Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Crowd surge

I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus! We’ve just done a quiz in a school which featured some of the biggest crowd surges I’ve ever witnessed! Note to self: run for the hills if anyone tells a group of children that the prizes for winning are a) boxes of chocolate and b) at the front of the room (where your computer and a shed load of expensive equipment are between you and them!) A stampede will almost certainly occur which will involve an almost bewildering number of 13 year olds, all of whom will tell you they were on the winning team! The capacity young people have to think adults were born yesterday knows no bounds.

I have rarely been handed such a random set of answer sheets in such a collectively awful state of repair. Several young people arrived holding pieces of paper by the corners which were literally dripping with sticky fizzy pop, covered in great blobs of pizza oil and smeared in chocolate. At least I hope it was chocolate...

Sometimes, when running a quiz, you have to understand your function. In this instance, we were definitely there to facilitate the youngsters having a good time. Many simply wanted to eat crisps and Haribo sweeties, flirt and chat. The quiz for them was just background noise. Some of them wanted to quiz, however, and those who did, on the whole, did very well. One team, right in front of me, took everything incredibly seriously and eventually won, which was gratifying. The team which wrote “I’ve just peed my pants” for every answer in the last round, I’m pleased to say, lost!

I’m back to writing Nene again. The version of the composition which is being performed in Peterborough and Northampton in early 2018 is twice the length. It feels like an old friend, but it’s a little difficult to crack into. The piece rattles through scores of different keys, and inserting sections is proving to be a little tricky from a technical perspective. I’ll get there.

Monday, 20 November 2017

hitting the ground

I need to stop! I was forced to hit the ground running today, admin and a lengthy Skype call in the morning followed by an afternoon of preparation for a quiz I was working on in the city tonight. I feel I’ve done nothing but race around. To make matters worse, I keep thumping my damaged elbows on things. It’s amazing how often we bash our elbows without really noticing. I’m pretty sure that the accident last Tuesday hasn’t done any lasting damage, but the bruising is spectacular. I’m not sure I’ve had anything this impressive since I was run over by a car at the age of 10. I’d just come out of a fair, and was holding a goldfish in a bag. I’ve no idea what subsequently happened to the goldfish. I’m sure it got royally flattened by the next passing car. I still have a little scar on the back of my leg from the incident. I remember flying through the air in slow motion and Brother Edward, who witnessed the event, being very upset. I also remember how embarrassed I felt because I knew it was my fault and didn’t want the teachers at school to know what I’d done because thought they’d be disappointed in me. I also remember sleeping in the television room that night. Quite why I was set up with a zed bed in that room, I’m not sure. Perhaps I couldn’t climb the stairs.

The quiz went well. As quiz master I was also asked to auction off a football boot signed by someone called Zlatan Ibrahimović. It’s difficult to think of anyone less well equipped to auction off a football boot than me. I know nothing about football. I didn’t even know how to pronounce his name, and, after Googling him didn’t feel particularly drawn to the man. He’s apparently had his first name trademarked, talks about himself in the third person and seems to have a penchant for violence. Not cool. No one in the room seemed that bothered about buying his boot either. It was like getting blood out of a stone. The point about charity auctions is that they should never be about trying to get a bargain. They should always be about giving money and getting something nice in return... I was hugely grateful to the guy who bought it in the the end who plainly understood this fact. I don’t think he wanted the boot but he plainly wanted to donate something to the wonderful hospice we were raising funds for. One very brave woman stood up and talked about the death of her son in a heartbreakingly honest speech. It was very difficult to stand up afterwards and get everyone excited about quizzing! I just wanted to go home and have a little cry.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Filming the hills

It’s 9pm. 12 hours ago I arrived in Coventry to film two promotional videos for our Em album. I have spent the day with cameraman Keith, Abbie (who was today’s assistant director) and Ben Mabberley, who was acting in the first of the two films we shot.

The day started at the old Coventry Evening Telegraph building opposite the iconic Belgrade Theatre, where both of my parents were young stagers.

