Sunday, 28 February 2010

Dead Minger For Love

It’s a very blustery day today. Bright and sunny, but a little too breezy to sit and write on the balcony this early in the morning. We drove to Fort Lauderdale last night, which for those who don’t know Florida well, is filled to the rafters with men of a certain persuasion. Matt’s friend decided it would be really cool to visit a bar for bears, which because I’m hairy and English was a bit like asking me to wear a coat covered in ten dollar bills.

The area was horribly seedy. The bar was at the side of one of those wide roads you see in the films with the soulless 7/11 shops and Neon advertisements shooting into the sky. It was sandwiched between a sex shop and a tattooist and had “entrance round the back” written on the door, which made me shudder.

Our taxi driver was asked to wait whilst we had a peer inside. It was like something from the Dead Ringer For Love video, but without Cher to spice things up. There was a curiously musty aroma and it was plain that the guys inside had been sitting there since the late 1970s, allowing the hair to grow on their heads and bodies without any pruning or topiary. It was absolutely beyond words, so we made a hasty retreat and sat in the taxi trying to work out where to head next. The i-phones came out, so I decided to stretch my legs in the parking lot, which in retrospect was probably a mistake.

Emerging from the darkness came a middle-aged black man wearing day-glow shorts and a vest top. He looked wrong; a combination of insanity and drug-addledness. He made a bee-line for me. I politely backed away. “What’s your name?” He slurred, his strange eyes bulging. “Benjamin” I mumbled, smiling politely in a “please don’t rape me” sort of way. “Are you Russian?” he asked; “Yes” I replied, hoping it would throw him off the “Ohmygodyourebritishiloveyouraccent” scent. It didn’t work and in one swift move, he entered my body space and pinned me up against the car, whilst inside Matt and his mate continued with their i-phones.

I somehow managed to extract myself from immediate danger and got myself into the car. I sat, heart racing, in the front seat and said; “right, I think it might be time to go”. It seems no one heard me. The man started tapping on the window and for some unbelievable reason, the taxi driver, oblivious to what had been going on outside, opened the window, and suddenly the man’s face was back in mine. “Can I come with you?” He said. “No, thanks” I replied “What’s your name?” he asked again, “Benjamin” I repeated. He held out his hand as though to shake mine. I offered him my hand half-heartedly and he went to kiss it, which I thought was his way of acknowledging defeat.

Unfortunately instead of kissing my hand, he licked it, and then seductively allowed his spit-sodden bottom lip to smear itself across the back of my hand, leaving what can only be described as a snail’s trail of saliva. My subconscious spoke; “dear Lord, that was absolutely hideous!” thinking surely, this was the time for the taxi driver to step on the gas and get us out of there. Unfortunately not and now my suitor was waving condoms at me and trying to thrust one into my spit-laden palm. He then grabbed my arm and started, with a rather frightening amount of strength for a crack whore, to pull me out of the car; “okay guys, now’s the time for you to realise what’s going on and give me a bit of help!” I yelled... and finally, the other people in the cab tuned in to what was going on and I was rescued.

The taxi screeched out of the parking lot and the strange man was left limping in our wake throwing condoms in the direction of the cab. Obviously adrenaline then made me see the funny side of what had just happened, and for the next ten minutes, all four of us were laughing so hard we thought we were going to burst.

Later on, we found a much more salubrious corner of town, where the gay bars were between antique shops and lovely cafes, and my faith in my people returned.

I don’t think I’ll ever live to see the day when weather does something as spectacular as it did yesterday afternoon. It had been raining; quite heavily at one point and at a curious angle. The sky went a shade of purple and everything looked sort of foggy. I sat in my hotel room looking out towards the western horizon where I could see an orange smudge behind a ridge of floating mauve clouds which looked like smoke and made the skyscrapers resemble chimneys. The smudge was the sun, and it was slowly burning through the mist; first a long way away and then coming closer, travelling at speed across Miami, glinting in more and more panes of glass across the city. It was as though a thousand orange lights were being switched on.

I rushed onto the balcony and stood in awe as the light came nearer and nearer to me. And then suddenly my face felt warm and I realised I was bathed in this beautiful crimson light. I looked behind me, and over the ocean was the most enormous rainbow, a great arc in the sky, the largest I’d ever seen, stretching from one corner of the horizon to the other. In front of the rainbow, aeroplanes in the sky were glinting mysteriously in the sunlight. And suddenly I could hear car horns beeping across the city as drivers spotted the rainbow. I looked across and saw people on the balconies, waving and smiling. And it lasted like that for five minutes. Five magical minutes where time seemed to stand still and the world was bathed in paranormal light. Five minutes where I could do little but hold my breath and wonder. I had to thank God. I couldn’t think of anyone else who could have brought this extraordinary gift to us all. It was profound and utterly joyous. And so bizarre to think that on the other side of the States, an earthquake had rocked Chile and a tsunami was crashing across the Pacific Ocean. Mother nature certainly knows how to put on a show.

350 years ago, Pepys woke up in Epping. He had some red herrings for breakfast whilst a young lad attempted to mend his boot-heel. Unfortunately he left a bigger hole than was there before. You just can’t get the staff. Pepys then jumped on his horse and rode back to London through Epping forest commenting that the road was good, but on one stretch might as well have been a canal! In London, he found all the shops closed and the army out on the streets; a thanksgiving day was being observed across the city in honour of the return of Parliament.

He finally met up with Montagu, who seemed very glad to see him. They had food together, and then Pepys called in on his daughter, Mrs Jem, before finally heading home and finding his wife well.

The following pictures might give some sense of the extraordinary weather here yesterday...

The sun breaks through

Plane in the rainbows

As the sun sets

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Paedophiles in tents

I’ve just woken up and am sitting on a balcony looking over what must be the whole of America. The sea is now turquoise and a light breeze is rustling in the palm trees. It’s cloudier than it was yesterday, but still very pleasant.

Since being here, I’ve realised how similar this place is to Spain. For a start, Spanish seems almost as universally spoken as English but visually there are constant reminders. Last night we wandered along a pedestrianised street filled with outdoor restaurants, street entertainers and jewellery stalls and I was reminded of the Ramblas in Barcelona. We had some fairly horrible Italian food, watched a transvestite tap-dancing in platform heels and then sat in a bar where I drank two gin and tonics and immediately wanted to talk to everyone who'd listen. Fortunately tiredness eventually won and I guess we were all tucked up in bed by Midnight Florida time.

The people here feel very different to the people in New York. There’s a sort of earthiness in Miami tangled up with a whiff of redneck. It makes me wonder whether my love of all things American isn’t more a love of New York. Scratch the surface and I’m wondering whether things smell less fragrant over here. On our way to the hotel from the airport, we crossed over to Miami Beach via a very large bridge from the mainland, which was sitting on a sort of spit of land covered in shrubs and the odd scrawny palm tree. By the side of the road were a series of tents; “what an awful place to go camping” I said to the driver; “or are they homeless people?” The driver’s response rather floored me; “They’re sexual predators" he said "they’ve been released from jail, but they’re not allowed to live within 1000 metres of anyone, so they'll stay here until the government can work out what to do with them”. Surely no truly progressive country would allow this to happen. Frankly, if someone cannot be trusted to live anywhere other than in a tent on a bridge, he’s not yet ready to be released from jail.

350 years ago and in far less progressive times, Pepys was up by 4am. He must have had a terrible hangover, but he was very quickly out of Cambridge and on the road back to London. He stopped at Audley End House, just outside Saffron Walden. Interesting for me as my parents live in the next-but-one village of Thaxted.

Apparently it was not unusual in those days for a well-dressed traveller to turn up unannounced at a stately home and expect to be given a tour and that's exactly what Pepys did. On this occasion it was the housekeeper who did the honours, and Pepys was impressed; “the stateliness of the ceilings, chimney-pieces, and form of the whole was exceedingly worth seeing”

He was taken down into the cellars, where he helped himself to wine, drank more toasts to the King, and played on his flageolette, enjoying the “excellent echo” down there. Again, quite where Pepys had kept his flageolette on his horseback journey to Cambridge is almost as interesting a question as what the housekeeper must have thought when he whipped it out in the cellar!

Pepys headed back to Saffron Walden and at the White Horse Inn, there was more roguish behaviour; “kissed the daughter of the house, she being very pretty

He continued his journey. It was raining, but the roads were good. He got as far as Epping, where he turned in for the night after a game of cards and “some merry talk with a plain bold maid of the house” which brings to mind some ghastly scene from a bawdy Restoration Comedy; “Come quick, Mistress Pert-bottom, I greet your heaving bosom like a suckling pig”. Well I guess whilst the cat’s away the mice will play...


