Sunday, 23 July 2017

Cambridge punting

Nathan has been at a wedding all day today where he's been playing, of all things, a Jewish rabbi. We went into Golders Green yesterday to buy him a kippa. I'm sure he looks the part with his enormous beard!

I've been in a very rainy Cambridge all day with Helen and Michael today. We arranged the trip about a month ago when a glorious hot day seemed likely. To make matters worse, the weather forecast was entirely off. The suggestion was that there would be a lengthy period of dry weather in the middle of the afternoon, so we duly hired a punt and got ourselves a lovely picnic from Sainsbury's. We managed about half an hour's drifting down the river in relatively pleasant weather, before the skies opened and we were royally shafted by rain.

Actually, punting in the rain isn't the most miserable experience in the world. I had a raincoat, although it was more a rain conduit. Every time I lifted the pole into the air, river water went down the cuff and soaked into my shirt, and before long I realised that the coat itself was heavy with rain water, all of which had been sucked into my shirt.

The tourists on the river were in free fall. I've seldom seen a more inadequate set of punters. There were boats at all angles on the river. Some were creating almost impenetrable barricades. The difficulty with an amateur punter is that you can't predict what he or she might do. As you steer your punt away from the mayhem, he or she is as likely to start heading at high speed in the same direction, whilst some other lunatic ploughs into you from the left field!

At one stage I was attempting to get out of the way of a veritable caravan of mayhem, and found myself on the left hand side of the river. The normal rules of the water really don't apply when it comes to punting on the Cam. It's every man for himself as you negotiate the countless obstacles created by ineptitude. Anyway, I was forced to steer around one punt which was basically scraping against a wall on the bank of the river. The middle aged man punting was obviously out of control but plainly didn't want to lose face with his cargo of women. He shouted over to me, pointing angrily at the other bank, as I sailed by, "the right hand side of the river is over there..." I refrained from shouting back, "learn how to punt, and then we can discuss river etiquette!"

The rain got heavier and heavier. Because we were punting on a Trinity college punt, but had decided to go out into the countryside up stream to Grantchester, we were forced to haul our punt up a set of rollers to avoid a weir. It's actually a really difficult task when there's only three of you, and on the way back, in the sheeting rain, we were forced to wait whilst two other punts filled with witless people attempted to negotiate the rollers. It took some time. The task involves dragging the boat over the busy footpath which run alongside the river, which means passers are blocked from passing for a minute or two. Usually they join in and help to move the boat. When it came to our turn, a posh older woman on a bike was having none of it and actually prevented us from getting our punt on the rollers by sticking her bike wheel in the way. "Could you move your bike back a little?" I asked, politely. She huffed: "Well could you get on with it? It's raining, I'm getting wet, and you're holding me up." I called her a ghastly woman. To her face!

We got off the punts, soaking wet, and headed to a pub where I changed into a T-shirt I'd mercifully brought with me in case I fell in. Heaven knows why the pub people put up with us because we ordered one round of drinks and then proceeded to get our picnic out on the table and chow down on it in a somewhat brazen manner!

We went back to Helen's where I made a ghastly "posh cheese on toast" concoction based on a roux, which I managed to split horrifically, so the whole thing tasted like sand paper. We took a late train back, but when I got home, poor Nathan was still at his wedding. Still dressed as a rabbi!

Friday, 21 July 2017

Bond plays

I went last night to see a youth theatre production of an Edward Bond play yesterday night. It was a fairly eccentric choice of material for a youth theatre which caters predominantly to working class kids. I've never been a massive fan of Bond. The piece was written in the early 70s and was billed as a comedy, but the language was way too indulgent and whimsical to actually be funny. There's something about British theatre from that era which I find very difficult to stomach. It's rarely narrative driven, the characters are often unlikeable and there's always a sense that the language overrides the need for plot or anything that I actually look for in theatre. It's like nothing ever happens. There are none of the outbursts of passion and anger that young people do so well. If I were running a youth theatre in London, I would almost definitely stick to a diet of plays by modern London writers like Che Walker: dramas with roles and language which play to the strength of the kids. There were some really talented kids though, and they were really, really brave to tackle a piece so complicated and nuanced.

There was a fairly amusing scene beforehand. We were talking to the director of the piece outside the theatre when one of the actresses came out of a side door in full costume and make up. "What are you doing out here?" The director asked. "I just need to pop to the shops," said the girl. "You shouldn't be out here in costume. Go back inside." "I need some nuts. I haven't eaten anything since yesterday." "Well that's very silly of you! Go down to the bar and see if they've got some crisps." The girl, at that point, decided to play her trump card, blithely, or maybe triumphantly announcing, "I have bulimia." It's one of those announcements which the kids make these days which they know can't be ignored. It felt incredibly cynical and quite calculating. She didn't like being challenged by authority, so she dropped the b bomb. I've heard dyslexia being used in a similar way. And depression. And because, as a society, we pander to these things, they get away with if. There's a sense of entitlement amongst the young which is really quite grotesque. I think it's because they're paying for everything. If you have to pay £9k for tuition, you want to know exactly how you're going to get the qualification you've paid for with minimum effort.

