Monday, July 27, 2020

My Life In ... Hi-Fi

The third in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

My musical life, hardware and media, mirrors the major stages in my life: home, college, work, retirement. Each phase brought with it a seismic shift followed by a number of small after-shocks. My musical tastes followed a similar pattern.

Family: unknown vintage (1962-1970). The first musical equipment in our family was an ancient, steam radio and a clunky record deck. The radio was a beautiful piece of furniture: dark, polished mahogany with valves inside that as a small child fascinated me. Peering though the back grill I could see these glowing embers in the tubes. The radio dial had the BBC Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme. This was long before they were re-badged as Radio 4, Radio 2 and Radio 3 respectively and the introduction of the new fangled station Radio 1 in 1967 for the music of popular beat combos. It also had the World Service and exotic stations from all over Europe shown on the dial, as fascinating as staring at an atlas. Ah, those knurled Bakelite knobs.

I have no idea what make the record deck was but it was housed in a sturdy plywood box made by my uncle, a very capable and practical kind of guy. The audio lead out plugged into a couple of banana sockets in the back of the radio which would then play the music of our childhood. In the early days this was the Beatles as bought by our parents and then, as we approached mid-teens, we started buying own own music. In my case early Tyrannosaurus Rex, sampler albums like Bumpers, The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and some classical music on cheapo labels like Classics For Pleasure

College and beyond: Mullard, Connoisseur. (1971-1983). With college approaching I would need my own music equipment. I ended up with home-made hi-fi from a kit. I do not know whether it was in Practical Wireless (PDF) or some other magazine but I would have learned about it from my parents' copy of The Sunday Times. 

I bought the package deal: four black plastic Mullard Unilex audio modules each the size of a cigarette packet that you had to wire together, plus a control unit and instruction booklet. I believe it was cheap because it was self assembly and thus exempt from VAT.

The booklet included a design for a box to house the amplifier with control knobs on the front and a bunch of DIN sockets on the back, all tastefully covered in black, sticky backed plastic. Similarly for the speakers, I bought the drive units (make unknown) and made myself two matching base reflex cabinets.

For the turntable I went with a Connoisseur BD2 belt driven platter with SAU arm and Shure cartridge. That record deck was, for its time, a pretty classy piece of budget engineering, a baby Linn LP12 if you will. Meanwhile all my friends had that students' favourite the Garrard SP25 Mark II. I think mine was a little classier than that! The whole thing worked remarkably well and gave not bad sound for a micro budget if I may say. 

The only challenge I had was interference when a police car or ambulance drove past. That was solved by protecting the preamp with a Faraday cage. Well, when I say Faraday cage I mean I wrapped it in aluminium foil from a Chinese takeaway container and connected it to the earth lead. That basic set up did me through college to the start of my working career with one major change. 

Halfway through college I took a summer job as a dustman and the money I saved was enough to buy a amp upgrade, the lovely Sony ST 88 (1972) integrated amplifier. I was always envious of my mate Pete Miller who had the same amp and the matching stereo ST 88 tuner. With that change I carried on for another five years.

Musically it was an era to get introduced by my fellow students to weird and wonderful music like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Roxy Music, Balinese Gamelan, etc. I continued to buy and get much stick for my T.Rex devotion.

Work part 1 (pre-Mary): Linn, Naim (1983-1989).

After four years out in the world on my third job earning nice money it was time for the next major shift. I have several times used the approach of finding someone who knows what they’re talking about, has already done all the research and then simply copy what they do. My colleague, Steve Thorne, at C&L after many expensive upgrades had arrived at what I considered a pretty ultimate system. So to avoid all the messing about with piecemeal upgrades I cut straight to the chase and bought the same as him. 

A trip to Grahams Hi-Fi (1983) resulted in the purchase of a Linn LP12 turntable, with Ittok LVII tone arm and Asaka cartridge, Naim amplification (SNAPS power supply, NAC42S preamp, NAP110 power amp) and Linn Kan speakers. That was definitely the dog's bollocks in terms of quality all for the princely sum of £1,672.40. A classic combo that lasted me for three decades apart from the addition of a Nakamichi CR-1E (1988) cassette tape deck (described in one review as a sledgehammer to crack a nut).

Musically the 80s are I think my favourite decade, I rediscovered pop music thanks to Madonna (Like a Virgin) and Wham (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go). My vinyl buying accelerated in a very eclectic manner.

Work part 2 (post Mary): Linn, Naim and others (1989-2016). 
We moved into a detached cottage in the country after Mary and I married; no neighbours to disturb with loud music! There were a couple of additions: an Onix BWD1 FM receiver (1990), and then a Meridian 206 CD player (1992) for an outrageous price (at the time) of £995.00. The latter was a forced purchase as Mike and the Mechanics' album "Beggar on a Beach of Gold" was not available on vinyl. So if I wanted to listen to it I had to buy a CD player!