We had an incredible sunset last night and this is the view from our balcony!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Alice in Miami

I am in Miami! Now there’s an announcement! I’ve come here with Matt and it’s all extremely exciting! It's about 5.00pm. We’re very high up in a very tall hotel, and I can’t stand anywhere near the edge of the balcony for fear of falling off. The sea is deep sky blue, the beach is white, there are palm trees everywhere, and it’s about 70 degrees. Two eagles are circling around in the sky. The smell of toffee apples is drifting up from below. Can life get any better than this, I wonder?

Well, possibly, because last night was the premier of Alice In Wonderland. A fabulous occasion; almost overwhelming. The red – or in this case green – carpet was lit up like a Christmas tree, and despite the rain, thousands of people had turned up to peer and cheer at the stars. Nathan and I ran in; perhaps overly conscious that none of the screaming hordes were interested in peering, cheering or waving at us. In retrospect I would have hung around a bit longer to soak up the electric atmosphere, or at least taken a few moments to study some of the topiared hedges which seemed to have sprung up everywhere on Leicester Square.

I sat down in the cinema to find myself sitting next to Philip Sallon and Phil off of Eastenders. Two more contrasting Philips you could never hope to find! The latter Phil was obviously there to support Barbara Windsor, who lent her dulcet tones to the surprisingly feisty door mouse.

The film was great. Tim Burton was plainly born to bring those characters to life in all of their menacing trippiness. What I didn’t realise is that the whole piece was a “Return To Oz”-style sequel to the Alice books. Alice was returning as a young adult to the land she’d visited in dreams as a child and there were many highlights; the Cheshire Cat being a particular favourite. He sort of swam through the air and disappeared and reappeared in clouds of black smoke which looked like ink in water.

It goes without saying that Matt was brilliant as both Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Helena Bonham Carter made a brilliantly wacky Red Queen/ Queen of Hearts. Johnny Depp brought a huge amount of pathos to the Mad Hatter and Alan Rickman made a perfectly fruity caterpillar. My only issues were with Alice, who I thought was more Sloanney than quirky, and the 3D effects, which didn’t exactly bowl me over. Those dark glasses mean that everything becomes a bit gloomy. Tim Burton’s films are dark at the best of times.

The after show party was tastefully eccentric with baths filled with gin, waiters dressed as Wonderland characters and bizarre sweeties on trolleys which could have come straight out of Harry Potter. I would have loved to get rip-roaringly pissed on the fabulous selection of peculiar cocktails, but I had a flight to catch first thing.

The 26th February 1660 was a Sunday and Pepys and his family were still in Cambridge, strolling in the fields behind King’s College. I wonder if there needed to be seven sheep present (or is it cows) in those days. Perhaps my brother, Edward, a King’s graduate, would like to add a little comment about why it is that there needs to be seven animals in that particular field, and whether it’s true that one of them ended up on a roof!

Mr Pierce the surgeon made a reappearance just after lunch to announce that Montagu had left his Hinchingbrooke country pile and headed for London, which rather upset Pepys, who was obviously planning a visit, no doubt wanting to be the first to bring his Lord up to speed on the goings on in London and then bask in the glory of his arrival there. Mr Pierce was particularly annoyed as visiting Montagu seemed to have been his sole purpose in going up to Cambridgeshire.

Later in the day there was a phenomenal amount of drinking, matched only by the number of toasts that were being made to the King and all his family – and probably by the time they’d finished, his servants and pets too. Pepys was in a naughty mood. He cut church and went drinking instead. Predictably, after consuming his body weight in alcohol, the evening ended back at his Inn with the first written reference to Pepys’ the rogue engaging in a spot of how’s your father;

“I staid up a little while, playing the fool with the lass of the house at the door of the chamber.” The passage ends with those four comforting words that have become utterly synonymous with our hero; “and so to bed.”

But not to bed for me. If you’ll excuse me, there’s an art deco quarter I need to visit!

The view from my hotel balcony, which admittedly looks more Malaga than Miami, but I'm sure the readers in rainy London will appreciate my joy at being here!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Alice in Where?

I’m in a bit of a rush today. I have lots of stuff to do before heading to Leicester Square for the world premiere of Alice In Wonderland. We’re going as Matt’s guests, and I’m very excited, having never been invited to such a potentially glitzy event before! Sadly, my films tend to get premiered in shopping centres and service stations, so this will give me a chance to see how the other half live! My only worry is that the film is being billed as Disney’s Alice In Wonderland, which makes me wonder what happened to Lewis Carroll. Also a tad perturbed at the title. Matt is playing both Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the film also features the White Queen; all three of whom are characters from Looking Glass Land. Perhaps they should have simply called the film Alice?

Pepys was up with the lark on 25th February 1660 and arrived in Cambridge at 8am. He met up with his father and brother in The Falcon on Petty Cury - a street which still exists - and found them both well. They strolled, no doubt, down St Andrew’s Street, to Christ’s College, and then Pepys sneaked off to Magdalene College, for a quick trip down Memory Lane, CB3. He met up with friends, former masters and scholars and was delighted to find himself being “exceedingly civilly received”. After lunch, he visited some relatives, did some shopping, and then started drinking, “pretty hard” with many toasts to the King. Fascinating really, as Cambridge was one of Cromwell’s strongholds during the Interregnum. Pepys himself mentions being surprised at how his former colleagues had already adapted their speech from the formal language of Puritanism to more relaxed tones. How quickly people accept change...

The day continued with more food, more drinking, more chat, and then to bed at an Inn. Pepys shared with his brother, whose belongings had not yet arrived, so he couldn’t sleep in his college room.

There’s something remarkably timeless about this diary entry. Every October for the past 350 years, the very same thing has happened up and down the country with a different set of central characters. It brings to mind my first day at university; my parents travelling up to York with me to make sure I was okay before snap... the rope was cut and I was suddenly an adult. It’s quite an emotional moment when you see them driving off into the distance, knowing that you have to start a new life, knowing that the safety of childhood has gone forever. I’m sure it was even worse for my parents who'd spent 18 years protecting me.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


Another day spent on the motet. I started at 8am and haven’t yet stopped. This is mostly because things have been going a lot better today. It’s still incredibly hard work - mind-numbingly difficult - but I no longer feel like I’m treading water... or tap dancing with blue tack on the soles of my shoes!

I’ve been working on a passage from the time of the plague. It’s a rather beautiful sequence; an account of a dream, and for inexplicable reasons it moves me to tears. There’s something innocent, almost childish about it. It reveals how terrified Pepys was of dying, even though, by this point, death must have seemed inevitable. In that week close to 7,000 Londoners died of the plague. The illness was ripping the city apart.

Lady Castelmayne, who features as the heroine of the dream is the woman whose picture hangs proudly opposite Pepys’ at the National Portrait gallery, despite the fact that in life, she barely knew he existed. As Charles II’s lover, she had bigger fish to fry. But Pepys’ had a major crush on her, and probably because he knew he didn't stand a chance, constantly felt the need to remind himself that she was a “whore”! This didn't prevent him from purchasing at least one portrait of her during the period of the diary:

August 15th 1665: “My last night’s dream... the best that ever was dreamed... I had my Lady Castlemayne in my armes and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her... What a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeere resembles it), we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this – that then we should not need to be so fearful of death”

Pepys then went on to write that even within the dream, he knew the situation was too good to be true. This apparently makes it one of the first written references to a "lucid dream". For more information about lucid dreams click here

On this date in 1660, Pepys set out for Cambridge to help his brother settle in, and no doubt spend some time buttering up Montagu at his Huntingdon country pile. Pepys left London with his friend, the surgeon James Pearce, by horseback at about 7 in the morning. They started their journey in the dark and it was dreadful weather, which made their trip up the old north road quite unpleasant.

They stopped at Ware and then at Puckeridge just west of Bishop’s Stortford, where they fed the horses, had a loin of fried mutton and were “very merry”. They ploughed on and about 6 miles short of Cambridge, the horses gave up the ghost. They stopped at a town called Foulmer, which I assume is the village now called Fowlmere. They played cards and ate roast veal at the Chequers Inn before hitting the sack. They shared a room, and possibly even a bed. Gayers!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

On the Road

I’m in a car speeding through the deepest, darkest snowiest wilds of Lincolnshire, having just rehearsed the Choir Invisible in Grantham. They worked incredibly hard and I was both extremely proud and terribly relieved. I now know they’re going to do my music proud and can’t wait to hand over the reins to their conductor, Sally. The work she does with the choir is remarkable. They don’t just sing as one; they move and even breathe as one.

We had a good and speedy journey up the A1; a road that, I believe, will always take good care of me. That said, it’s thrown up a fair few challenges on the way home. It’s predominantly unlit which makes it hard to negotiate and actually fairly spooky on a snowy old night like this. I half expect a sixty foot ghostly white horse to ride out of the mist, backlit by oncoming headlights.

On the way up we stopped at my favourite transport cafe and have smelt like dirty chip pans ever since. Worth it for the lovely omelette they fed us, and the memories the place brought back of being on the road, you know, with the wind in my hair... singing songs by ELO and getting stopped by a policeman who couldn’t believe anyone who wasn’t drunk could drive so badly! I like to think of myself as the butcher, younger brother of Jack Kerouac.

