Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Luton

I went to Luton on Sunday night. It was a last-minute decision based on not wanting to get up at shite o’clock just to get stuck in rush hour traffic. I stayed in a Travelodge. A Luton Travelodge. I’m not sure it gets any more glamorous than that. I sat and watched the BAFTAs in my hotel room whilst children in the room across the corridor literally screamed their little lungs out. I think they were screaming out of excitement rather than because they were being slaughtered, but I’m no real expert, and it was Luton.

The BAFTAs felt self-conscious and a little arch. Everyone wore black and all the speakers felt obliged to distance themselves from anything that anyone might have found offensive in the last twelve months. Joanna Lumley, however, was, as you might expect, her usual charming, classy, glorious self, and made for a wonderful host. The list of dead people was nothing compared last year’s roll call, prompting me to think that 2016 was a particularly grim year.

It rained through the night and was raining heavily when I woke up. The rain added a certain something to my joyous experience. I bought my own breakfast. I didn’t fancy paying extra for a bowl of Shreddies. My only complaint was that the milk had warmed up through the night, in my excessively stuffy room. 

I was in Luton to speak to drama and music students at the Chalk Hill Academy, a secondary state school in the town. I listened to GCSE compositions and gave the students as much feedback as I thought constructive and inspiring, before being whisked into the school’s lecture hall to work with drama students on their upcoming assessed performances. I was asked to talk about my career for a few minutes, and the kids seemed particularly keen to discuss Our Gay Wedding: The Musical. I think they were genuinely interested in the project, although, for some reason, I felt a little gauche and self-conscious talking about it. I think all gay men have an in-built valve which makes them a little embarrassed about or wary of outing themselves to young people. Until Clause 28 was repealed in the early naughties, it would have been illegal for me to even mention it in a school, so I guess the roots of my reticence were fed by that particular dung heap. Of course, it’s vital that we usualise LGBT issues in schools. It is highly likely that at least one student in the group considers themselves to be sitting somewhere underneath the rainbow umbrella and I may have offered them a bit of hope or inspiration.

The students did incredibly well and there are one or two kids within them whom I think are super-talented. I was, however, really upset to learn that none of the composing students had computers at home, a fact which is plainly born out of poverty. How can a kid learn his craft if he doesn’t have the equipment to practice it at home? Yet again I find myself profoundly irritated that we’re not looking at location and social background as key reasons for why students are held back in their early lives.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Weddings and misty mountains

We’re currently on a rail replacement bus. Deeply irritating and relentlessly tinny music is playing over the sound system. It is climbing into my ears like a miniature pneumatic drill. It’s a little irritating that they always choose Sundays to disrupt the travel in this country. It strikes me that Sunday is the one day you want to get home speedily. They invariably try to pretend that the failure isn’t planned, but it invariably is, or else it wouldn’t always happen on a Sunday. I would far rather be told about this sort of nonsense when I buy my (hideously expensive) ticket, so I can make the decision whether or not to take another mode of transport. We’re told this bus ride is going to add an hour and a half to our overall journey. Can you imagine what a panic you’d be in if you had a plane to catch the other end?

We’re presently trundling through the outskirts of Glasgow, which turns out to be a very lovely city indeed. The architecture is wonderful. We were staying in the West End district, which is filled with long, red and blond sand stone, grand Victorian terraces. The shops in the area are a bit alternative and it’s full of cafes which seem to place an emphasis on vegetarian and vegan cuisine.

Our day yesterday started with a walk around the Botanic Gardens, which were handily just opposite our hotel. I’m sure, in the spring and summer, they’re absolutely stunning. They looked a little windswept yesterday, but the glasshouses were a treat to stroll around. One room was full of potted flowers. The scents were utterly over-powering.

We took Fiona’s advice and walked down Byres Road and along the charming Ashton Lane, with its retro cinema and hipster bars, before returning to the hotel to get our glad rags on.

We were in Glasgow to attend Nathan’s friend Jason’s wedding to his lovely fella, Gary. It was a charming occasion spent with very lovely people. It’s still rather special to see two blokes getting married. I haven’t been to enough same sex marriages yet for it to feel commonplace. And, of course, the older I get, the fewer marriages I get to attend in general.

