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Some Days In The City

‘Tis the season of grass pollen and brown fluff, and all across London people are snuffling, coughing and choking their way through a gently, if variably beautiful summer.

Growth is everywhere.  Trees that five weeks ago were stubby twigs with tiny buds are now dangling over the pavement, forcing people to duck beneath them as they scurry around.  Along the canal, the walkway has halved in width in some places as wild blueberry bushes and giant budlias have suddenly spurted forward, growing just fast enough to remind you that urban civilization is indeed a tender thing, and will fall within months of the zombie apocalypse.

Days are a mixture of lovely ease and manic labours.  On Saturday, a rare dose of “try harder, do better” made me attempt this so-called “jogging” thing.  It’s pretty hellish, but there is a lovely moment about 4k in when it’s suddenly easier and I feel great and everything is awesome… until I hit 6k and everything hurts again, but by then it’s too late to turn back.  However, there are plenty of secret back paths to distract from the horror.  The New River is in full bloom, replete with goslings and protective parents, as well as a clan of sunbathing terrapins beneath the overhanging willow.  The back roads of Canonbury and Clissold Park are full of other joggers, presumably also in terrible pain, and everywhere children in red are practicing football.  However, wiser revelers are sunbathing in those rare bits of actual heat and light that the city experiences through the scudding white clouds, and Highbury Fields smells of barbecue sausage and steak as smoke from a hundred portable grills fills the air.

Sunday is five hours of a martial arts seminar.  After a patchy few weeks, the Northern Line is finally running properly and whisks me to the edge of South London.  I am always suspicious of a place where you can see electricity pylons, and hear birds singing instead of traffic.  Definitely not in Hackney now…

In the middle of an industrial estate round the side of a fast-flowing river where amblers wander to the sound of a local market fair, is a martial arts studio.  It is boiling hot, and full of inspirational messages about Strength and Being the Best and Warrior Spirit and stuff.  Us escrima lot are definitely chubbier and saggier than the usual clientelle, but hopefully make up for it with weapons.  After two hours of hitting stuff, including with my least-favourite weapon (tonfa, uch), two students of the same grade as myself turn up from my club, and we are hustled into an MMA cage.

“So yeah, basically at this level, you need to take everything you’ve learned in the last seven years, and apply it strategically at full power and full speed,” explains our teacher.

Three faces lock into rictus “oh how nice” expressions, sweat pouring off our backs as people compete for what limited space there is near the two fans that are sorta perhaps cooling the room a little bit.  Three hours later, we’ve done our best, and my right wrist is nothing but snickering, biting pain from absorbing the shock of relentless powerful attacks.  My face, when I get home, is a gritty mask of pollen glued into sweat.  I never really understood cold showers before, being biologically barely above tepid most of the time anyway, but on Sunday it is the greatest.  I sit on the sofa making little whimpering noises as the sunset shifts from golden white to baby peach to brilliant crimson over the course of a lazy, aching evening.

Monday is a gig day.  I have read the advance for the band carefully, and it revealed absolutely nothing.  Arriving at the venue for work, I am therefore surprised to discover five crew members from an external company bringing in a bundle of steel risers (although weirdly, no legs, meaning that a significant amount of time and money is spent on raising up band members by a grand total of seven centimetres), as well as a visiting technician who assures me that any minute now we will receive a delivery of fifteen moving lights for deployment somewhere across our stage, as well as a lighting desk and a visiting lighting designer.

We wait for an hour…

… another hour…

On stage, the sound team are still waiting for the backline to arrive.  They put out some monitors, sorta, and a few microphones, optimistically, but there’s nothing more for them to do.  The visiting band speak English as a second language.  Angry phone calls are in progress.  Communications are… fraught.  The venue is in a residential area, so has a sound limit.

“This limit is absurd!  Unacceptable!  We will have to cancel the gig!” exclaims a visiting engineer.

“That would be serious,” muses the venue engineer.  “Though of course, it’s your choice.”

Outside the day is bright and warm, the sun softly beautiful through dappled leaves.

“We’ve never had someone cancel because of our sound limit before….” he muses.  “But we always try to make these things work.”