The guy in charge of the CET is a live wire called Alan, who has set himself the mission of getting the powers that be in Cov to understand the architectural significance of their city. Coventry is unique as a result of the high number of top quality 1950s buildings which still exist in the city. Obviously this was a result of the city being literally flattened in the blitz of November 14th, 1940, but until recently the beauty of this particular style of architecture was very easy to overlook, largely because it’s often been papered over with inappropriate cladding, wrong-coloured paint jobs, and signage which doesn’t suit the clean-ness of the lines. Strip all of this nonsense away, as Alan has at CET, and you’re left with dignified and classic design statements. Coventry, in short, is a potential tourism gold mine.

Filming was slow this morning. There was a huge amount of set dressing to do to make every corner pop with 1960s authenticity. We spent a lot of time laughing as well. Ben broke the teapot mid shot, which, for some reason was more hysterical than worrying, and then I got the nozzle stuck on my little haze-creating aerosol can. We were in the middle of a take, and all Ben, Abbie and Keith could see was me running up and down the corridor followed by enormous plumes of smoke. I think at one stage I was trying to hit the can against a door frame to make it stop omitting haze. Everything ground to a halt as we all dissolved into fits of giggles. It was some time before we regained our collective composure!

Time ticked by rapidly, and we broke for lunch forty minutes later than we should have, which meant a mad dash to the next location via a smash-and-grab in a roadside M and S for sandwiches.

The afternoon was spent in the glorious Burton Dassett Hills which truly are a jewel in Warwickshire’s already rather spectacular crown. It’s such a wonderful place to walk, and be. Whilst we were filming, I watched a woman sitting on a bench, facing a wonderful view, drinking tea from a thermos whilst reading The Guardian.

It was Ruby Ablett’s turn to be filmed, singing the song, Warwickshire, which is my ode to a county which holds an incredibly special place in my heart.

I hired an ancient Morris Minor for the shoot and Ruby sat in the front seat and performed the song exquisitely as the winter sun melted into a glorious sunset formed from banks of lavender, lemon and tangerine.

There were giggles galore this afternoon as well. Ben, Abbie and Ruby froze almost solid to the extent that their hands stopped functioning! I doubt I shall ever forget the sight of Ben and me with two cans of fake snow coating Keith and his camera in a thick layer of foam! He looked like the Stay-Puft Marsh Mallow Man!

Saturday, 18 November 2017


I was in a bit of a panic through most of yesterday. I was singing at Shul this morning but I hadn’t really had the chance to look through the music or practice as much as I would have liked. It’s actually really very lovely to flex my bassy singing muscles again. I can feel my voice responding really well to being given a regular work out. As it happened, everything went very well and I needn’t have worried. I still stumble over the odd Hebrew word, but everything else was pretty much spot on. 

Yesterday was spent rushing about buying and making props and then working on a quiz where all three of our computers simultaneously crashed. Through extremely quick thinking and a whole heap of team work, we narrowly avoided the entire evening grinding to a halt, but I walked away feeling like I’d been hit by a bus as the adrenaline spike slowly seeped out of my body. It’s funny how no catastrophe can ever be attributed to a single event. During last night’s quiz, Sara, who was inputting scores, ran out of battery on her laptop but realised with horror that she’d forgotten her charger. Abbie then handed her a flash drive so we could quickly save the scoreboard and transfer it to my Mac, but it was corrupt. It wouldn’t open on my computer, it destroyed the original document on Sara’s computer and then caused Quiz Master Abbie’s computer to completely crash, which meant she had to make up questions on the fly whilst Sara and I desperately tried to remedy the scoring situation. We got there...

I traveled home on a late night bus from Dulwich to the tube at Brixton. I hate the south of London. I don’t understand it at all. It seems to be a network of wide, house-lined streets with no discernible village centres. Those who know me well will know that I suffer from a condition called echolalia, which is similar to Tourette’s and involves me randomly mimicking phrases I hear which surprise me in the way that they’re delivered. It maybe occurs once a week, and it tends to happen with shop keepers and waitresses, particularly people with very high speaking voices or Eastern European accents. Anyway, I subjected Abbie to priceless example of my infliction on the bus last night as some poor girl got off and thanked the driver. I was mortified.

The tubes at midnight on Friday are always full of eccentric revellers. A massive number of people, perhaps as many as a hundred, were singing and dancing along with a busker performing Aretha Franklin’s Freedom.

