Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Brighton

I met someone last night who’d been to school with a girl called Philippa Bucket. Say it out loud. It struck me what a fabulous drag queen name hers would have made. 

...Speaking of bad drag queens, Nathan and I are presently on our way back from Brighton, where we’ve been watching Philip and Daryl performing in a play called Another Fine Mess, which is essentially the story of a Laurel and Hardy tribute act. The piece was written thirty-two years ago and touches on issues relating to HIV and AIDS. It’s rather intriguing to see a piece which was written in an era where being HIV positive was a death sentence. Things have moved on so much in that regard that the story occasionally felt like it was lacking bite. It does, however, stand as a stark reminder of those dark days in the 1980s which should never be forgotten. It was beautifully acted by all three performers.

We were treated to an open mic night in the pub afterwards from a gaggle of ancient LGBT-ers, each, seemingly, more decrepit than the one before! One old gent performed with a Zimmer frame. (No joke!)

We had a terrible car journey down to Brighton. We left at about 3pm, so should have got there with hours to spare. As it happened, we rushed into the theatre almost as the actors appeared on stage, and I’d driven like a boy racer down the M23! The problem was that they’d closed a section of the M25, so, as a result, we spent hours seemingly crawling in ever-decreasing circles in places like Uxbridge. It was deeply depressing, and it further enhanced my belief that London’s infrastructure is entirely broken. One little adverse gust of wind and the house of cards tumbles.

It was great to be in Brighton, though. The weather was balmy and the Fringe Festival was in full swing, so everyone seemed very jolly. We got a couple of bags of chips and wandered down to the sea front, staring at the moon’s reflection in the velvet black water.

We drove home listening to Imogen Heap’s 2014 album, Sparks, which is a fairly magnificent sonic adventure, perfect for a long car journey, with halogen motorway lights flashing overhead and stretching into the distance like giant dragon tails.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Shavuot

Today marks the second and last day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is a fairly minor festival which celebrates one of the milestones in the story of Moses. In Israel, it’s celebrated on a single day, but in the diaspora, for some reason, it’s a two-day festival, which means, after taking Shabbat into consideration, we managed to poll three days of singing on the trot in the synagogue. And once we get into those choir stalls, we basically never shut up, so there’s been a phenomenal amount of material to learn! Today’s service was particularly epic. We were in the building for four solid hours! I don’t mind in the slightest, however. It’s always great fun and it’s wonderful to be able to turn up and simply sing without having to worry about organising people.

I was horrifically late to the rehearsal, however. London ceases to work when a simple thing goes wrong. This morning “points failure in the North Acton area” meant I had to abort my tube journey and literally run, in a suit, to Queensway from Lancaster Gate. I arrived looking like I’d fallen into the Serpentine.

The great news about Shavuot is that it’s traditionally celebrated through the consumption of cheese. Any festival, in my view, which allows a person to gorge himself silly on cheese has to be a good thing. Quite whether kosher cheese has much to write home about, however, is another matter. I asked the rabbi if they made kosher halloumi and was assured they did, but I’m fairly convinced it would turn out to be pretty tasteless!

Because meat and dairy can’t be cooked together, you can always be assured that a pescatarian won’t find any nasty surprises in a quiche served up on Shavuot. A veggie has to be a bit more careful, however, because Jewish people tend to love their fish, and fish IS allowed to be cooked with dairy. There’s even a kosher tradition of eating salmon lasagne, which sounds profoundly minging if you ask me!

Magpies

I saw something rather extraordinary on Friday morning. I had a meeting in Hampstead, near the Royal Free, and was walking along Fleet Road, when I became very aware of a large amount of squawking and screeching in the trees above my head. I looked up to see two magpies in deep distress...

I’ve traditionally had fairly complicated feelings about magpies, largely, I assume, because I’ve always been a little bit superstitious. One for sorrow and all that. I can’t bring myself to entirely listen to the rational side of my brain which mocks me, saying, “you’re entirely cynical and critical when it comes to religion, but you won’t walk under a ladder, have peacock feathers in the house, or see a single magpie without saying, “hello Mr Magpie, where’s your wife?!” So, I suppose any bird capable of making a grown man nervous, should be respected, and, furthermore, I’ve always quite liked the fact that magpies mate for life. I think they’re known as being supremely intelligent animals as well. 

Anyway, yesterday, these two magpies were in a state of high distress. I’ve actually not seen anything like it before. It was really quite painful to watch. They seemed to be dive-bombing a man on the other side of the street - flying really close to his head, before landing on the window ledges of nearby houses, hissing, spitting and yelling.

I crossed over the road to see if the man needed any assistance. It was starting to resemble a Hitchcock horror movie.

On reaching the other side of the road, I realised the man was holding a fledgling magpie. He had his hands cupped protectively around the bird. It turns out that the bird had tried to leave its nest, taken a dive into the unknown and promptly dropped like a stone onto the street below. The man had stopped the traffic, picked up the creature and carried it to relative safety.

