Tuesday, 1 December 2015

When we were young

I've been listening to Adele's new album quite a lot this week, in particular a song called When We Were Young, which, for some reason, touches me in a way that few other pop songs have touched me recently. The lyric is incredibly moving and the whole package is imbued with a gentle theatricality which feels reminiscent of the 1970s. Maybe I'm romanticising because the '70s is when I was young, but there's definitely a timeless quality to the track which I find hugely alluring.

"Let me photograph you in this light in case it is the last time that we might be exactly like we were before we realised we were sad of getting old. It made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song"

Beautiful, wistful lyrics...

Today started with a music session in our loft. It's probably a bit cold up there at this time of year to be receiving visitors but we had the little fan heater going whenever we weren't filming. Tomorrow our secret project goes to press, so I ought to be able to write more about what we've been up to all this time. You may be able to read all about it in the meantime in The Guardian. The session this morning was good, although Nathan, with he blepharitis looks increasingly like a boxer with a black eye and felt incredibly self-conscious in front of the cameras.

Our director made a cake - a glorious Nigella recipe. I think she's learned that I'm much less spiky when I've got a bit of food in me. I work with a camera man in Newcastle who's realised the same thing, and puts little chocolate treats in my monitor bag for when I'm getting hangry!

This evening we went to rehearse with the gorgeous Fleet Singers, who are missing a few basses for their Christmas concert on Saturday, so Nathan and I are stepping into the breach. If anyone is free on Saturday night and wants to come and hear (and sing) some jolly carols, the concert starts at 7pm and is at Gospel Oak Methodist Church on Agincourt Road, NW3.

We came home to watch the results of Strictly, and I was horrified to see the female professionals pouting, gyrating and doing slut drops to the song "Woman." It's a song I loathe passionately. The lyric, which goes back to the era where women got patronisingly applauded for saying they were housewives on quiz shows, is about how brilliant women are at multi-tasking; how they can wash socks and rear children whilst looking fabulous. It's a woefully old-fashioned song that is often performed by very boring singers who use it as an excuse for a vocal w**k off which is never quite as impressive as they think it is! When women get dressed up like dolly birds and go all coquettish and slutty whilst performing it, I feel excruciatingly embarrassed and sense the feminist cause being shunted back millions of years.

As Nathan puts it, "being a woman doesn't make you amazing. Being amazing (and a woman) makes you an amazing woman!"

Monday, 30 November 2015

Synagogues and requiems

What a roller coaster of a day! I headed into Soho at 3pm to eat at the iconic Stock Pot cafe for one final time before it closes forever, swept aside by the unstoppable bulldozers of commercialism. This really does mark the death of Soho. Long may the district live in our memories. I'm sure the chi-chi cafe which replaces it will be popular with hen dos from Guildford, but I genuinely wonder where the theatre crowd will be able to afford to eat when it's gone. I've eaten there regularly for the best part of twenty years. 

The place was packed with well-wishers looking sad, hugging the waitresses and taking photographs of some of the beloved pictures on the walls. Leaving the place was a real wrench. 

I returned from New York to catch up on some very bleak news. Comedian Iain Lee has been sacked from his radio show on the BBC's Three Counties Radio for calling a Christian woman a bigot after she suggested that gay people would go to hell. I've listened to the interview in full. Lee was perhaps a little aggressive with the woman and didn't give her much of a chance to speak. Had she spoken more, she would have undoubtedly hung herself with her own rope, but nothing of what was said by Lee seemed a sackable offence to me. It would appear, yet again, as was the case with the gay marriage cake row in Northern Ireland, that we are forced to pussy-foot around fragile Christians, who think they can sling mud at everyone without any legal repercussions. As Lee rightly pointed out, "we don't accept hate preaching from someone with brown skin" but when it comes from the mouth of a smiling white Christian who's shimmering with self-righteousness, we instantly leap to their defence.

The bottom line in all of this is that my decision to marry the man I love has not had a negative effect on anyone else on this planet. Nor has my genetically-based proclivity to love men. This kind of irresponsible and old-fashioned scare-mongering preaching, however, is responsible for scores of young Christians feeling ashamed or terrified. It's responsible for hideous bullying and ultimately for the deaths of scores of LGBT people across the world. Lee was preaching love and tolerance and was sacked for losing his calm exterior in the face of ludicrous bigotry.

