Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Lovely Northamptonshire

I'm sitting in a Premier Inn at Billing in Northampton. I usually love a good Premier Inn, but, as we arrived this afternoon, we were informed that the gas ovens had broken in the kitchens, so we wouldn't be able to have the cooked breakfast we'd paid for. My Mum has always been particularly keen on the cooked breakfasts at the Premier Inn, so the news was not hugely well-received. Add to this the fact that my parents' room stinks of damp and you've got a group of people going to a funeral tomorrow who feel a bit hacked off. Yeah, yeah, First World problems, I know, but these little things add up. 

I was also getting really angry at the BBC news this evening. I've tried not to watch the news of late, but I happened to switch the telly on to find a report in full flight about the ghastly Brexit business. What irritated me beyond all measure was the fact that whoever put the package together opted to use cutaway images of union flags when talking about the out campaign, which rather sends the message that those of us who want to stay in Europe are somehow not patriotic or proud of our flag. I am entirely bored of the media whipping this campaign up into an issue of Britishness. I am deeply proud to be British, but I want to be British within Europe. Voting to stay in isn't saying I want to lose the flag! It was wholly unacceptable journalism. Just report the facts. That's all we need. Don't speculate. Don't over-egg the pudding. Don't whip us all up into a state of apoplexy.

Apart from all of this, I've had the most wonderful day in Northamptonshire which started in Higham Ferrers, the town I grew up in. We were expecting horrible weather, but the sun has pretty much shone all day. We decided to take a little walk down the lane where we used to live, and were stunned when a couple emerged from the front door of the very house we'd called home for fourteen years. I decided to engage them in conversation and they instantly asked if we wanted to come in and have a look around.

It was so bizarre walking back through that door. It was like walking into a dream. Everything seemed so familiar, but so so different at the same time. Smaller, perhaps. The walls had been stripped back to brick and stone, and many of the floors had been re-tiled. Everything looked rather classy if I'm honest. Towering above the back garden was the walnut tree which we gave to my Dad on his 40th birthday. It went up like a rocket at the time and started fruiting almost immediately. The earth in Higham Ferrers is apparently perfect for walnut trees. You could have knocked me over with the feather when we discovered that the council had put a preservation order on the tree! It's rather special to know that we've planted something which could last for hundreds of years and simply cannot be chopped down!

I posted a picture of my family standing at the end of the street on Facebook, and was so touched by the many people who posted memories which reminded me what an incredibly special place that house was. People wrote about the parties, the play rehearsals, the strange food we used to make in the kitchen, which included peanut and pickled onion sandwiches, and half oranges, with the pulp scooped out, filled with jelly. It was always an open house. There was always someone sitting at the big kitchen table drinking tea or playing a game whilst chatting to my Mum.

We went up to my old school, past the house where Tammy used to live, and then along the old railway line to the big council estate where a shed load of other mates used to live. I saw my first Brexit posters on that council estate.

We had lunch in the Griffin pub surrounded by people with hugely familiar accents. The East Northamptonshire brogue is a very specific sound which you never hear on telly. There is something about it which goes straight to my soul. It's not an entirely wonderful sensation. It brings back its fair share of unpleasant memories, but it does remind me of a time when I was innocent, and optimistic and all of those things which happen before life starts to bite chunks out of you!

We went into Rushden in the afternoon which looked a little more deprived than even I remember it. Many shops were boarded over on the High Street, and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Fortunately, at that moment, I got a message on Facebook from my old music teacher, Chris, telling me that her wonderful goat farm was having an open day. The farm was only about ten minutes from where we were, so we jumped into the car and hot-footed it over there. The farm is situated in a windy spot on a hill overlooking the Nene valley near the lakes at Stanwick where they famously found scores of important Roman remains.

The place is fabulous and they have about 200 incredibly friendly goats who seem to love nothing more than being scratched behind the ears.

It was so good to see Chris. She was such an important figure in my life. She was the person who encouraged me to learn the cello and sing. She's probably the reason I'm writing music now. And the goat's cheese that her farm produces is amazing! They do blue cheeses, harder cheeses like Cheddar and Red Leicester... It's quite brilliant. I bought loads. And ate a goat's cheese ice cream, flavoured with honey and rhubarb!

