[Skip to content]

Sign up for our daily newsletter
The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Counting goats

My text this month is Matthew xxv, 32: ‘and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.’ This seems remarkably unfair to the goats that are regarded consequently as unworthy, evil, and disfavoured – but it is not the judgement that interests me as much as the process. It has always seemed to me easy to spot the difference between a sheep and a goat. A sheep is a woolly ball of fluff and a goat isn’t. Ah, but in Antigua I discovered that, because of the heat, the sheep do not grow wool, look remarkably like the goats, and are difficult to distinguish. And it was there that my learned taxi driver, an addict of goat curry, taught me that goats carry their tails up whereas sheep allow them to hang down. Tails up – goats; tails down – sheep. After 60 years of urban living I need to know these things. Perhaps I can apply the concept to the performing arts. If I leave the theatre or concert hall with my metaphorical tail up it’s a goat and vice versa.

Ye godsI’ve had two outstanding caprine experiences recently. Soon after it opened I managed to see The Producers, although only balcony seats were available. Base camp is the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and from this warm, carpeted haven one leaves the theatre and enters from the pavement a stone staircase designed to isolate the smell of the Victorian lower classes from more refined noses. Eventually, some way short of the summit, one belays for refreshment and after appropriate fortification the final assault takes place. The last time I negotiated a flight of stairs on all fours I was probably two years old. Such was the steepness of the raking of the balcony seats I found myself scrambling up, bald pate in advance, anxious to keep my centre of gravity well forward of the vertical. After a few moments of light-headedness and deep breathing I prepared for the show.It has been an enormous success and deservedly so. Mel Brooks has us laughing innocently at matters of great seriousness. The show is based on the premise that two producers put on a show of poor quality and taste in order to make a tax loss but their plans are thwarted because it becomes a runaway success. The ‘show’ is called Springtime for Hitler, consists entirely of Bavarian kitsch, and is magnificently funny with spectacular costumes and choreography. From my eyrie many yards away the showgirls dancing in the shape of a swastika were both achingly funny and very glamorous. Nathan Lane had famously taken on the star role at short notice and together with Lee Evans performed Brooks’s quick-fire patter to perfection. Leigh Zimmerman as the pneumatic Ulla was a suitable subject for Brooks’s irreverent and very politically incorrect style. The audience was in stitches – but should we have felt guilty?

SleeplessThe other exceptional moment was a harpsichord recital by Sharon Gould which began routinely with Bach’s Italian Concerto but then consisted of a performance of the Goldberg Variations which she introduced by way of a talk. I was spellbound. Bach’s Aria with diverse variations (c1742) was commissioned by Count Hermann Carl von Keyserling as an attempt to alleviate his insomnia. The idea was that his house musician, Johann Theophilus Goldberg, would play ‘some keyboard pieces of a gentle and rather cheerful character’ in order to make the long nights pass more agreeably. I have three recordings of the piece, including the remarkable one by Rosalyn Tureck on piano, but this live performance was memorable because of Miss Gould’s introduction. For instance, once the mathematical nature of the canonic variations is explained in detail, Bach’s genius becomes even more apparent. Variation 19, a minuet-style dance played with the ‘harp’ stop, is exquisite; the G minor melody in variation 25 is very moving but a mere precursor to the brilliant variations that follow. This is no cure for insomnia as no mortal could sleep after hearing the work and the count must have been calling for encores all night – ‘Play number 29 again, Goldberg!’ He should have been counting sheep – or goats. Tails up!