Sunday, 31 October 2010

No pumpkins

Another hectic and exhausting day in the studio, which has only just ended. I think Julian, our music producer has now had enough of the project; the constant takes, my constant voice in his ear. He doesn't have any more time this month to mix the music and I now have to book a separate recording studio for Nic to do her replacement session. The panic has also set in about the prospect of doing this work live, having heard the issues that so many high calibre singers are having with it in the studio... And then I have to organise Oranges and Lemons. Mayhem. Madness!

It's Hallowe'en and I find myself remembering childhood parties. Hallowe'en was my favourite time of year, and we were the only people in our town who had regular parties. The town I lived in was the perfect setting. The mists would roll in from the fens and the buildings were ancient. A network of secret passageways was meant to be underneath the town.

Thinking about these times makes me realise that this is the first year in my life where I've not hollowed out a pumpkin, a fact which makes me feel somehow very tearful.

October 31st 1660 and Pepys was preoccupied. He was worried about his roof terrace, and a last minute trip to the country that had been organised for the following day but mostly by the fact that he'd not had sex with his wife for two weeks. Oh well... Such is life...

11pm and a little chink of light... I just tried to explain to Nathan the significance of my not carving a pumpkin for the first time and fell into floods of hideous tears. I was obviously far more stressed than I had first thought! Nathan immediately frog-marched me to Muswell Hill and we now have two tiny pumpkins. They were all that was left in the shop. They're proper little runts; dead ugly, and going rotten, but they are going to become things of great beauty before the witching hour is upon us and Hallowe'en ends...

A show of resilience... Mine's on the right, Nathan's is the happy chap on the left!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The hell of Hallowe'en

It's the night before hallowe'en and there are wannabe ghosts and rather tragic-looking spectres everywhere. The tubes are rammed. The man next to me smells of fish, but he's not in fancy dress. Bank Station is closed. I've no idea how to get home... I am being diverted to Tower Gateway..,

Tower Hill tube is closed. Planned engineering works are happening on so many lines this weekend that the stations where there are interchanges have been closed due to overcrowding. Happy Hallowe'en! In the 21st Century, the population of a 'civilised' country should not have to put up with this sort of nonsense! London Underground has stationed a pair of prize w*****s at the door of the closed station. They're supposed to be helping people but one of them is a surly Eastern European who wouldn't know decent customer service if it smacked him in the buttocks and the other one is an arrogant turd who genuinely doesn't give a s**t about anyone he's talking at. 

Today couldn't have gone much worse. We timed out with one choir and I spent much of my time in the studio close to tears for all the wrong reasons. It seemed that we were constantly behind. Only about half of the singers had bothered to prepare the music to what I would describe as a performance standard and I am sick to the back teeth with people on this project who seem to want me to feel grateful that they've deigned to get involved. I don't write music to feel like this. Right now I'm questioning why I write music at all. I cannot continue feeling this stressed every time I  embark on a project and Nathan shouldn't have to put up with so many random and unpleasant mood swings. 

Much of today was spent doing the only thing you can do when someone's in trouble; recording people individually. This means there are little stems of music all over the place; passages where other singers have stepped in and hundreds of takes where people have sight-read their way through the music so badly that we're left needing to stitch three of for takes together. And the upshot of this? Hours and hours of studio time to mix the sodding work, which I simply can't afford. Add to this an extra session in Cambridge, an extra session with poor Nic who was so I'll yesterday and I'm already £675 in debt and counting!

I have never felt so close to throwing in the towel and to make matters considerably worse, I'm not sure anyone will care if I do! 

It's an hour after I left the session in Limehouse and I'm still at Tower Gateway. Hordes of people are trying to get on buses. The bus drivers are being horribly unhelpful. Our driver is refusing to tell anyone where he's  going! No doubt when we get it will be closed!

...Got to London Bridge and am now on a tube surrounded by ghouls and freaks in tutus singing "this is Hallowe'en".

Pepys was angry as well on this date all those years ago. The whole business with the door to his roof terrace being locked was playing heavy on his mind. He tried to contact the land lord to no avail, and ended up so stressed that all he could do was take himself to the theatre to watch a play. Some ridiculous "sequel" to The Taming of the Shrew, which he seemed to like rather a lot! I wish my my troubles could be sorted by a visit to the theatre!!