I spent the morning working on the motet but it still feels like I’m tap dancing with blue tack on the soles of my shoes. I need to keep telling myself that I’m still splurging; getting ideas out of my head and onto the page, because often when I listen back to what I’ve spent an entire morning writing, I just want to slit my wrists! Am I putting an unnecessary amount of pressure on myself? Am I being too slow in recognising my own genius? Or am I just writing crap?

In my rush to describe how boring my life was yesterday, I forgot to mention the thrilling news that we won Sunday’s quiz for the second week running. It was slightly more embarrassing than exciting because we also won the spot prize (again) this time because chart-freak Till happened to know that Elvis Presley had 21 British number one hit singles. Each and every one of them undeserved, of course.

Back to the comfort of the past and.... drum roll please... Thursday 23rd February 1660 was Pepys’ 27th birthday! He describes the day as having been “pretty fair weather” but doesn’t seem to have spent much time celebrating. Perhaps this was a side effect of having too much Puritanism in his blood, or perhaps people just didn’t make a big deal of birthdays in those days. Either way, there were no party poppers, presents or piss ups at the Prince Edward for Pepys. He got on with a pretty conventional day, had a nice chat with Mrs Michell at her book stall in Westminster Hall, and discovered that his patron Montagu had been elected “with 73 voices, to be one of the Council of State.” Montagu was in the ascendant and bound to take Pepys along for the ride. Perhaps this was as good a birthday present as our hero could have hoped for.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Anatomical malformations

I’m writing this whilst cooking a meal because there's nothing more interesting to write about. I’m going to make a delicious pasta dish, with some Quorn pieces, a dash of white wine, a few peas and some Linda Mcartney sausages...

I joked with Philippa earlier that if something more interesting didn’t happen, I’d have to write about our 'phone conversation. So here goes... She was shopping. She was looking for a pre-cooked lasagne. She told me all about Hilary’s wonderful hen do in Lewes and then berated me for not visiting my goddaughter more regularly. That seems to have been the high point of my day.

The rest of my time, aside from a jaunt to the gym, has been spent writing the motet. I’m going incredibly slowly, not through laziness, but because it’s just so ridiculously hard to write. At the moment I’m working on a 20-voice fugue as the basis for a sequence about the plague. It’s a whole new level of madness! My ears are bleeding, my computer keeps crashing sympathetically and at the end of the day, Nathan has to scrape my brain off the floor!

Looking to the diary for some inspiration for this blog, I find very little. Alas, it’s not one of Pepys’ better entries, or indeed a particularly interesting day. He ate pease porridge for lunch “and nothing else”. Do you get a sense of the material I'm working with, here?! He then drifted around London. There seems to be some kind of business going on with soldiers demanding pay; a whiff of mutiny is in the air, but Pepys is not specific.

Later on he visits Mrs Jem, and is told that the thing being prepared for her neck will be ready this week. Finally we find out why the young Mrs Jem is in London without her parents. She’s got neck problems. In fact, a bit of further research reveals the poor love had some kind of awful anatomical malformation, which meant she couldn’t hold her neck up properly. I do hope the poor lamb wasn’t also a dribbler. I'm not sure Pepys would have been able to keep a straight face! Whether this “thing” for her neck was some kind of brace or a charming little piece of jewellery to draw the eye from the hideousness of the vision, we can only guess. Whatever the case, Pepys was in a charitable mood, because he later sent some bedding to Mrs Ann, (who you’ll remember was the stroppy cow who was meant to be looking after Mrs Jem, but got the “ague” and then needed to get a life because she never stopped moaning!) Pepys then made a dash for Will’s bar “and staid like a fool there and played cards till 9 o’clock”. Perhaps I should have a game of cards. That might make sense of the day! Anyone for Canasta(n)?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Retro mullet

I don’t know what’s going on at the moment. I had another phone call yesterday with more bad news. A very decent chap who I visited a number of times whilst researching my A1 film has died. Cancer. The poor bloke was so brave; inspiringly so. He was a singer and performed in the Edinburgh area as the Caledonian Aborigine. Some years ago, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and they told him they’d need to remove his voice box. He refused and said he’d rather lose his life than the ability to sing. So, they removed as much of the cancer as they could and he took his chances. When I met him, everything was looking good. He’d moved to Seaton, just south of Musselbrugh to live with his sister in the pure sea air up there. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and the cancer returned. His sister called me yesterday to let me know that he’d gone. With any luck he’ll still be singing somewhere, looking down on us with that indefatigable smile.

It’s a Sunday, and I’m in a traffic jam on my way to The Curtain’s Up pub, where the plan is to try and win the quiz again... If we ever get there. We’re on the M25 having just visited our friends Kate and Sean in Redhill. We spent a very pleasant day with their son, Lukas, playing a game which seemed to involve catching a load of butterflies which were flying out of a plastic elephant’s trunk! Who invents these surreal things?! Redhill’s a proper dump though. We popped into the town for a spot to eat and sat in a cafe surrounded by a suite of multicoloured mullets. Hair so wrecked by years of abuse that it looked like the insides of a set of felt tip pens from the mid 80s. I guess you could call it trailer trash chic, but it seemed so prevalent! The culprits weren’t all sitting together in a retro huddle. They were scattered about the place, as though there were a sort of sub species in the town.

A busy day for Pepys 350 years ago. The houses of Parliament had finally opened its doors to previously excluded members, so the Rump was officially at an end and the free parliament was back. Pepys, in true Pepysian style was in the thick of things and intriguingly was taken aside by Mr Crew, who, over dinner told him it was now safe for Montagu to return from his country estate to London. This could only be good news for Pepys, who would be bound to find himself with a decent new job if his master was back at the centre of power.

After this exchange, Pepys returned to Westminster Hall and met up with one Henry Purcell, father of that great composer of the same name, and an important music man on the Restoration scene. They went to a coffee house, and sitting in a room over-looking the Thames sang Italian and Spanish songs and a new canon for eight voices by the composer Matthew Lock, who'd also joined them. Whilst they sat in the coffee house, making music and talking eruditely, London was once again celebrating:

"Here out of the window it was a most pleasant sight to see the City from one end to the other with a glory about it, so high was the light of the bonfires, and so thick round the City, and the bells rang everywhere"

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Shrieking Shaneequa

I sat up incredibly late last night working on the motet. The Cambridge trip inspired me hugely, and I was terrified the muse would vanish in a strop if I kept her waiting! I have to say, I’m suddenly feeling the weight of this project. So many people have now expressed an interest, that it’s no longer an option for it to be a load of old experimental tosh!

After the gym today, Nathan and I decided we needed to drive. We just wanted to head out of the city and find somewhere where the air smelt of wood-smoke. We also wanted to find a spot where we could watch the bizarre weather unfolding, so we headed straight up the M1. One moment, the deep orange sun was glinting in our eyes, the next we were negotiating a full on blizzard; cobalt blue skies to the left and bruised snow-laded clouds to the right. It was thrilling.

We ended up in Dunstable of all places, standing in the clean soft breeze on the chalk downs as the sun set. Such an extraordinary moment. We could see snow falling on a village at the bottom of the hill, yet on the horizon, the sun was an exciting glowing ball of fire. I suppose it felt almost biblical.

We ate our tea in a pub in Hemel Hempstead, surrounded by women, all of whom seemed to be called Shaneequa, each one with a louder voice than the next.

It wasn’t a particularly interesting day for Pepys today. He had lunch with his brother, John, to whom he gave some books to prepare him for Cambridge. He popped into Westminster Hall, to catch up on the latest gossip. Speaker Lenthall was apparently playing hardball and dragging his feet about the logistics of the new Parliamentary line up. Pepys then headed to his Coffee Club, where nothing particular was discussed. So all in all, a pretty dull day. He should have headed to the hills!

The Dunstable Downs at Sunset

Friday, 19 February 2010

The gift that Pepys on giving

Today was extraordinary. Nathan and I got up early and travelled to Cambridge to meet the enthralling Dr Luckett at Magdalene College. Dr Luckett holds the keys to the Pepys Library which is housed within the college. We met him in his college rooms and he showed us his intriguing collection of 17th Century musical instruments which included a pair of spinets and a viola da gamba.

He then lead us into the Pepys library; a neat, tidy space, with a strange musty smell, bathed in natural sunlight and lined with the imposing oak bookcases or book presses that Pepys commissioned at various points from 1665 until his death. Dr Luckett confirmed the curious fact that Pepys really did invent the bookcase, which still confuses me!

There is something deeply moving about the space. Portraits of Pepys and his contemporaries peer down from the walls. Each bookcase is numbered, and each book within was meticulously catalogued, re-catalogued and often re-catalogued again by Pepys or, posthumously by his nephew John Jackson.