Lee was a much-needed straight ambassador for gay rights. Earlier on in the year, he walked through the streets of Luton holding another man's hand to prove that homophobia still existed. He was told what he was doing was "disgusting." He has fought on our behalves and needs respect, not unemployment. 

As I see it, like it or not, homosexuality is tangible - a real thing - and I refuse to understand why the rights of LGBT people should be valued below the opinions of people who believe in something which, at best, is nebulous.  That is the message the BBC is sending out to my community. 

Huff it out...

On a more positive note, I want you all to look at this

This is a little piece of joy and shows people of all ages and sizes coming together to perform a Kate Bush dance routine. If anyone reading this is worried that community is dead or that the bad guys are winning, I would urge you to see it. It made me genuinely weep with happiness. 

It's five minutes long. Grab yourself a cuppa and a hanky, put your feet up and press play. 

The day ended in Marble Arch, where we went, with Matt, to a world AIDS day service at the West London Synagogue, followed by a rip-roaring concert by the London Gay Men's Chorus in the same space. There is so much good to say about what we saw. The choir sang wonderfully and ended the concert with a hugely moving and suspension-filled a capella version of ABBA's The Way Old Friends Do. I think they're such brilliant ambassadors for our community. I always feel proud when watching them because they remind me that gay people come in every shape, religion, age, colour and creed. 

I think you's struggle to find another religious sect who would actively welcome a gay men's chorus into their building of worship. And I never got the impression that anyone in the space was merely putting up with their presence. The Rabbis talked about partnerships with the choir and one is on their board. The high pulpit was draped with an AIDS quilt. I can't actually get my brain to put all the good I witnessed tonight into coherent sentences. Everything was done with compassion, kindness and beauty. One of the rabbis was moved to tears on several occasions by the things that were being said and sung. I felt at home (and protected) from the moment I walked into the building, in a way that I have never felt entering a Christian church. The religious music was deeply moving: all of the stuff that I love. 

Reform Judaism, I should point out, has accepted and embraced gay marriage in a way that only the Quakers can rival. We were never asked to pray for souls or made to feel our lifestyles were unacceptable. We were encouraged to give thanks to scientists for bringing antiretrovital drugs into the world and then asked to remember and honour those who had died of AIDS, vowing to look after those who were suffering. Everything came from a place of positivity, which is the one thing I think many modern religions have lost. 

Of course the difficult thing to stomach was the sheer amount of security on the door of the synagogue. For some ungodly reason, Jewish people are mistrusted by Christians and Muslims alike, despite the fact that it's the only major religion which doesn't recruit. By and large, you're Jewish or you're not, which means it's a religion which is effectively dying as more and more Jewish men procreate out of the faith. So what's the threat? 

It's the first advent today, so here's a picture of the advent crown we made yesterday... with the first candle lit. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent crowns

We're currently driving to Highgate from Aylesbury where we've just spent the most wonderful time with friends.

I'm proud to say that the day was my idea. Some of my happiest childhood memories deal with the magical run-up to Christmas. It was the period when all the carol concerts and school plays happened. We'd stay at school into the evenings to practice and then walk home excitedly in the dark, icy, wood-smoke filled air.

One of my favourite customs was the creation of a crown on the first advent. My family aren't at all religious, but this was the one semi-religious tradition we upheld. The four advents are obviously the four Sundays running up to Christmas, and in our house they were marked by four big meals when we'd eat a fancy roast dinner.

During the morning of the first advent, we'd go for a long walk to work up an appetite and to forage for berries, bits of holly, ivy and moss to weave into a crown shape which we'd then use as the setting for four red candles. Whilst we ate on the first advent, the first candle would be lit, on the second advent we'd relight the first candle and light a second candle to join it... and so on so, until, when we tucked into our meal on the fourth advent, all four candles would be merrily spluttering away. I believe it was a tradition my Mother brought back from Germany with her...

Obviously, with no children of my own, I've never been able to pass on some of those special childhood traditions... But then I realised that I have God children for this very reason, so I got Raily, Iain, Wils and Jeanie together along with Mezza and Elizabeth, Nathan, Hils and little Jago and we all went for a foraging walk on Coombe Hill in the bracing wind.