There was a ceilidh in the evening. A three-piece folk band put guests through their paces. I was rather proud to have been part of an eight-man reel. It just so happened that all the people who stood up to take part in the dance were men. At first, it didn’t feel particularly strange, but it was so noteworthy to the leader of the band, that he asked if he could take our picture. We danced that reel with great gay pride, suddenly aware of how the eyes of the room were upon us! Society really has changed so much for the better in this respect.

There was a tinge of sadness underlying the day, however. Life can be cruel and unfair and I see a lot of people around me struggling to make sense of the cards they’re presently being dealt. A lot of people have loved ones who are getting ill. Others seem to be going through painful breakups which they can’t understand.






Bizarrely, as I write this sentence, and we charge over misty, snow-covered Southern Scottish mountains, the tinny radio is playing Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. There’s a message in there for us all...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Open? Or exposed?

We’re in Glasgow. This is only my third time in the city, and I’ve never been here for more than a couple of hours before. It’s raining. I suspect it may rain a fair amount in these parts. I’d like it to be snowing.

We came up by train. I love train journeys. We had our own table and were able to work and wander about, stretching our legs whilst buying cups of tasteless tea from the buffet car. I hate those little cups of UHT milk. And the splintery wooden stirrers you get instead of spoons.

I was similarly under-impressed by the Virgin loos. When you close the door, a ghastly little recorded voice pipes up: “Hello, it’s me, the toilet. I just wanted to ask you not to flush sanitary towels and nappies down me. The usual stuff’s totally cool. I knew what I was getting into...” And so it goes on, with a dreadful stand up routine which would make even the most confident kidney seize up. When she’d finally shut up, I had a wee, and tried to work out whose idea it was to have a talking loo. Which shocking ad agency was paid a massive wad of money to conceptualise and script that nonsense?

It wasn’t raining when we arrived, so we were able to see some of the city centre as we walked to the subway. The architecture is fairly reminiscent of the Wall Street area of New York. I like the colour of the stone. It’s sort of orangey.

The subway is super cool. It’s a circle of two tracks. The inner loop goes in one direction and the outer loop goes the other way, so you can decide which track will get you to your destination most speedily. The trains themselves are rather dinky. A tall person would definitely not be able to stand up inside. I did a little bit of reading about the Glasgow subway earlier and discovered that it was opened in 1896. It’s the third oldest underground network in the world after London and Budapest.

We’ve also been travelling on the busses. Based on two journeys, I feel equipped to make two sweeping statements. 1) Busses in Glasgow smell. 2) All Glaswegians are incredibly friendly. They’ll chat to anyone and seem to want to do nothing but help. The bus driver was a rude fella, however. Rude, or possibly simple. He greeted every question with a blank stare and refused to stop the bus when we pressed the bell.

We spent the evening with our friends Tanya and Paul, and their three kids, Tomas, Lily and Ivy. They live in a beautiful Edwardian house on the outskirts of the city, with glorious exposed wooden floorboards. We had tortilla wraps for tea and the kids kept us merrily entertained. We don’t see them nearly often enough. I’m ashamed to say that this is the first time we’ve ever visited them on their home turf. A lovely, relaxing evening.

We’re staying at the Hilton. I have an earache.

ps - I wrote “exposed” floorboards because Nathan told me that no one calls them “open” floorboards, which was my instinct. Have I gone mad? Is “open floorboards” a term? We had them when I was a kid, and Nathan had shag-pile carpets, so I’m hoping he’s wrong. Which is rare.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

The importance of unions

There’s very little to say about the last few days. I’ve been busy doing applications, writing songs and creating synopses for future projects. So much of my work is speculative. A noticeable proportion of my time is spent creating pitching documents and ball-park budgets for projects. It’s all horrifically dull, and there’s a continual sensation that you’re pissing into the wind. Bj√∂rk expressed the sensation in a much more erudite way, with her song about the person standing at the top of a mountain throwing things into the void, watching them bouncing and smashing on rocks on the way down. That’s how pitching a project feels! And yet, you have to throw your heart and soul into it because if you don’t, the pitch will never be successful.

I read about an initiative today which made me feel a little angry. A dance company is planning to run a course which enables composers and choreographers to get together with dancers and musicians to explore contemporary dance. It sounds like a fabulous idea where lots of expertise and knowledge-sharing could ping around a space, although the images they used from last year’s project confirmed my belief that most contemporary dancers don’t dance TO the music, they dance IN SPITE of it!