Thursday, 20 July 2017


We went to see Yank at the Charing Cross Theatre with Abbie yesterday. I was keen to see it, not just because it's a new musical - albeit from the States - but because it tells a gay love story set against the backdrop of war, which of course is the territory of Brass. In the case of Yank, as the title might suggest, it's Americans fighting in the Second World War, on the relatively unfamiliar Pacific front.

I enjoyed the piece enormously. There were some blistering central performances and the piece is really very moving towards the end. I had a few of caveats. I felt the music, though largely appropriate, was perhaps a little one-level, and also that a fair number of the songs did nothing to drive the narrative forward. I also felt the writing was perhaps a little casual when it came to exploring a gay relationship at that time. I often feel that. There's a massive balance which needs to be struck between what a 21st Century audience WANTS to see and what feels authentic for the time you're setting a piece in. Casual gay snogging just feels wrong. Scores of characters whom the audience are meant to like being endlessly tolerant and open-minded also feels wrong. I just didn't feel the stakes were quite high enough until right at the end. It also felt like the audience was being told rather constantly that the two central characters were in love, but actually we never witnessed two men in love. As a result of all of this I felt emotionally distant from the piece, which, because I'm the show's target audience, felt a slight shame.

But I am making it sound like it wasn't a hugely enjoyable, diverting and well-staged piece, which is was. It's well worth a watch. So get yourselves down to Charing Cross theatre to see it!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Flashing lights

There was a Mediterranean-style mega-storm in North London this evening. We arrived at Highgate tube from Central London and walked out into the mother of all rainstorms. For the next hour, lightning filled the sky around us, flashing every three seconds like a crazy 1990s rave.

A level of comedy was added to the proceedings when the lightning somehow managed to effect the speed camera just up the road from us, which decided to flash every car which drove down the road, regardless of the speed they were travelling at. At one stage lights were going off every were you looked!

We'd been in Central London to see the screening of the first episode of a rather moving BBC drama, beautifully written by Patrick Gale and called The Man in the Orange Shirt. The first episode is set in the late 1940s, which is a period that very few writers actually write about. Our knowledge of the decade is usually limited to stories about the war. I've often wondered what the period immediately after the war was all about. Pre "new look". Pre Festival of Britain. Pre rock 'n roll. I guess it was simply a time when people wandered about in the ruins of the war, trying to work out what on earth had just happened! The forgotten years.

The rest of the day has been spent trying to recover from Israel. I did some basic admin, formatted a pitch and pottered about a bit. We had lunch in the cafe - beans on toast - but the beans were obviously cooked in a pan which had had washing up liquid in it, because they tasted all perfumey and rank. Tomorrow the hard work begins again.

Returning a frum

It feels as though I've been in Israel for an age. We have packed so much into the few days we've been out here. There have been many late nights and many early mornings, and, as a result I am absolutely knackered, yet feeling alive. We now have a really decent pitch for what I think could be an absolutely brilliant documentary. All that remains now is to find someone who'll take a punt on it.

Our last day in Tel Aviv included a meeting with a hugely interesting drag performer. He is drag mother to a host of both drag queens and drag kings, who often get overlooked when it comes to celebrating the diversity of the wider LGBT community.

After the meeting, we walked down into central Tel Aviv. I wanted to see some of the Bauhaus buildings from the period when Europeans Jewish immigrants effectively created the city. There's something deeply alluring about early 20th Century architecture, which is always hugely enhanced by a well-proportioned palm tree. What is it about a palm tree which so effectively and elegantly screams the 1920s? No self-respecting Art Deco building would be complete without a palm tree, or at least some sort of architectural evocation of one!

Tel Aviv is full of stray cats, all of which look entirely feral and half dead. They rifle through the dustbins and chow down on grotesque bird carcasses. I hate cats. Quite a lot of the Tel Aviv residents seem to take pity on them and you often stumble across someone feeding a little group of the nasty bastards. 

From the Bauhaus street, we headed to one of Tel Aviv's markets. I got it into my head that I wanted a pair of cufflinks to remember the trip by, but very few Israeli's actually wear suits let alone double-cuffed shirts. The search for cufflinks in a market frequented by working class residents of Tel Aviv therefore was a somewhat hopeless one! One of the stall holders looked at us blankly when we asked if he had any, and seemed almost angry when we asked if he could recommend somewhere we could find some!