The forecast was dreadful, and actually, as we drove towards our destination it was raining solidly. Strangely enough, however, despite a dire forecast, the rain suddenly stopped, and we were able to walk for two hours without getting wet.

The wind was hysterical. We walked to a monument where the views over Buckinghamshire are staggering, but the wind on many occasions was strong enough to knock young Jago off his feet. You couldn't put a bag down because it would immediately be blown away. We stood for some time leaning into the wind, at moments our entire bodies were kept upright.

William and I went off the beaten track for a while and got chased by about forty cows, which was a bit weird. I think they thought my Sainsbury's bag full of undergrowth was food for them, but we certainly weren't prepared to hang around to find out if they were just being friendly!

We reached the car park just as it started to rain, and drove back to Iain and Raily's house where we sat around the sitting room table assembling our crowns in a sort of magical production line. "Does anyone have a use for this little berry?" "Has anyone got any glitter?" Fabulous. I recommend it for anyone reading this, even if you're doing it on your own. Tomorrow is the first advent, so you have a whole day to buy four candles and take yourself out into the big wide world. If you don't fancy doing it with greenery, get a bit of tinsel and some baubles like they used to do on Blue Peter!

On that note, I was horrified to mention Blue Peter today and find that my godson, William didn't know what I was talking about! How things change. Blue Peter is an institution.

After making the crowns we sat down for a fabulous meal before gathering around the piano to sing carols in three-part harmony, which created a really rather lovely and quite moving moment.

We sat in front of the open fire chatting, laughing and drinking tea until 11.30pm, before begrudgingly making our way back to London.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Homeward bound

We're home safely in the UK feeling like a pair of wrung out dosh cloths. The journey was about as hideous as I'd expected it would be. The plane was actually half empty, on account of it being Thanksgiving, so, as soon as the ground staff were told to leave the plane, passengers started heading for empty rows and seats with more leg room. The row in front of us (which had extra leg room) went from being completely empty to being full of a family with two children who screamed constantly. I probably wouldn't have minded had the stewards not made a big deal about stopping a young couple from sitting on the same seats, informing them that they'd need to "pay to upgrade." It seems it's one rule for a family, and another for everyone else. The young couple would have been considerably less noisy.

To make matters worse, the father of the family opted to recline his seat whilst I was still eating my food, which sent the tray flying into the aisle and made me hugely grumpy. I think there should be rules about when people can and can't recline their seats on a plane. It's incredibly rude to do it before the meals have been cleared away. I felt like I was sitting in a cardboard box.

I'm ashamed to say that I also spent much of the flight suffering from bouts of Islamaphobia, obsessing about a woman in a veil sitting near us, who was having a very animated telephone conversation with someone until the plane literally took off. She then spent the flight nervously fiddling with her mobile phone and I became utterly paranoid that she was going to detonate something. It sounds ludicrous in retrospect. I'm a terrible flyer, so was dealing with my own demons at the same time, but I'm horrified I became that person - as was Nathan. It just shows that, however liberal we like to think we are, when we're under duress, all sorts of crazy and irrational responses bubble to the surface. I almost went up to her to explain that she was freaking me out, hoping she'd give me a big hug to put my mind at ease, but I felt it would have gone down rather badly. I didn't sleep a wink.

We got back to Highgate in the late morning after that long old tube journey from Heathrow which everyone dreads when they touch down.

We had three hours' kip and forced ourselves to get up again so there was some hope of our getting sleep tonight.

For the last few days Nathan has been suffering from an eye problem. His right eye looks puffy and a bit bruised. In fact, over the last couple of days it's looked increasingly like I've been knocking him for six, but it turns out it's simply a nasty case of blepharitis.

He went to see the doctor who suggested he take himself to the A and E department of Moorfields Eye Hospital. The journey down there was pretty miserable. We got a flat tyre in Highgate village and I spent the entire trip on the phone to Amazon trying to ascertain whether there's been some fraudulent activity on my bank account via Amazon Luxemburg, whatever that is. It turns out neither Barclays nor Amazon are particularly able to/ interesting in help(ing) me in this respect. It's like pulling teeth.

Tina, who works at Moorfields, met us at the hospital and sat and chatted to Nathan whilst my ludicrous phone calls continued.