There was a mini farmers market going on up at the farm and I was astonished to find my old desk partner from the 'cello section of the county junior orchestra selling sweets from the back of a custom-made van! Melanie and I lift-shared to the music school in Northampton every Saturday for at least three years. We did A-level music together and probably met when we were about ten. It was so so lovely to see her - with her bright pink hair looking fabulous in the sunlight. Selling sweets is what she does at the weekend. During the week she's a teacher. I was trying to work out how the pink hair went down with her pupils! Sadly she doesn't play the 'cello anymore. She says she values her long nails too much!

From Chris' farm we drove to Northampton to check into our awful hotel and then drive out, through deeply beautiful countryside, to a little village called Brixworth. The trip involved driving across the middle of the lovely Pitsford reservoir, which I once fell into as a drunken teenager.

Brixworth is stunning. It's built on hills and surrounded by green, tall, ancient trees. The church in the middle of the village is one of the oldest in the country. It's definitely Saxon. There's more than a whiff of Roman about it. It's also incredibly eerie. It always has been. There's a really weird atmosphere inside. It feels pre-Christian somehow. We once had a dog who literally freaked out when we tried to take her inside. On another occasion I heard the sound of a fox hunt as I crossed a stile out of the church. Dogs barking. Horns tooting. I was with a friend and the sound was so loud we thought the hunt was about to race through the church yard itself. We stood waiting for it for ages, but it never came, and then the sound disappeared the moment we stepped down from the stile. As we walked away, we thought how odd it was to hear a fox hunt on a summer evening. We walked across the fields and returned to the church, after dark, an hour or so later, and were astounded when we heard the very same fox hunt, just as clearly, the moment we climbed up onto the stile. Hopping back into the churchyard, the sound entirely disappeared again. It was really weird.

We had tea in a pub. It was slightly bland, but stodgy enough to fill a hole which will probably last for about eight days!

And that was my lovely day in Northamptonshire...

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The possibility of magic

I travelled to Thaxted by train today, which involved a car journey through North London from Highgate to Tottenham Hale, which should have taken fifteen minutes, but instead took forty-five because, as we all know, London is broken.

Tottenham Hale itself was a hell zone with lots of people milling about who were plainly not at all used to travelling in London and were mostly heading off to Stansted Airport. You can tell an out-of-towner a mile off on public transport. They stop dead on train platforms, seemingly for no reason, and then walk at half of the pace of the rest of us. This sort of behaviour can have pretty catastrophic knock-on effects!

The train to Bishop's Stortford was fairly horrifying as well. A group of pissed-up lads were "on tour." They all had cans of beers with them, and were staggering to the loo, barely able to stand to wee, and seemingly entirely incapable of closing the toilet doors.

Another family had a child who did nothing but scream loudly. It wasn't a distressed scream. It was the scream of a child who has never been told that the rest of the world isn't as interested in it as his parents plainly are. Screams were followed by howls of laughter and the sounds of encouragement from the adults around it. The noise I personally wanted to hear was the sweet sound of defenestration...

I arrived in Thaxted to find the whole of North Essex bathed in glorious early evening sunshine. As we drove along the country lanes we saw two muntjac deer skipping about in the hedgerows.

My Mum and I took ourselves for a pre-prandial stroll whilst my Dad watched the England/ Wales rugby match. We walked across the fields behind the town. The hawthorns were in bloom, many were flowering in glorious shades of pink. Some were so laden with flowers that, from a distance, it looked like it had been snowing. Below the hawthorn bushes, swathes of cow parsley billowed in the breeze. It was really quite overwhelming. And the smell was quite glorious.

We walked across the brook and around the corn fields to what has become known within my family as the "magic place." It's the site of an ancient chapel, which these days is nothing but a marshy field and a copse of susurrrating trees, but the place really does seem to be laden with a rich, powerful atmosphere, which my mother and I picked up for a good period of time. I obviously can't say for a fact that we weren't picking up the vibes simply because we were expecting to pick them up, but I'm pretty convinced I was feeling something very powerful, right inside my chest. Whether that was being produced by my brain, or by an external force, I've no idea. But what is life without at least the possibility of magic?

