Thursday, 2 October 2014

Bradford!

My alarm went off at 6.30am and I was surprised to discover that it was still dark outside. The halogen street light outside our living room window has broken down and is permanently flashing on and off. On for two seconds. Off for two. On for two... It feels rather like one of those New York apartments you get in the movies, where a giant neon light outside gently strobes to show that the people who live there are poor but desperately cool!  I think it's rather romantic. Nathan hates it. This morning it simply felt surreal.

I stumbled around the house trying to make sense of what was going on. It felt as though someone had stuffed a layer of cotton wool into the crevices between my brain and face. I lay in the bath, trying to keep myself awake by thinking about all the people I know who would already have been awake. Brother Edward definitely. Ellie. Maybe Tina. I think Philippa once confused me by suggesting her crew were always up at 6.30am. At the time I didn't know there were two 6 o'clocks in a day!

I made the mistake of trying to trim my bushy, old man side burns in a bathroom mirror which was covered in steam. I was trying to use a pair of blunt, rusty scissors. Hack, hack, hack. Great chunks of pure white and orange fell into the sink. I managed to make myself look like someone with alopecia of the beard.

Matt Lucas sent us a lovely present through the post yesterday, a newly-released 35th anniversary CD version of ABBA's seminal Wembley Stadium concert. It's fairly bizarre to hear the girls singing live; a genuine demonstration of how much they pushed their voices in the studio. Frida's voice overwhelms Agnetha's when the two sing together, and both do a fair amount of copping out by popping into their head voices mid-phrase and using vocal timbres which put less pressure on their vocal chords, sometimes to a point that their uber-familiar voices become unrecognisable. I read in the CD notes that Frida was actually suffering from a sore throat and spent the days of the London gigs in Harley Street. This could explain why she wasn't taking any risks, although, perversely, it's Agnetha who sounds bunged up.

The sun was rising as I made my way to the tube. A great big smudge of yellow in the Eastern sky was throwing threads of light like marble across the sky. It struck me that the sunrise is God's wonderful reward for the early bird, although I think something similar about the stillness which a night owl like me experiences in the wee smalls.

By the time I'd reached kings cross it was pissing it down with rain. September may have been the driest ever on record, but October is bound to be the wettest!

My train for Bradford left at 8.03am and I was horrified upon collecting the tickets that they had cost the BBC £166! In my view there's not a justification in the world for a train which costs that much money. I wasn't in first class. I wasn't sitting on a gold-embossed chair. In fact, I didn't even have a table to work on. In a world where we're meant to avoid driving as much as possible, it seems almost ludicrous to charge these kind of amounts to sit in a train  for two hours.

I was in Bradford for a meeting with the BBC and David Wilson from Bradford Film to talk about a possible project in the city. It's very early days, and there will be nothing to report for some time, but Bradford is certainly a rather fascinating city.

After the meeting, David (whom I liked enormously) took me on a little tour of the city centre. It's much more attractive than I'd assumed, and his passion for the place was deeply infectious. I've actually only visited the city twice, and on both occasions the only place I saw was the national film and television museum. It was there, in fact, where I got to hold the Play School toys, in the process fulfilling a life time's ambition. Jemima the rag doll is every bit as fit in person as she is on screen!

I guess I have been guilty of stereotyping Bradford as "Bradistan" with its antisemitic MPs and racial tensions. What I actually saw was a bustling city centre, filled with stunning Victorian architecture, where everyone seemed incredibly friendly. I look forward to dispelling my own myths about the place if I get to work on the project.

This evening we held a little choir rehearsal at our house. It's Abbie's wedding in a week-and-a-half's time and a group of us are singing her a specially-composed setting of a Shakespeare sonnet. I often wonder what the neighbours must think when they hear live choral music drifting through the walls. Bloody bohemians.

On my way home from Bradford I had a phone call from my agent asking me to sing (yes sing) in a cabaret on Sunday night. The event is being organised by Bobby Cronin, a New York-based writer. He does something similar Stateside. The idea is for composers to sing a song which has inspired them and then perform one of their own compositions. It is, of course, terrifying for me to even contemplate sitting in front of an audience whilst singing, but I think it's a really important thing to do, not just because all proceeds from the evening go to a charity which rescues dogs, but because it establishes a community of British musical theatre writers.

So if anyone fancies coming along to say hello, and to support me, lots of other talented writers and, of course the sad dogs of Manchester, then the cabaret is at Freedom bar on Wardour Street at 7pm this coming Sunday. If you're lucky you might catch a little impromptu performance of something from our wedding...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Trees and osteopathy

Whilst heading to my osteopath appointment this morning, I read a article about John Cantlie, who is the latest British hostage to be held by IS or ISIS or whatever the hell those silly bastards are called these days.

