Sunday, 23 November 2014

The smell of wood smoke

Nathan had his first full day off in about sixteen years today and we celebrated by having the mother of all lie-ins before treating ourselves to breakfast in Muswell Hill. I say breakfast... We might call it lunch.

It has literally done nothing but rain all day. Rain, rain, rain. One of the windscreen wipers on the car has broken - fortunately on the passenger side - but as we drove along the motorway, with the rain pounding on the window, it all got a little hairy. I kept slamming my foot down on an imaginary brake because I couldn't tell how far the car was away from anything else on the road. Fortunately Nathan was driving, and is unflappable in these sorts of situations.

We were driving to see the parents in Thaxted, and had a big old drama in the country lanes around Stansted Airport as a result of extensive flooding. A man in a passing car indicated for us to stop and wind the window down, to tell us we'd never get through to Thaxted and that he'd just been forced to turn around at Haigh's Farm. It was all rather Winter 1963, but we drove on regardless because we're reckless and macho like that.

At Haigh's Farm, we were greeted by  a scene of carnage. A river appeared to be running through the farm itself, and the road was covered in deep, brown water. A cluster of men in hi-viz jackets were very helpfully stopping cars and telling them that their best chance of getting through was sticking to the left hand side of the road in a sort of "you didn't hear that from me" sort of way. And so we ventured forward, walls of water spraying up the sides of the vehicle. At one point the car started losing power and Nathan went uncharacteristically dramatic and said "that's it. It's over..." Fortunately it wasn't, and we crawled through the flood, and on to Thaxted where a wonderful open fire and a brilliant meal was waiting for us.

Ah! The joys of Thaxted. The cozy smell of wood smoke, the endless cups of tea, the chocolate cakes, occasional lamps, and all the tins and boxes filled with all sorts of useful objects like scissors and bits of string. The parents were on great form, and my Mum was looking almost regal in purple and olive green.

My Dad has bought himself a brand new poppy-red mini, which is a thing of great, great beauty. We watched the Strictly Come Dancing results show, marvelling at how everyone attempts to maintain the illusion that the show hasn't been recorded the night before. "Oh look!" Said my Mum, sarcastically, "Mary Berry's come to see the show for a second night running. In the same clothes. And she's still sitting next to Dave from the Hairy Bikers!"

Barry Manilow sang Copa Cobana. Frankly, they weren't going to have him on the show to sing anything else. My Dad maintained that Manilow doesn't have any other songs, which felt a bit unfair! A string quartet of pretty, skinny blonde girls was miming in the background. The rest of the musicians on stage were men. When will the BBC learn that this sort of musical gender stereotyping is the stuff of 1999 and should have died with Westlife? How about we show that musicians can be all kinds of shapes, sizes, ages and colours? God forbid we should see a female drummer, bass player or trumpeter. God forbid we actually get these musicians playing live. (It's the same MU rate after all!) And when will female 'cellist realise they look horribly tacky playing in mini-skirts with their bare legs wrapped around the instrument?! Pet hates! #angry'cellist!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

My thoughts on Emily Thornberry

So it would appear that Labour MP, Emily Thornberry has resigned from the cabinet for the terrible sin of tweeting a picture of a house with three England flags flying outside, with the implication that the owner of said house was a UKIP supporter. In the run up to a bi-election in the same town, I'm afraid I would have made the same assumption. Many of us would have done. But apparently Ms Thornberry is a terrible snob who is completely out of touch with society; part of a breed of elitist politicians who live in posh houses in Islington and have liberal middle-class values which are out of touch with the rest of us. Personally I believe she's apologised for any offence caused, and that should be the end of the matter.

...But no. We are forced into another trial by media. Ched Evans. Dave Lee Travis. Roy Harper. Who will be the next victim of red-topped vigilantism? When will we stop trying to place ourselves above the law makers in this country?

What worries me is that if we continue to cave in to the pressure of the small-minded moral majority, we'll be but one hop, skip and a jump away from bringing back the death penalty, allowing people to smoke in pubs, banning free thought and turning into a dictatorship led by the housewives of Midlands towns.