Saturday, 28 May 2016

A 1920s weight lifter

It's been a lovely day today, but I have largely stayed indoors. Nathan is in Macclesfield, of all places, pretending to be a waiter at a wedding who suddenly bursts into an operatic aria. I reckon there can't be a wedding guest in the world who hasn't at some point been "surprised" by some sort of singing barman, but Nathan is always off somewhere else to do more! He once did a gig in South Africa which didn't quite go to plan. The mother of the person whose party it was was so horrified at the cheek of the lowly waiting staff bursting into song, uninvited, that she went on a rampage, screaming at people, claiming the party had been ruined.

I got a bit lonely today so went out to the local barbers for a haircut - really just for something to do. I had a nice chat with the barber. We talked about the musical Taboo which I worked on for the best part of two years in the early naughties. He was a "club kid" in the mid 1980s and regularly visited the real Taboo club which featured so prominently in the show. He's only about five years older than me, but whenever I meet someone like him, I feel eternally grateful not to have been a young gay man living in London during that era. Those gender-bending, balls of wonderful energy were all-but destroyed by HIV/ AIDS. He'll have lost friend after friend and gone to funeral after funeral in the late eighties. That era, for that very small, tight-knit community, was every bit as catastrophic as the First World War.

The barber was quite excited by my moustache because it looked like the 1920s strong man he had on one of his tattoos. He was horrified when I told him I'd been using Pritt Stick to keep it in place. "There's all sort of wax" he said, "that will do the job just as well." "Why do I need wax when I have Pritt Stick?" I asked. He sighed, and then cut my hair to look just like a 1920s strong man.

Nathan returned from Macclesfield and we watched a programme about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony which made me feel a little bit ill, because it was full of the conjecture that I responded so badly to at university when studying Sibelius. Sometimes it's possible to over-analyse a piece of music. It needs to be okay to admit that we don't know why a certain phrase was written, or to acknowledge that a composer might have written a piece of music, not because he was consumed by revolutionary spirit, but because he was given a much-needed commission which kept the wolf from the door. Ultimately, to me, it doesn't really matter. If it sounds good and it's moving or exciting, I'm not sure I care why.


We're driving along that really eerie dead-straight road which links Devizes and Avebury in Wiltshire. The fact that it's straight implies it's Roman, which lends it a somewhat mystical aura. I'm also aware that this particular road is renowned for UFO sightings. Nathan says that this knowledge freaked him out as a child. His family often drove around these parts. The excitement is mounting because a storm is brewing. The dark sky periodically fills with lightning. Any moment now I'm going to hear the five-note theme from Close Encounters booming out across the plains! I have my phone ready to film!

We were in Devizes for one of Nathan's family's weddings. Nathan has an enormous family. He reckons he's got about "40-odd" first cousins. The fact that he can't count them all tells you about as much as you need to know. I have four cousins. And one aunt!

So a big family means lots of weddings, funerals and family parties. On one occasion they had a "just 'cause" party because they were sick and tired of only getting to see each other when everyone was either grieving or highly stressed and in Bride-zilla mode!

I'm afraid, after fourteen years, I still get a lot of them muddled up. I'm awful with faces, and even worse with names, and there's a fairly strong family gene which makes them all look rather similar! Many of them have a West Country burr as well, so it's not like I can pinpoint certain people because they're talking in accents that I'm more familiar with!

What unites them all, however, is their loveliness. They are incredibly kind to me and always make me feel welcome and at ease. I think they're continually amused by the fact that I can always find a cup of tea to drink, whatever the occasion. I genuinely don't like alcohol (but for the occasional glass of whiskey) so a nice cup of tea is as refreshing for me as any cold beer. That's probably the most Englishy thing I've ever written down!