I can imagine nothing more horrific than the situation Cantlie is in. Surely it's only a matter of time before those animals behead him, yet in the meantime they're forcing him to read out propaganda messages criticising his own government. At a certain point a life like his surely becomes unliveable. He must wake up every morning wondering if this day will be his last, wondering what ridiculous message he'll be forced to read out next. In fairness to him, he always seems to read in a way which subtly tells those who understand sarcasm he has no belief in what he is saying. Cantlie by name, can't lie by nature.

It strikes me that Muslim terrorists thrive on humiliating people, which, in my view is the lowest and most tragic practice. Just as children in playgrounds are cruel because they don't yet understand humility and empathy, so these people use rape and loss of dignity as their tools. My one hope is that, when they themselves die, there will be a moment, before complete oblivion, when they realise they aren't going to a place where they can make love to virgins and whatever their un-evolved brains tell them to expect...

The osteopath informed me that my back situation has now moved into the "managing" rather than "curing" phase. The mild scoliosis of my back, coupled with my less-than ideal working posture apparently means that this is the best scenario I can expect. So I could be in osteopathy on and off for the rest of my life which seems a little insane.

I came home on the tube, and entered such a peculiar trance-like state somewhere near Archway, that I entirely missed Highgate tube! It was only the tube bursting out of a tunnel somewhere before Finchley Central which made me realise what I'd done. It was hugely confusing!

The rest of the day was spent writing the Fleet Singers piece. It doesn't yet have a name. I probably need to think of one. I got Nathan to read out all the poems I've selected, so I could hear someone else's rhythm patterns. I think I'm definitely there and have selected the most appropriate poems. It's such a shame I've had to cut so many that were submitted, but some of them were so personal, I thought the writers might actually feel a little uncomfortable hearing them being sung. I made a decision rather early on in the selection process only to include (universal) poems which I thought larger numbers of the choir stood a chance of empathising with. I also had to cut back on the number of poems about trees! John Hegley's poetry workshop, which generated many of the poems submitted, used trees as a theme, and people were obviously hugely inspired! I think, perhaps 2/3rds of all poems mentioned trees in some capacity!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Santa who?

It was back to the proverbial grindstone again this morning. I was up in the loft at 9am, writing the first bars of music for the Fleet Singers commission, which is based on the poems of Betjeman.

I always get in a bit of a bad mood when staring at a blank page of manuscript at the very start of a composition. You'd think it would be exciting, but it's terrifying. Nathan tells me knitters have something similar which they call COA or cast-on anxiety. The weather hasn't exactly helped my mood. Hot. Sticky. Wet. The tube into town this evening was unbearable; so hot in fact that Nathan had to stop knitting because his hands had become too sticky to deal with the yarn.

So for most of the day I sat in the loft listening to the rain pouring down outside, making my way through copious cups of tea whilst flinging notes crudely at a page. It's a noisy process. I sing and shout a lot, and thump chords out on the piano. Periodically I write something down; a little verse of something, a little riff, then turn to another part of the lyric to see if something else inspires. Over the next few weeks I will add layer upon layer, as Sir Arnold Wesker would say, "worrying at it. Honing it."

Composing is awful for the back. Hunching over a piano and then scratching words on perilously balanced scraps of paper is no good for anyone, and after a single day of writing my mid-back is in spasms. Thank God I'm off to see an osteopath tomorrow.

This evening we came into town to meet Ellie for tea at Pizza Express. Ellie had buy-one-get-one-free tokens which she said she wasn't afraid to use, so we stuffed our faces, whilst talking about everything, including Ellie's prodigiously intelligent 8-year old, whose propensity to read adult books badly backfired when she read an account of the myth of Santa Claus. Ellie is at a loss as to how to respond. Should she say that the book was wrong or cynical, or should she simply accept that the game is up? "I just want one more Christmas" she said mournfully. I sympathise enormously and still remember where I was standing when I was told the dreadful news that Father Christmas was dead. Still, I've never believed in Jesus and I love the nativity story, so it's possible to have a great time even when the Gods have gone!

We have another friend, who shall remain nameless, who refuses to engage her child in any story based in myth. Unicorns, fairies, dragons and ghosts are all rationalised and poo-pood, which I think is tantamount to child abuse. How on earth can there be happiness in the world without at least the potential for magic?

