Thursday, 22 March 2018

100 Faces

I appear to be staggering across London with a massive backpack and a suitcase, upon which is stacked two incredibly heavy cardboard boxes. Ah! The life of a Quiz Master! The boxes contain pens and reams-upon-reams of paper. I have perilously attached them to the suitcase with gaffer tape. They are wobbling. Any moment now they’re going to topple off the top and there will be a pencident involving six hundred biros spinning across the tube station floor. Someone will trip. I will be sued. I can sense it all coming.

I had my second injection to inoculate me against the HPV virus today. Most women are given the injection whilst they’re still at school, but it’s something they don’t tend to inoculate men against, except, I’m told, in Australia. There are reasons for this to do with cervical cancer, but there’s compelling evidence to suggest that the HPV virus isn’t a lot of fun in a man either. In fact, I believe it’s responsible for my cousin’s cancer. So, anyway, the gay community, with our propensity to visit sexual health clinics for regular MOTs, make perfect guinea pigs for things the government are thinking about rolling out, and, because I don’t want warts and can’t spell “human papilloma”, I said “yeah!”

The injection hurts a bit! It goes into the muscle at the very top of your arm. That said, I loved my doctor. She was quirky and a lot of fun to chat to.

Last night, I went to a very lovely evening sponsored by UK Jewish Film. It was here that I learned that I have been awarded the prestigious Pears Short Film Fund. Readers who have known me for some time will remember that I made a film for the BBC in the North East called 100 Faces. The premise of the film is very simple. There are 100 Faces belonging to 100 people who are born in every year for the last 100 years. I made the film in 2012, which is within the lifetime of this blog, so feel free to read back over my accounts.

Anyway, I have long felt that 100 Faces didn’t make enough of a splash. It’s a beautiful film, but it was only screened by the BBC in a very small area of the county. In more recent years, as many readers of this blog will be aware, I’ve been dipping my toe into the murky waters of my Jewish ancestry and have very much enjoyed meeting the community I’ve discovered. It occurred to me, about a year ago, that a brand new version of 100 Faces, featuring some of the wonderful, diverse, mystical, fascinating, funny and vibrant Jewish people I know to exist, could be a deeply moving and hugely inspiring film.

British Jewish people, it strikes me, are never really allowed to shout about themselves in the way that American Jews really do. When did we last see a Jewish family on Eastenders for example? Was it Dr Legg? He died years ago!

Scratch the surface and most people’s idea of a Jewish person is either someone with a hat and ringlets, a sort of Maureen Lipman figure who makes chicken soup and can’t let go of her children, or a dark, underground network who control the media. That’s when we’re not using any debate about Jewish people to condemn the perceived human rights abuses happening in Israel.

When do we ever stop to think about the difference between Reform and Liberal Jews? Or the difference between Orthodox and Haredi? Or Ashkenazi and Sephardi? When do we celebrate the fact that same-sex couples can get married in at least fifty percent of British synagogues. That’s gay men marrying in a British place of worship. This is a forward-thinking community.

And it seems that the wonderful jury for the Pears Fund agreed. I am making the film. My quest to find 100 Jewish people of 100 Ages begins tomorrow. Please wish me luck.

And if you’re Jewish, and reading this, whether you’re religious or entirely atheist, please do get in touch.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Er ner mer sner

Highgate is still under a bit of snow. It was a fairly surreal moment when I drove back from Peterborough yesterday to find piles of virgin snow on the steps up to my front door. 

I was back home at 8.30am, which was also bizarre. I’d got up at 6 to drive to an interview in Winchester which was frustratingly cancelled because of the bad weather. I’d only actually managed about three hours’ sleep after the adrenaline rush of the Peterborough Cathedral experience, and had the interview been cancelled the night before, I’d have been able to have a lie-in and breakfast with my family.

In the end, I went for lunch with Michael in Brook Green, a rather charming, and very quiet largely Victorian residential area which runs between Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith. We had pizza and salad, which has to be one of my most favourite food combinations. So, actually, the day was salvaged and became very pleasant.