On our way to the party we stopped off at Avebury. Of course we did. I wouldn't be able to comprehend going to Wiltshire without making a little pagan pilgrimage to that magical place. There was a house for sale within the stone circle. I imagined how astonishing that must be. Your garden would be within that hallowed turf. A garden where ancient Druids once worshipped! I don't think it gets much better than that. I wonder how much it costs to retire to a stone circle.

We ate a plate of food in the pub and took ourselves for a little stroll amongst the stones. The sky was bruised and threatening, which added considerably to the drama of the walk.

Here's a little thing though... twice now, in as many days, I have stumbled upon a little bag of dog shit discarded by the road side. Yesterday's offering was underneath the cash machine by the post office on The Archway Road. Today's was next to a stile within the stone circle. I am very grateful to dog owners for dutifully clearing up after their pets, but if they're going to absentmindedly leave the little bags of crap all over the sodding place, then all they're actually doing is stopping poo from decomposing naturally, and turning white like it used to on the streets in the 1970s! The bag outside the post office had been kicked into the middle of the pavement by the time we'd returned from the local shop. That bag will no doubt have subsequently been trodden on by a small child wearing Jesus creeper sandals and white socks whose day will have been ruined. Ruined I tell you. So, if you're a dog owner, don't forget to clear up after clearing up after your pets!

You can put a turd in a Harrods bag, but it's still a bag of shite!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Council House Crackdown

Our boiler broke temporarily this morning, so, whilst I was waiting for the water to heat up for a bath, I watched a very trashy programme called Council House Crackdown, which followed members of the council as they removed people from council houses which they weren't entitled to, usually because the lawful tenant was subletting the house whilst living the life of Riley elsewhere. The presenters use highly incendiary language like "scammer" and "cheat" in the same way that, thirty years, ago they'd have used words like "pervert" to describe people like me. To validate their hard-core views, the presenters take pains to describe themselves at the start of the show as having been bought up on council estates. There is, of course, no-one less understanding of poor people than a poor person made good.

Much was made of the fact that the tenant of one such property was a "former pop star" who'd faked identity papers so that he could continue to live in a council house he wasn't meant to be in. I think we were all meant to cheer as the bloke was carted off to the police station and the voice over announced that the flat he was in had now been let to someone on the council waiting list. A triumph of the deserving over the undeserving.

But what happened to this former pop star? Where did he end up? Of course the BBC couldn't wait to name and shame him as a chap called Daniel Boone who'd had a "hit" record in 1972 called Beautiful Sunday. They didn't give any more details. It was plainly enough for viewers to know that he was a "pop star", and therefore probably extremely wealthy, spending all his money on drugs, and all the other clichés these low-rent exposé TV shows like to allow us to assume. I did a little digging to discover that Beautiful Sunday was actually a one-hit wonder which reached number 21 in the charts. If Boone himself didn't write the song, it's unlikely any money he made from his brief pop career would have got him to the end of 1972, and even if he wrote the song, it certainly won't have made him rich.

My immediate response was to think how awful it must be to have had a degree of fame in your prime, but to be forced, as an old man, to scam yourself into a council house, and then appear as a pariah on national telly. No one on the show reported what had happened to him after he was slung out of the flat he'd lived in for years. No one thought to discuss the fact that, since the 1980s, when the government sold off much of the council housing stock and didn't reinvest the money in new properties, there is a woeful lack of council housing, which leads people into doing ridiculously desperate things to live in one.

I'm pretty certain that some of the people rolling their eyes and tutting at the telly screen this morning will have been from the very generation who benefited enormously from an era where council houses were available for pretty much anyone on a lowish income. My parents had a council house for a few years after they got married. It gave them a buffer zone which enabled them to set themselves up before buying a house. That, of course, was in the day when the vast majority of people could actually afford to buy a house! These days very few of us can, but do we get to live in council houses whilst we save up for our deposits? No. We cripple ourselves paying ludicrous rents and die inside when people over the age of 50 remind us how much money they made out of property!