Friday, 29 October 2010

Green around the gills

It's been a thoroughly exhausting day... But things ARE improving. We're going almost mad, and working silly hours with no breaks, but it now looks like we'll manage record five out of the six movements by the end of our studio sessions. Both the folkies and the early musickers managed to get their way through an astonishing amount of music today. They sang beautifully. The early music girls came together to create a sound which was heartbreaking and Jon, who sings tenor in the folk group made two of us cry with his lament; "I being not able to do it any longer having done now so long as to undo my eyes", a setting of the passage in the diary when Pepys plaintively admits that he needs to stop writing because he thinks he's going blind. 

Unfortunately we're going to need to do another session with Nic in the early music choir who appeared looking decidedly green around the gills and promptly spent the session throwing up in the loo next door. I was so touched that she tried to do the session... She even managed to get through one of the movements!! 

Speaking of which, it was Lord Mayor's day on this date 350 years ago. Elizabeth was left at home, no doubt out of her skull on some dodgy medicine, and bedecked in plasters. Pepys took a group of ladies to watch the parades from an elevated position on Cheapside. He felt the pageants were good 'for such kind of things, but in themselves poor and absurd,' so he slipped away to the pub next door having got a taste for wine first thing in the morning with 'some strange and 'incomparable good clarett' that his friend Mr Rumball had given him.

He returned home to discover one Lady Davis had arrived in his absence and locked the door to his beloved roof terrace. It's not said how or why she had a key, but it so incensed Pepys that he immediately went to bed and couldn't sleep all night!! 

Thursday, 28 October 2010

It just gets tougher!

Today was tough! By the end of a stifling four-hour session, which seemed to literally melt into a pool of sweat, we'd only managed to record two movements from the work, which is terrifying. The upshot of the disaster is that Julian, the recording engineer, and I have to go up to Cambridge on Monday night, at great expense, to finish things off. That is, of course, assuming that we manage to get any further with any of the other choirs. 

It's a very difficult situation. You can only move along at the natural pace of the group, which is dictated by how collectively prepared they are. Today's singers have wonderful voices but if just one person hasn't done their homework, or didn't look at one particular bar, then you lose ten minutes from the session, which is a disaster if you're pushed for time. And of course we all know there's a massive gap between what's acceptable in a live performance in terms of tuning and the level of precision needed in a recording.

So then I find myself contemplating Sophie's choice. If there isn't time to record all the movements, which ones will bite the dust? Could it be that part if this glorious work of mine will only ever be performed in a live arena? A miserable thought for a man who stopped working in theatre partly because he didn't like its transience. 

October 28th 1660 was a Sunday and pills and plasters arrived for Elizabeth to help with her problems down below. Pepys, like the caring husband he was, thought better of staying in the house and instead went to Westminster Abbey to view the spectacle of a set of bishops being ordained. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get into Henry Vii's chapel, so instead tool himself off to Sandwich's London residence, to hang out with the lady of the house and two of her children, who were also in town. By the time he finally arrived home Elizabeth was feeling a great deal better. The pills seemed to be working. 

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Not old enough to tie his shoelaces...

Earlier on, I found myself watching a little lad and his mother making their way down the steep footpath towards Highgate tube. The lad stopped for a moment. His shoe laces had come undone and his mother obligingly dropped to her knees and did them up again. As I passed them, I noticed that the lad was talking nonchalantly into a mobile phone, whilst his mother busied herself with his shoes. What on earth is wrong with society if a small child can be old enough to use a mobile phone and yet not old enough to tie his own shoelaces! I was flabbergasted!

Those of you who were worried about me yesterday can breathe a sigh of relief, as I've made friends with the opera choir and apologised profusely for my strangely emotional outburst. They seemed to understand. I guess creative people like me are supposed to be somewhat temperamental! I'm sure any psychologists reading this blog would have a lot to say about my mental health. Sometimes I wonder if I'm simply mildly eccentric, or a total and utter fruit loop. Answers on a postcard, please... But be careful, I might thrown a tantrum!

I just had my last rehearsal before recording sessions begin tomorrow. I was working with the choir of pure voices who are replacing the children. I thought it would be an absolute breeze, but it was a proper hard slog. Thank God I didn't find a choir of children because they'd never have coped with the music! One of the passages we were rehearsing today must rank as the most complicated section of writing in the whole piece. I don't know what I was thinking...

A very short entry from Pepys on this date 350 years ago. He spent the day shopping; buying things for his newly decorated house. He called in at the church yard of St Paul’s to look at the books, and came away with a copy of Alsted’s Encyclopaedia which cost a whopping 38 shillings. Hardly surprising, however, when you consider that the work comprised 35 individual books. Pepys returned home to find his wife still ill with her old problem; painful labial cysts, which meant she couldn’t have sex, which probably meant Pepys would be sniffing around some young lass before the week was up.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A face covered in permanent ink

Yesterday was hell. I stumbled my way through the day in something of a coma, feeling so unbelievably tired that I could barely put one foot in front of another.