Sadly, I think Ms Thornberry's resignation says a great deal more about Ed Miliband than it does about her. This is a man whose weight is so far on the back foot that he's in danger of falling backwards into obscurity; a man who is so desperate to stay in power under any circumstance, that he believes the avoidance of a few negative press inches are more important than defending a close friend and loyal member of his team who has stuck by him through thick and thin and whose only crime was implying what most of us were thinking.

Yes, of course people should be able to fly the English flag with pride, wherever they want. I'm the first to argue that England gets a raw deal within the union, but three flags and the white van sitting in the driveway of the same house are indicative of a certain type of person, and I think Miss Thornberry was merely trying to indicate what an uphill climb her party was facing in the area where scenes like that were witnessed.

It turns out that Thornberry, far from being born with a spoon in her mouth, grew up on a council estate and has defended herself by saying she'd "never seen a house where people can't see out of the window because of England flags." Quite right. This is when English pride becomes an aggressive statement and one worthy of comment.

The owner of the house has responded; "I will continue to fly the flags. I don't case who it pisses off. They have been up since the World Cup." I take one slight issue with his statement. The flags aren't flying. They're actually hanging. Drooping.

I believe British society has now reached a cross roads and we have to think very carefully which road we want to take. UKIP are aggressively appealing to the lowest common denominator; the people who think the easy fix to this country's problems is blaming someone else. If we are scared to criticise these views, and rip to shreds the brave few who are putting their heads above the parapet, however misguidedly, then we are lost.

Ask yourself a simple question. Who would you rather run this county? A genteel, middle-class female politician with gentle left wing leanings who supports gay marriage and rights for women, or a white male who would jump ship to an extreme right wing party at the drop of a hat? However I look at this story, I see it as a battle lost for the good guys, and whoever played a role in Ms Thornberry's resignation has specks of blood all over their hands. And yes, that includes you Ed Miliband. You're no leader in my eyes.

Friday, 21 November 2014


You know those days when the s**t hits the fan and just keeps hitting it; almost as though there's a chimpanzee on the prowl, flinging the poo of every member of his extended family directly into the blades? That! My body has reacted physically. My neck is in spasms, it hurts when I swallow and I keep going dizzy. Joy!

I slept for eleven hours last night, and woke up naturally for the first time in an age. As a result, I experienced a series of peculiar dreams as I drifted in and out of sleep. I can't remember any of them, but woke up feeling anxious, so they can't have been a great deal of fun.

The morning was spent emailing. Emailing, emailing. Admin. Admin. We're trying to sort out some potential dates for the Brass cast recording, which is a most complicated jigsaw puzzle, involving the availabilities of fifty young performers, plus, more crucially, a series of recording studios, who all seem to be curiously busy in early January. It's hell on toast.

The frustration really started ramping it up on my way to the gym when I received an email from a friend which made me feel dreadful, and then, as I came out, I found a parking ticket on my car. The last time we went to the gym, we were handed a little permit which allows us to park in the car park for free. I immediately placed mine on the dashboard and said it had to stay there because it's exactly the sort of thing I'd forget. It turns out the silly thing must have blown away, because it was no longer there this afternoon. Hence the fine. Hence me going into slight meltdown.

At that point I simultaneously found out that the two dates I'd earmarked for brass player sessions on Brass were problematic for players, and then, via a generic "Dear Sir/Madam" email, that our song has not been shortlisted for this year's Eurovision. If I'm completely honest, I wasn't really expecting it to be. The BBC plainly has its own desperate-to-fail agenda when it comes to the competition. The generic letter was at least one step-up on the response to the last song I entered, which wasn't even acknowledged! Apparently, due to the large number of people who entered, they can't give us individual feedback regarding why we weren't selected, but they very kindly wished me luck in the future. Talk about feeling crushed by a brutal machine. I'm a soddin' BBC composer! And I'm 40!