In the middle of the room, a series of display cabinets sit tantalisingly underneath velvet covers, and with a theatrical swish, Dr Luckett revealed the contents of one of them. My eyes took a moment to readjust before I realised I was staring at the very last entry of the diary; that sad, sad passage from May 1669, where Pepys reveals he has to stop writing for fear of going blind. And indeed, when compared with other diary entries, the shorthand is considerably larger and less tidy; a sure sign of a man suffering with his eyes; or in the case of Pepys, suffering from a lousy ophthalmologist, who repeatedly misdiagnosed his condition.

A second journal, alongside the first, displayed part of Pepys’ account of the Great Fire. It was written neatly in a brown ink that seemed unfaded by time, protected I suppose by so many years in obscurity. Next to this lay a tutorial for translating the unusual shorthand Pepys chose to write his diaries in. This particular book had always been in the collection; clearly catalogued and labelled. If only the Reverend John Smith had known about it. He spent 2 and a half years deciphering the symbols from scratch; albeit with incredible accuracy.

Dr Luckett then led us to another cabinet to uncover a selection of Pepys’ music, including recorder tutorials and flageolet music that he may well have played with his wife. More exciting was the music to Beauty Retire as transcribed by Cesare Morelli, Pepys’ latter-day live-in musician consort.

It was at this point I asked if I might be shown the first page of the diary. Dr Luckett smiled wryly, took a key, opened bookcase number one, and a second later I was holding Pepys' very first journal in my bare hands. There are few words to describe the feeling. It was intensely emotional. I felt a bit shaky. I opened it carefully, terrified I’d rip something. The first page was beautifully neat, like the writing you do at school on the first page of a new exercise book. A few words in longhand jumped out of a mass of squiggly symbols; Axe Yard, General Monck. The book was much smaller than I'd expected. Smaller than the other journals on display. It had an energy. A strange sort of magic. I was holding Pepys’ most closely guarded possession. A book that rarely left his side for over a year.

350 years ago on this day, Pepys was also with his books, a fledgling selection, which he was stacking in neat piles in his study. Later on he drank a pint of warm herb-infused ale (purle) before going to church, it being a Sunday, to hear a sermon which extolled the virtues of remaining a widower post the death of a spouse (a regular occurrence in those days). Perhaps Pepys subconsciously took this advice, because after the death of his wife at the end of 1669, he remained a widower for the rest of his life, despite being in the prime of his life.

Later in the day, Pepys meets up with his father to discuss a trip, funnily enough, to Cambridge with his brother, John; which would, no doubt include a visit to Magdalene College. Pepys adds that it was raining hard all day, so his wife borrowed his mother’s French mantle and his brother’s hat. Knowing Elizabeth’s penchant for stealing items of clothing, I’m sure neither found their way back to their rightful owners.

Benjamin with the diary

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Fly Boy Fly Boy

Today is the first day I’ve been able to dedicate entirely to writing the motet, and I’ve had a tiny breakthrough, which I’m very pleased about. Predictably, it came in the section about the rainbow over the Thames, which for some eccentric reason has become my favourite passage in the entire diary!

350 years ago, Pepys, like me, was devoting a large proportion of his day to music. He started on the vial, apparently his favourite musical instrument, and then learnt how to sing “Fly Boy, Fly Boy” by memory. This song, which was also a round, was first published in 1659 and I suppose it’s likely that Pepys found it in the bumper book of music he'd purchased the week before.

Later in the day, Pepys returned to his former dwellings, a draughty little turret within Montagu’s London residence, where he’d lived with Elizabeth in a great deal of discomfort. In later years, particularly after dalliances with women, he’d write about the room, guiltily lamenting about how much he'd expected of his wife in those days, and how little she'd complained. On the 18th February 1660, he removed a number of his books from the turret and had his maid carry them over to his new house in Axe Yard. This is the first evidence that Pepys was proudly beginning to consolidate his growing library of books.

Later in the day, he drank with friends at the Mitre on Fleet Street. They sat above the music room, and keenly listened to the sounds drifting up from below. He then enjoyed a long conversation about theatre; listing the plays and leading actors he’d seen over the years. Theatre was Pepys’ guilty pleasure and because it was banned by the Puritans, any of the plays he’d seen between 1642 and 1660 would have been watched in secret.

Imagine a time where music and drama weren’t available at the flick of a switch; a time when just discussing theatre or hearing music drifting up from a room below was almost as pleasurable as experiencing it in the flesh.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Pepys and Pelicans

Up betimes, and after an hour spent composing, I travelled to Westminster to meet the heavily pregnant Raily, her son (my godson) Will and Sam, the composer. I thought it would be interesting to spend a day milling around the places Pepys was haunting 350 years ago. Secretly I was hoping we might catch a glimpse of his ghost, rushing along Whitehall, but sadly this wasn't to be.

We started the day in Westminster Hall. A little treat I’d organised with the Sergeant at Arms in the Houses of Parliament. What an astonishing building it is, and how sad that it’s no longer accessible for members of the public. The hammerbeam roof is a feat of engineering which seems more Victorian than Plantagenet! I stood for a while on the steps looking across the giant empty space, at the beams of dusty wintry light hitting the cold stone floor, trying to imagine the hall filled to the rafters with noise, stalls and shops; orange and pamphlet sellers, musicians wandering to and fro. Almost impossible to comprehend in the whispered silence of 2010.

My godson, Will, was incredibly well behaved, and took an interest in every statue, plaque and piece of stained glass. At just 4 years old, and probably more through luck, he managed to date the building to within 100 years, which impressed me and the passing policewoman beyond words.

More excitingly our visit didn't cost us a penny. Something I’m sure Dear Sam would have approved of mightily, having done his accounts 350 years ago today to discover he was only worth a disappointing 40l. What he might have disapproved of, however, was the high level of security in the building, which had moved on considerably from when I worked there as a tour guide in the 1990s. The countless checks were somewhat intimidating, but I suppose a necessary evil, and indeed, the policemen very kindly allowed Will to sit and watch the bags passing through the X-ray machine. Apparently, a highlight of his day.

350 years ago, Pepys was walking in St James' Park, a deer park in those days. He was there until it got dark, accompanied by the wonderfully nicknamed Monsieur L’Impertinent. 350 years later, we were doing the same thing, stopping off briefly at Horseguard’s Parade to glance towards the back of Downing Street, the area where Pepys’ Axe Yard home had been situated.

I presented Wills with the recorder I’d bought him for Christmas and he sat on a bench and played us a little tune; well, more of a selection of screeches and whistles which I’m not sure would have sounded better had he been able to play the instrument. Afterwards we asked him what his improvised composition was called and he replied; "A Tune of Maids", which felt joyously appropriate. I imagined Nell Gwyn in her smock sleeves and bodice hopping about with the pelicans. Wills certainly has a way with words, and for such a young lad is really enjoying the concept of language, much encouraged by his parents, both of whom are historians. He’s recently become obsessed with old English myths and legends and was recently put into the naughty corner at playschool for telling an irritating classmate that he was going to “cut him to the bone”. Wonderful!

After lunch in Covent Garden, we went to the Portrait Gallery and I was thrilled to see the faces of, amongst others, General Monck, that rakish John Evelyn, the oleaginous Charles 2nd and a flurry of his mistresses including pretty witty Nell, resplendent in her theatre makeup and Pepys’ pin-up, the lady Castlemayne, looking every bit the epitome of womanhood.

And then there he was. Lower on the wall than I’d expected. Watery eyed and staring smugly, his hand grasping a copy of Beauty Retire, which was curiously painted in G minor instead of D minor like the version I have. Pepys obviously had a freakishly high singing voice! I found the experience very moving and stared at him for some time, wondering what he’d make of all this madness.

It was Pepys-the-turncoat who signed off the diary entry on 17th February 1660. He ended the day in a bar, toasting the health of Charles II. The King who was today sharing a wall in the National Portrait Gallery with that lowly clerk.

...Walking with the pelicans in St James' Park.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

I see it is an advantage to a man to carry little in his pocket

Where do the days go? It’s already Shrove Tuesday, for heaven’s sake, which makes it almost Easter, which makes it nearly 2011! I can still taste last years’ pancakes! They tasted like flip flops! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it literally has not stopped raining today! How incredibly depressing! Talking of which, I saw A Single Man last night; which "stars" Colin Firth as a recently bereaved gay man. Perhaps it was something in the Maltesers, but I found the whole experience a tad disappointing, primarily because I just didn’t really care about any one I was watching on the screen. It could and probably should have been a great deal more moving. An Oscar winning performance it was not.

Moving swiftly back to the safety of 1660, we discover it was a musical day for Pepys today, which started with the lute and ended with the flute! In the meantime our hero did rather a lot of drinking, mostly with his fellow clerks and for a great deal of time at the Sun Tavern. The lads were in a merry mood, dreaming of bright futures, and making bets with one another. Pepys won a quart of sack, a sort of sherry, for spotting that the meat he was eating was lamb, and not veal. As a vegetarian I wouldn’t know if this remark was made by a man with a sophisticated palate, or just someone who’d been fed a lot of really cruddy meat! In any case, Pepys ended the evening claiming to have learnt a valuable lesson in life. He’d gone out with just 3d in his pocket, and as a result, hadn’t spent as much as his friends. There’s a surprise.