By the evening, I’d run three rehearsals and still had to drive to Shepherd’s Bush for a fourth. This particular session was with three of the opera singers and it went incredibly slowly. I started to panic and suddenly found myself slamming my fists down on the piano keyboard and shouting. Before I knew what was happening, I'd told the tenor that he was massacring my music. I then downed tools, stormed out of the rehearsal and drove home to Highgate feeling angry and sorry for myself.

It wasn’t until a set of angry emails arrived late in the night from the singers that I realised quite how hurtful I’d been. What a terrible thing to say to anyone who’s doing their best... or in fact, anyone at all. In my pitiful defence, it’s terribly hard for a composer to hand his work over to a singer or performer. The music has been in his head for so long that he knows exactly how he wants it to sound. He's controlled it and nurtured it; safe in the knowledge that no one could judge it or destroy it whilst it was locked in there. The moment he hands it to a singer, he relinquishes all control and becomes utterly reliant on someone else to bring it to life. It's really tough... I compare it to handing a beautiful baby over to a child minder and returning to find his face covered in permanent ink!

Anyway, the bottom line is that there’s never an excuse for being unkind and I feel very ashamed of myself.

Pepys was a busy man 350 years ago. Amongst other things, he paid a visit to Westminster Hall to buy a book which he took home to read to his wife. Unfortunately they discovered that the book had been written so badly that all they could do was sit and laugh at it.

Pepys reserved his most florid prose for a description of the dandy Duke de Soissons and the ostentatious coach he’d taken to travelling about London in; “all red velvet covered with gold lace, and drawn by six barbes, and attended by twenty pages very rich in clothes”. A barb, being a small horse, rather than something more decadent, like a hippo.

I'm just writing words now. None make any sense in my brain, which is officially fried!!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Manic rehearsals

Another day of manic travel and full on rehearsals. It struck me yesterday that all I really want to do is curl up on the sofa with a pizza watching the X factor. I'm trying not to find out who was booted off on Sunday, but that's a bit like trying to avoid the plague in Pepys' day!!

I rehearsed the gospel singers this morning in Greenwich and they were, as the show queens would say, fierce. They're a hotch potch of rock, soul and conventional gospel singers, but come together to make a really unified and exciting sound. 

Pepys stayed in all day on this date 350 years ago, seeing that his cellar was properly cleared of the piles of human excrement that had found their way there from next door. He did little else, which makes this blog, well short, but smelly!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Potato clock

I have been rushing around the country yet again today. I am exhausted and have been solidly busy since 10am. I had laundry to do, parts to re-write and my Godson's 5th birthday in Aylesbury to attend before returning to London for my final rehearsal with the early music choir. I'm now back in Thaxted returning the car to my parents. I've been getting more and more ratty as the day has progressed and my parents just bore the brunt. The drive to Dartmouth yesterday, plus the almost insane volume of rehearsals is really taking its toll on me. I have to acknowledge I'm no longer as young as I used to be and getting enough sleep is hugely important. 

The rehearsal was wonderful and all five singers had worked hard and were absolutely on it, which made finessing an complete joy. There were moments when I felt rushes of excitement and I can't wait to get them all in the recording studio. 

Will's birthday party was great fun. It took place in a sort of jungle gym designed for children. Such a shame, really, because I would love to have had a good old climb about and jump around myself! Uncle Bill was there and I would have loved to stick around afterwards to see if Will liked the clock I'd bought him, which is fuelled by a pair of potatoes! 

Pepys' day began 350 years ago with an argument. Elizabeth had placed half a crown in a box and promptly forgotten where she'd hidden it. 

The rest of the highly entertaining diary entry gives us countless insights into Pepys' life. There's gossip about the Duke of York. There's the offer of 3l for a "favour", which Pepys refuses in favour of a necklace for his wife, and then there's a meeting with the extraordinary inventor and instrument maker, Ralph Greatorex, who demonstrates a lantern which makes reading at night a great deal easier. A fun-packed day, but frankly I'm too tired and irritable to write anything else. 

