Sunday, 23 April 2017

Let's Get Quizzical

I was back in Thaxted yesterday, attending a quiz in aid of the tennis club. Local quizzes up there tend to happen in two different village halls, one of which is in Thaxted itself, but yesterday's was out towards Dunmow in a tiny little village, by the Rolls Royce showrooms, on the same stretch of road where, at night time, strange optical illusions, triggered by car headlights, give the impression of ghostly white rabbits dancing in the middle of the road.

Sally and Stuart who are usually key members of our "Epicureans" team were ill, so there were only five of us: my parents, Helen, Michael and me.

It was Michael's first trip to Thaxted, so, whilst we waited for Helen to arrive from Cambridge, I took him on the grand tour, which basically involves the church, the windmill and a little jaunt down to the magic place. The village, which was bathed in glorious yellow sunlight, was putting on a very fine show. The bird song was particularly impressive. Michael brought my attention to the highly decorative nature of what we were hearing. He has a theory that London birds, particularly those away from the large parks who share their lives with humans, have incredibly limited singing ranges which, in his words, "often sound like lorries reversing." A fair amount of research has been done into the concept of bird dialects, which vary in different locations, but I'm convinced that birds also mimic what's around them. When you stay in one of the halls at Sevenoaks School for example, at about 7am, all the birds start to sound like alarm clocks going off - a sound which they must hear emerging from scores of windows and simply want to copy.

The quiz was a good one. It had a St George's Day theme. I was somewhat surprised to learn that it's actually St George's Day today. It makes me a little sad to think that the English don't tend to celebrate their patron saint's day, despite St Andrew's, St Patrick's and St David's Days being such a massive deal in our neighbouring lands. It's all part of the lack of identity thing and the fact that flying the English flag, or even the Union Jack, is considered a deeply right wing act which somehow signifies to the world that we still believe in the oppression of colonialism. Blah blah blah. It's hideously messed up. I genuinely feel that a lot of the problems that this country is presently facing stem from an ever-growing sense of needing to atone for the perceived collective sins of our forefathers.

It was a good quiz, however. We scored well on all but the history round, which ought to have been our forte. My Dad is an historian, I love history, and Helen is the daughter of a history don! But none of us knew the year that Thatcher ceased being this country's dictator, or where Marks And Spencer's came from. We weren't really dealing with what I would usually describe as history!

Because there were only five of us on our team, the quiz organisers asked if we could take an extra four people, which technically created an illegally-large team, but it was a family unit, with two somewhat droopy-looking teenagers, so I don't think anyone felt that they would be a significant or unfair addition to our team. Actually, it turned out that their knowledge base was thin, but highly effective when it came to popular knowledge. If you're only going to answer three questions, make sure they're the three questions which nobody else knows the answers to!

A very brave final "wipe out" round (where you lose all your points for the round if you get a question wrong, but you can opt not to answer a question) coupled with playing our joker and getting full marks on the musical theatre round, meant that we won, and won convincingly, but because the musical theatre round was really late in the quiz, we'd always appeared to be languishing in about fourth place, so our victory felt rather like we'd added a rocket to the back of our car and undertaken the traffic jam on the hard shoulder. As a result, our winning certificate had been filled in with name of the team who had been winning throughout, with their name scrubbed out and ours written in! It pays never to be too hasty as a quiz master!

We went home to the parents' for cups of tea and a post-quiz giggles and then drove back to London, highly disappointed that there was no ghostly smoke hovering above the road where the gibbet used to be on the outside of the town.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Running out of reasons

All the people who work in Costa up in Highgate Village are European. Every day they serve me with exquisite politeness and every day, I listen to them talking to one another. There's never a sense of moaning. They never bitch or whinge. They're always open, friendly, and interested. They talk about football and Eurovision and describe the regular customers as their friends. They encourage banter. They're always wonderfully presented. When customers complain, they are horrified and instantly try to help. Yesterday a man asked for a takeaway and the woman behind the counter gave him his drink in a glass. When he asked for a paper cup, she realised her mistake, and instead of just pouring the drink into a paper cup, as he suggested, she insisted on making him a fresh drink.

