Monday in Manchester and the start of a strangely steampunk week for me. Despite a reputation as a Victorian a century or so out of his time I have never actually had anything to do with the steampunk crowd, a generally charming and usually very enthusiastic bunch taken to cleverly constructing outré outfits and exotic sci-fi machinery from old clockwork and machine parts. That’s not to say that steampunk is unknown to me; indeed, I’m a keen reader and great admirer of the work of K. W. Jeter (among others), the man who is credited with coining the term back in the eighties, and I’ve played and run many role-playing games such as Victoriana and Space: 1889 which have steampunk themes or elements. What I’ve not done is either dress up in Victorian togs and attended a gig in a Manchester pub, nor spent an evening sporting cavalry whiskers and play-acting my way through a murder mystery with friends.
The week began, as I was saying, with the alleged first Manchester gig for bright Brighton peer Professor Elemental, billed as “Chap-hop’s enfant terrible” on the flyers, at the Lass o’ Gowrie pub. A small, indeed compact, venue but one which won me over instantly by the simple expedient of having Timothy Taylor’s Landlord on tap. The free WiFi was a nice touch, as well. Long a BBC haunt, it now seems to be positioned increasingly as a student and entertainment venue. I didn’t dress in a steampunk or Victorian style, sporting nothing more exotic than a sports jacket and fairly subdued cravat, but there were steampunks aplenty in attendance. The evening began with Freestyle Fictionary, a sort of performance word game group. I’d seen nothing like them before but gathered as things progressed that they represented in some ways the very roots of rap, flinging verse and rhyme back and forth in an improvised verbal battle. Part way through the performance The Lovely Emma directed my attention to the anonymous figure at the bar: Professor Elemental himself in his Clark Kent persona. Fearlessly interrupting his drinks-buying endeavours, and thus keeping his friends from their beers for a good ten minutes, I wandered over and said hello. We had, I should say, communicated occasionally before, as the good Professor was generous enough to allow the use of several of his tunes on the podcasts I produce for RPGMP3.com which led to periodic Twitter conversations, so there was at least recognition there to offset the inconvenience of being kept from his pint.
The show itself was delightful, once the main attraction had hurriedly changed into his pith helmet and safari ensemble, with an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd lapping up the performance as Professor E. effortlessly glided from playful banter to rapping about tea, village fetes, battling other performers (no love for “Mr B. the Gentleman Rhymer” from this audience) and performing awful experiments on animals. Most of the material was familiar to the fans – clearly so, given how easily they sang along and jumped in at the appropriate places – but there was one new piece; and that was something quite revealing. Offered the choice of a song about cutting the heads off animals and putting them onto other animals (cheering), one about the Quest for the Golden Frog (louder cheering) and something new and unfamiliar about men who dress up as owls and hunt in the night (almost desperate cheering) the audience’s preference was clear. Instead of a rap with the familiar, quirky hip-hop backing music of the rest of his work this one was clearly incomplete and was presented with no backing track, just a man speaking to the spellbound crowd. The piece itself was charming, although very much in keeping with his more familiar recent work, but what struck me particularly was what happened when it was offered in this raw, stripped-down form. The heart was revealed, the simple, rather beautiful core of the evening, as an amusing, light piece that will no doubt fit very well with the other catchy songs on a future album was instead given to us as poetry, quite enthralling in its simplicity. Behind every one of his songs the same poetic heart lies, waiting to be noticed once you’ve stopped smiling and tapping your feet.
The week ended with something far from simple, a convoluted murder mystery set aboard the airship Orient Express V. Despite having worked both designing and selling games in the past I had not previously played one of these murder mystery party affairs. This time the theme was steampunk, a fine excuse for a group of friends to cobble together some vaguely Victorian outfits (authenticity is excused, one of the beauties of steampunk over re-enactment, as there never was a “steampunk” period) and spend the evening trying to unravel the crime and catch the killer, a task made increasingly complicated as we worked our way through the wine cellar.
So it was that I bought a cheap bowler hat from eBay, raided my wardrobe and trimmed my beard into a style inspired by Nigel Green in Zulu, with a distinct dash of Malcolm McDowell as Flashman. Quite what reaction I’ll get at work tomorrow is anyone’s guess, but I’m sticking with it until the chin-whiskers grow back. Great fun. Anyone but me could have done it, although since I was playing a government agent on undercover assignment to protect one of the other passengers my actions were suspicious enough to raise eyebrows among the other guests. In the end the culprit turned out to be none other than The Lovely Emma. We returned home together, with me feeling somewhat nervous to be sharing a house with such a ruthless murderess.
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