I was back in Highgate in the early evening, just in time for another tip-down of snow. Driving along the North Circular with snow rolling in circles around me was a somewhat epic, film-like experience. The snow in Highgate was glinting magically in car headlights and street lights. All weather manages to look rather romantic in Highgate. Particularly mist, which makes the village look like something from a Sherlock Holmes novel. Not that I’ve read a Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve actually only read ten novels in my life. Most of them by George Orwell.

Today was all about admin. Admin and more admin. I had long a list which I slowly worked my way through. I didn’t feel I’d made much of a dent on it, but I did do all the paper work related to officially releasing the Em album on all the online sites, which was a weight off my mind.

Nathan arrived back from the Edinburgh yarn festival last night with absolutely no voice. He can only whisper. He’s gone and got himself a dose of laryngitis, which is ironic because he looses his voice every time he goes to that particular festival. The last time was because he shouted so much during the ceilidh! I felt incredibly sorry for him as it’s his favourite yarnie hangout and not having a voice definitely compromised his ability to enjoy himself.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Peterborough’s Neeeeeen

Yesterday found me braving the snow and heading up to Peterborough for the final performance of Nene. It was a magical and very special day.

The journey up was far less complicated than I’d imagined. There was a good covering of snow on the car when I started my journey. It’s that rather strange icy snow which has been falling lately: the sort of powdery snow which gets everywhere, yet doesn’t seem to make anything particularly wet. It simply brushes off surfaces. I used an Enya CD to scrape it off all the windows and then went on my merry way, listening to Em on the car stereo. It sounded good. I felt excited.

By the time I’d reached Peterborough there was no sign of this second Beast from the East. In fact it was sunny. Freezing cold, but sunny. 

The parents had booked us all into a hotel in the centre of the city, and we had a light lunch in the bar before heading out for a stroll. Peterborough, it turns out, is a rather lovely place. My only real experience of it in the past was waiting for trains at the rather uninspiring station and going there for shopping-cum-skating fun as a teenager. For some reason it was my form at school’s preferred away day, and we never ventured further than the soulless shopping complex.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that the city has a medieval square, quite a lot of which is intact. And the cathedral is something else! It’s quite low-level and French-looking. There’s no massive spire or tower, but it’s profoundly beautiful. The ceilings are exquisite, carved from stone and wood. I don’t really know why it’s not better known. I don’t think there are many people in this country who would think to list Peterborough Cathedral alongside York, Canterbury and Lincoln. I’m not even sure that most people know that Peterborough even HAS a cathedral. 

It’s actually the burial site of Catherine of Aragon. My Mum had popped in the previous day and stumbled upon a woman at her tomb, weeping and wailing. It’s astounding how figures from the past can generate such hysteria.

The cathedral also once housed the body of Mary Queen of Scots, which felt rather appropriate as one of the sequences in Nene is a setting of a poem that Mary wrote in Fotheringhey, shortly before her execution.

I met some of the young people who were going to be singing. The music school has been hugely careful about sharing out which school does which concert, and this performance favoured schools from the north of the county, Rutland and Cambridgeshire, but I was a little sad not to have my posse from Higham Ferrers junior school there. They sent me a card after the Albert Hall production with a picture of them all. It sits proudly on my mantle piece.

Nemo, the bath-tub water sculpture, which has become something of a talisman for the piece, wasn’t actually being featured in this performance, but had come to the cathedral to keep us company. It was lovely to see him again.

Brother Edward and Sascha arrived and we had a little walk around the city. Edward bought himself a “healthy” smoothie with grains and soya milk and all sorts of horrors inside. It tasted like the mushy relic of a Weetabix bowl and sawdust, and it had the aftertaste of raisins. Literally ghastly. It also caused an unpleasant row in our hotel bar when we were asked to lose the drink or leave. Charming for residents, we thought...

The concert itself has imbedded itself in my mind as a series of little snap shot.

There was a queue when we arrived which snaked out of the cathedral all the way into the market square. I didn’t feel grand enough to skip it, so, because it was cold, I walked up and down to see who was there. Little Michelle and Ben, Debbie, Tash, two of the Angelas I went to school with... it was a joy to see them all. 

Seating was unreserved, so there was a bun fight going on. I was more than a little relieved that four seats at the front had been set aside for me. Enough for my guests Debbie, her husband Chris, and my Mum. Sitting on the front row is always a bit of a double-edged sword. You feel rather on display!