But then what? He wouldn’t have been able to get the poor bird back into its nest and bird’s parents wouldn’t have been able to pick it up from the pavement and make it fly, regardless of how stressed they were. In the end, the man decided to put the baby magpie in a nearby bush: elevated enough to keep it away from foxes, but heaven knows if it would have been enough to save its life. I sincerely hope so.

The parental instinct is so deeply powerful. I knew long before I’d seen the cause, that those two birds were in a state of desperation and panic and it’s really made me think about animal welfare. When it suits us, it’s easy to ignore the uncomfortable fact that animals have the capacity to feel - physically and emotionally. Of course, as a life long vegetarian, I can feel smugger than most on this subject, but I’m not vegan, and the dairy industry, in particular, can be a very cruel one. Cows have their babies taken away from them way too early, so that the milk starts flowing and our insatiable need for milk is satisfied. 

My breakfast cereal didn’t taste so good this morning...

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Loud noise

As I get older, I find myself dealing less well with loud noises. I’m not sure I’m alone in this regard. When I’m quizzing, it’s always the very oldest quizzers who shout that the music’s too loud. I’ve never quite understood how someone can be half deaf and still find a noise too loud.

I sincerely hope that the same thing isn’t happening to be because I was always a little bit sensitive to noise. My days of going to loud gigs and clubs and things are well behind me, thankfully, but, in my day, I have shoved large quantities of tissue paper into my ears to protect myself from songs being played so loudly I want to vomit. I suppose composers are likely to be a little more noise sensitive, aware of the catastrophe which would be caused by their gong deaf. I can’t imagine how bewildering it must be not to be able to hear.

Anyway, somewhere between Camden and Euston, there lies a section of track which the tube trains literally squeal their way over. It’s a metallic, grating noise. The sound becomes louder the longer it lasts - and it always lasts a good ten seconds longer than my ears can deal with - to the extent that I’m usually forced to cover them, whilst silently screaming. As the noise happened today, I looked around me. Most people looked completely unconcerned. A young couple opposite were still talking to one another, which I found absolutely astounding. It was only the little old lady in the next door carriage who, I could see through the window, was recoiling in horror.

I wonder if that’s a thing?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A day of two halves

My life today was split into two sections which really couldn’t have been any more contrasting. The first part was spent visiting Holocaust survivors, all of whom had gathered for an afternoon of tea, cakes and klezmer music, stunningly and authentically performed by the London Klezmer Quartet. The band is fronted by the coolest singer with the deepest voice, who performs in Yiddish whilst playing an upright bass. It doesn’t get much better than that! I think she might have been Australian.

My new friend, Ivor, who’s in his late 80s, took me aside and said “what do you think the future holds? It doesn’t matter for me. I’m reconciled to that. I’ve only got a few years left. But what sort of world am I leaving behind?”

I thought for a while, before telling him that I felt the world worked in 100-year cycles and that, sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if another world war might be around the corner. If I’ve learned nothing else from survivors it’s that they don’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything. Vera used to routinely describe herself as a victim rather than a survivor. Sometimes I think a war is the only way that we’ll learn genuine compassion again and discover the difference between that which we want and that which we need. Another chap told me he’d arrived in the UK after the war with “a blanket and a cardboard box.”

Chillingly, I also saw my first concentration camp tattoo today. I was chatting merrily to a woman about music, and she suddenly raised her sleeve and showed it to me. It was faded like an old bruise. An ancient scar which had somehow never managed to heal. I don’t quite know why the moment hit me so hard, but it sent me into something of a spin.

The second half of my day was spent in the shiny, soulless surroundings of Canary Wharf, where I was running a quiz on the top floor of one of the skyscrapers there. The views, as you might imagine, were astonishing. The sun slowly set as I asked my questions. I remember looking across at one of the teams who were sitting in a glorious pool of late evening sunlight, and glancing behind me to see the sun sinking behind a building. And then it was dark. I’m not sure I was aware of anyone turning the lights on. I delivered the quiz in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, periodically losing my balance, and peering down on the matchbox DLR trains snaking along Meccano tracks, whilst waiting for the blast of vertigo to cease.

The two worlds couldn’t have been more different. There I was, surrounded by besuited city slickers, nibbling on olives and fancy, purple carrot sticks, when, just two hours before, I’d been drinking tea from a mug in a 1960s community centre talking to people who’d literally witnessed the worst things that human beings are capable of doing to one another.

Why don’t we learn?


Leam and Cable Street

Yesterday was a hugely inspiring day, most of which was spent back in the Midlands. I was up at shit o’clock to do a telephone radio interview about the Em album. I wasn’t sure the presenter had been particularly well briefed, despite my speaking to a researcher for the best part of an hour the day before. She opened by announcing that I’d written a musical about meeting my brother for the first time, and then, when I pointed out that the musical was actually about my Mum’s experience of having a baby out of wedlock in 1965, she said “and I’m right in thinking that your Mum is no longer with us?” I was so surprised I started burbling, “no... she’s here. Very much so. Well not actually here on the phone...” hysterical!

I was in the car by 8.30am and on the road to Coventry in glorious morning sunshine.