Dylan Thomas

Llio and I have just returned from a rather lovely cabaret-cum-theatre performance at The Crazy Coqs, which is a glamorous basement venue opposite the Piccadilly Theatre on the fringes of Soho. The piece focusses on a recently published set of letters which the poet Dylan Thomas sent to Pearl Kazin, an American journalist, with whom he had an affair. No one knows what Kazin wrote back to the poet - her letters were all understandably destroyed by Thomas' wife - so the rather charming conceit of the cabaret was that a male actor would read Thomas' letters whilst a female singer sung songs which imagined what her responses might have been.

The end result was intoxicating, and hugely intimate. It is not often you get to feel the heat of a singer's breath on your face because she is standing so close to you! I was particularly moved by a setting of the poem "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night." Such an astonishing poem.

Llio was less impressed than I was, and, indeed, if you allow yourself to be pulled into the slightly troublesome moral minefield triggered by the fact that these beautiful love letters were being written to a mistress, not a wife, then they take on a considerably less romantic quality!

What tickled me was to discover that the performance was being proudly funded "by the Welsh Government."
Proof positive, if proof were needed that devolution is good for the arts. Can anyone imagine Westminster directly sponsoring and putting their name to a piece of cabaret based on an English poet? An arms deals, yes, but certainly not a work of art!

It was surprisingly warm outside today and Nathan and I went to Highgate Woods to take photographs of some of the pairs of socks he's about to release as patterns. We found a big tree trunk which created a rather lovely backdrop, until, that was, scores of children decided that they wanted to walk along the trunk as well!

We went to the local laundrette. Our own washing machine has broken, but at £4 for a wash and £2 for a tumble dry, we'll go bankrupt if it remains broken for long! It's astonishing how much these things cost.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Quizteama Aguilerra

We've just got back from a quiz in Thaxted... Where we came second. By one point. On the bright side, I won a lovely bar of soap in the raffle. Correction. My mum won five lovely bars of soap in the raffle which she split seven aways. I can't wait to use it. It's red with a little pink heart inside. I forgot to wear deodorant this morning.

This afternoon, we mostly had tea in the garden. Lots of tea. Lots of cake. Lots of spiders, but then it's that time of the year. I like spiders. The bigger the better. There were seven of us on the quiz team. My parents. Abbie. Julie. Bal and Michelle. I knew lots of random stuff, which made me feel proud.

I wish I weren't half asleep. Then I would write more. Abbie wanted to have a midnight adventure to the church where the weird Wiccan symbols are. But it was too late. It's too late to be awake now. Night night.

Friday, 26 September 2014

These kids can't read!

I woke up in Brighton rather too early this morning. I was drifting in and out of sleep, listening to the crashing of waves, which were eventually drowned out by the sound of a city waking up.

I hauled myself out of bed, and had breakfast at Tiffany's (genuinely - it's a lovely little vegetarian cafe just off the Lanes on the way to the station.)

The train journey back to London was somewhat marred by the arrival of a mother and child. As soon as they got on the carriage my heart sank, because I knew it meant that the calm and tranquility I so wanted was about to be destroyed.

She was one of those mothers who thinks a child will only understand if it's addressed in a loud, grating, high-pitched voice. Why do some mothers do this? I have never had a problem communicating with children in a normal voice and furthermore have many friends who don't speak to their children like Munchkins on acid.

The silly-voiced approach surely only encourages the child to learn to speak like Micky Mouse. I don't actually know if this particular child was a boy or a girl but it spoke in a stupidly high voice. Boy or girl, he'll need to learn to use a lower resonance. Mummy decided to read "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" to the carriage at a volume and pitch which can only be described as irritating beyond words.

I met Philippa in Shoreditch who tells me that children actually respond better to a high-pitched sing-song voice. My Grannie was the same!

It was good to see Philippa. We worked on our individual projects in a cafe, drinking pots of tea, sitting opposite one another. I'm now at a stage with the Fleet Singers commission where I'm just about ready to start composing.

I had a meeting at the new BBC Broadcasting House this afternoon. The plaza outside the building is just beginning to take on something of the old-school feeling of the beloved television centre. They were setting up for a One Show outside broadcast with a load of straw bales and a set of fibreglass cows. There was also a stream of freaky-looking children emerging from the building with fluffy dogs. All very Blue Peter.