I personally believe that if people have taken time to find singers and create demos, and you're a subsidised broadcaster, you have a duty to find the five minutes it takes to tell them why they've not been successful. They plainly weren't inundated with entries. Frankly, anyone with an ounce of compassion would realise that you have to be a little bit careful with the feelings of creative people if you want them to continue to create in the future. What makes things even more perplexing is that I'd just sent an email to the woman at the BBC I'd been exchanging countless Eurovision-related emails with, asking if there was any news. A politer individual might have emailed me back with a personal message.

It reminded me of the time I was called in for a meeting with Stephen Daldry and half a tonne of other swanky people about the possibility of my becoming the resident director on Billy Elliot. We had a lovely dinner in a pub and a two-hour chat. A few weeks later, a letter came through the post which read, "Dear Mr Till, thank you for your interest in this position. There were a number of very strong applicants for the role, and I'm really sorry we didn't get a chance to meet with you on this occasion. Good luck with your future career etc etc..." Sometimes a generic letter can cut to the heart!

...Oh, I shall be watching very carefully to see what the BBC actually selects this year. If it's anything short of genius I shall stamp my little foot incredibly hard. And next year? Well, I shall turn my attention to a different European country and show the BBC how it's bloody done!

I'm currently speeding my way back to Highgate after a phone message from my neighbour, Little Welsh Natalie, who tells me that we are currently experiencing a power cut! A power cut?! Oh joy of joys! What next?

Basically, the moral of this blog is that if anyone else has some poo to fling at me, they might as well do it right now. Gladiators? Ready! Poo flingers? Ready! I'm gonna eat myself into a coma.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

First day of winter

I'm currently trying to get over this cold/ nervous exhaustion thing which is coursing it's way through my body. I'm sitting under a blanket watching a TV programme about the rather stunning Tagg's Island on the Thames out towards Hampton. The island is situated roughly at the start of the non-tidal, calm part of the river, where the water twinkles in the sun, and meanders slowly whilst people swim and mess about in barges and rowing boats.

Tagg's Island is famous for its community of bohemians who all live in house boats permanently moored on the water's edge. They call them house boats, one assumes because they float, but the majority are two story buildings with multiple rooms. I would love to live there. One of the women on the show had a grand piano in her sitting room, with enormous windows looking out onto the river. If I lived there, I'd have a punt in my garden and I'd be as happy as Larry, whoever he is...

I finished and delivered parts two and three of my composition for the Fleet Singers this morning, and sent them off to the choir leaders before heading to the gym, making a detour en route to the shops on the Archway Road. We wanted to put some posters up to advertise the show Julie is producing at Trafalgar Studios next month. The piece promises to be excellent. It's written by my mate Di Sherlock and is a one-woman show based on Dickens' Miss Haversham, which stars theatrical grand dame, Linda Marlowe. With a bit of persuasion and a couple of quid, we managed to get about ten posters up in shop and cafe windows along the street. I'm always happy to go the extra mile for a mate who's taking risks for art. Producing a show is the ultimate risk, and I really hope it works for her.

We had our first casserole of the season for lunch today; a sure sign that we're battening down the hatches and preparing for winter. The heating is now on in the morning and at night, and I'm finding myself searching for long-sleeved tops. I might eat a bowl of porridge for supper. I just have. It was lush.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Little boxes

I seem to have developed some sort of allergy or mild cold. I'm coughing, sneezing, blowing my nose and making all sorts of strange spluttering noises. It's bizarre. It came on after a little swim in the gym. I blame the hundreds of children who were rushing about around the pool edge. I'm not sure children should be learning to swim in a gym, weeing in the water and screaming like banshees. They should be somewhere with a wave machine.

I went to Pimlico this morning to deliver a Brass for Brass cheque to Jeremy from The NYMT. The cheque, for a hugely generous amount, came from the Richard Carne Foundation, who do marvellous work giving financial assistance to young people training for careers in music and drama. It's helped us enormously, so much, in fact, that I'm hoping by the end of the week, we might be halfway towards our target.