Saturday, 23 October 2010


I’ve had a rather disappointing 12 hours since last writing this blog. At 10pm I started an epic journey through driving rain and high winds to Devon. It was one of those nights where drivers find themselves huddling in service stations, rolling their eyes to heaven and swapping stories about the chaos on the roads. I found myself talking to all sorts of strangers. Conversations always ended; "drive safely now." Nathan had very kindly booked me into a hotel in Paignton and handed me a lovely print out from the AA telling me how to get there from London. Everything went pretty much to plan until the directions suddenly stopped making sense. The rain was tipping down, my petrol tank had been flashing on empty for some 20 miles and I was going up and down steep hills in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There was no reception on my mobile phone and I was resigned to spending the night by the side of an empty road.
When I finally got in touch with Nathan I’d limped my way down to Paignton. It was at this point that he realised he’d given me directions to a hotel in the wrong town! Pol the rat was just out of hospital and he understandably had other things on his mind. He talked to me whilst I journeyed back to Torquay, and I eventually found the Travelodge at 3am. Imagine my horror, therefore, to discover Nathan had booked me in for the next night by mistake!

The man behind the counter was icy. It was the middle of the night and when I arrived he was trying to smoke a crafty fag outside. He told me there was nothing I could do other than wait for check-in ... in 12 hours’ time. If I wanted to stay an extra night, he’d only accept cash and certainly wouldn’t be doing me a swap. I called Nathan, close to tears. I was so exhausted. The man must have overheard the conversation, because by the time I’d got back, he’d taken pity on me and decided to allow me to swap the room for no extra cost. Something about a day only stay...

I woke up this morning at 9.30am, thinking I’d get to Dartmouth, have a nice stroll around the town and eat my breakfast before the rehearsal with the Navy boys at noon. Unfortunately, I discovered the route from Torquay to Dartmouth involves either a ferry, or a 30-mile trip through countless, twisting country lanes. Not knowing how expensive or infrequent the ferry was going to be, I opted for the country lanes. It took me an hour.

Dartmouth is a deeply uninspiring place. There’s absolutely nowhere to park and it’s full of old people who amble along in the middle of the road assuming everyone around them is also on a nice relaxed jaunt to a seaside town. Everywhere I turned they were in the way. It was truly horrible.

The Navy chaps weren’t as good as I hoped they’d be. Two of them were very much on it, one didn’t know the music at all, and two were patchy. When they sang together, the tuning was very dodgy and they’re certainly not yet up to the standards of the other groups. Unfortunately two of them had to leave after 40 minutes and by the end it was just me and a very good bass. It’s so difficult because out of all the people singing, they’re probably the busiest and are least used to performing; certainly at the level I need them to reach. So now, I have to sit down and make some cuts and simplifications and hope I can create an ad hoc score that plays more to their strengths. I so wish I’d been able to visit them before today...

So as I journey back to London, all sorts of things are troubling me... not least the fact that I'm unbelievably knackered and not sure how I'm going to get through the next week!!

Thursday 23rd October 1660 and Pepys and Shepley were rushing around sorting things out for Sandwich’s journey to France. Shepley, who as we know, could do nothing right, was put in charge of packing up Sandwich’s guns, and one of them went off – fortunately whilst it was facing downwards; “it did not hurt us, but I think I never was more in danger in my life, which put me into a great fright,” wrote Pepys, who bid a fond farewell to Sandwich before taking the portrait of his master he’d so admired to be copied by artist, Emanuel De Cretz.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The face which sags like an old cushion

Today I’m feeling calm. I’m in Greenwich. It's freezing cold, but the sun is shining. I have time in my schedule to sit down, eat a sandwich and relax, and I’ve just had a very good rehearsal with half of my “gospel” choir. Both of the singers I saw this morning are students at Goldsmith’s University and both are extremely quick readers. It was exactly as a rehearsal should be. We skimmed through the music at high-speed and everyone left feeling confident and happy.

The countdown to next week's recordings involves a bewildering number of rehearsals; 10 in the next 5 days, but the more the merrier if they make the recordings go more smoothly. I'm feeling very much on top of things, having found out this morning that we finally have a gospel tenor, so for the first time we have all 40 singers in place, and I am thrilled. If I'm entirely honest our new tenor is less gospel and more musical theatre, but frankly a) beggars can’t be choosers and b) he has SUCH a fine voice and singing pedigree that I can’t feel anything other than deeply privileged to have him on board. Famous last words, but I do believe the tide may well have turned in our favour...

We had to make a last minute dash to Thaxted at Midnight last night to pick up my parents’ car. Nathan has a singing gig on Sunday which he can’t do without transport, but I’ll be in Dartmouth and, rehearsals permitting, my Godson's 5th birthday party in Aylesbury. This is an over-simplification of what has become a deeply complicated problem-solving exercise. Nathan, for example, will have to take my parents car because our car has already been passed through a stringent security system at the Navy base I’m visiting tomorrow. I was asked to name the make, colour and model of our car and could only get as far as saying it was an electric blue Volkswagen. Nathan was fairly shocked when I suggested it might be a Volkswagen Metro. Secretly I knew all along that it was a Golf...