Sometimes I think we're so fast to judge people - and so quick to jump to mock moral outrage - that we forget that the majority of us are struggling to get by in life and that, from time to time, it's good to try to understand. The "I'm alright, Jack," mentality really naffs me off because, one day, you might not be alright. You might go bust. You might have an accident. You might be shammed by an unscrupulous trickster and then the world might turn its back on you. I am reminded of the gravestone quote, which I found in Highgate cemetery: "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

I shall not be watching that dreadful show again.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Pasta bakes and BGT

I made a pasta bake tonight and we're binge-watching more episodes of Britain's Got Talent, including the one featuring our friend's extremely classy girlband, Zyrah Rose. As predicted, Simon was rude to them, describing their act as "caviar, when a lot of people want spaghetti bolognese." His theory was that they were too "untouchable" to win. That pretty much sums Simon Cowell up. Dive in. Make a fast buck with something which catches the zeitgeist. Bale out.

(At this point I feel obliged to mention that when Kate Bush was signed to EMI, they sent her away for a year to learn mime skills and hone her creativity. In those days, record companies wanted artists to be in the business for the long-haul. Would you describe Kate Bush as "untouchable"? Absolutely! That's one of the reasons she's so mystical and special.)

I'd also like to pour scorn on the fact that all of these boy bands, girl groups and family acts on Britain's Got Talent have so many layered-up backing vocalists on their tracks that they might as well be miming. It would be great to hear what the singers actually sound like without all of these sonic bells and whistles. Yet more artifice!

Here's a question for you all. How do you spell the thing Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen does to rooms and cushions? Zjush? Zhush? As in "let's sjush this place up a bit..." This question has, for some time, had me stumped. Every time I find myself saying it (and, let's face it, my sexuality dictates that I use the word a lot) I find myself wondering how on earth I'd write it down...

There's a bloke who roams the streets of Highgate whom we've nicknamed "Fingers." He's one of those local characters that the place wouldn't be the same without, but he doesn't half freak me out! He's a fairly old chap and he walks around with his socks tucked into his trousers in a sort of "I'm a rambler" kind of a way. He carries a little bag with him into which he puts anything interesting that he finds in the bins that he rifles through. And boy can that man rifle through bins. He uses his bony little fingers to very carefully untie bin-liners, or make small, somewhat surgical holes in the polythene. It's genuinely a most disconcerting thing to stumble upon someone so brazenly going through the things you threw away the day before! It makes me somewhat self-conscious.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The metaphorical bottom drawer

I wrote a song this morning. It was rather lovely to be up in the loft again, writing music which wasn't limited by the output of ghastly computers. I think perhaps I've written something which is a little too sentimental but I've put it in a metaphorical bottom drawer and will see how I feel when I get it out again in a few days' time.

We went for a walk this evening in the dying embers of the sun. They're building a new apartment block further down the Archway Road, where the courthouse used to be, and to advertise it, they're displaying a huge aerial shot of the neighbourhood on a billboard. We stood staring at it for ages. Our little house is there in the bottom left corner, and you can see our car parked on Southwood Lane. The thing that really stands out on the picture, however, is how green everything is in this part of town. From above, it genuinely looks like some kind of village in the Chilterns. It's often said that London can actually be classed as a forest. There are apparently enough trees per square mile to merit being labelled thus, and looking at the billboard tonight, I suddenly saw why!

We've been catching up on Britain's Got Talent semi-finals this evening, the first of which was a tawdry affair which seemed to prove that Britain really doesn't have any talent whatsoever, but thank God the judges were on hand to remind us all that the shit we were watching was world class. Let's hope the standard picks up throughout the week. It ought to: one of the cast of Beyond The Fence is in a very classy girl group who I believe are performing in semi-final three. I won't hold my breath, however. The pros who turn up on these shows are routinely ripped to shreds. For this reason, you often get West End actors preferring to talk about the menial jobs they do when they're not actually acting. I've had mates describe themselves as check out girls and painters and decorators because they know the judges will suddenly crucify them if the actual truth is revealed!

One day I'll write a blog about everything I've heard about TV talent shows from friends who have worked on them, been contestants on them, or, more frighteningly, are professional performers who have been approached by "enablers" offering them huge sums of money to be contestants on the show. The artifice is astounding!