The funniest sight I witnessed was an extremely depressed-looking woman, folded up in her seat like an old jumper, wearing a hat made out of a balloon flower. A tragic juxtaposition!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Anchovy hell

Camden Town is a horrible place these days. It’s jam-packed with thousands of tourists who seem to have no purpose in life other than to get in the way! I found myself repeatedly careering into the backs of people stopping dead in the middle of the pavement simply to take a picture. The amount of times I look into someone’s view finder and want to say “that is an awful picture which you’ll probably never look at again. Anyone you show it to will be bored and wonder why you took it.”

Photography has become so disposable.

I also had to negotiate school trips whose teachers seemed obsessed with the safety of the children over and above the safety of themselves. They were stepping out into the traffic left, right and centre seemingly just to keep the children on the pavement!

I was at Camden Market to buy some props for Sunday’s shoot. I left feeling really disappointed. It used to be really cool. You could go there, rummage about in rails of vintage clothing and racks of Bric-a-Brac but these days it’s all tat. And expensive tat at that! It’s been swallowed up by its own success. Just like Soho. And Shoreditch. And all that’s now left is a little husk of nothingness.

I went to see a really wonderful Hungarian film at the Jewish film festival last night. It’s called 1945, and it’s exquisitely shot in black and white. It’s not a film to watch if you like your films fast-paced, but I found myself utterly entranced by its fleetingness. It was like a long dream. A series of trance-like impressions of a bygone simple world. The piece is set in the immediate aftermath of World War Two in a tiny rural village in Hungary. Properties in the village which had belonged to Jewish people before the war had been “officially” handed over to non-Jewish people and there was a strong sense that the villagers didn’t want the Jewish people back. This is a village filled with guilty secrets and corruption which some are almost desperate to hide. When two Jewish people turn up, the entire place combusts. Is this the much-feared homecoming? Are the Jewish people here to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs?

We ate at the Groucho Club afterwards and, as usual, bumped into Philip Sallon. He must live there. As we sat down, the waiter plonked a bowl of olives on the table which looked very inviting. I ate one. It tasted rank. When the waiter returned, I asked if the olives were stuffed with anything. “Yes” he said, “anchovies.” I instantly felt sick. I’m not altogether sure in which world it’s appropriate to add fish by stealth to a product which gets plonked on a table without anyone saying “these are stuffed with something a vegetarian can’t eat and probably won’t be aware of the taste of.” Yeah yeah, really funny. A veggie ate fish. And no, I won’t die. But I have been a vegetarian for 35 years, it’s an important part of my identity and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to shove something on a communal table which doesn’t look like flesh, but is.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Roller coaster

Life is a funny old roller coaster. This evening I worked on a quiz. I don’t need to say where it was or who was doing it, but I will say that it’s vitally important to treat everyone you have dealings with in life with respect and courtesy. People can be heartbreakingly dismissive. As an indication of what we were putting up with today, I’ll give just one example. One of my colleagues went up to a table to collect their answer sheet and said “can I collect your answers please?” The man she spoke to said “no, but you can go and get me a slice of cake.”


I spent the day in Soho. We were pitching this morning for BEAM, a wonderful festival for new musical theatre which happens every two years. It’s quite an intimidating process. Llio, Laura and I sat in the bar at the Soho Theatre drinking tea and waiting to be called. Llio made me laugh. “I want to sing this song really well for you” she said, before chowing down on a bar of chocolate, which is considered to be one of the worst things a singer can do before singing! We laughed like drains. Our moment finally came, and we were greeted by the lovely Rosie Archer, who, these days, works for the company who organise the festival. It must have been a little surreal for her. We were pitching to do a performance of Em, and Rosie recently sang on the recording.

She led us down a dark staircase into the studio theatre in the basement of the complex, opened a door and ushered us in. We were greeted by a panel of six people, all sitting at a table, beautifully lit and looking rather terrifying.

We were introduced to the panel one by one. A million things were floating through my head regarding practicalities. Where was I going to plug in my iPod? Were there mics for the singers? Where would I stand? I was too busy panicking to actually listen to the introductions. They went in one ear and out of the other, but I gathered that they were all incredibly influential people.