Nathan was dealt with by hospital staff incredibly speedily. I was very impressed.

When we emerged from the hospital, the skies opened and half a tonne of rain fell in about three minutes. It seemed to be falling horizontally somehow. Great big sheets of the stuff were just rolling down the street. We stood under a bus shelter but it was no protection. In the end we made a dash for it, just after Nathan realised he couldn't find his car keys. It turns lit that he'd left them on the front seat (with the car doors unlocked!) Old Street is SO not an area of town to leave an unlocked car in. Thank God it was still there when we returned. I think Nathan is probably more tired than I am!

Thursday, 26 November 2015


We're sitting in the lobby of our hotel waiting to collect our bags before making our way across town to Penn Station and on to Newark Airport where the holiday officially ends. We have a night flight, which is guaranteed to be hell. In my experience the person in front of me will recline his seat almost immediately, and, for six hours, I will feel trapped like an insect in a Venus Fly Trap. It will be hot and stuffy, my nose will get blocked and my eyes will get all scratchy!

Our last day in New York started in our hotel room watching the Thanks Giving parade on TV. It seems to be a parade of giant balloons which starts up at Central Park and heads down to Macy's on 34th. It was odd to think of it happening in real time just two blocks away, but there was no way we were going to get caught up in all of those crowds. There was also a sense amongst some of the New Yorkers we met this week that the parade might be the target of a bit of terrorist nonsense. Besides, I don't like balloons shaped as Sponge Bob Square Pants. After about twenty minutes of watching, it became clear that the parade was one long advert, with the TV show presenters reading little spiels about the companies who had sponsored the floats. If you ask me, the brutal commercialisation I was witnessing goes entirely against the spirit of the day.

Even more horrifying were the cheerleaders on the parade who were twirling replica rifles, which I found distasteful in the extreme. After everything that has happened in the past few months, you'd think someone would have had the decency to suggest they return to twirling batons. What kind of message is America trying to send to the rest of the world?

...And of course the city is bracing itself for Black Friday tomorrow, which is when people have fights in the streets and get involved in crushes and terrible accidents, all for the sake of a bargain. Last year we had it for the first time in the UK, and it was, by all accounts, predictably revolting. TV and radio adverts over here encourage people to be the first in the queues with ludicrous incentives. What on earth has the world come to?

The other thing I find a little perplexing in New York is the fact that all buildings are steam heated centrally, which means you can do very little to control how hot or cold they are inside. I've heard talk of people sleeping with fans on during the winter because their flats are so hot. I can't think it's the best way to conserve energy. My mouth and nose have been permanently dry as a result of being here. It's surely not good for people?

Anyway, enough of the whinging. This city is beautiful and remains one of my favourite places on earth.

It's been unseasonably hot today. T-shirt weather hot. We took the subway underneath the mayhem of the parade and crossed Manhattan to the West Side at 34th to walk the length of the High Line, an old railway line elevated above the streets, a little like Parkland Walk in North London, which fell into disuse in the late 1960s. I learned today that the last cargo train which went along its route was carrying frozen turkeys!

During the 70s and 80s no one had any idea what to do with it. Plants started growing out of the old sleepers and it became a haven for wildlife.

In the 90s, the authorities decided to pull it down, at which point, two young men stepped into the limelight and lobbied the world to turn the tracks into a long, thin parkland, which would snake its way from the Meat Packing District to 34th street, twenty-five blocks north.

It's absolutely beautiful and has become a display ground for large scale art, sculpture and installations, a wonderful green space and a brilliant location for New Yorkers to head to when the hustle and bustle of the city becomes too much. There are hundreds of quirky benches and tables up there, little tranquil corners away from the main paths, lawns, and tremendous glass walls which allow people to look across the city from the elevated position.

New Yorkers have obviously taken it to their hearts. Many cafes, bars and hotels along the walk's length have the words "High Line" in their title, and all sorts of chi-chi/cool bars are opening up in the railway arches below the tracks. There's even a tiny ice rink!

We took the subway back up to Mid Town where we decided to embrace Americana and attend the Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular at Radio City. I guess it's the New York equivalent of a pantomime and the Last Night of the Proms rolled into one. Out here, it's iconic!