The first half included a contemporary dance piece performed by a group from Peterborough, which I found noble and impressive, yet a little bewildering. I wasn’t sure what expression to wear on my face. 

The County Youth Choir, on the other hand, were extraordinary. Debbie, Brother Edward and I were all founding members of the group in 1990, and all three of us oscillated between being hugely moved and highly proud. They performed Sleep by Eric Whittaker with almost breathtaking precision. Sitting in the front row, was a surround-sound experience. It was like we were wearing the choir as a warm cloak!

There was a disconcerting, giant bronze Jesus on a cross hanging above our heads. The cross was red, which meant the holes in Jesus’ eyes were glowing like some sort of devil. I kept looking up and wondering if anyone else had noticed this particular fact, or whether the sculptor had meant it to be like that!

I was a little disappointed to see so few lads in the performances. None of the dancers were boys, girls far outweighed boys in the massed choir, and even the percussion ensemble had more girls than boys. This, in an era where much is being made of the need to have more women in music.

There was a tremendous moment at the start of the concert when Peter Smalley, who was presenting, told the children in the mass choir that they could wave at their families in the audience. I turned around to look down the nave of the cathedral at the audience - all seven hundred of them - to witness a sea of waving hands. I don’t know why I found the sight so moving. Perhaps because it meant that I’d brought families together through my music and given them memories to cherish.

I was interviewed before the performance of Nene. I don’t actually remember what I said. I had wanted to suggest that Peterborough be re-annexed by Northamptonshire. It was, after all, part of the county until 1974. I’m not sure that would have gone down any better than my insistence that Nene be pronounced Nen, the Northampton way, rather than Neen, the Peterborough way!

The performance itself was really wonderful. I think the orchestra played it better than ever before, and, of course, that booming cathedral acoustic was generous. Some sequences really landed. Mary Queen of Scots’ poem reverberated around the space like something sent from heaven. The sequence about the ghostly hunt was also suitably chilling. It actually describes a haunting in the cathedral itself and I told the choir before that if they sang it really loudly, we might encourage the ghosts to come back! 

It’s a curious space which doesn’t exactly lend itself to performance. The choir and orchestra were a good thirty meters away from the front row of the audience, and we could only just see the conductor and a few bows moving about. There were screens in the space which showed us close-ups of the action, but, it wasn’t quite the visceral experience of Derngate or the Albert Hall. It was more wistful. Distant. Which sort of worked. I hope the audience towards the back of the space were able to hear enough of what was going on.

After the piece finished, I was engulfed by lovely people wanting to shake my hand and have their programmes signed. People were incredibly kind about the piece. Most used words like inspiring, filmic, epic...

It was probably the performers themselves coming up to me afterwards which was most gratifying. Many wanted to tell me the chord progressions they’d loved most. One lad said there was a passage which always made him smile no matter what sort of mood he was in. And many thanked me for including the sequence with a lad singing about his love for another lad. I think the section genuinely spoke to many of them and, for that alone, I felt hugely proud. One had a six coloured rainbow on the back of his phone which he told me his parents didn’t approve of. I felt sad.

The evening ended back at the hotel with Tash, Debbie, Chris, Anthony and the family. A wonderful night.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The minging generation

I saw a poster today for a cleaning product (at least I assume that’s what it was for) which simply said “microwave ming?” I assume the poster was asking passers by if we felt that our microwave ovens were smelly, dirty, or, as we might have said when I was at university, “minging.” I haven’t heard the word shortened to “ming” for many years. “That thing mings!” we’d say, or “that is ming!” If you were feeling particularly fancy, you might have said, “that’s ming-de-mong-de-wacky-de-honky.” Don’t ask me why! 

Anyway, it suddenly struck me that I’d never seen the word “ming” written down in any other context than Chinese dynasties and fancy vases. Seeing it on the billboard really took me back. But do the kids still refer to things as ming? Or is this an example of an advertising person trying to hit on a wave of nostalgia from the much-maligned and utterly inconsequential Generation X, who have had their babies now and are now obsessing about the mess their soon-to-be-teenaged-children are leaving everywhere?