In the end I found a lovely pair from the 1960s in a little shop somewhere near our hotel. They are rather chunky and have the Star of David on them. I'd joked with Nathan that I was going to return from Israel all frummed-up, so they will amuse him!

...And that's that. A golden little four-day flash of light is over and, if I'm honest, I feel a little sad. Israel really is the most fascinating and beautiful country. It seems odd to think that, just four days ago, we arrived at the film festival to the news that there had been a shooting in the old town less than half a mile from where we were. It was a reminder that Israel is a complex issue and that the country has a very difficult journey ahead of it. I sincerely hope it's something which can be made to work and that the problems of the West Bank and Gaza Strip can be solved. I furthermore hope I'll have the opportunity to return in the very near future.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jaffa cakes

After checking in at the hotel at about midnight last night, we took ourselves on a walk around Tel Aviv. The Israeli culture favours late nights, largely, I assume, because only a mad Englishman would be out on the baking streets during the day. We went straight down to the floodlit beach, where children were still playing and swimming. Couples were siting by the water's edge on plastic deckchairs. It seemed so bizarre to think that it was so late at night. I think Jewish people tend to party hard at sunset on Shabbat, so I guess Saturday night is the big night.

We took our shoes and socks off and paddled in the sea, whilst the reflection of a perfect half moon danced on the surface. The sand was soft and cool, the water was surprisingly warm. There are all sorts of beach bars along the promenade which stay open late into the night. Their lights twinkle in the darkness. Tall Art Deco buildings watch over them. Further north, the sound of the sea echoes magically on the sandy cliffs, creating the curious sonic illusion that waves are crashing somewhere inland.

It strikes me that Tel Aviv dances to the rhythm of its own drum. We witnessed some fairly eccentric sights including night time metal detectors wading out into the waves. People sit by little fires along the water's edge. The gay beach here is right next door to the orthodox beach, where men and women are separated by giant fences. It was only around the Orthodox beach that we actually saw any of the hardcore religious folk who'd filled the streets of Jerusalem. This city is definitely far more secular than its inland neighbour. Its residents are younger, more self-assured and shiny. It's very rare to see a kippa, let alone a homburg.

This morning I took myself to a cafe opposite the National Theatre where the pavements are so lightly coloured that they actually hurt your eyes when the sun shines on them. Which is constantly! Without sunglasses I was forced to stumble along with my hands over my eyes. It was surreal. It took me rather a long time to recover!

I ate the most delicious pesto and feta toasted sandwich served with a salad which had toasted nuts on top. It was so so delicious - particularly after a somewhat forced diet of pizza and chips in Jerusalem! I suddenly realised, with great relief, that I was on the Mediterranean again.

Tel Aviv is full of rainbow flags. Scores of buildings fly the flag from their windows and balconies. It's really very wonderful to see, because, in this country, that simple, life-affirming symbol also says "religion will not dictate our way of life."

Another thing there are a lot of in Tel Aviv is cyclists, all of whom seem to cycle on the pavements with a sense of great entitlement. I got bashed by one with such force that he managed to leave a bruise on my arm!

This afternoon we went up to Jaffa, which is the old part of Tel Aviv. It's still a largely Arabic district, and sits up on a hill over-looking the gleaming white buildings of the rest of the conurbation. We visited a very lovely flea market which was rammed-packed with useless little trinkets. Both of us wanted to buy something - anything - but all we could find were endless pairs of earrings, lengths of ethnic fabric and silly necklaces. It's the same with every market I've visited in Israel!

We walked down to Jaffa port where millions of tiny fish were feeding on a load of pitta bread which had been thrown into the harbour. At about this point we began to realise we'd walked five miles in blistering heat and were beginning to suffer the consequences. My hands and feet started to swell, I got a prickly heat rash and my knees started to feel like they were burning... We had no option but to continue because it's nigh on impossible to hail a taxi in these parts, so continued our odyssey in as much shade as we could!

The white Art Deco, often Bauhaus, buildings of Tel Aviv make really good canvasses for quite spectacular graffiti. Quite a lot of them are slowly being done up, but there are some curious contradictions. At one point we stumbled upon matching buildings on two sides of the street, one had been renovated and looked as fabulous and gleaming as the day it was built. The other looking like something from war torn Yugoslavia. Apparently it's the gay community who are gentrifying large parts of south Tel Aviv. You can tell. The whole area buzzes. Lime and pomegranate trees line the pavements. Scores of trendy little cafes and art shops pour onto the streets.