Radio City Hall is the most astonishing example of 1920s Art Deco. It is vast, and glorious: Like being inside a giant shiny pumpkin!

The show itself is brash, over-the-top, camp and schmaltzy. The huge stage is flanked by two fully-operational Wurlitzer organs which appear and disappear behind curtains like coffins at a crematorium. A full orchestra rises from below the stage. And then the Rockettes appear, kicking their legs and flicking their arms with the precision of robots. I have probably never seen such in-sync dancing.

Just when you think it can't get any bigger, it just gets bigger. More singers. More dancers. Dwarves. Real-life camels. 40 life-sized toy soldiers. 60 dancing Santas. A 3D film. Two ice skaters spinning like dervishes. Of course it's all grotesque, but it HAS to be seen. The Brits would never do it. We're too arch. It would need to be done as an ironic statement, or a piece of campery, which would make it instantly lose any potential audience because no one would understand how they were meant to view it. But actually, sometimes it's really rather nice to simply let go of all that coolness and imagine what it would be like to be a child watching. Believing in magic...

I felt vulnerable in the theatre. I'll not lie. It will take a while to get over the horror of Paris and not feel like a giant sitting duck in a theatre audience. I found myself planning various escape routes. It's ludicrous. Mostly because it's exactly what they want us to feel.

Anyway, Nathan tells me it's now time to start our journey to Penn Station, so I'll wish you all a very pleasant day... And catch up with you when I'm back in London.

Dames at Sea

Today started with tea served in beautiful china cups in the genteel surroundings of the upper West Side Apartment belonging to our friend, Carey. He tells us the entire top floor of the building once belonged to the mistress of a theatre impresario, I think a chorus girl on Broadway, but these days it's been divided into several flats and he lives in what was once her library and sitting room. It has a beautiful roof terrace with stunning views over the Hudson River.

The grass is always greener, of course, and Carey, a true anglophile, is desperate to one day live in the UK. We'd be lucky to have him. He's a brilliant writer. It should be much easier for successful creative people to up sticks and move from the U.S. to the UK and vice versa. I'm quite sure you'd end up with the same number of people living in both countries. When he was last in England, we took him to see my parents in Thaxted and he loved the place so much, he told me today that he keeps an eye open online for properties in the town similar to my parents' house. It's good to have made an impression! My mission is to make all Americans fall in love with my homeland!

We had a quick bite to eat on Broadway. I ordered a horrid vegetable lasagne which arrived cold, and was full of little cubes of butternut squash. I have very clear rules about the vegetables I feel it's appropriate to put inside a veggie lasagne. Mushrooms, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers. End of. Aubergines and potatoes turn it into a moussaka. Butternut squashes make the texture weird and watery.

We went to see the matinee performance of Dames at Sea this afternoon. Ian is an off-stage cover in the show, which, I was a little surprised to discover only features six performers with no ensemble. The story of the show is fascinating. It was written in the 60s as a sort of pastiche review of clich├ęd Broadway shows: the shows where people burst into tap routines for no apparent reason and seem able to sight read complicated romantic songs whilst snuggling up to their beloveds on a piano stool.

The great Bernadette Peters performed in the review as a teenager and over the years it has gone from being fifteen minutes long to a full-length show. This is the first time it's officially reached Broadway however, although it did make it to the West End in the 60s and then again in the 90s. Blue Peter's Peter Duncan was in the cast when it played at the New Ambassadors Theatre... Which is the theatre where I worked as a stage door keeper for two years. I'm tempted to say it was the show which was on in the theatre just before I tipped up. In those days the stage door keeper was a ninety-year old woman, whose equally decrepit sister worked at the stage door on the other side of the alley! The sister used to wave wistfully at me.

Today's show was performed with great wit and charm and beyond-amazing tap routines. I was a little disappointed to discover that it's already had its notice, but theatre audiences in NYC will have until January 4th to catch it, so they've been given a dignified amount of time to put the show to bed and prepare their finances. The perilous nature of the life of an actor is, of course, yet another reason why they should be paid handsomely to perform.

After the show we went for a nice cup of tea with Ian before taking the N Train to Astoria where he lives with husband Jem. I was much impressed by Astoria. It's right at the top of the borough of Queens, near La Guardia Airport, and it's a part of town which has a large Greek population. I am thrilled to report that I found halloumi on its supermarket shelves!