"I see it is an advantage to a man to carry little in his pocket"

...Only, of course, if you’re not trying to impress someone, and what he doesn’t say is if his lack of money meant his poor friends ended up paying for everything instead.

Monday, 15 February 2010

The year of the tiger

Just found out to my great sadness that the lady who commissioned A1: The Road Musical has died. No one yet seems to know exactly what happened, but I feel devastated, not just because she was young and beautiful but because her absolute faith in me meant A1 became a reality. Without her, I’m not sure the film would have been made. I can only hope she’s in a better place.

I spent this morning writing the Pepys motet; or continuing with my sketches for it. The shortlisted texts running chronologically seem to fit quite neatly into six movements; each with a different central emotion or theme. I'm very relieved, really, because a structure was something the piece hitherto seemed to be lacking. Today I was working on a serene passage from January 16th 1660, which I've already referenced in the blog:

“I sat up till the bell-man came by with his bell, just under my window and cried, “Past one of the clock, and a cold, frosty, windy morning.” I then went to bed and left my wife and the maid a-washing still.”

Not only did we win the quiz last night, but we also won the spot round, which netted us £35 each because our team came closest to guessing the birth date of the quizmaster. We got within 6 months, based entirely on his taste in music, which guaranteed he was about the same age of us.

Talking of dates of birth, I see the Chinese year of the Tiger has just kicked off. I’m a Tiger. So is Nathan. So is Fiona and Matt and, in fact, many of my friends; which is strange because they're by no means all friends I made at school or university. Perhaps Tigers have an innate ability to sniff each other out. I sincerely hope that being Tigers in the year of the Tiger will bring us all a great deal of luck in 2010. I always hoped my being born on the lucky 8th day of the 8th month meant the Chinese were looking out for me. Shame they're a country with such a hideously dubious human rights record! 

It was a splashy day for Pepys 350 years ago. He travelled all over London and called in on many friends. He sent off several letters including one to his aunt Nan, in which he enclosed some satirical pamphlets taking the Mickey out of the rump parliament. It's quite astonishing how quickly Pepys was swinging back towards the idea of monarchy. Within the month he'd be openly toasting the King in his local pub.

Later in the day, Pepys had his lunch at Mr Crew’s house. The dining room was full, so he ate a dish of salmon on his own in the buttery below. It fascinates me to think how Pepys' status rose over the years of the diary. I'm certain that by 1669, he wouldn't have been content to eat food in a kitchen. His arrival anywhere would probably have led to an extra place being laid at the table. The thought of him sitting there on his own tucking into a dish of salmon actually make me feel quite sad, but being in the no-man's-land between servant and friend in many a social situation didn't seem to bother Pepys that much. Perhaps it gave him a sense that he was on his way up, mixing with all the right people, however they perceived him.

Pepys then headed to St Paul’s Cathedral and sat and read a book for a couple of hours. St Paul’s churchyard, of course, was where the majority of London booksellers practiced their trade. Pepys was often there, wafting around, whilst slowly adding to his enormous and in later years important library of books. Many of these booksellers lives were sadly destroyed by the Great Fire, which tore through the area, indiscriminately burning buildings, churches, shops and thousands of priceless books.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

My name is Benjamin and I'm an echolalic

The car business is now sorted, thankfully. It turns out that Alan Day, that highly respected Volkswagen dealer, was simply trying to rip us off. I have three words of advice for any North Londoners thinking of paying a visit to these people... try not to! It seems their status as a London-based garage gives them license to brazenly charge twice the price of anywhere outside the M25. Nathan took the car back to Lincolnshire, where they did him a good enough deal for us not to want to slit our wrists anymore. They still charged us more money than we have, but not a catastrophic amount.

Many thanks to Jim for suggesting I trade the car in for a hot air balloon. I did think long and hard about the prospect and concluded it probably would suit my creative image, but sadly I’m no good with heights. I’m also pretty bad with bridges, a propos nothing, except that heights and bridges both make me want to empty my pockets and throw everything including myself down into the cold driving air...

Whilst on the subject of strange compulsions, many thanks to those of you who’ve provided me with a fancy name for the weird impulses that force me to mimic voices and sounds that catch me off guard. Echolalia sounds so much grander than Tourettes. So, my name is Benjamin and I'm an echolalic.

...And talking of sounds diabolical, if any of you share my loathing of recorder music, have a listen to this:

I’ve spent the entire weekend so far formatting music to send off to the Choir Invisible in Lincolnshire. It's one of the necessary tasks of being a composer, which I'm afraid is about as entertaining as watching Peter Andre presenting This Morning. It’s not been the most romantic way to start Valentine’s Day but we’ve just been out for a bite to eat in Tufnell Park and are currently sitting in the Curtain’s Up pub waiting for a Valentine’s themed pub quiz! All aboard the love boat!

350 years ago, Pepys was himself celebrating Valentine’s Day. Rather nice to know it’s not one of those traditions we have to thank America for. A little bit of research reveals there are even references to Valentine’s Day in Chaucer; "For this was on seynt Volantynys day whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make." (For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh to choose his mate - that's a translation for those of you who wouldn't know how to cheese a make)

The tradition back in Pepys’ time seems to have been that everyone, regardless of marital status, would choose, just for fun, a second Valentine; often the first person they spoke to on the day. This person would be offered a little gift to seal the deal, which in Pepys’ case was often meant forking out for a fancy pair of gloves. The search for a Valentine often involved a great deal of hysterical horse-play with people appearing at the bedsides of those they fancied, waking them up with a harmless little kiss. I’m sure many marriages never recovered from the shock! The idea of a relative stranger wandering into my bedroom and waking me up with a little kiss feels more Vampire than Valentine, but each to their own. Elizabeth and Sam were awoken 350 years ago by the voice of Henry Moore, a lawyer and friend. Elizabeth, obviously got rather excited by the prospect of receiving a pair of gloves from this man, and dressed speedily, dashing down the stairs to challenge him to be her Valentine. It smacks of tragic desperation, but I guess these were very different times.

Thenceforth it was an unusually slow day for Pepys, who played his lute for a few hours in the afternoon before calling in on Mrs Jem en route to a tavern where he lost 6d at cards “like a fool”. What he never admits to is who, if anyone, he chose to be his Valentine. In future years his ruminations on the subject would occupy many diary inches. On one occasion, he even chose his current lover as a Valentine, which strikes me as a typically Pepysian attempt at playing with fire!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Household plants and PVA glue

Just returned from deepest, darkest Catford, where we’ve been celebrating Julie’s birthday with a lovely brunch which involved the biggest and dirtiest chocolate cake I’ve ever met. Very pleasant conversation, mostly about knitting (crumbs, we’re getting old) and the idea of forming a craft circle was mooted. (What are we? Pensioners!?) Sadly, I don’t have a craft so it was suggested I try decoupage. Not sure that ripping up little bits of magazine and gluing them to boxes isn’t a little too reminiscent of being at junior school, but I’ll give anything a go in the search of pleasure. Actually, I remember once gluing a mosaic of magazine cuttings to a plastic cup and my teacher being so impressed she brought me some soil and a cutting from a money plant so that I could turn it into a flower pot. I gave it proudly to my Mum and it flourished and gave birth to many other little money plants, one of which now sits proudly on my kitchen table; 20 years old and still going strong. I'm not sure anything I've just written is interesting at any level, so feel free to punish me with your own anecdotes about household plants and PVA glue!

Crafty: Julie actually crocheted this hat (modelled here by Judith)

350 years ago, Pepys seemed to be falling apart. His mouth was still hurting from his ulcer, and his left leg had started to feel sore again. Not sure we ever found out how or when he hurt his leg; perhaps it was when he fell into the ditch behind Westminster, or maybe it was just another ailment in the long line of ghastly symptoms that Pepys endured throughout his life. After his death, an autopsy revealed the most astonishing number of afflictions which included terrible scarring from the operation on his bladder stone, black spots in his lungs and several new stones scattered through various organs. He must have lived his life with a great deal of pain.

Later in the day, Pepys took his wife to visit his parents, and his mother, as is a mother's won't, fussed around her poorly son, sending the maid, Bess to Cheapside for some herbs with which to make an ointment for his ulcer.

Sam (composer and friend, not Mr Pepys) in his allotment today

Friday, 12 February 2010

Praise-God Barebones!

I continue to write little bits and bobs for the motet. Today I was working on a charming, rather simple passage from the diary where Pepys witnesses a rainbow at dawn over the Thames. The first rainbow he’d ever seen in the morning. This got me wondering whether I've ever seen a rainbow in the morning. Maybe there’s a scientific reason why they might occur less frequently first thing in the day. Anyone got any thoughts on that?