Laura and Llio couldn’t have performed the songs any better. They acted their socks off and sang like true divas. I felt incredibly proud and grateful. It struck me that we couldn’t have done any better, and, actually, you only ever want to leave a pitch feeling that way.

Llio and I sat outside a cafe on Old Compton Street afterwards. It all felt rather Parisian and bohemian. We then went for dinner in Bistro Number One, which is round the back of the Palace Theatre. Lli wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of Mediterranean cuisine, but completely changed her mind when she saw the scores of beautiful lamps hanging in great twinkling clumps from the ceiling. They’re very souk-like in their deep oranges, purples and greens. It’s a lovely place to sit and while away the hours and they do a 2-course lunch menu for a tenner. There’s never a sense of being hurried along like they used to do in Stock Pot with such comic alacrity!

I did an hour’s work on Nene in a cafe on Wardour Street where a twenty something lad made a somewhat clumsy attempt at chatting me up. I was quite flattered. It’s been a while since someone had the hutzpah (or desire) to chat me up so blatantly! I answered all his questions politely whilst keeping eye contact to a minimum. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea but I also didn’t want him to feel ashamed. God knows it’s hard enough to be a bloke at the moment treading the fine line between appropriate behaviour and sleaziness.

Albert Hall Premiere

I had a fall this morning. I was at Central School trying to take a bag full of costumes down a flight of concrete stairs. My shoe slipped and I went down about eight steps. Because I was holding things in both hands, it was my elbows which took the hit. I smashed them into the ground with such force that it took me a few minutes to work out if I was okay. After the adrenaline had cleared from my body I realised I was in considerable pain. I knew this because I started giggling like a lunatic. I always giggle when I’m in pain. It’s a thing. I don’t think anything is broken or chipped, but I do think I can expect some cracking bruises. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something in this Nene composition which is trying to kill me!

I needed to collect a prop from Wimbledon this afternoon and, coming down another flight of stairs at the train station, managed to bash my injured elbow on a bannister. It hurt like hell. I could hear a women shouting across at me, asking if I was okay. I laughed manically and explained that I’d already injured myself in the very same spot. “I do things like that” she said, cackling with laughter. She was sitting in a wheel chair and only had one arm. I deduced that she probably wasn’t joking! She then told me how nice I looked, which was nice because I was in my glad rags, wearing the scarf that one of Nathan’s knitting ladies had sent me through the post. Lesley, if you’re reading this. Many many thanks.

This evening was a very special evening. It saw the premiere of my Nene composition at the Albert Hall. I was very nervous and it all went by in a bit of a flash, so my memories are fleeting and impressionistic. I remember falling over (again) in the box I was sitting in in the Albert Hall in a rush to get to the loo. I remember my mate Tash sending all sorts of crazy close-up pictures of the orchestra from the promenading pit where she was standing. I remember the presenter asking everyone to cheer if they were from the Midlands and the entire room erupting into cheers, and feeling a sense of deep belonging and pride. I remember the presenter mentioning Higham Ferrers and the kids from Higham Junior School going nuts. I remember the sense of deep injustice and anger I felt when the presenter said the ensemble came from North-Hampshire. I remember the sound of the junior oboe players in the roof representing the sound of geese and getting a strong sense that the audience really liked what they were hearing. I remember feeling proud that all 700 musicians were being conducted by a woman and then feeling sad that so few of the string players in the whole evening were lads. I remember thinking the strings needed to give it more welly.

...And then it was all over. And I was surrounded by people saying kind things about the piece. I went down to the floor of the Albert Hall and congratulated the choir on a job brilliantly done. Then I was interviewed by the BBC. And then we went to a pub. I felt touched that so many of my friends were there to support me. Abbie, Ian, Ben, Little Michelle, Brother Edward and Sascha, Nathan, Julie, Michael, Philippa, Tina, M and Pa, Kate, Sam, Tash... I felt very loved. And very proud. I go to bed with big bruises on my arms but joy in my heart!

And to cap it all, I’ve just learned that Australia have voted overwhelmingly to support gay marriage.

Good on you, Australia. And bloody good on you, Northamptonshire, Rutland and Peterborough. You’ve done me, the Nene and our little corner of the world proud.