Astoria is quieter than Manhattan and has a low-level, ramshackle vibe. The Main Street is lined with cool little bars and shops and the subway trains run on elevated tracks on imposing wrought iron bridges above the street. People sell fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk. It has a wonderfully filmic vibe.

Jem and Ian live in a set of apartment buildings surrounding a number of well courtyards which are full of pine trees and little fountains. There's a slightly old-fashioned 1950s quality about it which I found really fascinating. The flat itself is small but beautifully decorated and I can imagine they must be very happy living there.

We had dinner in a burger joint where you can create bespoke burgers. First you choose the "meat" you want (there were three veggie alternatives) then you select the bun (which includes the option to have the burger "green wrapped" in spinach instead of bread) and then you select the salad vegetables and sides and dressings and relishes you want to throw into the mix. My burger was lush! We shared a portion of giant onion rings.

We went back to the boys' house for tea and chocolate and suddenly our last night in New York was over and we were feeling a little sad. I'll be honest: we're used to most of our friends in this city having been here for a long time, so when we bid them a fond adieu, we know we'll see them when we next see them. It might be months. It might be years. Ian and Jem, on the other hand, have much more recently been wrenched from our regular lives, so seeing them so often out here has simply reminded us both of how much we've been missing them, and will miss them again.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Alone in the Universe

I bought the new ELO album in Barnes and Noble on Union Square last night. I only became aware of the album's existence whilst standing on 42nd Street waiting for an advert for Cindy's latest project to flash up on a giant screen.

The album is called Alone In the Universe, and I listened to it this morning. It's legitimate ELO, in that Jeff Lynne wrote and sang all the songs. Quite a number of the original line-up of ELO are now dead, including the bass player, Kelly Groucott, but I was slightly disappointed (albeit simultaneously impressed) that all instruments on this album were played by Lynne himself, so there was no Bev Bevan on drums, and, crucially, no astonishing virtuoso keyboard solos were played by Richard Tandy. The saddest aspect for me however was that all the strings, which I would define as the most crucial element of ELO's sound, were played on synths, so the album loses the surging, dramatic, engulfing, over-the-top sound world that typifies masterpieces like Into The Blue, which taught me everything I've ever known about writing for strings. As a result of all the above, there's a demo-like quality about the album. There just aren't the layers of detail one might expect from an album by the band.

There are shades and hints of the ELO back catalogue, which I quite like. Can't Get it Out of My Head finds its way into the title track, and there's more than a whiff of Showdown in Love and Rain. This self-referencing feels like a deliberate choice. At one point Lynne sings that he's feeling "Midnight Blue," which fans of the Discovery album will appreciate!

The songs are short, and there are only ten of them on the album, but what shines through is Lynne's astonishing song-writing ability and his distinctive voice. It's worth hearing the album just for this and to be reminded of Lynne's genius when it comes to finding catchy, yet quirky chord progressions. I'm convinced that a few extra pennies spent on real strings would have taken the album from being a wonderful curio into something quite fabulous.

We had a dreadful time this morning trying to find something to eat for breakfast in the hustle and bustle of midtown and downtown New York. We kept assuming we'd find a little diner we liked the look of, but sadly, the nearer we got to the impenetrable crowds of people, the fewer places we could find to eat. Nathan ended up in a Starbucks behind 50 people in a queue. It was noisy, over-crowded and reminded me why touristy areas of this city are to be avoided like the plague, particularly when I'm grumpy and hungry! If another person had screamed "Statue of Liberty boat tours" in my ear, I might have decked someone!

We were in the downtown district to visit the new World Trade Centre, which is currently the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. I'm not actually sure what the Western Hemisphere is, but I'm sure the statistic is very impressive!

It's well worth a trip to the top, if you don't consider $32 to be a rip-off and aren't gullible enough to be pulled in by the offer of additional expensive bolt-ons like photographs and weird noisy iPads to show you the buildings you're seeing when you look out of the windows.

...But the views are staggering. The building is so high that the only way I could comprehend what I was seeing was by imagining I was in a plane. Up there you're looking down on skyscrapers and passing helicopters! It's very strange.