We arrived in Thaxted to find my Mother wearing her arm in a sling, following a nasty fall involving a washing basket, a paving slab and her dignity. She appears to have dislocated one finger and broken another and seems, unsurprisingly, fairly shaken. She was also rather annoyed by the ineptitude of the National Health system, who (or which) had sent her from pillar to post without actually doing anything about the broken bone. She’d spent the day twiddling her (unbroken) thumbs in a series of A and E departments and local surgeries.

I had a slightly surreal moment on the tube this morning, when I decided I was the oldest person in the carriage. As I race towards 40, I realise many things. I still don’t have a pension, or a mortgage, and can’t afford to have plastic surgery when my face becomes crabby and starts to sag like an old cushion.

Monday October 22nd 1660 and Pepys ate a lunch of ribs of roast beef from a local cook shop, bemoaning the fact that he’d been forced to buy takeaway food almost every day because his house had been in such a constant state of disruption from various builders and decorators.

He went to see Sandwich and found the house busy with people preparing for his trip to France to collect the Queen mother from exile... or more correctly, the King Mother... or, I suppose, because Charles II was not yet married, the Queen.

Pepys collared Sandwich in the evening and they talked late into the night. Pepys asked if he could borrow a painting which he wanted to have copied and Sandwich revealed himself to be a sceptic in all matters of religion. Pepys stayed the night, sharing a bed, as was a common practice, with his rival Shepley; “but could hardly get any sleep all night, the bed being ill made and he a bad bed fellow.” It seemed Shepley could get nothing right. Not even when it came to sleeping!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The gory heads of traitors

I spent the morning sitting on a strangely shaped wooden bench in Pet Vet waiting for a shiny-faced Saffa to effectively inform me that he didn’t know enough about rats to tell me what was wrong with Poll. At one point he asked me what I thought was wrong, which seemed a strange question considering I was about to pay him close to £40! This wasn't psychotherapy! The upshot of this incredibly expensive consultation was Poll being booked into a different vet for the poor tyke to have a biopsy and a tumour removal. This all happens tomorrow, fortunately on Nathan’s watch. Poll behaved himself very well, but I could tell he didn’t like the vet. He kept running back to me and trying to hide in my jacket.

I had my first rehearsal last night with the opera choir in a barn of a church in Shepherd’s Bush. On my way there I was drawn into a shop with a broken neon sign (see below) where I decided to buy some water and a Mars Bar. Unfortunately, I discovered I only had dollars and a fist of receipts in my wallet, so had to walk away, feeling ashamed. It reminded me of being a child and shopping with my mother, and that dreaded moment when we had to “put something back” because we couldn’t afford it. This is a humiliation that happens very rarely now that we all carry plastic.

Now why did I find myself calling into this shop?

The rehearsal with the opera lot went well. Most were a little under-prepared, but all had fabulous voices. I got a real rush of excitement when they started warming up, although the acoustics in the church made them sound like they were singing in an echo chamber. Pepys, who loved buildings with echoes, would have been proud! I might have to ask the singers to pull the enormous sound they're generating back just a little bit in places, because otherwise they might blast the rest of the choir out of St Olave's! We managed to slowly note-bash our way through five movements of the movements, so we’re in pretty good shape... although getting perilously close to the recording. On that note I can’t believe everything kicks off in a week’s time and there are still three choirs that I’ve not yet heard! Terrifying!

Today I’m overdosing on rehearsals with folk musicians this afternoon, followed by an opera rehearsal tonight. The same happens tomorrow, but with three rehearsals, followed by a late night drive to Dartmouth. Is this wise? I ask myself.

The 21st October 1660 was a Sunday and Pepys went to St Olave’s Church for a “good” sermon before heading to Westminster where he went drinking with old friends from his clerking days. His friend George Vines took him into his house, and led him to the top of a turret to show him an extraordinarily gory sight; the heads of "traitors" Cooke and Harrison on high spikes above Westminster Hall. “Here I could see them plainly, as also a very fair prospect about London.” Pepys then managed to carelessly lose his boy, Wayneman, and spent the next few hours looking for him all over Westminster, worrying that, because he was young, he would have either got himself lost, or into danger. When he finally reached home, he was relieved to find the boy safe and well. Elizabeth was ill; the old problem of boils on her private parts and she was understandably very glum as a result.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The nouveau riche

Sometimes I can’t believe the way that life works. Having spent yesterday feeling almost calm and quite happy about the way that things are developing, I now find myself with a stomach riddled with knots. One of our rats seems to have developed a tumour, which is growing ridiculously quickly and a letter arrived through the post this morning telling me that my small claims court case was probably going to be escalated. The judge thinks she might need to call in expert opinions and therefore has called a preliminary hearing. I have no doubt that the court costs are just going to rise and rise. Not only this, but I now have to face the woman who’s caused all this heart ache not once, but twice.

