Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: February 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

A ball and cock story

A few days ago my cold water tank started overflowing at a steady trickle. So I emptied the loft cupboard of all the old tennis racquets, puzzles and bits of wood and carpet that I have bunged in there in case they might one day be useful, and I climbed inside on my hands and knees to have a look at the tank. I checked the ballcock and adjusted it a bit but couldn't find any problem. Thinking that as I couldn't find any problem there mustn't actually be one, and that somehow the mere act of climbing into a cramped cupboard and fiddling about with a ballcock might suffice to make the non-problem go away, I gave up and did what all good DIY-ers do: just hoped it wouldn't happen again. Much to my surprise the overflow trickle seemed to have stopped so I must have done something right and I felt suitably smug.
Half an hour later and the trickle resumed. Bollocks.
I turned off the rising main, turned on a hot tap for a bit, went back inside the cupboard and fiddled again, this time adjusting the ball to make the water level lower. I was surprised how pleasantly lukewarm the water felt as I sploshed around in it with my adjustable spanner. Surely that would do it.
Again the trickle returned.
Huh. I turned down the boiler in case the cylinder was "kettling" - where it get so hot it ejects steam up through a vent into the water tank. That didn't work. I had been on my own for a few days, not using much water. Could there just be too much hot water? Is that even a plumbing phenomenon? (Of course it isn't. There's a thermostat which stops that but I was beginning to lose my mind, not being able to figure out what was going on.)
I went away for 36 hours and when I got back there was no hot water and the trickle was a constant stream. The boiler was working but the cylinder was full of cold water. Was it the thermostat? Once the water was hot again I could feel the pipe that normally feeds the cylinder with cold water from the tank getting warmer and warmer. I ran a hot tap and the feed pipe got cold again, and the overflow trickle briefly stopped.
Aha! I figured out that somehow water was flowing the wrong way - from the cylinder up into the cold water tank. Madness. What could be causing it? Was there something wrong with the cylinder? The limescale is terrible around here and we've already had to replace the cylinder once because the inside of it looked like Wookey Hole.
I was on the brink of calling the plumber so that he could systematically empty my wallet when I thought I'd give Google one last go. And bless the patron saint of search engines but she came up trumps. I found someone who'd had exactly the same problem.
The culprit for the whole mis-functioning of the hot water system was... (drum roll)... the kitchen mixer tap. About the last place I would look and as far away from the leaking overflow as it is possible to be. A bit like saying the root of the Middle East crisis is a pub in Truro.
The kitchen mixer tap (pissed Cornish anti-Zionist bastard that it is) is fed by the hot water from the cylinder (natch) and by the rising main - the high pressure source of all water in the house. Something in the mixer had died of old age and while the tap was off, inside it the cold rising main water was forcing its way (it is much butcher after all) into the hot water's territory, pushing the hot water back to from whence it had come, all the way through the cylinder and into the water tank in the loft, making the tank overflow. Who'd have thought it eh?
So if you ever have a overflowing and baffling tank here's what to do to check for the same problem I had: turn on your mixer tap to hot only, until the feed pipe under the sink is warm. Turn off the tap and keep feeling the pipe. It it starts to cool rapidly then you know that your mixer is knackered, the rising main is pushing the hot water backwards and the tap needs replacing. Mine cost £49. I have a hunch if I'd called the plumber I'd already have a new cylinder, a new stopcock, a new thermostat, no new tap and a leaking overflow.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pole dance

In the early 90s I was working at the Vlaamse Opera, based in Antwerp, singing Pisandro, one of the three suitors in Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria by Monteverdi. I can't remember who the counter-tenor was. The first one was fired after three weeks of rehearsals. I can remember that. And as for his replacement, all I can recall is that he was busy doing something else at the same time, so for a few of the main rehearsals on stage there were just two suitors, which is quite a problem when you're trying to sing lots and lots of trios.
I have absolutely no idea who directed it - a German I think, or was he Greek? - or who conducted. Not a clue.
Does this have all the makings of a good anecdote or what?
Of the other singers I can remember only a couple. I suspect the feeling (or amnesia) is mutual.
The bass of our trio, however, I do remember; a Pole by the name of Piotr Nowacki. Surprisingly, Piotr and I got on famously. I think we recognised in each other a mutual streak of cynicism as well as a slight alienation from the "baroque lot".
Now I adore baroque music. Handel is probably my favourite composer. Equally, I love fish. To eat that is. I'm not suddenly confessing to some bizarre fetish. But a diet of fish alone would drive me round the bend. Variety is the spice and all that. Which is why I just don't get some (but not all) baroque "specialists". The pursuit of authenticity is all very commendable but, come on chaps, there's more to life and music than moaning about vibrato. I say that with all due respect and in the same vein I would say to another group of people I don't get: there's more to life than just football.
I have worked with many baroque musicians whom I love to blazes, but sometimes, unfortunately, you can find yourself in a group of people who know no music-making post the 18th century; for whom the next centuries were a descent into vulgar romanticism and overheated expression.
And it can be a bit weird.
You mention musicians and singers whom you revere - Tennstedt, Britten, Domingo, Callas... - and they look either blank or a bit pained. Yes, I've worked with musicians who have never even heard of Carlos Kleiber.
Now I should emphasise that this was a good twenty years ago and these days the lines of demarcation are less severe; expect possibly in France where the authentic movement has established itself into institutions as chic as any fashion house. "Arts Florrisants?! Oh daahling, that's soo last year! I simply refuse to listen to anything that isn't Lully and Les Talents Lyriques! Just divine!!" Back in the day, the Flemish were possibly the worst of the lot for cliqueyness and in Antwerp we were in the thick of it.
Piotr's background was definitely not in the authentic movement - he was on first name terms with Penderecki - and he greeted most of the conductor's commands with a degree of wry bemusement. He bored quickly and in a production as inept as this one (it was, frankly, risible) he liked nothing more than try to get his colleagues to corpse. In some colleagues this is infantile and tedious but with him, a bear of a man, it was endearing and infectious.
Piotr also had a car, and this was significant because, despite having arranged my digs in Antwerp, it turned out that most of our rehearsals were taking place in Ghent, where the show would open, a good forty minute drive away. It was a bit like commuting between London and Reading every day. Piotr offered me a lift and for several weeks we drove back and forth between the two towns making conversation as best we could. On one stretch of the dreary motorway there was some dingy woodland and Piotr would always slow down and peer into the trees. "I think good mushrooms in there!"
One day it was raining. I lie. It was Belgium. It rained most of the time.
Anyway, Piotr put on his windscreen wipers. The car filled with a heady and powerful aroma and I said "what's that smell?"
"Windscreen wash".
"Oh! Of course! Wow, it's very powerful."
"In Poland, after end of communism, they make big big tax on two thing - wodka and windscreen wash."
"Oh yes. No money in Poland. Many peoples cannot buy wodka and so many, many peoples is drinking windscreen wash."

I flew home for a weekend and on my way back bought for Piotr in Duty Free a bottle of single malt Scotch as a thank you for all his driving. Laphroaig I think it was.
The morning after I gave it to him we were in the car again.
"Thank you so much for beeeoootiful whisky."
"Oh Piotr, it was the least I could do."
"Last night I drink glass of whisky and say to my wife, "this is beeeoootiful, have some" but she doesn't like and so I drink whole bottle on my own."
"You drank the whole bottle?"
"Oh yes. Beeeoootiful. Thank you very much."
I think that's what you call old school.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hot link

"Who's My Bottom?" is Classical Music Magazine's Book Of The Month.