“Three Trivial Tales”

Date of writing: 27/11/2015

  1.  The Violin

Among the dozens of instruments that are loaned out by the chaplaincy, there are a few that are more interesting than the standard fare of battered nylon-strung guitars. As each comes in after its tiring tenure of sometimes many months, I’ll examine it closely for wear and tear, broken strings, fire damage, or signs of having been used as a weapon, so that I might make any necessary repairs before loaning it out once again. A while ago, a battered and very old-looking violin came back after an extended stint laying unplayed under someone’s bed. Casting my eye over it, I noticed a rather age-darkened label through one of the ‘f’ holes, and so brought it out of the dim haven of the music cupboard to angle it at the daylight.

As I gradually deciphered the wording, I found myself somewhat taken aback. The label read ‘Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1713’, with the ‘13’ apparently written in ink.   Was I holding a 300-year-old masterpiece from the most famous violin-maker that has ever lived? Had I stumbled upon an instrument whose worth was comparable to the annual budget of the whole establishment? Had someone really scratched a chapel serial number deep into the back of the musical equivalent of a Canaletto, like some wayward Banksy spray-tagging the Sistine Chapel? Let’s just say I had my doubts.

A little research – which I have to say is easier said than done in prison – has led me to the conclusion that the label is highly unlikely to be genuine. Apparently this is the most commonly forged of all violin labels, and is the fool’s gold of attic clearances and car boot sales the world over. Nonetheless it’s still quite a fine instrument, and I shouldn’t be too surprised to find it was over a century old. We’ve stopped loaning it out now, but it still gets played at the Catholic mass now and again. There’s a tiny nagging part of me that wonders whether maybe – just maybe – we might be wrong, and some years hence I’ll see it on the news, and chuckle quietly to myself.


  1. The Fire Extinguishers

Scattered at intervals along the narrow corridors of B wing, around elbow height, are a number of fire extinguishers. They lurk patiently against magnolia walls with yawning black beaks, like the abandoned and unexpectedly avian offspring of inbreeding pillar boxes. Those who have paid attention at their fire safety briefings will know that the red ones are filled with water, and are usually fitted with a black hose about the same length as the main body. These particular models also have a small protrusion from the base, which contains a cylindrical recess into which the end of the hose may be tucked to prevent it from flailing about untidily. This simple mechanism, it would seem, has become the unlikely battleground in a passive-aggressive and pointless war between opponents largely unknown to one another.

Having one day noticed a hose that was untucked, I almost absent-mindedly relocated it back into its intended receptacle, and moved on, thinking no more of it. It was only when I passed the same spot again – less than an hour later – and found the same hose once more brazenly loosed from its restraint, that I considered the possibility of deliberate sabotage. Sure enough, a series of subsequent experiments proved that a person or persons unknown really want(s) to live in the anarchy and chaos of a world where extinguisher hoses can flail at will without consequence.

What’s perhaps more interesting is that I seem to have allies. I’ve tried leaving hoses free, and have come back to find them once more safely tucked. The existence of these unknown confederates has strengthened my resolve to remain steadfast in my senseless and Sisyphean task.   It’s an almost cold and so far bloodless conflict, with no end in sight. What makes it all the more compulsive is that not one of us knows who his enemies – or indeed his allies – are. Though, having said that, it’s not strictly true …

A few weeks ago I saw one of the untuckers as he oh-so-casually flicked a hose from its socket on the way past. Before I could stop myself, in my astonishment I said out loud “It’s you!”, as the unfamiliar assailant passed me in the corridor.   Without breaking stride, he simply stared straight ahead and said “Don’t know what you’re talking about mate”.   From this moment, I knew for certain I was fighting a just war against a ruthless opponent. The conflict continues.


  1. The Gap

Officially, we’re only allowed up to 30 CDs in our possession at a time. This is quite a restriction for me, having been used to fingertip availability of thousands in a very diverse range of genres, albeit in non-physical form. Such a restriction forces us into a ‘Desert Island Discs’-like situation where we must choose to purchase only those things we actually want to listen to on a day-to-day basis. It’s been incredibly hard for me to narrow it down to even fifty, and I’ve thus far bought 23. I thought it might be interesting to have a look at the time periods these discs covered, and so I did what any other completely normal person would do, and compiled a histogram.

Several of my CDs are compilations spanning many years of an artist’s catalogue, so simply taking the year of a disc was not an option.   Instead, I examined the sleeve notes to find the year of each of the tracks that I actually listen to. This last qualification is an important one.   For example, The Essential Leonard Cohen is a double CD, and is arranged roughly chronologically. As far as I’m concerned, Cohen’s career peaked in 1967, and essentially ended in 1984 with the release of Hallelujah – a song that is to my mind completely overrated, contrary to popular opinion and the endless cover versions it has spawned. From there onwards, he seemed to just start growling over the top of a Casio keyboard accompaniment with backing vocals that only serve to highlight just how shot his voice really is. I never listen to CD2.

Anyway, I digress. Each track was binned into a quinquennium, and the totals are plotted in glorious retro fashion below. I have to say I was surprised by how tidy the result is. It would seem that subconsciously I believe the best music was made between 1990 and 1994, though I certainly wasn’t listening to it at the time (I was aged 9-13 then). This peak is exactly halfway between me being born and realising I was too balding to get away with long hair any more without looking like ‘that guy’. The oddest feature though is the mysterious gap between 2005 and 2009: I have no music at all from this period.

What was I doing in those five years? Well, after I cut my hair, I bought a house, got married, graduated for the second time, briefly tried teaching Secondary Science (I lasted 5 months), and eventually got a proper job. In amongst all that, did I just lose interest in new music? I don’t know, but it looks like I’d started to pick it up again by around 2012. I’d be fascinated to see what a more representative sample size would look like. Histograms are fun.

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