After a meeting with a young drag performer, we had dinner and then went down to the beach where we ate ice cream and swam in the dark waves whilst the moon rose. A group of frum women sat in the water on the edge of the beach. None had taken any of their clothes off. They didn't seem to care. It was a truly magical moment.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The First Station of the cross and a pissy bus

Today was a bit of a faffy day which found us roaming the streets of Jerusalem in 34 degree heat looking for somewhere which would serve us food. It's Shabbat and nowhere is open. This is what the Midlands used to be like on a Sunday before they relaxed the trading hours! I guess, if you lived here, you'd rather speedily get used to the fact that nothing is open and prepare accordingly. It was a little painful for us. We skipped breakfast, had a chocolate bar at about noon and only properly ate at 4pm, by which point we'd both gone low sugar and sunburned!

We had back-to-back meetings in the morning about the project we're trying to get off the ground before deciding to take ourselves up into the old city, assuming the Armenian quarter might have places where we could eat because, for Christians, a Saturday is a day like any other. Sadly, both of us had run out of cash, and nowhere accepted cards, so we felt a little like a couple of losing contestants on Bullseye being told "here's what you could have won!" We'd run out of cash because the pound is worth jack shit these days. Three or so years ago, a single pound would buy you 9 shekels. Today it will buy you just five. Actually, just under five. Another reason to thank all those wonderful people who voted Brexit. It's funny: I took my passport out at the airport in Tel Aviv, and, for the first time in my life, felt ashamed. I used to feel this great rush of pride when I took out my burgundy British-European passport. Now I simply feel embarrassed. People I've met here have all taken the mickey. They think Brexit's a joke. They think Theresa May is a joke.

As we staggered up the slippery, careworn steps towards the Old City, two Americans called over to us: "where's Bethlehem?" They asked. It was such a daft question that neither of us managed to get an answer out. I've seldom heard such nonsense since someone on a London bus asked me the way to Liverpool. "Liverpool Street Station?" I asked. "Is that where the Cavern Club is?"

The Old City was buzzing with its streets and streets of tiny cave-like shops. It's very difficult to explain how the geography of the area works. You couldn't get a car or even a bike down the alleyways, all of which are entirely covered over. Some are completely underground - dug straight into the rock. Others are under huge stone roofs. Periodically, there's some sort of skylight, or gap in the roof and one walks into a pool of direct sunlight everything else is in the cool shade. The shops sell tourist tat: kippas with the Star of David embroidered into them with silver thread, mini-menorahs, purses made of ethnic fabrics with the word Jerusalem emblazoned across. The shop keepers are mostly Arabic. They hassle and hustle the passers by. Many have songs birds over their doors which sit in tiny cages tweeting their distress to the world. It's all a little grotesque. The Christian Americans in their ludicrous sports caps feel savvy and wealthy, and spend hours bartering with the shop keepers, thinking they're getting bargains which have made the Arabs weep. The Arabs, however, rub their hands in glee. They know they're selling tat.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I think it's where Jesus died. It's possibly also where he was reborn because there's a big flat stone which people douse in perfumes and rub lengths of fabric against. I have a feeling that it's the supposed door to the tomb which Jesus emerged from, but I'm basically more up on the story of Robin Hood!

As a non-believer, I felt a little bit removed from everything if I'm entirely honest, but the architecture is stunning, and, what's fascinating is the sheer diversity of Christians who range from Americans in their shell suits, through nuns in habits all the way through to heavily-bearded Greek Orthodox chaps. Robes, dog collars, wimples, crucifixes of all shapes and sizes... I saw it all today.

We missed our 5.30 film. The organisers of the festival plainly haven't allocated enough seats in their screenings for delegates, so we were sent away, tails between our legs.

We had an early evening meeting with a young drag queen back at the rather lovely First Station, which is the old train station we've found ourselves visiting rather regularly over the last few days. We were booked in for another film at 9.30pm, but Michael realised he'd lost his credit card, so I went in search of it, and sent him into the screening without me. It felt far more important for the chief executive of the UK Jewish film festival to watch a Jewish film than it did for me, and we needed to jump on the bus for Tel Aviv at just gone 11. I found his card back at the First Station. (Not the First Station of the Cross, you understand...)

So between us we've seen four films at the festival, three of which were directed by women and all of which featured female protagonists. I'm not altogether sure how to interpret this particular piece of information, other than to say that, if there still is prejudice against women in the film industry, it's certainly not been in evidence at the Jerusalem film festival.

It felt a little premature to be leaving Jerusalem this evening. The bus smelt shockingly of piss and deposited us in a very different, far more secular world, which is possibly the most humid place I've ever visited. I'm drenched in sweat!

But more about Tel Aviv tomorrow...