I met brother Tim from the train station and we had a lovely baked potato for lunch in a dive of a cafe just round the corner. It was there or the local Harvester (which, it turns out, is no longer a Harvester - my Grannie will be turning in her grave!)

We went to Stoneleigh where we were met by a very lovely film crew from the BBC’s Midlands Today programme. Stoneleigh is the village where my Grannie and Grampa lived for thirty or so years and are now buried. Tim met my (his) Grannie just once. I’m told that she was never aware of his existence. My mother went to Liverpool to give birth in secret. Only her father, apparently knew. Anyway, Tim met our Grandmother for the first time when she was in the latter stages of dementia, and the conversation was apparently going round and round in circles before my Grannie suddenly grabbed Tim’s hand and said “I know who you are, you know...” Perhaps she did know after all.

Anyway, Tim had never seen their grave before, so I took him there and we did a little interview with the telly people. It must have been a very curious experience for Tim, staring at the grave of two people he’d never known but who’d given him half of his DNA.

From Stoneleigh we went to Leamington to look at the house where my Mother was living when she found out she was pregnant with Tim. We then did a longer interview in the square where they filmed the new version of Upstairs Downstairs. I’m told Napoleon also lived on the same square during the winter of 1838/9.

The crew vanished in a puff of virtual celluloid and Tim and I had a wander around the town in the raging sunshine, ending up on a bench by a lovely fountain by the sparkling river Leam.

I dropped Tim off at the station in Cov before driving to Northampton where I met a wonderful old fellow who I’m hoping will appear in 100 Faces. His name is Sidney and he fought at the Battle

Of Cable Street in 1936, when a group of Jewish people, communists and dockers prevented Oswald Mosley and his brown shirts marching through the streets of the East End of London. It is a legendary event and I have a large, framed John Allin print depicting the riot on the wall in our sitting room. I have been searching for someone who was there since starting on the project and always been unsuccessful to the extent that I actually wondered today whether Sidney was the last man standing... Just meeting him was a treat and hearing his stories filled me with great joy. As I left, I grabbed his hand, and thanked him profusely for what he’d done for our country. He seemed genuinely moved. I was overcome with a sense of how tragic my generation is for getting all uptight on Twitter, and thinking we’ve made a massive political statement by signing an online petition, whilst men like him, 80 years ago, were risking their lives apparently just so that we could sit on our arses and whinge about being offended.








Friday, 11 May 2018

Eurovision

It’s funny what we tell our kids, isn’t it? It must be very difficult as a child to work out fact from fiction. That said, I’m always telling my friends off for not bringing their children up to believe in magic. “What is life without Santa Claus?” I ask them, remembering the magic of Christmas morning and the complicated narratives I created when I’d started to realise Santa didn’t exist but was desperate not to let him go! I’d even managed to convince myself that there must be a local committee of people who selected a Santa each year to represent the town. This was still somehow more believable than the idea that my parents were spending huge sums of money on me altruistically.

As I walked down to the tube this morning, I passed a mother talking to her son: “no darling, giants live forever...” And I wondered at which point her son would realise that she was talking bull shit! Actually, I think children already know. You see them looking at their parents with that “I know you’re lying, but I really want this to be true” sort of look. It’s all harmless enough... Cut to the child having night terrors twelve hours later! When it’s dark, those charming fantasy conversations suddenly take on a far more sinister quality, when the shadows of the trees outside seem to caress your window and the house begins to groan and rattle as it settles down for the night!

Complicated things: the minds of children.

It’s Eurovision week this week. Gay men all over the world are dusting off their collections of flags, and chopping crudités. Llio asked me last night why Eurovision was so popular with gay people and I had to really think about my answer. Gay men love escapism and glamour, and I guess Eurovision has become a thing that gay men “do”. But it goes far deeper than that. Eurovision is OUR contest. I don’t just blithely call it the gay men’s World Cup. Yes, we know it’s silly, and camp, and it’s certainly not high art, but it matters deeply to us, because it carries an important message: namely that it’s okay to be different. And it’s this core message which hits us at a very young age, long before we realise WHY we’re different.

I am one of three gay brothers, only one of whom I grew up with, and the one thing which unites us all is Eurovision. All three of us loved the contest, long before we realised we were gay.

And, of course, Eurovision has been a platform for LGBT grand statements for many years, from Paul Oscar and Dana International in the 90s, to Conchita Wurst in 2014, and now, of course, Ireland, who have chosen to accompany this year’s entry with two gay lads dancing out a charming love story. I was a little horrified to hear, therefore, that rainbow flags were being confiscated at the stadium on Thursday’s semi final, although very grateful to the EBU for removing China’s right to broadcast the contest after they tried to censor Ireland’s song.

The China issue proves that Eurovision is still surprisingly powerful and not afraid to flex its muscles and, as a result, its fiercely-guarded message of unity, hope and love can be deeply threatening to oppressive regimes. It was the one thing which terrified Russia during the Cold War, to the extent that they organised their own competition for communist countries.

Long may it last!