Then another upgrade. Mary bought me a Naim 32.5 (1994) for my birthday by trading in my 42 preamp, this gave me one extra input which was necessary to allow both tuner and CD player to be connected. 

Eventually after years of Mary complaining about the brittle sound of the Linn Kan speakers we upgraded to the expensive niche product Shahinian Arc (1999). At the same time we upgraded the power suppler from NAP110 to NAP140.

Musically, thanks to Mary, my tastes broadened into jazz and blues plus more mainstream fare like Sting, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and many, many more.

Retirement: Linn, Neat (2016 – present). Part of the grand plan for retirement was to downsize our main UK property and spend more time in Italy. This meant selling off the existing equipment (mine and Mary's) but keeping the speakers, switching to a Digital Streaming Multimedia (DSM) player and digitising our 800+ CDs. So we sold a couple of cases of wine and made a very expensive visit to Grahams Hi-Fi to invest in a Linn Akurate DSM player and Majik 4100 amp. Ripping the CDs and selling off most of the vinyl freed up a fair amount of storage space.

I kept the LP12 and a key selection of LPs, mostly 180gm audiophile pressings.

We also bought an ex-demo Linn Majik DSM (2015) for the study, played through Mary's speakers then bought a secondhand Linn Sneaky to play music in the kitchen. But synchronising was an issue so we gave up on that. Instead we bought a pair of Neat Motive speakers (April 2018) and took the Majik and Neats to our place in Italy along with a cloned NAS drive containing the 800+ CDs worth of music. Spending more time in Italy we decided to take the Sneaky and a new pair of Neat Iota speakers (September 2018) out there so we could have music in the dining room as well as the living room.

Penrith 2019: Linn (2019-present). Another house, another hi-fi. We bought our Cumbrian house in early 2019 and obviously needed music. We bought a secondhand Linn Majik DS-I streamer and amplifier and paired it with Mary's Epos M12.2 speakers. This system was wired direct into the internet through an ethernet cable with Qobuz streaming service being our primary source of music.

Update: In 2021 we upsized in Penrith to a larger house but with a smaller living room and the Shahinian Arcs were a bit large. As we had just sold our London flat we decided to treat ourselves to a new pair of main speakers. We auditioned many speakers at Grahams Hi Fi and ended up with the immaculate sounding and ludicrously expensive Serhan Swift Mu2 Mark II. Lovingly crafted in Australia at the rate of one per day, each pair is mirror imaged, both personally signed by the two engineers who designed and made them!

Music musically speaking we have continued to broaden our musical horizons trying to discover new artists. The live Free music festivals in southern Italy have introduced us to artists we would not otherwise have heard of, such as GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands. Going to the Skegness Great British Rock and Blues Festival likewise has introduced us to new up-and-coming artists, mostly in the blues and jazz tradition. Catfish, Elles Bailey and Rebecca Downes are amongst the best.

When I was at college the first thing I would do was unpack the hi-fi before anything else. For a man with no musical talent it speaks volumes on the power of music, the most frequent label on this blog.

Further reading: my Desert Island Discs.

Friday, July 17, 2020

My Life In ... Bicycles

The second in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

I have cycled for over 55 years on a variety of machines from super light, carbon fibre delights to bikes clearly made from girders. All dates approximate. Some photos borrowed.

Dawes Model unknown (1962-1970): my first bicycle was a reward for passing the 11+. In those days most bicycles were old school “sit up and beg” or “racing bikes” with drop handlebars. Neither of these are appropriate for an 11-year-old. Fortunately Dawes did a tourer with straight handlebars which was pretty new and exciting for the time (possibly a Dawes Echelon).

That bike did me all through my secondary school years. It was a bit large for an 11-year-old and a bit small for a 17-year-old. With college approaching I needed a new, larger framed bike.

Make Unknown (1970-1983): My friend Catherine Bott’s younger brother Steve was short of cash and so I bought his bike. It needed a bit of TLC so I took it apart, literally every last ball bearing and spoke dismantled and cleaned. 

I sprayed the frame a horrible mustard colour, and reassembled the entire machine including new black plastic mudguards. It looked pretty smart and when Steve saw it he was regretful that he had sold such a fine machine for such a paltry sum, ignoring the amount of work I put in of course. At the time I even had some bumpers (canvas shoes) that were matching mustard and black.

