Star Batman is as bad as All Star Superman is good. Don't let the fact that it's written by Frank Miller convince you that it might in anyway be decent. It's not. All you need to know about it can be summed up by one line of dialog from the series as Batman introduces himself to Dick Grayson, the soon to be Robin, for the first time: "What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? I'm the Goddamn BATMAN!"

'Nuff said.

Don't bank on it

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As the song goes, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. I bear no love for any bank, but the news that the Bank of Scotland is essentially no more, a casualty of the recent turmoils in the financial markets, still saddens me. As an institution I've never lent it much consideration - it's just something that's always been there, perched high on it's impressive headquarters above the Mound in Edinburgh. It's ubiquity made it easy to take for granted - I've used it's branches, it's cash machines, and it's money without ever giving it a second thought. The notion that the Bank might one day cease to be, after several hundred years of existence, would have seemed absurd to me even a few weeks ago.

The loss of the bank Is certainly a blow for Edinburgh, and Scotland as a whole, considering the importance of banking to the country's economy. Labour have been trailing badly in the polls recently, and I doubt events of the past few days will improve their fortunes. I suspect voters will use the looming by-election to punish Gordon Brown for his part in the Bank of Scotland's demise, however indirect or unavoidable.

Several wags have commented in newspapers that it's headquarters would make a lovely hotel. Given it's prominent location in Edinburgh's famed skyline I suspect it's as likely to become a symbol of hubris and folly...

A couple of photographs I took recently.

The first begs the question "Which way is Champion Hill?"

I'd point the way out to you, but I'm running out of arms...

And as for the second, who would have though that the answer to Hamlet's timeless quandary could be found in a location as unremarkable as a railway siding in Waterloo?

Alas poor Yorick.  I knew him Horatio, I fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

A brief note about my taste in music

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I feel it must surely say something about me that I can put the High School Musical soundtrack on my iPhone and it doesn't even come close to being the most embarrassing thing on it.

No comment

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No, I'm afraid I don't know why the comments aren't working. I've had a glance, and it all looks irritatingly fine. Except it doesn't work.

I blame myself. Obviously leaving my poor blog unattended and alone for so long has allowed the rust to set in. I'm tempted to shift everything over to Wordpress, but I've gotten used to MovableType's quirks over the years.

There's still a lot of work to be done here. Mostly window dressing, but that sort of thing has always been important to me. I quite like the current theme. It's soothing in it's own way, but it's still rather generic and hardly befits a blog titled "ensuing chaos", something which brings to mind an explosion in a paint factory rather than a genteel pastiche of nature.

Hmm. Explosion in a paint factory.

I do like the sound of that...

A brief detour to Bristol

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I really must be more organised about attending juggling conventions in future. Too many last minute dashes across countries and continents is exhausting.

Yesterday was the Bristol Juggling Convention, a smaller affair by far than the EJC, but still worth attending. Like the EJC it runs for a full week, and this time I made it for the first day instead of the last. Unfortunately, the first day was a rather low key affair, as many people used to the earlier part of the day to simply get to the convention and set up their tents (did I mention it was held in a campground? My muddy socks at the end of the day were testament to my lack of preparation...). Sadly, I lacked both a both a tent and a sleeping bag so I wasn't staying, although I was kindly offered the use of a tent by an alarmingly lithe dance instructor.

The day wasn't a waste by any means though. Small, in this case, also meant that it was more intimate affair than the EJC, and I realised just how close knit a community contact jugglers in this country are. Everybody really does know everyone, and it wasn't long into any conversation before we discovered who we knew in common. And I did get to put faces to a few names I'd only encountered on internet forums before.

And as always I got in a good bit of practice, was awed by the talent on display, learned a few tricks and taught a few tricks. And again, I promised myself and others I'd attend for longer next year. My calendar is getting quite full already! The British Juggling Convention takes place in Norwich in April, the EJC is in Northern Spain in July, and the Bristol Juggling Convention is in September again. Somewhere in between that I have to squeeze in a trip to Canada as well.

Also importantly, I learned where contact jugglers in London congregate on a regular basis - in Camden on Wednesday evenings. I shall make an effort to attend, particularly now that the days are getting chillier and darker. My lunch times lately have been spent practicing in the nearby parks, and I've been making a point of stopping off in St James's Park on the way home from work for a spot of practice before catching my train home. Neither will be an option for much longer, so I'll be glad of somewhere to hone my skills over the course of the winter.