I’m ashamed to admit that my generation hasn’t really offered a great deal to the world. Our talented people were silenced by moguls like Simon Cowell and replaced with pretty people who briefly captured the zeitgeist, generated money for the generation above and then disappeared from sight. Our politicians created Brexit and then pretended nothing was wrong. We can’t afford houses of our own. We don’t have proper pensions. All we’ve really got to offer the world is a mass market for cleaning produce! Perfect.

God bothering

A woman approached me at Borough tube yesterday. As she walked towards me I was thinking what a lovely scarf she was wearing and wondering if it was hand-knitted. The nearer she got, the more I realised she was a proselytising Christian. She had that glazed-look which I’ve come to associate with people who stand on street corners promoting the word of Christ. And sure enough, she handed me a small, square piece of paper and told me that Jesus loved me. “Oh, no” I said, as politely as possible, “please don’t hand me one of them.” The paper felt dirty in my hand. I tried to hand it back, but she wouldn’t take it, so I threw it on the floor. There followed a fairly unpleasant scene which involved her informing me that I was a sinner, which made me see red: “I don’t think it’s your place to call a stranger a sinner. You shouldn’t be doing this. The fairy tales you believe in are entirely your own choice, but it’s not for you to tell me how to live my life. I’m a gay man...” “that explains it” she said. So I shouted at her and she started shouting back in a strange high-pitched voice. I didn’t like it at all.

I genuinely think any attempt to convert someone to religion should be viewed as grooming. Worship whichever deity you feel like worshiping but it is wholly inappropriate to approach a stranger in a public place. Time and time again it’s vulnerable people who are attracted to religion, pulled in by unscrupulous people who then turn lives upside down by making moral judgements about lifestyles. I have no idea why anyone would consider the practices of certain religious people any more appropriate than abusers. Yes, to me, these street preachers are simply irritating and tragic, but to someone with mental health issues, depression, or those who are grieving or in trouble, they can be deeply dangerous and I personally believe we need laws to stop them.

Yes, the majority of Christians across the world are good, kind, loving people, but religion is also twisted and used as an excuse for persecution and highly dubious behaviour on many levels from war-mongering to subtle mind games. I am convinced, for example, that Tony Blair’s religious conviction played a part in the questionable decisions he made to take action in the Middle East. I also believe it’s highly dangerous that Theresa May prays to God for answers to our country’s troubles.

When I was a teenager coming to terms with my sexuality, a very close friend of mind told me, just after I’d had a car accident and turned to her for emotional support, that she was “really pleased I didn’t die” because she “wouldn’t have been able to deal with the fact that I’d gone to hell.” Now if that statement was in line with the teachings of Christ, I’ll find a bible and eat it! Using hell as a threat is nothing but abuse.

By chance, I came home and watched a programme about Roman Britain from the air. An expert was talking about Roman religious worship and the fascinating number of deities and rituals associated with that ancient people. At the end of the segment, the presenter, Christine Bleakley, felt the need to say, “I’m not keen on Roman religion. It sounds a bit like black magic to me.” And I thought, “sod you! I’m watching this programme to learn about the Romans. I don’t need your modern day religious judgements.” Can you imagine if the continuity announcer after Songs of Praise said “I don’t like these God botherers. That church feels like a cult?”

Why is it that we feel we can openly condemn paganism, ufology or Wicca whilst turning a blind eye to the horrors associated with organised religion? Because God is Love? Pull the other one!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Mary Magdalene

Last night saw me attending a screening of Philippa’s stupendous Mary Magdalene film. I had hitherto thought that I’d be the quintessential anti-audient when it came to a film about Jesus, but it I found the experience utterly transporting. The story, as you might guess from its title, is told entirely from the perspective of Magdalene, a figure whose fundamental importance has been suppressed by Catholicism for the best part of two thousand years. It’s only relatively recently that revisionism has taken place. I actually had no idea that, within the last two years, the Vatican had actually upgraded her status to that of an apostle/ disciple, which strikes me as pretty big news. I don’t know a great deal about Christianity, but it’s always fascinated me that an entire religion can be based on the concept of resurrection without whole-heartedly celebrating the person who Jesus first appeared to in his zombie state. Surely, this fact alone makes Mary Magdalene of crucial importance to the faith?

