Soft Machine at Talking Heads

You’re in for a treat,” said the gentleman at the door. He was right. We were at Talking Heads, in Southampton, to see the Soft Machine.

Now I have waxed lyrical about this group before (in Musical Bodies), and I have waxed lyrical about Talking Heads before (in But I don’t dance). This venue has moved to a modern brick building, nearer to the station and the centre of Southampton. I feared it might have lost something, but it is still excellent, if lacking in the charm of the old building. The sound is great, the beer is great and the facilities are great. Above all, the people, staff and audience, are friendly and welcoming.

Soft Machine…. It’s not an exaggeration to say they are a legendary band. Founded by Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge in 1966, they have been innovators in psychedelia, jazz, rock, jazz-rock, prog-rock…. and so on. No single member of the original line-up is left. However, this is not a tribute band. It is a living, developing, creative force.

Originally, this version of the group was called Soft Machine Legacy; but if anybody had a right to use the name Soft Machine, they did. At present they consist of John Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, Theo Travis on sax and keyboards, and, for this gig, Nic France on drums. Their musicianship can only be described as excellent. They have played with musicians like Stephane Grappelli, John Williams, Robert Fripp, David Gilmour… the list is too long to continue. I saw Etheridge a long time ago with Stephane Grappelli, and also Theo Travis at two magical Gong gigs.

Now the music consists of pieces from as far back as 1970 (‘Facelift’), right up to the present (their latest CD, ‘Burden of Proof’.) It could perhaps be described as jazz/ prog/ rock, but all that would be misleading. It’s just lovely music.

They played ‘Hazard Profile’, a very rocky piece, with the original organ part transformed by Theo on sax, so it has become something wondrous and new. ‘Facelift’, never a favourite of mine, again becomes something more than refreshed, something more than revitalised- reinvented? It contains some much freer sections, as does a very new tune, ‘Voyage Beyond Seven’. I’m tempted to say there are some free jazz parts, but I will probably be told I’m ill-informed. ‘Grapehound’ is again newer, and rockier, and is Mrs Oblique’s favourite.

All through, the playing is brilliant. Powerful and sympathetic bass lines, and drumming which is somehow not just rock or just jazz, underpin, complement and sometimes lead the sax and guitar. I particularly liked the drum solo, which led into a duet with the guitar, the rhythmic ideas feeding off each other. Theo Travis is officially my favourite sax player, not that my opinion is very expert. (But I know what I like!) Nearly at the end John Etheridge completely let rip with a solo, demonstrating what a fine (and versatile) guitarist he is. He played most of the gig with a smile on his face, which said a lot.

I really felt emotional about this one. After years of following this constantly evolving, divisive, innovative band (but never seeing them) I thought the ghosts of Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean and probably others would be there. I didn’t see them. (But I’m not ‘sensitive’ anyway.) Instead, I saw a modern, vibrant, energetic band, respecting the past but moving forward, who seem to enjoy what they are doing, hugely. I cannot recommend them highly enough, even to people who know nothing about the Soft Machine history. Thank you- it was, indeed, a treat.

(I would love to include a current photo of the band, but don’t have one which might be copyright free. If anybody knows of one, I’d be grateful to know.)

24th March 2016


Decluttering 3: A final one on books

Now that I’ve cleared one bookcase, I think I’ll stop writing blogs about the process, at least as far as books are concerned; I run the risk of boring myself, let alone my legion of followers. (Did you get the irony there?) However, I haven’t finished decluttering, and I don’t intend stopping.

DSCF0664This is the latest pile of literary rejects- or to put it better, the latest pile I will be releasing into the wild. (Although LG has already reserved ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’.) It is astonishing how the process frees up the books that are left, so they can be more easily accessed. At last I can pick up the ‘Oxford Companion to English Literature’ whenever I feel like it. This is a seductive book, because when you pick it up to find out about a topic, you are led on to more and more. Somehow it’s a different style of seduction from the internet, as it is centred on one area. It has also led me on to more decluttering; for example, I have just ditched released ‘W.H.Auden’s Longer Poems’- not because it’s unworthy, but because I’m just never going to read it; and the tone is now very grating on me. I am sure Oxfam will benefit.

A few very brief thoughts:

‘In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat’- John Gribbins My goodness, I am throwing a lot of popular science books away. This one is great; so is ‘The Tao of Physics’ (Fritzjof Kapra) and ‘The Magical Maze’ (Ian Stewart). However I suspect that physics moves on at such a rate that books are regularly outdated; and even though I’m not frightened of a bit of mathematics, I suspect that anything of any use to explain quantum mechanics, etc. is way beyond me.

‘Cricket Rebel’- John Snow I think this was my first cricket book. My, how times have changed.

‘Earthly Powers’- Anthony Burgess A huge, sprawling novel, eminently readable. However I’m not going to tackle it a fourth time. Highly recommended.

‘Return to Mars’- Ben Bova What I would call ‘hard’ science fiction- not space opera, not far beyond our current day. It takes a simple imginative leap and extrapolates from it. Recently ‘The Martian’ was a similar style of book (and a gripping film, even if it did mess with the plot a bit.)