All this practice! Now I just need to actually get good! :)


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Let's see. Where was I? Ah yes - Karlsruhe, Germany, near the beginning of August at 4:30a.m. Not the most auspicious start to my trip, but at least I'd reached the hotel and had a bed for the night. What remained of it anyway.

I managed a few hours sleep, fortunately, and the general buzz of excitement managed to propel me through the day without keeling over from lack of sleep. And what a day it was!

The convention was held at an indoor sports center at the edge of the city, adjacent to a large park. Never having been to anything of this sort, I'd little idea of what to expect, and how many people would be there. The answer to that was: lots! Over the course of the week nearly 5 and a half thousand people attended, easily filling the sports arena when I was there. They (we?) made for quite a sight. Jugglers and acrobats of every age, shape, colour, creed and nationality could be found. And every skill level too, fortunately, otherwise I would have felt even more intimidated than I did (you would be too were you to find yourself watching a 10 year old slip of a lad deftly handling five clubs in front of you).

Despite being there for the weekend, I only really had a single day of the convention in front of me. The convention finished early on the Sunday afternoon, and the first part of that was generally spent clearing things up (or trying to find a car ride home for many it seemed - jugglers are a surprisingly intrepid bunch and several people I spoke to had daunting distances to travel home, with no mode of transport arranged).

I checked out the day's activities, noted down a few events that were off interest to me, and set off to explore for a bit. In the rather picturesque park next door, two large big tops had been set up. The larger of two hosting a nightly open stage, where anyone could perform. I didn't get a chance to attend the smaller tent. Nor did I see the medieval village on the other side of the lake. Too much to see, too little time! But I did attend a master class on ball balancing given by a remarkable German performer. Memorably, when it came to teaching elbow balances, he went around the room prodding everyone's arms in order to show them the correct spot on which to balance a ball. When it came to me, much more prodding than with the others seemed to ensue, and eventually he gave me a vexed looked, said "lose weight" and moved on. Whist I've no intention of losing any muscle mass (especially after all that time at the gym!), I could probably stand to reduce my body fat percentage a little. It strikes me as a good reason for a diet - I look forward to telling people I'm losing weight in order than I can better balance a ball on my elbow :)

I managed to spent quite a bit of time in the main arena, observing some achingly talented people perform. I freely admit to tremendous cowardice. Several contact jugglers I was so in awe of I couldn't bring myself to talk to or even approach. Instead I quietly watched them from afar, usually the other side of the stadium. What a tremendous stalker I would make! Several I found truly inspiring to watch.

Hearteningly one of them, a japanese contact juggler with a nice line in multiball variations, came up to talk to me near the end of the day. He even paid me a compliment, which I quickly returned many times over (he also seemed surprised that I'd been watching him as he hadn't seen me near him. Told you - tremendous stalker). He said that my technique was very good. Which I hope is true, but it's also emblematic of one of my big problems - I focus on technique at the expense of improvisation.. It was particularly notable watching other people performing, seeing their improvisations and how they varied their routines as they picked up tips from others. That's not something that comes naturally to me. Instead I tend to focus on learning one thing at a time, repeating it until it feels smooth and polished.

Still I'm not too hard on myself. However slowly, my repertoire of moves has been growing for some time now. I'm on the cusp of getting to grips with a bridge roll, a particularly effective move that I've been lacking for a good while, and I'm committed to learning some 4 ball snake moves before the year is out. All good solid stuff that will look very impressive once I've mastered it.

And however meagre I may consider my skills, I did manage to interact with a few people who seemed impressed by what I could do, teaching a few tricks to those who showed curiosity. One gentleman I gave an impromtu lesson to returned to speak to me after an hour or so, proudly displaying the four shiny new balls I'd advised him to buy if he really wanted to start to learn to contact juggle. I must have done something right.

Righty ho. There's more I could write, but I have cut this short now. I've just found out that the Bristol Juggling convention begins tomorrow (I could have sworn it was past for some reason). There'll likely be no update from me tomorrow as a result, but I'll return with a full and frank account of events before too long I promise!