When I consider how little I earned last year, her refusing to pay me just rubs salt into the wounds.

They say it never rains but it pours, and right now, nothing could be closer to the truth - except for that fact that outside, the most beautiful wintry sunlight is glinting in all the trees! I shouldn’t have to go to court to prove that the tonal music I wrote, so carefully and so very specifically to be performed by an amateur choir, is too difficult! It’s just madness.

It was a busy day for Pepys on this date 350 years ago, which started with a rather unpleasant episode in his cellar. He went down there to source the location for a new window and immediately trod on a massive pile of human excrement, or, as Pepys himself wrote, a “great heap of turds.” It immediately became clear that Pepys’ neighbour in the Navy office complex had some kind of unfortunate leakage problem. At this stage, the sewerage needs of London were met by “night soil workers” who would discretely appear to collect the stuff under the cover of darkness. What they collected was then taken into the countryside and dumped in rivers or sold to farmers or tanners.

Pepys had lunch with the Sandwiches, who were both very merry, and talking the highest of high talk. Sandwich wanted a French cook. He wanted a master of his horse. He wanted his wife to wear black patches and his daughter to marry a fine, fine Gentleman. Pepys added that he'd become “a perfect courtier.” I'd describe him, rather less favourably, as a nouveau-riche turncoat.

Meanwhile, Sandwich’s former comrades’ limbs were hanging upon Aldersgate. Pepys added; “it was a sad sight to see; and a bloody week this and the last have been, there being ten hanged, drawn and quartered”.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The little pile of sand

I find myself a great deal calmer this evening. I’ve just had a rehearsal with the musical theatre choir in our loft, complete with Jaffa Cakes and those camp, bright pink wafer biscuits. We ran all six movements. There’s still a bit of private homework to be done, but I think, considering that we have four hours in the studio, we’re in a very good place. I've also fixed five adult singers to replace the choir of children I wanted to perform in the piece, but couldn't find. It's a bit of a shame, because we now have a choir in the work who don't have a USP. I don't even know what to call them. I've gone for really pure sounding voices, so maybe they should all stand there in white frocks like those dreadful blonde string players who appear in the background, as if by magic whenever Ronan Keating sings on the telly. Or maybe they should look like that unfortunately named girl, Eimear Quim, who won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland in 1996. The very fact that I'm dressing them in my mind must mean that I'm feeling a lot more upbeat this evening!

Eimear Quim... No you're not!

I’m still not entirely out of the woods. I’m missing a gospel tenor, and today I found out that the school, St Clement's, who provided the lovely children for our previous performance of Oranges and Lemons had decided not to do it this time. Their music teacher, who wasn’t around last summer, said she hadn’t heard from me in the three weeks since she’d confirmed that the kids would do it, so assumed it was no longer happening. What? Did she want daily updates? The head teacher waded in, "Whilst I  know we had the date and confirmation that things were happening,  school organisation has to be such that we know everything well in advance, children don't learn things as speedily as adults." How long does it take a child to learn four lines of Oranges and Lemons!? Perhaps she's forgotten that it took the kids exactly one hour to learn when I last taught it to them. Don't patronise your kids, Mrs, and don't try to pull the wool over my eyes!

I really must learn to avoid taking on community projects in London. There's very little sense of community in this town and everyone is utterly spoilt for choice when it comes to finding ways to occupy their free-time. There’s always something bigger, better and more exciting going on. The teachers in the schools don't marry themselves to the kids like they did back home in the Midlands. Most are too young or too busy living exciting lives in the metropolis to bother with the types of extra-curricular activities that gave me my creative mind. But who can blame them? The kids can get their culture fix out of school time... And as many free tickets to watch the Olympics as they like!
Today has been miserable; grimy, cold and rainy. My new hat smells like an old dog. We had a greasy spoon on the Archway Road because sometimes when the weather’s awful, there's little else to do. We drove down the A1 towards Kentish Town and passed under Suicide Bridge, which is an enormous iron structure over the road just short of Archway. The bridge gained its macabre nick-name as a result of the sheer number of people who've thrown themselves off the road above into a tarmac oblivion below. The police had cordoned off one of the carriageways as we passed. There was a little crimson-stained pile of sand on the road. A temporary memorial to yet another jumper. One wonders how bad a life must get for someone to feel they have no other option in life. Suicide is such a cowardly thing to do. Someone always has to find you, and there will always be people who'll miss you, and feel crippling guilt after you've gone. Part of me still hasn’t forgiven Kevin a year after his death. I wished I'd had the chance to shake him and scream; "look around you, Kev... Look at all the people in the world who are desperately clinging onto their precious lives! Live for someone else if you can't live for yourself."