That bike served me well all through college and the first few years of my working life. Then one day I went to stay with my brother in his new house in Clapham and in my naivety left my bicycle chained up outside. The next morning it was gone. That taught me a lesson, I now always chain my bike to something immovable, railings or lamppost. So a new bike was required.

Claud Butler (1984-2009): Penny, the wife of a colleague, had a bike she no longer needed. The saddle had snapped off and she was unable to extract the saddle post. I bought it off her and with a bit of brute force managed to extract the post. 

As with Steve's bike it needed a thorough maintenance and a new paint job. This time I had it serviced and resprayed professionally in a bike shop in Wimbledon village. I’m glad I did as they discovered a crack in the frame which they re-welded before spraying it a pretty blue colour.

That bike and I did many thousands of miles together! I commuted to work from Wimbledon into the City of London, April to December for many years. The classic leather Brooks saddle I bought had moulded to my bottom or, I suspect, it may have been the other way round! When you ride a bike that much it feels like part of you, man and machine a single unit.

Unicycle No. 1 (1987 approx): at one point I signed up for an evening class in circus skills in order to learn juggling. Having mastered the basic three ball pattern I decided to have a go at riding the unicycle and then bought one for myself. It came from the amusingly entitled “More Balls Than Most“ company. I never achieved a particularly high level of proficiency.

At work there was an outbreak of juggling in the PC development group and so I took in my bicycle for the lads to have a go. We then moved office and the bike went missing. I sent out a companywide voicemail message, "If anyone has seen my unicycle please let me know. It is easily identifiable as it is bright red and has only one wheel." Little did I know that that companywide message would follow me around for years. I would stand up to introduce myself and somebody in the audience would ask “did you ever find your unicycle?" The answer, alas, was no!

Specialized hybrid (2004-present): lovely though the Claud Butler was it was not appropriate for any kind of off-road, rough path cycling. So Mary and I bought ourselves a matching pair of hybrids. Very useful for cycling on the Thames Path. I used it for commuting into the office, Wandsworth to the City. 

Ridgeback folding bike (2005-present): Mary originally bought this to take over to Dublin on the plane when she was working there. Turned out to be a very useful purchase. For a while I was commuting from Wandsworth to just north of Slough. Cycling was the quickest way to get to Paddington and Great Western were very restrictive on the number of full sized bikes but a folding was never a problem.  Now we keep it in the shed handy for if we want to pop down to the shops or out to a yoga class.

Specialized Roubaix Comp (2008-present): Mary and I decided to cycle London to Paris in aid of the Stroke Association. Mary treated herself to a new bike for the occasion and shortly after I did the same. We had matching his and hers Roubaix, albeit hers is a larger frame.

These have carbon fibre frames and are so light they are a delight to ride. They have the modern style of gear change where you click the brake levers left or right as opposed to pulling a lever on the frame. 

I also used it for commuting. If the office where I was working didn’t have off-street parking I reverted to the hybrid. I was prepared to leave the cheaper bike locked up on the street but not the Roubaix.

Italy Unknown makes (2004-present): When we bought the Trulli we also bought two cheapo bicycles from Conforama for exploring the local area. They did us fine for years but then Mary took against hers and in 2018 upgraded to a newer, better quality bike with the old one going to charity. After a year of the new bike she decided its frame was too small so she bought the same bike again but with a larger frame and passed the nearly new bike on to me, with the second cheapo bike again going to charity.

Unicycle No. 2 (2006-present): After a few years without a unicycle Mary kindly bought me a replacement for Christmas. This time a blue one from Pashley.

It is now in the garage serving mainly a home for spiders. 

We currently own eight and a half bicycles between the two of us! Possibly time to down-size?

Friday, July 10, 2020

My life in ... Gin

An occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

The aperitif of choice for 45 years, my appreciation of this beverage has evolved over the years.

Gordon's: with Schweppes tonic. This was my introduction to gin in 1975. My girl friend at the time was a G&T drinker and so I was inducted into this beverage. That was the only brand of gin and tonic that I drank for several decades.
Bombay Sapphire: I read about this in a Sunday times colour supplement, a sophisticated premium gin. I can do sophisticated! So decided to break with a two decades old loyalty. Plus it came in a pretty blue, square bottle. Still with Schweppes tonic. And that was it for another decade.

Hendricks: on the recommendation of a friend in Italy I thought I'd give this a go. Made with cucumber in the botanicals and hence normally served with cucumber. Not convinced about the cucumber but the gin is fine.
Jinzu: my first Japanese style gin bought by me at the behest of my mother as a 60th birthday present. She had read an article about Japanese gins and decided this was a fitting present for her G&T drinking son. This is the winner of a gin blending competition and is actually distilled in Scotland. Contains sake and very tasty. 