I got to Pimlico an hour early. I'm always am hour early, so that I can sit and do some work in a cafe whilst I wait. I opted to sit in a Starbucks this morning which made me smell of fried cheese. At one stage a song by (I think) Eméli Sande came on the radio. Whoever it was was going large in the vocal department. And when I say large, I mean large in a mildly hysterical, "aren't I a fabulous singer" sort of way. I'd just started tuning into the indulgent noise when an elderly gentleman sitting opposite me, tapped my table with his stick and said; "who's that singing? She's in agony is she?" It made me laugh.

I had an early lunch on Old Compton Street. A girl walked up to the counter of the cafe I'd chosen for my salad and said, "I'm looking for a job." The cafe owner asked for a CV and she duly took one out of a plastic wallet. I turned around to take a peek at the girl to see if I thought she would make a good waitress. She was wearing the largest sunglasses I've ever seen, which almost completely covered her face. It made me rather angry. She'd come into a cafe looking for a job which involves being friendly and personable, and yet she couldn't be bothered to show the cafe owner the whites of her eyes. There is so much that young people need to learn about presentation. It's terrifying...

I walked for miles around Central London in the early afternoon, passing scores of those charity people who stand on street corners with their hi-viz jackets, clip boards and flirtatious "resting actor" smiles. I hate having to avoid eye contact with anyone, but sadly, it's all too clear with these people that if you catch their eye, they'll instantly pounce like cheetahs. They were everywhere today. Smiling like moronic Mormons.

The post office have now introduced Sainsbury's-esque automated tills which have weighing scales and little machines which spew out stamps. They're almost impossible to use and, worse still, it appears that they've been designed to make you pay beyond the odds for anything you might want. "Would you like this letter to arrive tomorrow?" It asks. Well of course you would, so you say yes, but it turns out that guaranteed next-day delivery will set you back £8 instead of £1.20... All these little surcharges get added, and by the end, you have to start all over again. It's all a bit theoretical anyway, because the machines break down at the drop of a hat. Mine switched itself off because I pressed the button by mistake that said I was paying with a credit card rather than a debit card...

I met Nathan for a second lunch (soup), and we took our little decoupaged box filled with letters to Cameron Mackintosh's offices. We lucked out because Cameron's PA was sitting with the receptionist. Unfortunately Cameron is away from his offices for a month, but I know his PA will make sure the letters are read by someone. I opened the box and he looked visibly moved to see the letters inside, with poppy petals sprinkled everywhere. We all need to keep our fingers crossed that he responds positively, so that we can get this recording done. It's a very exciting prospect and I'm desperate to get my teeth sunk into it.

Public enemy

I found myself thinking about public enemy number one, Ched Evans today. His photograph was all over the newspaper everyone was reading on the tube. For those who have been living in a barn (or a country where sex crimes are not titilatingly sprawled across newspapers), Evans is, or probably was, a Premiership footballer, who was sent to jail for raping a young woman. We're told he's appealing the conviction, but the current situation indicates that he did the crime and, furthermore, that he's served his time.

Now, I can't possibly get into the nitty-gritty of what happened. I wasn't there. I don't know any of the people involved, and in fact, I'd not heard of Ched Evans until he was released from prison a few weeks ago. Judy Finnegan has already got herself into a lot of trouble for suggesting that there may be more to the story than a cut and dried case of rape. Whatever the truth, it's interesting to note that Evans' girlfriend is sticking by him.

Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the fact remains that Evans went to jail. The case was presided over by a judge who, one assumes, used intelligence and experience of the law to work out what he felt was a fair sentence.

Now, of course, everyone is screaming blue murder because Evans is hoping to return to playing football. Of course he is. It's his job. It's how he earns his money. It's what he's good at, just as I would hope to return to composing if, god forbid, I went to jail. Jeffry Archer continued to write books after serving time, and Nelson Mandella became the president of South Africa!  Who are we to decide when one crime is more worthy of forgiveness than another?