I would also note Julian Barnes, Bernard Levin (now a rather forgotten columnist, never afraid to be controversial), Emily Prager…. I could go on and on. But what fresh pleasures now await me? Finishing ‘War and Peace’ to start with.



A brief thought about real books vs virtual books

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I am starting to realise a key difference between real and virtual books. Every virtual book is essentially the same as every other one, in that it is in exactly the same packaging, the same cover, the same layout. Only the words differ. Every real book is unique. It has its own smell, its own feel, its own weight; eventually, even its own stains. Some have very special associations. This was given to me by my parents. This belonged to my grandfather. And when you visit somebody’s house, what does a Kindle tell you about their taste in books? Looking through somebody’s bookshelves is always a great pleasure.

Much as I like picking up the Kindle, and like the convenience, I am yearning at the moment to finish ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Dr Thorne’, so I can go to the new paperbacks I have waiting. The library is also several years overdue for a visit.

Decluttering 2: More Books

Onto the second shelf. We find old favourites, more recent reads and some obscure ones. About half are on their way out. And just after I start, I see on the TV that decluttering is ‘trendy’.


These are the ones I am keeping, just to turn decluttering on its head. A biography of Harold Larwood…. surely I’ll read that again. I first read it in a windy Aberystwyth, in a top floor room with the seagulls making a huge racket outside. A ‘biography’ of Jerusalem, which I surely must finish one day. Or will it go out in the second cull? William Gibson, of course. Colin Cowrey’s autobiography: a 20th birthday present from my parents, which I will keep for sentimental reasons.


How can I possibly throw Graham Swift away? Though of course I would be passing him on to a charity shop,  which I think is worthy. He is one of my favourite modern authors, who seems to me to be exploring ways of remembering the (fictional) past. But I’m never going to re-read him, so I’m giving him to the eldest Miss Oblique.


So now, as usual, a mixed bag. I have, I think, read them all, even ‘The Tao of Physics.’ There’s ‘Tinker. Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, a nearly perfect novel; but I must have read it three or four times. I have rather gone off John Fowles, and he seems to be rather out of fashion, but this is a great novel. Russell Hoban is rather neglected in my humble opinion. As usual, my argument is that I am never going to read them again. That might seem a rather negative view, but the converse is that I have now got a clear view on our shelves of an exciting selection to look at and pick up again. And there’s so much more  out there.

In praise of Instagram

I like Instagram. That’s probably terminally uncool. Here’s why.

Instagram, for those who are not aware of it, is a photo sharing website. You post your photo, add a comment or a tag… then anybody can see it (or only your followers if you are private.) Simple.

I just see it as a source of pretty/ striking images. I only post rather innocuous images, partly because I am aware that anybody can see them. I have a few themes: books, glass, bowls, vegetables (!) and more. Often I just see something, snap it on my tablet and post it.

Of course, you can like images and follow people. I seem to have more success in this respect than with this blog… but then it takes less time to look at a photo and click on it. I’ve no doubt there are controversies surrounding Instagram; actually I’ve just googled that and found that the main issue seems to be Instagram’s censorship of certain pictures and labels. Not that I’m going to be posting anything controversial; it’s just a source of harmless pleasure (for me at least!)

Decluttering 1: Books

“Decluttering is good for the soul.”

Whatever the truth of this, decluttering has become a necessity for the Obliques: it’s either that or drown in a metaphorical sea of clutter. We have also been inspired by a book given to us by the eldest Miss Oblique, entitled ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’, by Marie Kondo. This does almost take tidying to a spiritual level.

As recommended by Ms Kondo, I started with clothes; Mrs O, forever more practical and direct, started on the kitchen. My biggest pile of discarded clothing was my heap of ties; I have only worn one on four occasions since retiring, and three of those occasions were funerals.

Now I’m onto books, This is not so easy. Marie Kondo recommends getting all your books out. This would take the entire floor area of the house, so I’ve done a shelf at a time. She tells you to take each book, hold it without opening it and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “yes”, then keep it. If not….


The discards from the first shelf are, as you can see, a mixed bunch. Some groups are:


Books I’ve never finished. Ms Kondo says you’ll never finish them…. and I agree with her. Will I ever understand genetics? Probably not. Do I care any more about Wittgenstein’s life and thought? Not enough to read the book.


Spiritual/ mystical books. There are more of these to come. I have another edition of the Tao Te Ching. Siddhartha had its impact on me and I’m not going to re-read it now.


Modern novels (good stuff) that I’ve read once and won’t get time to read again. Come on! There’s so much stuff to read before I die! I do recommend John Banville and Tim Binding.


‘Classic’ novels (I hate that term, but it suffices as a description.) Again, they have had an impact but I am not going to re-read them. With the wonder of the Kindle, I already have Vanity Fair electronically anyway, should I choose to go back to it. But there’s all that Dickens left… and the Barchester novels…. and still some Austen…. and who knows what new wonders will be published in my lifetime?

To conclude, it is still a bit of a wrench to discard any book. Tortilla Flat is an old favourite…. I still wish I could understand genetics….. and there’s a lot more to come. We do, however, need the space; and there has to be a compromise between what I would like to have and what’s practical in a family/ relationship. As I have said above, there is so much still to read. I’m looking forward to it.