Getting there

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Getting to Karlsruhe, Germany, home of this years European Juggling Convention, isn't a terribly difficult feat, particularly when departing from London which avails you numerous choices of airlines and flights. There are some notably good deals to found via the budget airlines if you're inclined for a visit.

So, getting there isn't particularly difficult. Lots of options. Unless you decide to book your flight just two days in advance. In which case choices are decidedly... limited. A choice of one in fact - Swiss Air.

Not the worst option in the world. Slightly pricier than I would have liked, and it was via Zurich, and arriving in Stuttgart, meaning that I'd have to do a bit of train swapping after landing, and ultimately be pushing things for time. Rushing away from work at 4:30pm would see me arrive at my hotel in Karlsruhe at approximately 1:30am. Assuming the gods of travel smiled their benevolent smiles upon me. Should they be inclined to foist even a small delay upon me, my carefully laid travel plans would avail me naught and I'd find myself stuck in a foreign country in the middle of the night.

At it happen the gods of travel were on my side. They were not however on George W. Bush's. A problem with Airforce One at Zurich led to my flight being delayed. All I can say about that is: Vote Obama. By all that's holy vote Obama!

So, foreign country, middle of the night. Thank goodness the foreign country was Germany. I've often heard stories of railways on the Continent and, as a frequent passenger on rail in this country, generally turned a verdant shade of envy. Privatisation has left the British railways severely malnourished compared France and Germany in particular. Having now travelled on rail in Germany I'm even more envious. Everything I'd heard is true. Most importantly was the fact that the railways run throughout the night. Trains in Britain generally stop at around midnight, sometimes stretching through to 1am at the weekends if you're lucky. I caught my train from Stuttgart to Karlsruhe at 3am and I'm forever indebted the German rail system as a result.

The 3am departure did leave me with a few hours to kill in Stuttgart. I declined to explore the city (thinking about it now it seems like far too sensible a decision from me), which seemed still boisterous despite the late hour, and attempted to find a small nook in which to rest until my train left. One thing to note about the German police. They don't like people resting in nooks in train stations late at night.

I ended up the stiflingly hot waiting room where the police seemed to shepherd lost souls like myself with characteristic efficiency. I did manage to elicit a round of applause from my fellow travellers with a small display of contact juggling. The applause may have been for my skills, or it may simply have been because I managed to silence a group of remarkably noisy children for a few minutes.

And after that, it's on to Karlsruhe - more about that tomorrow!

A brief review of Mamma Mia

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Pierce Brosnan cannot sing.

Too many next years

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Last month was the European Juggling Convention. It's the largest convention of its type in the world, it runs for a full week, and those I know who've been speak of it in glowing terms. Since I've been down in London I've found myself becoming increasingly passionate about contact juggling. I've been dabbling for the last couple of years, but something seems to have clicked in my head since the start of this year, and I've been making a serious effort to improve my talents. Something like the EJC would have been the perfect place for me to pick up a few new skills and I really wanted to go to it, but there were a number of barriers in my way. The convention was in Germany, and my new job left me unable to take any time off work. It was a long way to go for a weekend, and expensive too.

I wasn't going to make it this year. Still, it's not the end of the world, I thought, there's always next year.

Next year.


As I put it off until next year, I couldn't help but think of all the next years I'd delayed things for. Far too many, and far too familiar a refrain now. It's such an easy way of dealing with things: not now, but later. And there are always plenty of laters, aren't there?

But the thought still sat ill at ease with me: How may more times will I put things off?

Rather than brood I decided to go for a wander around town instead. Happenstance led me to the South Bank, home, on a bright and clear day in the midst of summer, of numerous performers, including, on this auspicious day one lone contact juggler.

This fellow in fact:

I watched him for a bit, filled with admiration. It's not unusual. I typically fill with admiration in the presence of other contact jugglers. Whilst watching others perform, I'm reminded of the beauty and grace that persuaded me to learn the skill in the first place.

I plucked up the courage to talk to him afterwards. I felt a bit rude doing so as he was eating his lunch at the time, but he was excellent company (he tried to persuade me that I should perform!). As we were parting company he mentioned he was leaving for the EJC the next day. A pang of envy welled up in me. And it continued to pang after we parted company. An irritating gnawing pang that wouldn't let me be.

Too far?

Too expensive?

Too little time?

Too many next years!

Guess who went to Germany?

Stay tuned for more tomorrow!