My cold continues. It seems to be heading towards my chest, which is a great improvement on the everlasting sneeze that became the focal point of yesterday. Other than this, I'm not a very interesting person today.

February 12th 1660, was unseasonably warm and sunny; “a most pleasant day as ever I saw” says Pepys, who spent the morning walking in a park and the afternoon in the city with his cousin Roger searching for General Monck like a pair of teenage autograph hunters. London was still celebrating and apparently Monck had been greeted with cheers and cries at St Paul’s Cathedral earlier in the day.

Later on, Pepys met and walked for a while with a little hunchbacked man; the apprentice of a local bookseller, whom he describes with a wonderful lack of political correctness as “the crooked fellow.” They try to find a pub, but none are open. Pepys also discovers that people have been smashing the windows of the wonderfully named Praise-God Barebone’s dwellings. Barebones was one of Cromwell’s puritan cronies. He even gave his name to a short-lived, rather unsucessful unelected parliament, so in the light of current developments was being viewed as the devil incarnate. A quirky fact about this man is that he was supposedly christened; Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone. Talulah Does the Hula in Hawaii, eat your heart out!

The day ends, as all fun days must, with a row about Elizabeth’s new dog (which arrived on 8th February care of her brother, Balty)

"So to bed, where my wife and I had some high words upon my telling her that I would fling the dog which her brother gave her out of window if he pissed the house any more."

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Both the greatness and suddenness of it

Yesterday I finally put pen to paper and wrote a few bars of music for the motet. I didn't do much, but it felt like something of an occasion. I was focussing on passages written at the time of the plague and got quite emotional, which may have had slightly more to do with my burgeoning cold! I’m not sure I’ve written anything yet that will make it into the final piece - I keep getting distracted by pretty tunes, which feel somehow inappropriate - but I’ve made a start, which means I now won't stop until it's done!

Tonight I’m off for dinner with very erudite company; a Radio 3 presenter and a musical satirist-cum-composer. I'm very much looking forward to it. I just need to go on line and find a couple of highly witty remarks I can liberally sprinkle over the dinner. Sadly, I suspect this cold will turn me into a monosyllabic moron and I'll probably never be asked back!

I’ve just had some really good news about my Mum, who went into hospital this morning for tests for pretty much everything, and seems to have been given a clean bill of health. Greatly relieved. I’ve been panicking all morning.

We've been having terrible problems with the car. We bought the thing for £6000 from a VW dealer less than six month's ago and have just taken it in to be serviced, to be told that £2500 needs to be spent on it, and then it will only be worth £4000, which feels insane after 5 1/2 months. We also don't have £2500. It's as simple as that. This has thrown Nathan into a panic and made me intensely angry. As I see it, there are two possibilities; someone's either sold us a dud, or the VW dealer in London (Alan Day) is pulling a fast one and trying to charge us (double) for work that doesn't need to be done. Someone's head's gonna roll!

It was a Saturday on this date in 1660 and Pepys kicked things off with a lie-in. After reading a book about Rome, he ambled off to Westminster Hall and at that moment his diary entry turns a very exciting corner, eventually becoming Pepys' very first “set piece”. When he walked into the hall, he found the place buzzing. Monck had lept off the fence and finally demanded a free parliament; "it was very strange how the countenance of men in the Hall was all changed with joy in half an hour’s time"

Pepys rushed into Parliament to hear the news being announced by the speaker, and watched as Sir Arthur Haselrigge - one of the five members of parliament who Charles I attempted to arrest in 1642 - stormed out angrily, followed by the crowing Quaker, Edward Billing, who grabbed Haselrigge’s arm and hissed: “Thou man, will thy beast carry thee no longer? Thou must fall.”

Pepys then did a bit of shopping, went to someone's office and sang at him whilst he tried to work, ate a roasted chicken, and then headed to the Guildhall, to catch a glimpse of Monck and the Lord Mayor. The whole of the city was "joyful". When Monck finally appeared there was a huge shout; "'God Bless your excellence' ...such a shout I never heard in all my life”. And across London., Monck’s soldiers were suddenly being treated like royalty, with people thrusting money into their pockets and offering them food. Pepys was witnessing a town in celebration. He watched and listened, fetched his wife, and watched and listened again before writing everything down in the most extraordinary vivid detail, which makes me long to have been there with him. Every church bell in London was ringing, bonfires were burning in the streets as far as the eye could see...

"I could at one view tell thirty-one fires. In King-street seven or eight; and all along burning, and roasting, and drinking for rumps... The butchers at the May Pole in the Strand rang a peal with their knives... Indeed it was past imagination, both the greatness and the suddenness of it. At one end of the street you would think there was a whole lane of fire, and so hot that we were fain to keep still on the further side merely for heat"

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

"Lord, how ugly"

I’ve just had my hair cut near Warren Street station and to quote Pepys (from 17th September 1666): “Lord, how ugly I was yesterday and how fine today.” The bloke who did the chopping seemed to take a huge amount of pride in his work. Perhaps because I complimented him on his fine tattoos! Whatever the reason, it feels rather like every hair on my head has been individually styled! All for £7.

Just had a meeting with the main man at BBC Manchester. The Lancashire project is now confirmed, which means I can describe it briefly. The idea is to create 7 songs about the seven massive tower blocks in Rochdale, collectively and locally known as the Seven Sisters. Each song will feature someone who lives in one of the tower blocks and it’s looking like we’ll also be forming a choir of people from the town who'll take part in some way. The aim is to create something a bit darker and edgier than my usual community musical films, which is a challenge I'm more than happy to embrace. All good.

I see the government is once again mooting the idea of a referendum on whether to change our voting system. Highly predictable and utterly transparent. This is only happens when the Labour Party thinks it’s in their best interests. It bubbled up as an issue just before the '97 election and was swept aside when Tony Blair rolled in with a majority you could weigh. No doubt if the Conservatives marginally lose out again this time, they’ll express an interest in electoral reform themselves. But, of course, by then, unless it’s a hung parliament, Brown will have decided that if it aint broke we shouldn't try to fix it with proportional representation. Shame, ‘cus it is broke and I’ve always wanted to vote in a referendum! Obviously not on anything that allows people to bring out their inner fascists, but I would like our voting system to change. A whopping majority in Parliament is only ever interesting if you have a Prime Minister who's brave enough to use it to bring in a whole set of sweeping reforms. Blair had his opportunity in '97, but decided that staying in power at any cost was far more important. In retrospect, you’d think he’d have been a bit bolder. By the end he'd decided he could walk on water, and the voting public didn’t seem to mind. Even being a war criminal didn’t get him kicked out of power.

Speaking of crimes, Pepys was in court 350 years ago today. He was representing the absent Mr Downing in a case against one Mr Squibb. Unfortunately for Downing, the case went in Squibb’s favour and Pepys was ordered (randomly by the jury) to pay £10 damages, oddly reduced to 12 pence upon the protestations of the entire court. Not a bad reduction in cost for an unruly crowd intervention.

Monck was still parading around London like a purple peacock, exercising his powerful muscles, yet tactically not making any real decisions. Perhaps he’d learnt his negotiating skills by studying that other great procrastinator, Elizabeth 1st. If in doubt, do nothing and smile a lot. It’s nevertheless fairly clear that by this date, the whole of London, if not England (if it made any difference to them), wanted a free Parliament. The current “rump” parliament, a trimmed-down version of a proper Parliament, teaming with Cromwell’s glove puppets, was universally despised. Cynical ballads and crude satirical sketches lambasting them were in almost constant circulation. The old pagan customs, May Day and such, were returning, fashions were becoming more flamboyant and the theatres were reopening. They'd even started forecasting the weather again; previously banned by Cromwell's regime. None of this was going to be given up again in a hurry. A free Parliament would surely bring back so many royalists that the return of the monarchy in the form of bloated Charles 2nd was inevitable. Cromwell had failed.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A secreted flageolet

I’ve just returned from Julian's Dad's funeral in Bedfordshire. It was a very sombre occasion attended by a group of utterly bewildered people. Poor Barry got himself some kind of bizarre virus and went from being perfectly healthy to dead within a week. By all accounts he was an incredible man; a journalist turned consultant, spirited and vibrant with a deep love for his family and fingers in hundreds of different pies. He was known, loved and respected by many people, including several politicians. The local MP and his predecessor were both present (one Labour, one Conservative). Both said, he was as well known in the Palace of Westminster as most politicians. My relationship with Barry was purely email-based, but we were in regular contact. He enjoyed my films and was always making suggestions. Sadly, we never met... Until today.

I think I’m coming down with a cold. I woke up feeling like I’d been slapped by a gorilla and now have a rather itchy sensation at the back of my throat. Joy! I dedicate what’s left of tonight to television and Jaffa cakes.