The New Yorkers refuse to call it The Freedom Tower, which is a fake nick name they believe politicians have coined. No one can ever force a building to have a nick name. The people will call it what the people want to call it. (I think the architects of the Swiss Re building in London were actually quite upset when people started calling it The Gherkin!)

Anyway, I found the experience of going up the building mostly awe-inspiring but periodically unnerving. I don't like heights and it's impossible to shake away images of the dreadful things which happened in the area on 9/11. I guess more than anything the experience reminded me that there would have been tourists at the top of the original World Trade Centre buildings when they were hit by the planes. I'd never really thought about that before, but it adds another layer of horror to a scenario I've replayed in my head so often and from so many differing perspectives.

I've always sensed that the streets around the building feel a little sad. Of course, I might be projecting something, but whenever I've traveled down that way in the past, I've always felt a really heavy and lugubrious atmosphere. The first time I ventured down that way was a couple of years (almost to the day) after 911, and I remember how silent those blocks suddenly seemed compared to the rest of Manhattan. Maybe they always were, but I guess these were the streets that would have been covered in white dust for months after the terrible events. They're also the burial ground of thousands of people whose bodies were never found. Sadness pins itself to locations through the people who populate it.

We walked from the World Trade Centre back to the village, finding the American obsession with the concept of "happy holidays" increasingly amusing. Now, I'm not religious in any way, but I appreciate the story of the nativity and the concept of Christmas as a time when families get a state-sponsored period of time to stop work and hang out together. Christmas is simply what we, in countries which were (and in some backward cases still are) Christian call this lovely day off.

I appreciate the effort not to offend, but, let's face it, as our friend Lesley put it on Sunday, "how offended would you be if someone wished you a Happy Hanukah?" Surely no Jewish or Muslim person would really object to being wished a Happy Christmas? In any case, Like Easter, it's merely a pagan festival which has been appropriated by people who have read a novel called The Bible, so what are we all panicking about?

The village in New York has its own very special light. I think it's something to do with the colour and low-rise nature of the buildings in those parts and the fact that the streets in the district break away from the grid pattern which means the sun hits buildings low and from a variety of angles. The shadows are always long and a very specific white light bleaches faces in a hugely flattering manner. The photographs I take in the village always have a washed-out, timeless quality. Like the place itself.

We met Cindy for lunch and then took the subway up to Midtown to meet Christopher for more lunch. Every time we meet friends here, the assumption seems to be that we'll get a little something to chow down on, so we're learning the hard way to walk lots and eat little and often!

We saw Christopher in Matilda tonight. He plays Trunchball (brilliantly) and had sorted us out with amazing tickets in the stalls (or "orchestra" as the stalls are known on Broadway.) The English accents coming off of most of the cast were very dodgy, to the extent that we felt they were limiting the acting (and in one case the vocal pitching) of cast members. I couldn't tell what half the cast were actually trying to say. The word "hot" in most Americans' mouths becomes "hort" in a cod "British" accent and certain vowel sounds get expanded into mini cadenzas which absolutely destroy the sense of sentences! My main bug from last night, however, was the cast's grotesque desire to remove the lateral plosive release from the word "little" and replace it with an ordinary "t" whilst the "l" became a "w" (in the style of someone from Hertfordshire who's trying to sound posh.) Personally I'd have dropped the accents. The show was written by an Aussie, and only references England once. If you're going to get better performances out of people by letting them find characters from a world they know, then you're often better off. I heard one English couple in the interval. Their conversation went: "I think the doctor was English" "darling I think they were ALL meant to be English!" I also walked past a young American lad who asked his Mum how long "half time" was! It would have been a distinctly underwhelming production, I felt, had Christopher not been so epically brilliant. He was insanely good.

After the show we met our friend Frank at Les Mis. He was collecting money for the Broadway Cares charity and we went back to his flat afterwards for cocktails. He lives in Hell's Kitchen right by the river in a flat with astonishing views over into New Jersey on one side, and a very pleasing vista along 42nd street into the theatre district on the other. He's actually right next to the spot on the river where the plane landed five or so years ago. Remember that story? The pilot (with some sort of insane name) got into trouble after taking off from Newark and successfully landed the craft on the river, where a set of somewhat bewildered passengers were rescued by a fleet of boats. I love stories like that!