Another hour, and suddenly a tonne of sound kit has arrived.  Everyone is on stage, scuttling to make everything work.  Instruments, pedals, mics, a new sound desk is hastily patched in for the visiting engineer, the band want to rehearse.  One bi-lingual engineer is desperately translating their requests for the house engineer, who is then explaining to the visiting engineer what needs to happen, who keeps looking at the bi-lingual engineer for clarification of what’s being said and…

… and there’s still no lights.

And no visiting lighting designer, for that matter.

An hour and a half before doors are set to open, the visiting lighting designer rocks up.  “I don’t know how to use your desk,” he muses, looking sadly at our (lovely) in-house system.  “It is normal in this country to use a desk like this?  I do not think it is a very good desk.  Are you sure it is normal?”

“It’s normal,” I reply, suddenly defensive of the kit that I have, many times in the past, cursed out for its glitches.  “It’s a good desk.”

“Well,” he muses with a shrug, “I had a GrandMA coming, but maybe it will not be here on time now, so perhaps I will have to use your desk.”

Now, at this point the thought has already crossed my mind that even if his desk does turn up, he’s not going to have time to program it.  He hasn’t done any prep, hasn’t even got a patch for the venue pre-plotted.  The venue is beautiful, but also complicated, difficult and full of quirks.

“He asked me to stay to patch the GrandMA,” whispered another tech in my ear.  “I don’t think he’s very good at it either.”

Trying to plot a show in an hour and fifteen minutes on a desk you know is tricky enough… on one you can’t use properly is a nightmare.  What on earth is going on, I wonder?

“Let me show you how to use our in-house desk,” I say.  “Just in case.”

I show him the desk.  Set it up for him so he can use it easily.  It’s my show-file he’s using, a thing I’ve spent months and months programming, tweaking and getting just right.  I am never sure how I feel about other people using my show-file.  It’s a very personal thing to me, full of my ideas, my work and design.  Then again, in this context I’m a venue tech more than I am a lighting designer.  My job is to make sure the show happens as well as it possibly can, and if that means giving him access to my work… then that’s what needs to happen for the show to have lights.  He presses some buttons.  I make some effects, copy over a great deal more.  After twenty five minutes he declares: “I think I understand.  Now I will have a cigarette.”

He walks away, and doesn’t bother to come and touch the desk again until the gig begins.

A visiting technician comes up to me.  Turns out that the lighting kit that we were expecting to arrive… was booked for the wrong day.  The van with the stuff we’re waiting for was in Birmingham.  It’s heading our way as fast as possible, and should arrive ten minutes before doors.

“That is absurd!” exclaims bi-lingual technician.  “We can’t wait that long!”

Myself and the team sit down and do a bit of maths, trying to work out how we can speed up the process of getting all the new units rigged, plotted, patched in the blink of an eye.  We think we have a plan, but with half an hour before doors the lead technician cracks.  “Rig your in-house units instead!  We’ll just use those!”

We throw our in-house kit onto stage, have it plugged and ready to go in a few moments.  The venue has a lot of different lighting engineers, and we all have our different ways of doing things.  A timeless battle rages between those of us who think that our lights need to be in one programming mode, and those who put it in another; those who like to take power from stage left, and those from stage right.  Trying to decipher what the last engineer has done is always a bit of a game; but with ten minutes to go we have everything programmed in and ready to go.

Then a phone call – the van with visiting kit has arrived.

A scramble!  A mad dash!  Lights are flung onto stage!  Where will we get power now that house lights are already out?  Quick!  Make choices!  RUN!

“Oh, the lights have arrived,” murmurs the LD, casually passing through the venue in a cloud of cigarette smoke.  “I don’t think we need to bother with them now.”

A ripple of stunned horror runs through all on stage.


“Ok,” announces the lead technician.  “Let’s put it all back in the van.”

As quickly as the units were put on stage, they are removed, and loaded into the van that only dropped them off five minutes since.

A shortened dinner break follows.  The band start playing half an hour after audience have come in.  They play a long set, one song running into the next.  I stand by the lighting designer’s shoulder throughout.  He does a decent job, since he knows every single song already, but I flinch every time I watch him hammering at buttons on the desk trying to achieve an effect that had been already programmed, but which he doesn’t know how to use.

“Well, yes!” he declares when the gig is done, and then walks away.  Probably for another cigarette.