Friday 19th October 1660, and Pepys was proud to write that his dining room had been finished with “green serge hanging and gilt leather,” which he thought very handsome. He also wrote that the last of the King’s regicides, Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel were hanged and quartered. Dreadful. He sat up late in the evening, making up his accounts, and discovered that Sandwich still owed him 80l, which obviously made him feel very happy. There was nothing that Pepys loved more than counting his money!
We also have a bass singer for the gospel choir. He's a rock singer, but at least he's got a distinctive voice. The Navy has pulled through as well, and we've found a slot in the studio that they can all do. Hurrah!

Monday, 18 October 2010

The darkest hour

I hope this evening will prove to be the Motet's darkest hour. I’ve just heard from the school teacher who promised me 7 trebles at the start of the week. He now tells me that the parents of just two have got back to him and furthermore that he could only offer me 40 minutes of practice with them during a lunch break before the recording. Obviously, I've thanked him for his time but told him that it's not going to be feasible. One suspects I gave the appropriate response. Had I suggested we try to make the situation work, I suspect a further email would have arrived with even more caveats! So, with just under a week and a half to go before the recording, I find myself without a choir of children and absolutely no possibility of finding one!

And it gets worse. In the same batch of emails, I also heard from our Royal Navy choir master. Two of their singers have been called in for some kind of appraisal that clashes with our recording session and he doesn't seem to think there's a possibility of finding any deps. We have to keep our fingers crossed that they can make the one other date in the studio I've been able to offer them.

And the woes continue... One of my folk singers may or may not be going into hospital on Friday which may or may not mean she can do the recording.

I still haven’t got a bass or a tenor in the gospel choir and one of the girls from said choir now tells me it’s more important for her to practice her jazz music the week of the recording than it is for her to rehearse my music. I’ve suggested that she might like to get involved in a different project. Maybe one that involves singing jazz music instead!

I feel resentful. I’m angry with the people, all the way along on this journey, who've taken forever to get back to me only to say they can’t help. I’m angry with silly people who can’t say no, so instead say yes, and then try to force me to say no on their behalf. I'm angry that it takes an hour each day to write a blog that no one seems to be reading, because if they were, more people would have told me that they were interested in coming to watch the bloomin’ piece. I’m angry that I can throw so much energy, passion and love into a project and end up in a place where I simply don’t know if I can move forward. I’m angry with people who earn money, and people who don’t have holes in their socks. I’m angry with religion. I am angry with Haringey council for chopping down our trees. I’m angry that I don’t know which way to turn and have no one to talk to about it. I am angry that I am feeling out of control and lost. I am handing the world something very precious and not enough people seem to care...

If I had a garden and a shed filled with unused flower pots, I'd go out there right now and smash the lot against the back wall!

Deep breath. All things must be kept in perspective. Nobody's died. People deal with far worse than this. The heart in my chest, that's currently beating at twice its normal speed, is a healthy heart. I no longer have constant pain in my feet. The sun shone all day and Iran has not yet attempted to blast Israel off the face of the earth. And Alfie Boe and his beautiful wife just cooked me a fabulous roast meal!

But is the Pepys Motet just too ambitious a project for one man to do on his own?

Problem is, I'm not a quitter. Giving up simply plays into the grubby little hands of the hoards of ridiculous people in this world who tell me what I'm doing is too ambitious. They periodically crawl out of the woodwork and predict failure it because it makes them feel wise and smug. Some predict failure because they're jealous, others try to derail the project early on, because they know if it happens, it will involve their being forced to do something they'll resent because it takes them out of their comfort zone or requires them to donate their time.

So I have to move forward..

Problem is, I don't know how.
Pepys started his day 350 years ago with a trip to Newgate Jail, where he hoped to see the execution of two more of Charles Ist’s regicides. Unfortunately, the blood-thirsty Pepys found they’d been given a reprieve until the following morning, so he took himself to his Aunt Fenner’s for a morning draft and then pottered off to see his father to demand a pair of breeches be lined in time for the winter.