One of the staff members sits on the street and has a coffee whilst smoking a cigarette before his shift begins. He does it every day. I can't explain it, but there's something intensely European about the way he does it. There's something in the calmness. The fact that he's not in a rush. He simply sits. Occasionally he'll wave over at someone on the street opposite. The very act of him sitting there makes me want to go to Europe.

I've started to notice that English cafe staff always feel far more arch and surly by comparison. I always get the impression that they're wanting to move on. That somehow that feel what they're doing is beneath them. They're doing it for the money, maybe, whilst waiting for Simon Cowell to notice them. I notice these same traits time and time again.

I don't think it's going to be possible for me to live in a country from which these beautiful, sparky, friendly European people are sent away from. On a daily basis they remind me that I belong to Europe, that I'm part of the greatest continent on the planet. And don't patronisingly tell me that we'll still be in Europe post Brexit. That's like saying that your most irritating third cousin who has severed links with all his relatives through outrageously arrogant and selfish behaviour is still a family member. At the end of the day, it means jack shit.

I watched a very elegant older lady in the cafe at one stage. She was sitting at a table outside enjoying a coffee of some description. She was probably in her 50s and was stylish in a Parisian sort of way. Beautifully manicured nails. Very keen fashion sense. I watched as she opened her handbag to pull out a lipstick but instantly realised that she couldn't stop shaking. She was trying to apply the lipstick but it seemed to be taking forever because she couldn't quite get control of her hands. My heart absolutely broke for her.

I walked home through air which was dense with the smell of blossom. Everywhere in London seems to smell really rich and ripe at the moment. I think it's a result of the lack of rain we've been having. Last night there was a dusty smell in the air which was infused with wisteria. It was really quite delightful. I love it when you get those flowers like jasmine which really start to kick off their scents after dark. Right now, you might guess that I'm struggling to find reasons to stay in this country...

Friday, 21 April 2017

Megalomaniac

I sat in the cafe yesterday writing music and trying to get my head around this ludicrous general election, which I'm beginning to feel is testing the very concept of democracy because it's clear that May (having promised there wouldn't be a general election until 2020) is only calling an election because she thinks she's going to win it, rather than because the country actually needs one. She's a megalomaniac. And a tragedy. I bet she smells weird as well. Like cloying perfume and farts.

Anyway, whilst sitting in the cafe, I realised they were playing Wuthering Heights on the sound system. They play music mercifully quietly in Costa Highgate, and the seat I usually opt for is as far away from speakers as it's possible to get. The glorious tones of La Bush, however, are unmistakable, and made me very happy, particularly when a woman on the next door table started joining in. Rather convincingly, as it happens. And in full belt!

Imagine my extreme further joy when I suddenly heard a short snippet of the iconic opening piano notes of The Winner Takes It All by ABBA, superimposed on top of the Kate Bush song. Pretty much my two favourite songs vying for attention! It turned out that the bloke wearing the kippah on the other side of me had set the ABBA song as his text message alert. Throughout the morning I heard those glorious bars of piano music several times. Each time they caught me off guard and I found myself getting a little emotional. There's something about that particular musical phrase which cuts straight to my heart. Every time. Like the smell of wood smoke in Thaxted, the taste of potatoes roasted in flour, or the very mention of Wales! Is it a bit weird that I cry whenever someone talks about Wales?!

Johnny Vaughan engaged me in conversation on the tube a couple of nights ago. I'd been in town for a meeting and I was in a filthy mood, so flung open my laptop and immersed myself in a song from Em. I could sense the bloke next to me looking over my shoulder with great interest. Just as he stood up to get off the tube at Camden, he asked the name of the music writing programme I was using and engaged me in a brief conversation about the merits of Finale vs Sibelius. It was only as he left the carriage that I realised who I'd been talking to. I'm not altogether sure why I think this story is worthy of this blog, but I guess there may be Jonny Vaughan fans out there who might be vaguely titillated. Obviously Jonny Ball would have excited me slightly more. And a conversation with Jonny Morris would have been a proper story. I loved Jonny Morris. I've just read on Wikipedia that he left his house to Terry Nutkins when he died. I've also just read that Terry Nutkins is also dead. I guess you reach an age where you have to expect that all your childhood heroes are no longer with us! Terry Nutkins had eight children. However did he find space for that sea lion?!