Pepys wasn’t feeling particularly well on this day either. I think it’s safe to say he was stressed and run down. By the end of the day he'd felt the need to apply a plaster to the boil on his chin and a dollop of alum to a “canker” in his mouth. A canker is what we'd call a mouth ulcer. "We" being 21st Century Brits. Curiously, the Americans still call them cankers. It's one of those ancient English words like “gotten” that shows they’re just a bunch of Puritans gone AWOL. And for the science geeks amongst us, alum or aluminium sulphate is the active ingredient in the styptic pencils some of us use when we cut ourselves shaving.

Despite not feeling well, it was business as usual for Pepys. He wrote more coded letters to Lord Montagu, offering up-to-date and detailed accounts of political developments in the capital, he watched and enjoyed a debate in the house and still found time for a spot of food in a tavern near Temple Bar, with his friend Mr Swan. Whilst waiting for a plate of poached eggs, Pepys whipped out his flageolet and had a quick blow. He often seemed to have a musical instrument secreted about his person, ready for such occasions.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Olivier Hell

I wrote to the Evening Standard today expressing my horror at the Olivier Award nominations (out today). I have recently discovered the process that creates the list of nominations is at best flawed and at worst deeply corrupt. Here's how it works. A small judging panel of theatre professionals is selected each year. Their task is to watch every eligible show. 87 this year. They are then charged with creating a short list of potential nominees which is sent to 70 members of SOLT (Society of London Theatres.) The SOLT members vote on the list and those with the highest number of votes become the nominees. The list of nominees is then given back to the judging panel, who decide on the winners. It sounds simple and fair, but it's not...

Unfortunately, the 70 SOLT members aren't required to have seen any of the shows or performances they're voting on; which means they often vote based on reputation. This means newcomers are automatically at a disadvantage. But more worrying is that fact that these SOLT members can decide they don’t agree with the panel and force something to be nominated that the legitimate judges have universally decided isn’t good enough.

The SOLT members are all theatre owners and producers, and therefore, with a few subtle arm-twists – and god knows what else (some of them even have two votes!)– ANYTHING – can get itself nominated. The judging panel are utterly powerless to stop this from happening.

A case in point this year is the ridiculous Dreamboats and Petticoats, which has laughably been nominated for best new musical. Universally slammed by the press, and by all accounts, the Olivier Judges, it has magically found itself with a nomination despite not even making the judges long list. The producer? Bill Kenwright; a renowned cheapskate, but not without influence within the world of West End Theatre.

The inclusion of Dreamboats in the list of nominations in my opinion makes a complete mockery of the awards, which should recognise excellence in British Theatre. If a cruddy show can fly a banner which says; “Olivier Award Nominee”, it undervalues everyone and everything legitimately nominated. If you have a panel of experts who are conscientiously watching every show, their informed collective views should be respected. In short, it shouldn’t be possible to buy an Olivier Award.

If any Olivier judges happen to be reading this blog, I trust you'll consider making an appropriate stand. I will be hugely proud of you and back you to the hilt if you do. I shall not undermine the importance of this message by writing anything else about what I’ve been up to today.

We discover on this spring-like day in 1660 that Pepys was a breeder of pigeons (probably for eating rather than carrying). We also discover that the pigeons were doing exactly what pigeons should do if they’re going to breed! Pepys is delighted.

It’s a bit of a day for all matters faunal as Pepys arrived back home to discover Elizabeth’s somewhat troublesome brother, Balty, had brought her a little black dog, which Pepys describes as "pretty". Without wishing to give spoilers to those of you who are following the progress of our hero with baited breath, this little dog goes on to inspire many entertaining diary entries. It seems to have been rather badly behaved, fond of pissing and shitting all over the house, and as a result caused many a row between Pepys and his wife, usually because the former was threatening to throw the creature out of a window!

Pepys ends his diary entry with a typically "warts and all" statement:

"Went to bed with my head not well by my too much drinking to-day, and I had a boil under my chin which troubled me cruelly."

And odd remark, because he doesn't purport to have been drinking any more than usual. Perhaps the wine he consumed had turned to vinegar, or perhaps he had an inkling that 350 years later, his beloved theatre industry would be discovered to be as corrupt as his beloved parliament... How little changes!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Flagrant Harpies

I’m in deepest, darkest Shropshire at Nathan’s mother’s house. We just paid her a surprise visit, and were rewarded with a feast of cauliflower cheese, roast vegetables and a trifle. I’ve not eaten trifle for years, possibly decades, but every delicious mouthful made me wonder why I'd left it so long!

We spent the afternoon with Nathan’s sister and family, singing Eva Cassidy songs in 4-part harmony whilst trying to work out which pop/ rock album has the most iconic artwork on its sleeve. High on the list: ELO’s New World Record, The Happy Mondays Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches and almost anything by the Beatles. Feel free to add your thoughts to the bottom of this blog.

The visit has also re-kindled Nathan’s desire to have another pet rat, having met the wonderfully placid 'Cid (short for Acid, not placid), who belongs to his niece, Becky. I like rats. They get bad press but they’re highly intelligent, loving creatures. I just can’t bear the pain when they die, which they do rather too often!

Felt a bit like Elizabeth Pepys as we lay in bed this morning. We’ve been trying to learn Beauty Retire by heart, and Nathan seems to have been a great deal more successful than me! Pepys was constantly losing his temper with his wife because she seemed to have no discernable musical ear and Nathan got a tad frustrated with me as I tripped over the words for the 90th time! He had every right to make me feel like a tit. I was frankly shocked at my ineptitude!

A fascinating, high-octane diary entry for Pepys today, which starts with him attending St Paul’s school to see his brother, John, a student there, making a sort of graduation speech. St Paul’s was the school that Pepys himself attended, and he made regular donations to the establishment in his later, wealthier life. I must remember to contact the school as I feel some of their choristers would prove to be the obvious choice for the children's choir in my motet.

Pepys' brother, by all accounts, held his own in the ceremony and Pepys left feeling proud enough. He then raced back to Westminster Palace where he witnessed Monck’s soldiers abusing and attacking a group of Quakers. The Quakers at this point were just beginning to establish themselves as a religious group and as such were facing a great deal of persecution. Many were sent to jail; possibly because they regularly made rather bizarre statements like rushing naked through Westminster Hall crying; “Repent Repent.” (see Pepys' diary, 29th July, 1667.) On this occasion, however, General Monck heard about his soldier's thuggish behaviour and made the following order (dated March 9th 1660):

‘I do require all officers and soldiers to forbear to disturb peaceable meetings of the Quakers, they doing nothing prejudicial to the Parliament or the Commonwealth of England. George Monck'

Monk’s power was increasing daily. Pepys noted on the 7th February that he "hath now the absolute command and power to do any thing that he hath a mind to do." Cool!

Later in the day, Pepys spent time discussing bladder stones, and their removal; the most painful of operations, which involved being strapped to a bed with no form of painkiller (including alcohol). Pepys endured this particular misery in 1658 and the stone his physician cut out was the size of a ping pong ball.  He was incredibly lucky to survive and was well aware of the fact, celebrating its removal every year on March 26th.

On returning home, Pepys found his wife up to her usual tricks, steeling - or appropriating - more clothes. This time it was some ribbon and a pair of shoes that she found in a box in Montagu’s London house. Frankly, it’s a surprise the flagrant harpy wasn't arrested!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Hysterical whinging

Poor Nathan. After taking a look at his head today, I discovered yesterday's incident with the freezer had actually drawn blood and left a scar. To make matters worse, a few minutes later, whilst eating a consolatory toffee, his tooth fell out! Well, more fell apart. For about half an hour he was spitting out little pieces of decayed enamel. Charming.

I had a wonderful time with Hilary last night. We watched a bit of telly and talked about her forthcoming wedding. We then sat around the piano and sung through Beauty Retire for the first time. It felt like quite an important and magical moment. Pepys knew how to write a tune and one of his phrases, the one that accompanies the line "I break the hearts of half the world and she breaks mine" is particularly charming. I suppose it's not altogether surprising that these words would have resonated with and inspired the great lothario Pepys!

Later in the evening, I read out my entire short list of potential texts for the Motet. I wanted to know how Nathan and Hilary would respond, and futher more how I'd feel when I read them out loud for the first time. They all fly off the page, but some felt more repetitious and less colourful than others. There were also sections I felt a great desire to skip over. Bizarrely, and most controversially, the whole sequence about the Dutch invasion in 1667, felt like the dampest squib; particularly when compared with the breath-taking vividness of other sequences. It's astonishing to think that within a ten year period Pepys lived through and wrote about so many events that are still remembered today.