Graveney: a boutique distillery in Southwest London. First encountered when we were dining at Unwind in Tooting market where Graveney had a stand. After a slightly boozy lunch we went to try this as a digestif. They had their original still there in the shop, tiny, only about 3ft high. Served with grapefruit the gin was delicious, a lovely combination.
Fever-Tree: not a gin but when I first tried it I was an instant convert. Schweppes was condemned to the dustbin of history. I always ask the server if they have Fever-Tree.

Sipsmith: Mary bought me a tour of the Sipsmith distillery for Christmas 2015 which came with a bottle of gin. The waiting list was so long we didn't get to take the tour until the following July. Fascinating to learned the full history of gin and Sipsmith's part in opening up the boutique gin industry.
Opihr: I went on a pub crawl with a dozen or so friends where one of the party didn’t drink beer and stuck to gin and tonic. As an Indian he liked Oriental spices and Opihr was his recommendation. Interesting in a good way.
About this time I decided that henceforth I would try a new gin every time a bottle ran out. This is where the list gets too long so here are just some that stuck in the mind. Not all these have comments because, quite frankly, it's all a bit of a blur:
  • Bosford: a London gin that was one of the cheapest in the local Italian supermarket. I thought I'd give the bottom end of the non-premium market a go. It was passable enough but lacked the quality and I don't need to save money that badly. Onwards and upwards! 
  • Martin Miller: definitely one of my favourite of all the gins I have drunk, I’m not sure why, so I have allowed myself a couple of repeat purchases.
  • Silent pool: a local gin from Hampshire. I’ve tried it but I’m really not convinced about the flavour, maybe it will grow on me. Also the glass stopper is a pig to get out especially as we keep our gin in the freezer and it is cold and slippery.
  • Roku: another Japanese gin. I’ve had two bottles of this. It comes in a very pretty, hexagonal bottle.
  • Ki No Bi: the name inevitably reminds me of Obi-Wan Kenobi. That said I don’t think they named it after the Jedi knight.
  • Marmalade gin: local production from the Lake District. File under "interesting", I don't think I'll bother again. It will also make me wary of other flavoured gins, Sloe Gin excepted.
  • Gin Mare: a thank you from Anne.
  • Caorunn: a thank you from Sandra.
  • Tarsier: a lakeland gin bought in Penrith, very palatable, would happily repeat.
  • Hotspur: another lakeland gin bought at the Rheged centre. 
  • Shed No. 1: another lakeland gin bought at the Winter Droving festival. Interestingly the distiller himself, who was manning the stall, said "Any tonic but Fentimans" as apparently the botanically brewed tonic clashes with the botanicals in the gin. Never would have thought about that.
  • Bulldog: whimsical bottle, ok-ish gin.
  • Brockman: now this is a lovely gin. Up there with Martin Miller. This is why trying a different gin every time is a good strategy to discover new delights.
  • And the list goes on...
Some time during this journey I switched to lime instead of lemon. I don't get through the lime fast enough so now I keep a tub of frozen lime slices in the freezer. Always there and it acts as an ice cube.
Is it six o'clock yet?

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Benson Row - 14

Penrith, Cumbria. June-2020.

The big excitement was the easing of lockdown which meant work on the kitchen could resume. We retreated upstairs with a picnic lunch while Alan fitted the doors to the kitchen units. Barry also came and drilled a hole in the back wall for the extractor hood flue. Now it all looks like a show kitchen.

In the living room I made good the three walls that Mary had stripped of anaglypta wallpaper and painted with two coats of white emulsion ready for the top coat. The back wall was in a particularly bad state and I used most of a large tub of B&Q filler to smooth out all the dents and general roughness.

Next Mary did what she'd been wanting to do for ages: take out the false wall in the living room and open up the fireplace behind it.

Either side of the chimney breast was basically stud wall construction, the fireplace was bricked up and cemented over.

We got Barry's lads to chisel off the cement and unblock the opening. That left us to bag up huge quantities of rubble and make multiple trips to the local tip.

The fireplace has a lovely stone lintel and pillars. The interior had clearly been through several iterations to accommodate different ranges. We took out even more stone to get back the original opening.

The electrician had to chase in the exposed wiring which was then cemented over. Next the chimney breast was repointed and the two alcoves plastered (and still drying out). The interior still has to be cleaned up.

In other news I installed a mosaic splash back in the shower room; a lovely neat job.

Then Mary decided she didn't like it and I had to chisel it off and replace with a white one!

Down in the cellar we installed two sets of shelving so it is now more organised. Plus I have put a bolt on the wine cellar door so can finally tick that off the list.

Next month I will mostly be painting walls.