I am still on target to deliver a song from Em every day, although I haven't quite managed to finish today's offering. I was adding quite a large amount of new material, so it feels really important to sleep on what I've done today. For the last week, on and off, during in my spare time (as it were), I've been working on a song from the show called A Little Balance, which I can't quite manage to put to bed. It's right off the radar in terms of my usual musical theatre offering, which might mean it's blinking brilliant or it will fall flat on its face. I'm working incredibly hard to make sure the latter option isn't the case, and, in the process, am finding myself simplifying and simplifying. Stripping chord after chord, note after note, so there's more and more space. It's actually a really good exercise because it means you lobby only for what's absolutely necessary in terms of the spacing and density of chords. I've decided to run a drone all the way through the song, which I'd like to realise as a man's voice, loosely on a single pitch, reading the news. I think it could prove to be an extremely atmospheric and quirky device.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

My thoughts on Tim Farren's perceived homophobia

I woke up yesterday morning to a text from Philippa which informed me that a snap general election had been called by the ghastly Theresa May. It is, I suspect, being done as punishment to her fellow MPs in a sort of "you won't get behind me in these troubling times, so I'm going to prove to you all that I'm the most popular girl in the school and get you put in detention whilst I take the rest of my class down the local park to be mugged." She's recently made a number of statements about how she can feel the country uniting again after Brexit. So, now she's throwing the country back into instability again? Getting neighbours and family members fighting about politics again? Divide and rule. Margaret Thatcher anyone?

So here's the dilemma. I am a natural left-leaning voter. For many years, I voted Labour by default, but got very disillusioned by Blair, so swung across to the Lib Dems because my constituency MP, Lynne Featherstone was a brilliant, brilliant politician, both on a local level and globally. She was almost single-handedly responsible for the same sex marriage bill. Lynne lost her seat in the last election to Labour, and, in fairness, her replacement has proved to be vehemently pro-Europe, rebelling against her party on every Brexit vote.

...But the Labour party supports Brexit. So there's very little point in giving my vote to someone who represents them. And, furthermore, the Labour Party is utterly divided and disillusioned. As the country shifts from classic left/ right divisions based on wealth, to a place where political views are more likely to be defined by how cosmopolitan and liberal our values are, the Labour Party's traditional voters find themselves standing two sides of a massive chasm. More than that, the Old Labour guard have proved themselves time and time again to be antisemites. I can't vote for antisemites.

So I'm left with the Lib Dems. And the largest part of me thinks that it's their time. The party has been anti-Brexit throughout. They are fabulous on climate change and social issues. Yes, their getting into bed with the Tories during the coalition felt a little grotesque, but I'm not sure I would have done anything differently under the same circumstances. The tuition fee u-turn was a catastrophe, but I've always firmly believed the Lib Dems tempered the Tories, and, as evidenced by our being able to get married on March 29th 2014, they made good things happen.

A massive shift towards support for the Lib Dems could prove incredibly embarrassing for Theresa May and make it clear that the country isn't as united behind Brexit as she was hitherto assuming. If young people get off their arses and vote, extraordinary things could happen.

...But then there's Tim Farren, the Lib Dem leader. I like the fact that he's Northern, and speaks with a light Lancashire accent. He appears to be state school educated, which, for me, is a massive plus. He's not the most charismatic figure in the world, but these things take time to develop. He is, however, an evangelical Christian. Now, my very close friendship with Abbie has taught me over the last few years that you can't tar all Christians with the same brush. Just because someone believes in him upstairs doesn't necessary mean they're going to be evil or judgemental, or interpret the bible in ways which condemn people like me. Abbie is, in fact, a passionate and deeply vocal supporter of gay rights and shares, I'd say, almost exactly the same set of values as me.

The issue I have with Farren is that he's been interviewed on the subject and refuses not to define homosexuality as a sin. Furthermore, he abstained in one of the votes on same sex marriage and there was a curious tweet which he claimed was a hack, which suggested gay people could be cured: "they can be," the tweet read, "most sexual disorientation is caused by chemical leaching. Check out fish and frogs." All of this makes me a little uncomfortable. Particularly the phrase sexual DISorientation.