The other thing which I’ve never been able to reconcile is the role that Judas plays within the religion. Judas, it strikes me, did only what he was destined to do. Without Judas, there would have been no crucifixion and because Jesus needed to die in order to be resurrected, anyone, from Herod to Pilate, who played a part in the great order of things, should, by rights, be up there in heaven with the main man. For this reason, I was hugely impressed by the portrayal of Judas within Philippa’s film. They gave him a back story which offered a reason for his fanaticism and ultimate betrayal, and he was really sensitively played by a North African actor with a luminous, kind face, which was a million miles away from the brooding nonsense we tend to associate with portrayals of that man.

The film was exquisitely shot with a massive emphasis on faces and eyes. It also felt surprisingly wintry, with rolling mists sliding down hillsides, and dark, brutal winds rustling hair and scarves.
Philippa’s writing is moving and self-assured, and I sat in the audience, a really proud man.

I took Abbie with me, as I felt, of all of my friends, she was likely to get the most out of it. I’m therefore very pleased to report that she loved it as well.

There was a Q and A afterwards with Philippa in one of the hot seats. The audience, many of whom were religious scholars, were very warm, although I got a bit angry when one of them started banging on about her issues with a white actress playing “a woman of colour.” Mary Magdalene was Jewish and Middle Eastern, which, as far as I’m concerned, means she could have been anywhere from very pale skinned to North African in appearance. It is as legitimate to have her played by a white woman as it is to have her played by a black woman. If the actress chosen had looked like Agnetha from ABBA, I might have taken issue with the casting, but I was really happy with the way that the actress looked. Actually, a much more interesting debate might have been about the visual authenticity of Jewish and Palestinian actors being cast in central roles, against the barriers that opposing personal faiths might have generated in this regard.

There’s little else to say about yesterday, as I spent the entire day packaging up CDs to send off to people who had preordered copies of Em. I walked into the post office with ninety padded envelopes and I could see the woman behind the counter mentally preparing herself for a long haul! Largely as a result of Nathan’s knitting fans getting behind the project, I was hugely excited to be sending packages to USA, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany, Spain, Iceland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. What a small world we live in!

Sunday, 11 March 2018


We went to Raily and Iain’s house today to pay homage to their new baby, Lola, who seems to be a rather happy little tyke. She’s got a fine head of hair on her, which always makes for an interesting looking child. The majority of babies look like slugs at her age.

We took ourselves to a little collection of farm buildings on the outskirts of Aylesbury which have been turned over to a series of artists’ studios. Most were closed, sadly, including a big yarn and fibre craft centre, but we had a good look around a shop which sold paintings and all kinds of lovely things made from glass and metal. In these instances, I always find myself looking for cufflinks. There were a pair, but they were made from miniature books - and paper cufflinks have about as much practical use as cakes made of concrete.

We came home and ate lovely food. There were home-made veggie burgers for lunch, with a delicious pomegranate and tomato salad, and garlic potatoes for tea with halloumi. Word seems to have escaped within my friends that I am addicted to halloumi. People even send me pictures of battered halloumi. It’s like porn for me!

It was, as always, a delight to spend time with Raily and Iain and their brood. Jeannie has grown up massively recently. I think having a baby sister will do that to someone. She’s become very conscientious and spent ages in the car coming up with ingenious ways of stopping Lola from crying.

We came home and Nathan called his mother for Mother’s Day. I appeared in the room and sat next to him and overheard a brilliant interchange: “I’m going to Yoevil tomorrow” said Nathan (who genuinely is off to Yoevil tomorrow for a photoshoot.) I heard his mother’s response, however, “you’re going to yodel, tomorrow?”

It wasn’t that weird a retort: Nathan is a keen and rathe fine yodeller, but it made me howl with laughter, almost as much as my learning today that my godson has someone in his form called “Shitaj” whom everyone has to called Neil. I haven’t laughed so much since a good friend told me he had a friend at school called Fuquanisha. Her name was actually banned. Everyone had to called her Nisha! Beats my old mate Sue Perbe into a cocked hat!