Talking of which, on this day in 1660, Britain took one step closer to the Restoration. General Monk was still lording it in town, and today Pepys clapped eyes on him for the first time. He was swishing into Parliament, flanked by soldiers and judges, engulfed in a haze of pomp and circumstance. Pepys feasted with his father on a turkey from Zealand (Denmark) and had another row with Mrs Ann – the housekeeper of the daughter of Montagu - who seemed to be a rather tricky fish. She is regularly mentioned at this time, usually ill in bed with an "ague", or shouting viciously at Pepys for not helping her to get better. Pepys obviously felt indebted to the family of his great patron, but quite why this seemed to include putting up with the hysterical whingings of one of their servants, I'm not sure.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A face of frozen peas

I had a very interesting chat this morning with a chap from the Royal Navy. He seems to think there are at least three former choral scholars training to be officers at Dartmouth; and that he’s sure a choir of five singers can be found within the Navy. This is wonderful news, although I guess if they’re based in Dartmouth, there might be a whole set of financial considerations. Perhaps that’s something the Navy could help us with. The other interesting thing that the conversation threw up is the possibility that one of my 8 choirs might have to be men only. I realise there are women in the Navy, but my gut instinct is that we won't find any who sing!

I've spent much of the day so far working on piano reductions for the Choir Invisible. I’ve now done rough drafts for three of the songs, so will need to spend tomorrow on them in order to free up next week for Pepys.

We went shopping in Sainsburys (thrilling) because my friend Hilary is coming over for an evening in front of the telly tonight. I was hungry and got shirty. I'm hideous when hungry (something I share with Dear Sam.) I actually called one poor woman a "plonker" (where do these words come from?) Meanwhile, Nathan was almost knocked out by a man who decided to close the freezer lid on his head! Instead of doing anything practical to help the situation, he just stood there saying; "I can't believe I just did that..." again and again, whilst Nathan separated his face from a bag of frozen peas.

On February 5th, 1660, Pepys revealed that his wife was nothing but a common thief! It seems she found a black hood (very fashionable at the time) in Mrs Turner’s pew at church, and kept it for herself. And on the Lord's day! Scandalous! Perhaps it was also her who stole the bag of money that Mr Hawley lost. The poor chap came to see Pepys first thing, looking miserable, confessing he had no idea where the bag had gone and revealing there was 24l inside. We assume the money belonged to their boss, Mr Downing and that Mr Hawley would be in a huge amount of trouble unless he could find it. 24l was the equivalent of a quarter year’s salary for someone like Pepys. (Salaries were paid quarterly in those days).

Today’s entry has a rather perplexing and slightly spooky end;

"After supper home, and before going to bed I staid writing of this day its passages, while a drum came by, beating of a strange manner of beat, now and then a single stroke, which my wife and I wondered at, what the meaning of it should be"

We never find out what the drumming was all about. I love the image of the Pepyses listening to the beat and trying to work out if it was conveying a message. That there was a time when drumming might have been used for those purposes is fascinating. Apparently back then, the military had a vast array of calls and orders that could be relayed by complicated drum patterns. Perhaps it was one of these. I wonder what Pepys would have made of the hippy at Covent Garden tube who seems to be playing bongos every time I walk past!

Apparently we're due for another cold snap next week. I enclose this rather special photograph of buses on Muswell Hill Road just before Christmas. We've got all this to look forward to again!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Killing turkeys

My mind is absolutely full of stuff at the moment. It has been for days. I keep drifting off whilst trying to solve little problems. I then re-emerge in the world and realise I've forgotten to do something important in the here and now. Today I left my trainers at the gym and then lost my wallet in the car like a forgetful old bat. In fairness, the trainer incident might have had something to do with the fact that I spent much of my time in the gym today floating around like a loon whilst listening to some really good music. Featuring prominently in my aural landscape was Paloma Faith’s Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful, a somewhat hypnotic wall of sound, which I discover to my joy, Fiona played the violin on. Listen to it and watch it here. Use headphones and you too might want to bounce around like a child on tartrazine.

I’ve just returned from Finsbury Park, where I’ve been assisting my tragically infirm friend Ellen, who has back problems at the moment. She's not actually infirm, but her back has been misbehaving for months, poor lamb. We had a good laugh about the fact that she was sitting on a special chair whilst I was wearing insoles in my shoes. We both did our stretches whilst whinging about the world. I wouldn't want to swap places with her, however. Bad backs are utterly debilitating. My mother seemed to spend most of 1982 in abject pain, lying on beds that were always too soft. I remember trying to help her climb a flight of stairs on one particularly horrific day. I think it took us 30 minutes; both of us sobbing miserably.

Aside from my stupid feet problems, I also seem to have developed some form of weird RSI in my right index finger, which I'm assuming is to do with too much computer work. Is this really what old age is all about?!

Incidentally, as an aside, I see on the news today that MPs are being forced to pay back many of the expenses they claimed last year. What I don't understand is why the people who allowed these expenses to go through in the first place are not the ones being forced to eat the public humble pie. We all play the game with expenses; claim for what we think we can get away with. Actors claim for haircuts and suits. I claim for books and CDs. But surely the person who approved the building of a duck house should be the one apologising?

Back in 1660, Pepys was having a lovely social day. After a spot of lute practise, he called in to see one Mrs Swan, who he describes as being in “very genteel mourning for her father,” which I think is a splendid turn of phrase! I am at this moment trying to picture how someone might mourn genteelly. Gentle sighs, I suppose. A tiny handkerchief dabbing at the corner of a doe-like eye. Perhaps a doleful song accompanied by a harpsichon. A pale consumptive face...

Pepys ate only bread and butter for the entire day. I first assumed he was suffering the ill effects of yesterday's mutton, but reading on, we discover it’s because his friends were discussing “Marriot the Great Eater”; famed across London for his gluttony. This had a rather unusual effect on Pepys who suddenly became ashamed to eat what he might normally have eaten. And for an inveterate trougher, that's no mean feat! A few minutes later, Pepys, who was a great collector of modern ballads, was handed a copy of a song “to the tune of Mardike” (see picture – and try to play at your peril) which he borrowed because it was so beautifully written out. On closer inspection he decided it was a silly song and not worth copying out for his own pleasure. So there.

On a slight tangent, I received a copy of Pepys’ Beauty Retire via email today from the secretary of the Pepys Club. It’s not the best copy and I may not be able to read all the notes, but it’s a start, and I'm very grateful to think that some of the doors I spoke of yesterday might be slowly opening. Or perhaps they were never there in the first place.

There’s a lovely little end piece to today’s entry, which is self explanatory and I leave you with it:

"This day my wife killed her turkeys that Mr. Sheply gave her... and could not get her maid Jane by no means at any time to kill anything"

Useless maid!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Orthopaedic Shoe

I’ve been working all morning on piano reductions for the Lincolnshire project. This is one part of the composing processes that can be extremely time-consuming. For this composition, a piano part is an absolute necessity because it’s not always going to be possible for the choir to perform with the full strings. Because of this, I need to make sure what I write is pianistic and works as a full accompaniment in its own right. But this takes time. I did five hours' work today and I've not yet finished the first song! Sorry, Samuel, you're gonna have to wait just a little bit longer!

That said, I did find a couple of hours to look through my shortlist of diary quotes and I'm beginning to get a sense of how some of the set pieces, like Pepys account of the Great Fire, could be spine-tinglingly exciting. I'm now desperate to get my hands on a copy of Pepys’ song, Beauty Retire but it seems no one's able to help me. I'm beginning to wonder whether certain Pepys fans might see themselves as the unofficial guardians of his legacy. I wonder if I've been banging at a few doors which hide some very private parties to which people like me aren't invited. An elitism, I'm sure dear Samuel would have adored!

Just been to the foot clinic, where I discovered that one of my legs is considerably longer than the other. This explains my life-long eccentric gait, and the fact that I am pigeon-toed in one foot. They provided me with a lovely pair of in-soles, which was a great relief, because on the window ledge in the consultancy room was a selection of the most hideous orthopaedic shoes, which would have been an utter embarrassment to wear. I had visions of leaving the hospital carrying a teddy bear and looking like the poor little girl in this picture. I had the dress lined up and everything...

I’m celebrating the end of a busy day with a bowl of potato soup and my favourite treat; fizzy tongues from the shop opposite Highgate tube.

So what was Pepys up to 350 years ago today?

Well, Monck finally arrived in London and although Pepys didn’t see him anywhere, he saw his soldiers, and was impressed. Pepys was hanging out with his cousin, Mrs Turner. She was one of the few relatives who wasn't an embarrassment to him, in fact he was incredibly fond of her. She’d married a lawyer and done alright for herself and she turns up in the diary frequently. After giving her a tour of Parliament, he wined and dined her at the Rhenish Wine-house, and then took her back to his dwellings to feed her some more; this time an under-cooked mutton stew. I bet she was thrilled!

Pepys and his wife then go to the park where Mrs Turner’s daughter, Theoph(ila) challenges Elizabeth and “another poor woman” to a running race. Theophilia, 8 at the time, wins, and the "poor women" seems to lose her bet, handing over a pot of ale as punishment! Racing in the park in February seems like an eccentric pastime even for the Pepyses. We know it was a bright sunny day, but surely it was still muddy. Were they racing in pattens, I wonder? Now that, I’d pay to see!!