Sadly, a little more digging revealed that only the musicians and the dancers were actually going to be paid to take part in the project. Choreographers and composers are expected to do it for the learning experience, and some expenses whilst they’re on the course. Despite this, the people running the initiative are saying that student composers cannot apply, and that only professionals are welcome. As far as I’m concerned the ONLY definition of professional is that you’re paid to write. I am not at all against the idea of doing something creative for free. I do that all the time, and many, many actors, singers and musicians have worked for me for nothing in the past. But I have never made money out of them. As far as I’m concerned, either nobody or everybody should make money out of an arts-based project. Even the tiniest budgets should be shared out equally amongst everyone taking part. That’s always been my philosophy.

I have slightly different views when it comes to paying people who are not members of unions. I’m a strong believer in unions. They are there to protect creative people and make sure they’re paid properly. If you can’t be bothered to join one, you can’t always expect to take advantage of the work they do. When I made A Symphony for Yorkshire, I actually decided to define professional musicians as those who were members of the MU. I was quite brutal about it, to the point where all the musicians who were featured in the film and were members of the MU were paid, and all those who weren’t, were not. And I feel no guilt about this fact!

So if you’re reading this, and you’re a performer, go out and join a union. Or quit whinging about pay!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Edge Hill

I reckon I spent much of yesterday enduring a terribly rainy car journey down the M6 from Edge Hill University where I was delivering a lecture to the students about my experiences working on Beyond The Fence. It’s still a little bizarre talking about that particular project, although Clare Chandler, who brought me up to do the same thing last year, commented on how much more comfortable I’d seemed this time. I certainly feel like I’ve finally accepted how damaging the experience was and gained an understanding about why things went the way they did, which implies I’m moving on! It was interesting to talk about how de-humanising the project had been and whether this particular aspect was caused or exasperated by the computers we were working with. I certainly think that people felt they could be a great deal crueller to us about our work than ever they would have been had there been no mention of artificial intelligence. It’s understandable. I think, deep down, people are genuinely terrified at the thought of computers taking over the world and walked into Beyond the Fence without a clear understanding of the actual processes we’d used and quite how much human beings need to cherry pick and curate “computer creativity” for anything meaningful to come out. It was almost tragic that most of the critics came out with a sense that the actors and director had somehow saved the day by breathing vitality and meaning into the facile nonsense which had come out of computers. The bottom line is that they saw a West End show which had been written, in a highly unorthodox manner, in five months, by an incredibly stressed married couple who were being pursued relentlessly by television cameras and bullied by lawyers and execs. Under normal circumstances a show wouldn’t have been ready even for workshopping by this stage. One of the greatest sadnesses in my life is that I think, given a proper amount of time, a good number of re-writes (and the ability to take out all the rubbish generated by computer systems which were plainly not yet good enough) Beyond the Fence could have been a very wonderful and successful show.

I do love being at Edge Hill University. Claire and the team have created such a wonderful learning environment up there. The students don’t know how lucky they are to have a tutor with such great knowledge of musical theatre and such a keen ear to the ground when it comes to what’s going on within the industry.

The news is full of this Oxfam scandal. It strikes me that we’re in a very odd place when it comes to the reporting of news. In this particular instance no one seems to be able to report what has actually happened. We’re apparently meant to feel entirely outraged that someone or some people who work or worked for a charity might have employed prostitutes whilst working in Haiti and that this information wasn’t dealt with very well by a woman called Penny who has now resigned. I’m sure it’s far more complicated than that, and that this is just the tip of the iceberg in yet another desperately worrying crisis which will cut to the heart of every charity which has ever been formed, but as we’re not actually being told the full story, it’s very hard to feel any form of emotion. And yet, at the same time, we’re being told that Oxfam might have its funding withdrawn so we’re all assuming that something terrible has happened and have gone into moral panic mode claiming Oxfam is the new Jimmy Savile. I wish we’d all just stop panicking, take a deep breath and allow those in power to work out what’s going on without being influenced by yet another media-whipped-up witch hunt.


Monday, 12 February 2018

Thaxted

Yesterday found us in Thaxted again where we experienced bright wintry sun, hail, snow and ice. I think everyone is ready for spring now. I got chatting to the lovely woman in the flower shop in Highgate village who told me she’d had a surprising run on tulips. “People are fed up with winter.” She explained.