Lynne Featherstone has now personally assured me of his pro LGBT stance and that his religious beliefs will not get in the way of his Liberal values. Furthermore, the Pink Paper has published an interview with him where he actually vows to get rid of the ban on gay men giving blood (oh yes, we still can't give blood) and tighten some of the legislation which currently makes it easy to shaft trans people. He was also the first leader to respond to what's going on in Chechnya. I guess if he's one one those Christians who has grown up thinking homosexuality is a sin, we actually have to applaud him for not allowing those backward views into his work.

I'm sure there are scores and scores of other MPs who secretly think being gay is disgusting but feel they can't express the sentiment out loud. There are certainly many many Tory MPs with a far from perfect history when it comes to voting on matters of conscience like LGBT rights.

I find Theresa May's implied assertion that God would have voted Brexit much more worrying. Perhaps Farren is the first religious politician to understand that there is no place for religion in politics?

I have thought about the issue a great deal today and am veering towards giving my fully-fledged support towards his party. I'll sleep on it, and see what emerges out of the shit storm which seems to be surrounding this particular issue.

Of course May will win. The country is not presently in a position to look at the mess in education, the lack of NHS funding. So it's eyes down for five years of near dictatorship. Five years when public services go down the pan. Five years of strikes and terrorist attacks and horrible Brexit-related financial hardship where the Arts and sport simply drop off the curriculum in schools. In five years' time, however, she'll fail spectacularly, and I shall enjoy the look on her smug face as the shite drips off her chin!

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Home made pizza

It's been a long old day today which started with a visit from Nathan's father and step Mum. They've been having a somewhat dramatic time of it lately, with their back fence going up in a fireball as a result of a neighbours' barbecue. Said neighbours had actually dumped the remnants of their barbecue under a tree in the back garden some 24 hours before the inferno. I had no idea that a fire could smoulder inadequately for that long. It's a lesson to us all to make sure we pour water onto charcoal, however dead it looks.

It seemed to take forever to get down to Tooting where we were due to spend the afternoon and evening in the delightful company of Abbie and Ian. We decided to stop for a late lunch on the way and got as far as Wandsworth before deciding the best option was to grab a few sandwiches from the obscenely large Sainsbury's there. It's so large, in fact, that it has its own cafe, so we legged it up there and ordered hot food, before seemingly waiting forever as the staff pottered about in tempi which Mahler would have found most agreeable. In the end, they brought my food out first, and because I'm one of those people who gets food envy when they've finished their own meal and someone else is still going, I sat, waiting, like a tragic modern day Madam Butterfly, as my food went cold and Nathan's never arrived.

Obviously it eventually arrived. And we were only about an hour late to Abbie's.

We ate way too many chocolates.

Then we watched a version of Bake Off... for Tattoo artists. (It's very exciting, and VERY Channel 4 with the voice over man swearing like a trouper!)

Then we ate home made pizza, for which Abbie even made and proved the dough.

Then we ate home made raspberry profiteroles...

And then we played Uno and watched the news, somewhat horrified by the fact that Turkey has taken another step towards dictatorship and North Korea is threatening pre-emptive nuclear attacks against the US. It's amazing how Trump has managed but a few months in office and we're already on the brink of world war. In the midst of all this hideous news came the story that Prince Harry has finally admitted how sad he feels about the death of his mother twenty years ago, so much that he's gone into therapy about it. It must be awful for him, and I'm sure grieving in the public eye is not a great deal of fun, but it's not headline news. I'm glad he's getting the help he needs and am pleased if his acknowledging his own grief has led to other grieving people finding the strength to have counselling, but it's not headline news. In my experience, it's not really that people need to pluck up the courage to go into therapy, it's that they need to save up enough money to do so. That stuff can be really expensive. I think it can also get a little indulgent as well, but that's another story.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

No more eggs

It's Easter Day and we've been in Thaxted. Brother Edward and Sascha were there, and they'd invited Alex and Wiesiek up for lunch before the four of them disappeared to visit a pair of country queens somewhere in deeper, darker, more rural East Anglia. 

We ate at The Swan in the middle of the town. I think Thaxted is deemed a town rather than a large village, although I've no idea how these classifications are calculated. The pub is under new management, which, I'm told, could mean the locals deign to start drinking there again. They were, apparently, boycotting the place on account of its poor service and bad food. Local politics can be quite brutal in these parts!