When it comes to sex crime, it seems that people always assume that the perpetrator is a recidivist. Once a adulterer, always an adulterer. Once a rapist, always a rapist. "Think about the children" they yell. But we don't say this about murderers... Or arsonists. They were whinging about Evans on Loose Women the last time I switched the telly on. The only person who seemed to be making sense was the singer Jamelia who, quite rightly, was pointing out that part of the experience of prison is rehabilitation.

So here's my question. What do these people actually WANT to happen to Evans? Do we live in a world where we all think we're above criminal justice? A world where, because we read about a crime in The Sun, we all feel we know more about the case than the judge who spent weeks in a courtroom deliberating over it?

Should Evans sign on? Should he try and find work in a shop? Frankly, whatever he does, he will be hounded, and his life will be miserable and that seems to be what people want to happen. But what about redemption? What about giving someone a second chance? What about acknowledging that they made a mistake, and trusting our ancient legal system to select a suitable punishment?

I sat in my favourite cafe after osteopathy, but the experience was deeply marred by a woman screaming at someone on the phone. It put me completely on edge. She literally shouted in an agitated manner at a friend for more than an hour. After a while it got into my bones like damp winter weather, and I could hear nothing else. As she spoke I became aware that they were playing 1960s vibraphone-based splatter jazz on the sound system, which created an almost unbearably tense atmosphere.

I changed cafés and headed into Soho to continue writing. I was meeting Nathan for a late lunch, but four cups of tea, a lack of food and sleep, and ears full of headphones, turned me into a jittering idiot. By the time I found Nathan, I was climbing the walls!

I've had a quiet evening in tonight. Working. Cooking. And latterly, catching up on Downton.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Brass for brass

I can't sleep. I think the fact that I'd forgotten to write this blog wasn't helping matters. Neither was Nathan, who, uncharacteristically, seems to be snoring his way through the night!

I'm sitting on a sofa, listening to the metronomic ticking of my ABBA clock, whilst the cars continue to swoosh past on the A1 below. As is always the case at 3.30am, I'm feeling a little reflective.

All sorts of thoughts are going through my mind. What will my next job turn out to be? If I can't find work, what will I do? Normally I'd try to sign on, but as a married man, I suppose that safety net is no longer an option. What sort of work could I expect to do in the short term?

I spent the evening decoupaging! Julie and Sam would be deeply proud of me. I've been making a beautiful little box to put all the letters the Brass cast have been writing to Cameron Mackintosh inside. I have cut up lots of images from the show, glued them to the top of the box and covered everything in about six coats of varnish. I think it looks pretty good in an authentic turn of the 19th Century sort of way.

The box has 21 letters inside. I suspect yet more will arrive in the post tomorrow. I'm really proud of the cast for doing this and have my fingers firmly crossed that something good will come of it. The idea that we'd be unable to do this recording is now unthinkable, particularly as a symphonic performance of the piece in London is becoming increasingly unlikely due to cost.

Perry from the cast came all the way up to Highgate this evening to deliver his letter, and sat and chatted to us whilst I varnished. Perry played Wrigley in Brass, and is now out of education and attempting to cut his teeth as a professional in the industry. I certainly don't envy him, but utterly admire his courage in giving it a go. A life-time of feast or famine lies ahead of him and, as an actor, he'll never ever be able to control his destiny.

Nathan's been cracking an old joke about actors rather a lot recently, which is funny, yet terrifyingly accurate. Question: "Why doesn't an actor look out of a window in the morning?" Answer: "Because it gives him something to do in the afternoon."

By the way, if you're reading this and have thought you'd like to make a donation to the Brass for Brass kitty, please feel free. Even if it's just a fiver, every penny counts. Remember, all the proceeds of the sales of this CD will go to the NYMT bursary fund, which gives young people who wouldn't normally be able to afford to do so, the extraordinary opportunity to work with then National Youth Music Theatre. And it's well worth it. Believe me. They get to work with people like me!

Right. 4am, and back to bed for me.