We pack down the stage, and head home at 11 p.m..  The streets are quiet, a Monday night of people who spent too much time eating and sunbathing on the weekend.  The wind is cold, the air is hot.  When the street cleaners blast chewing gum with high-pressure hoses off the pavement, you can smell the sudden heat as the moisture immediately evaporates in a warm, cloying haze.

The next day is another gig.  I go swimming in the morning to try and clear my head.  Two lanes are taken up with schoolkids, which everyone immediately resents for having hogged half the pool where the normal schools only take one.  The resultant squish has pushed people who should be in the slow lane into the medium, and people who should be in medium into fast.  I tag team with a woman much faster than me for a few laps, then get stuck behind a guy who just won’t recognise that he’s in the wrong lane.  A sluggish angry queue condenses and collapses behind him as he paddles along, sometimes breaking free in a burst of overtaking, sometimes fuming all the way to the end of the lane.  There’s always one of these – always one guy who thinks he’s faster than he is, or doesn’t bother to read the signs.

A hasty meal grabbed at speed, then off to work again.  Tonight is a comedy gig, with video.  Myself and the sound engineer know we have to assemble a projection screen, but aren’t quite sure how.  An hour of playing around with metal spines and braces and screws results in success and cries of: “First Issac Newton, then Einstein… now us!” as the thing goes up and, remarkably, stays up.

Then the projector is produced, and our joy fades.  It’s a bright little thing, but can’t project nearly wide enough to fill the whole screen.  And wherever you put it, somewhere in the venue someone isn’t going to be able to see properly.  The game becomes not so much working out where the best place is, but which segment of the audience we wish to screw over the most.  An executive decision is made, and the next hour is spent wondering why the HDMI cable is glitching.

It’s not until late afternoon that myself and the sound engineer actually get down to our respective departmental jobs.  No one turns up for sound check, but a lot of people buzz around us asking questions regardless, which we answer as well as we can.  I fill the venue with haze, which turns the stunning light coming through the high windows into celestial beams, beautiful to behold.  With no walk-in music for the audience to come into provided by the organisers, we put on Ella Fitzgerald and for a few, blissful moments, all is well in the world.

The gig is consistently funny.  A lot of comedy gigs can’t make that claim.  The audience are thrilled to be there, and money is raised for a noble cause.  I get what I want from the lights for some of it; not all.  The venue’s quirks can sometimes make getting a balance tricky.

Getting the screen down after the gig is if anything as tricky as getting it up.  The sound engineer gets his thumb caught in a clasp, and starts bleeding everywhere.  In the end we manage to fold it all up without committing the terrible sin of getting the actual screen dirty or even particularly crumpled.  When I get home it’s hard to tell whether I’m tired, hungry, thirsty or all or none of the above.  Senses have just squelched together in an overwhelming splat of ready-for-rest.

Today’s gig has an early start, but also features a choir 60 people strong.  No one is sure if we’ll fit them on the stage.  I bring a laptop – this laptop, on which I write this post – knowing full well that mustering 60 people is going to consume a great deal of time in which I cannot really participate.  Lighting logistics is meaningless, and I’ve worked the venue long enough that everything I can program is already plotted in.  Moreover, we’re about to change the rig drastically, and a large part of the day is spent scheming with the tech manager about how to make this most magnificent.  I crawl under the stage to put in a bunch of ground units, bumping against truss and scraping knees.  The band arrive in bitty pieces.  The monitors engineer is ill; the front of house engineer is tired and grumpy.  Outside, the tech manager is trying to install some lights in order to light up the whole venue between the hours of 1 a.m. and dawn.  He doesn’t think anyone will actually see this, being… well, between 1 a.m. and dawn… but orders have been received and so he shall obey.

The sausage sandwich from the cafe across the road has decreased in quality.  But the newsagent is doing four packets of crisps for a pound, and thus the tech team’s day picks up a little.  There are five women working on today’s gig, including me.  Four of us are called Cat – Real Cat (venue manager), In Charge Cat (conductor), Violin Cat (violin) and myself – Lighting Cat.  We conclude that it’s better this way.  Makes names much easier to remember.

Sound check is due to finish at 7.30 p.m., with the main event kicking off at 8 p.m..  Regrettably this will not leave enough time to get a burrito, but if I’m speedy and there isn’t a big queue, I think I might have a shot at an ice cream.