We had a very lovely time in Thaxted. I hadn’t seen the parents since Christmas, so it was fabulous to be back in front of an open fire, putting the world to rights. At one point we were talking about my Dad’s work as a WEA lecturer. WEA stands for the Workers’ Educational Association, and it was set up so that older people could continue to challenge and educate themselves, within their own communities, by attending lectures on a smorgasbord of subjects by visiting specialists. My Dad is an historian and lectures on a variety of things including the hell-raising, Boudicca. His work takes him around Suffolk, Rural Essex and Cambridgeshire, and, therefore, those who attend his lectures tend to be old, white and middle class. Imagine his surprise, therefore, when he was sent on a course to spot the early warning signs of people who have been radicalised! I just love the idea of a 90 year old Grannie thinking “If I’m gonna go and blow up some infidels, I better learn terrorism Boudicca-style!”’

We had a lengthy discussion about the amazing recent advances in medical science. Apparently there’s work being done in the field of cancer which could save my generation. That would be nice. We’ve been forgotten by everyone else! We talked about other diseases. They’re kicking HIV to touch. The conversation, however, ended in hysterical laughter when my Mum chipped in with: “and there was something about Alzheimer’s... but I can’t remember what it was...”

We were visited by my cousin Simon’s daughter and step daughter in the late evening. They were taking a very early flight to Badapest from Stansted, so came to stay the night with my parents because they live so close to the airport. I’ve always been highly fond of both girls. They’re such witty, well-mannered, well-bought up people, and their relationship with each other is inspiring. They are so close. They’re now 22 and 23. How many step sisters would be so fond of each other that they decide to go on holiday together as adults?

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Shabbas

I went to a delightful Shabbat meal on Friday night in Notting Hill. The host was fairly orthodox, so there were all sorts of rules and rituals which needed to be observed, including washing our hands with a jug of water three times and not talking until the bread was broken. I, of course, felt like a hick from the sticks: I forgot to put my kippah into my jacket pocket and, upon arriving at the house, immediately rang the doorbell, rather than knocking. I also came with both a bag, and flowers for the host. Carrying anything on the sabbath is frowned upon.

It got me thinking about the day of rest and wondering when and why Christian people started opting for Sunday instead of Saturday? Jesus was, after all, Jewish, and very keen that people observed the sabbath. His tantrum in the temple was surely about this very subject: “My temple should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves. Get out. Get out.” He was so passionate about the subject that he sang the last phrase in rock-setto.

(Never let it be said that my only knowledge of the bible comes from Jesus Christ Superstar!)

Sticking to the Jewish theme, Saturday morning was spent singing in synagogue. The choir was a little ropey. Some had colds. Some were deps. Some were underprepared. When things start to go badly, the fear takes over and the house of cards comes tumbling down. I had a little solo in one of the numbers and was aware that everything around me was unraveling at a fairy fast pace. It was a terrible shame. We’re usually an astounding choir.

We took Michael (our choir leader) for some food afterwards to drown our sorrows (and apologise) before heading, in the driving rain, to Portobello Road where we’ve discovered a little vintage shop with a massive selection of cufflinks. I’ve now started to collect vintage cufflinks. They’re a great thing to collect because they don’t take up any room, and what with the quizzing and the singing, I’m rarely out of a suit these days. It’s rather nice to make a point of trying to find a decent pair of cufflinks whenever you’re somewhere you want to remember. I have pairs from San Francisco, Florence and Tel Aviv and a pair which once belonged to my Grandfather.

I woke up this morning to an email which made me feel incredibly sad. It came from the mother of one of the kids who sang in Nene at the Albert Hall. Her daughter, who is apparently very bright, had done well in the entrance exam for a local public school and been offered a music scholarship. Unfortunately, even with a scholarship, the fees were beyond anything which the mother could afford. She wrote to me in something of a state: “I feel I’m begging as I’m a person who’s never asked anyone ever for help before. I’m desperate as seeing my daughter’s dreams fade away in her eyes and it’s heartbreaking to watch her cry. I feel guilty I cant give her the start she needs but we just cant find another way but to ask for help.”

The tragedy is multi-layered. State schools just aren’t offering musical and creative kids the education they need, so kids who can’t afford to go to private schools are just not going to have the opportunity to develop as well-rounded people. The other upsetting aspect is that there’s an assumption that someone who’s done relatively well in the arts like me would have the kind of money needed to help someone in despair. I only wish I could. If I had money, I would immediately set up a fund to help young kids from the Midlands realise their dreams. But I don’t. And this makes me so sad.