There was nothing wrong with today's food. I had an enormous vegetarian roast dinner which was very tasty, thank you all the same.

After dinner, my mother and I took a stroll down to the little spot we call the magic place. It's actually the site of an ancient chapel and the little footpath down there was trodden by monks on a daily basis back in medieval times. The rest of the family are way to sceptical about matters of spirituality and mysticism, but my Mum and I are apt to pick up on the odd unusual atmosphere. It might be the susserating trees down in the dell where we assume the chapel was situated. It might simply be that we whip each other up into a sort of frenzy of belief, but every time we walk down that footpath my mother and I experience a sort of light-headedness which I can only compare to the feeling I get when I eat truffles! It's a warm, positive sensation, so we often go down there to have a quiet word with the universe. Today, is, of course a really important pagan festival (hijacked by Christians) so if there ever were a moment for communing with nature it's today and for some reason I felt very strongly that I wanted to take Llio and her Mum, Silvia down there for a bit of healing energy at some point soon. I paint the place as being the most amazing location and I'm sure everyone reading this blog must be imagining some sort of Constable Painting. Really it's just the edge of a field. But there's something there...

We came home for Easter Eggs. My mother had also created a camp Easter basket, so we were almost drowning in chocolate. My brother, ever the health freak, had bought some little sugar-free carob eggs which smelt like cheesy hay and tasted like rabbit droppings melded with liquorice. The most peculiar aspect to the experience of eating them was the fact that they sucked every last drop of moisture from the mouth. My Dad described them as "utterly boring for the mouth" which pretty much summed things up. Alex, for some reason, quite liked them. He's Latin American. He also likes coriander. By the way, on that note, scientists have apparently now identified the AR062 gene, which, if present in a body, makes coriander taste variously like old pennies, blood, soap, bleach or different combinations of the above. Coriander is, of course, everywhere these days. It even managed to make its way onto something I ate in the canteen when I went to visit the NYMT kids. Many of my friends tell me how wonderful it is. They plainly don't have the gene. My Mum thinks it tastes of sick. I've plainly inherited the gene from her.

The boys left and my parents, Nathan and I lit an open fire, hunkered down in the glorious warmth and promptly all fell asleep, vowing never to eat another Easter Egg. 

We turned the telly on to discover a shed load of dick heads on Songs of Praise singing a hymn whilst waving their programmes in the air as though trying to swipe Jesus away like a swarm of midges in a Scottish field. Twats. It may be Jesus' birthday but there's no excuse for that sort of footle.

Sunday night is, of course, incomplete without the Antiques Roadshow. Whereas I think there's no place for a pathetic and divisive dinosaur like Songs of Praise on British telly, I would happily watch The Antiques Roadshow on a loop.


Dullard

I'm afraid I'm being really dull at the moment. I'm trying to keep to the ludicrous deadline of delivering one song from Em per day to the musical director and it's sending me a little doolally tap. It's a relentless experience involving headphones and not moving my body unless I feel I have the time to go to the gym, which is a luxury, but I actually ought to do it more because it's good for both my body and mind. 

The day before yesterday, I sat in the same spot on my sofa for twelve solid hours. I put in five hours in the same spot yesterday before fleeing to Highgate Village for a change of scene. All this sitting down not good for me. I'm pretty sure I'm developing DVT!

I had a target to finish and deliver the sixth song from the show which I achieved at 10pm last night. To congratulate myself for getting through a third of the show in a week, I have hung up my computerised pen and am taking Easter Sunday and Easter Monday off. That Jesus geezer had a lot of birthdays didn't he? He's like the queen. Today he was regurgitated.

To celebrate fertility and the Pagan God Ä’ostre, I have made a really camp little basket which I have filled with chocolate eggs and little fluffy made-in-China chicks bought at the Tesco on Colney Hatch Lane, where, incidentally, the kosher food aisle is to die for. It's open 24 hours (even on bank holidays) and we went there in the middle of the night on Friday, having been stung before by trying to buy Easter eggs on the big day.

I'm generally quite worried about the political situation in the world at the moment. North Korea makes me nervous, as does Syria, which appears to be lining itself up as a modern day Vietnam. New Cold War? Delicious. Just what we all need.