They were doing tours of the building for young people, which involved an opportunity for some of them to sit in front of a camera and have a bash at reading autocue. I say reading. I was astonished by how bad their reading was. These were maybe 17-year old A-level students, and not a single one could read a sentence without badly faltering! I'm pretty sure that my own geography A-level group would have coped much better, and believe me, we were nothing to write home about. I'm actually wondering whether this new plague of dyslexia, ADHD and whatever other diagnoses we're offering as excuses for not taking studies seriously, is beginning to have a really negative effect. The kids were all from ethnic backgrounds and are exactly the sort of people the BBC want to engage, but if they can't read autocue, what hope do they have? Cut to the BBC ticking their boxes by scrambling to employ ethnic minorities from hideously wealthy backgrounds who went to public schools. All this, on the day when the Evening Standard is patting itself on the back about the success of its get London reading campaign. Honestly, people whinge about the wealth of London compared to other places in the UK, but try telling these kids they're not disadvantaged!

This evening we went to Wimbledon theatre to see our friend Chris working as the musical director on a musical version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I'm pretty sure this particular story has had every treatment going, from film and telly adaptations to untold new musicals. I'm also pretty sure that this adaptation didn't manage to cast any new light on the story. What's definite, however, is that Chris did a wonderful job with a cast of very talented actor-musicians, so that was a relief.

On the way home we encountered all sorts of lunatics on the tubes from the man who sat next to me, fell asleep and dribbled all over his lap top screen to the 50 year-old glamorous Chinese woman who lost her balance and ended up sprawled all over the lap of a business man who didn't see the funny side.

Long day. Sleep please!

Brighton and Hove (and Worthing)

I woke up this morning in bright sunlight. Fiona’s flat is one of the sunniest places in the world. One of the most joyous experiences is taking a bath with the window wide open bathed in dusty sunshine. 

We had a slightly lazy morning, listening to music and eating bagels before I packed my suitcase and headed off to PK’s for another day on the Pepys Motet. I’m please to announce that this will be our last day of grunt-work on the project. Everything is now tuned and meticulously cleaned, although another day of polishing is probably on the cards once PK has gone in and worked his sonic magic. The problem I have with the process is that there’s sometimes a slight disconnect between the information which goes into my head and the things which come out of my mouth! One of the things we have to do is compare the notes that the singers are meant to be singing with the notes they are actually singing! This involves a great amount of faffing with me sitting with a score on a table in front of me, announcing quaver-by-quaver, part-by-part what’s required. I look at the score, I see a “B”, I register it as a B, but tell PK it’s a D. I realise immediately I’ve said the wrong note, and instantly correct myself… sometimes another wrong letter pops up in the process of announcing the right one. Is that an age thing? My dear old Grandmother used to do that with the names of my cousins, but it seemed to frustrate her a great deal less than it frustrates me! I’m wondering if it’s to do with music being a series of visual dots which you instinctively interpret by striking a key, or singing a note, not reading the letter out loud. I think that maybe relies on a different part of the brain?

On a far less frustrating note, I read today that Brass has been nominated as Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards. These awards are for regional professional theatre, so it’s almost gobsmacking that a show performed by the National Youth Music Theatre for just 5 nights would find itself nominated for something. We’re actually up against the Leicester Curve and the National Theatre of Scotland! Even more surreally, the show from the National Theatre of Scotland was written by my great friend, James Fortune, prompting people to write “fight” on our Facebook page! He’s bound to win. I can’t think that enough of the judges, if any, can have seen Brass. It certainly wasn’t officially entered for the awards. I think we have Mark Shenton to thank for the nod. And very grateful I am, too. 

This takes the award nomination tally for me to five this year, which is quite insane. We didn’t win the Guardian innovation award or television moment of the year for the wedding, but we’re still in with a shot for a Grierson for Most Entertaining documentary. My CV has never looked so rosy! 

I’m heading back to Brighton where I’m actually rather decadently staying the night in an hotel. I didn’t think for a moment I’d finish so early with PK, so it would have been more than easy for me to return to London. But hey, I found an hotel for forty quid which is suitably ramshackle and on the sea front. There’s nothing I like more than having a lovely hot bath and watching telly in a bedroom which isn’t mine. Fiona told me that a mutual friend of ours likes to stay there, where he’s often found “quietly off his tits wearing sunglasses whilst lying on a chaise longue.” Sounds brilliant. I’ll get off my face on chocolate.  


Turns out the hotel IS brilliant. Fiona dropped off a mobile phone charger at reception in a little envelope marked “for Benjamin Till on arrival”. It obviously made the concierge think that I was incredibly important, and he immediately upgraded my room to one with dual aspect, over-looking the sea and the pier. I arrived in the room and had the deepest, hottest bath in the world, wondering why I don’t do this more often! 


I then took myself off to a takeaway and sat on the beach eating chips, listening to the sound of the sea crashing onto the famous Brighton shingle. I can still hear it from my room. Such a wonderful, lulling sound.