He had lunch with his wife and Will Hewer's parents, whom he met for the first time. He returned home to find a very rude note from the precocious 8 year-old he'd avoided the day before. It seems Elizabeth had sent her a pair of doves, which the ghastly girl had returned because they'd not been offered in a high enough quality cage! Little wonder that Pepys hid in the garden.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Jaffa Cakes

I spent this morning sorting out my tax return for 2009/10 and am horrified to discover that in the whole of the year, I earned just £12,000. People doing work experience in film companies earn more than that! I think that my Dad earned the same amount in the mid 1980s! I feel rather proud of myself for managing to keep afloat on such a miserable sum without going into major debt. No wonder there are holes in all of my shoes and socks!

This afternoon found me in our loft rehearsing the folk choir. It’s an incredibly complicated piece of music and therefore a very slow process but I feel we’re getting there. There were one or two hangovers in the room and by the end of the rehearsal most of the singers were almost dead on their feet! Thank God for Jaffa cakes! This entire composition should be sponsored by McVitties, because I take them with me to every rehearsal to perk people up!

I’m still waiting to hear back from gospel singers regarding their availability for rehearsals and am going out of my mind with worry. I’ve texted one of them twice to ask her if she can get back to me as soon as possible. Earlier on, I left her a phone message. She's a student, and I confess to being just the same at her age. There was always something more exciting going on and committing to anything could mean missing out on something much more important! Jane, in the folk group introduced me to the concept of FOMO (fear of missing out). Most FOMOs hedge their bets and wait until the last minute before deciding to do something, but she, a self-confessed sufferer of the condition, has a diary which is filled until Christmas and beyond, and keeps auditioning for new choirs!

We’re off to Matt’s house for a roast meal tonight, which will hopefully be a relaxing way to end the day. If I’m lucky, I’ll forget about Pepys for just a few hours...

...Speaking of which, 350 years ago, our hero was being schmoozed by a pair of brothers who wanted a favour, naturally attempting to capitalise on Pepys’ influence in all things Naval. They took him to the Feathers in Fish Street and fed him a meal of “two or three dishes of meat well done”.

Pepys returned home to find two of his distant female relatives hanging about in the kitchen, namely the eight-year old Theophilia Turner and her Auntie Dyke; a name I particularly enjoyed reading. Pepys wanted to avoid them and actually hid in the garden until they’d gone!

Later on, Mr John Spong, a musical friend of Pepys’ appeared at the house, and together with Mr Creed, they sang all evening.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Stir Fry

I woke up this morning feeling depressed and not wanting to get out of bed. There’s still so much admin to be on the motet, and yet everyone seems to be taking forever to get back to me with information I seriously need to move forward. So I’m just waiting now...

I walked into Muswell Hill to buy some decent fruit and vegetables. It seems wherever I’ve been in the past week at the time I've needed to eat, there’s been nothing but rubbish available. I’ve been craving things like stir fries for days now, and have bought the ingredients to make one tonight. I also bought a Sainsbury’s own brand Minestrone soup for lunch; one of those fancy looking ones in the plastic pots but it tasted revolting beyond words and now I feel sick.

As I wondered back from Muswell Hill I decided that the thing causing me most concern was the fact that I’ve not yet sorted my accounts for last year’s tax return. My accountant emailed recently to remind me of this fact. So this afternoon I sat on a carpet of receipts and spent hours trying to work out which of them were legitimate and which ones to throw away. It’s a horrible job, especially when you’re feeling sick and bilious.

This is officially the final reminder for anyone reading this blog to get in touch to let me know if they want tickets for the motet. Email me as soon as possible on because tickets WILL go...

350 years ago, Pepys had anchovies for breakfast. I’d like to think they were nicer than my Minestrone Soup, but anchovies? For breakfast?! Later in the day, his best mate, Mr Moore called by and the two men walked across town, via the upholsterers. They stopped at the Cockpit Theatre and contemplated a matinee, but didn’t like what was on. Pepys got home, only to be told by his boy, Will, that his presence had been requested by Sandwich, so he went all the way back to Westminster only to find that Sandwich had next to nothing to say. He was simply in a melancholy mood, having lost a great deal of money at cards. He did, however, confess to being genuinely worried that he might have become addicted to gambling.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Splitting headache

I have a headache. I'm stuck in dreadful traffic on the outskirts of Cambridge. I don't know why everyone is trying to get into the city at 5pm, but I wish they'd all just go away. 

I'm here for a rehearsal with the Magdalene choir and to meet the conductor of the motet. The scores arrived back from the printers earlier on and look wonderful but for one page being printed back to front! The scores include all the cues I've added to help singers find their notes, and ad a result, don't quite have the space - visually speaking- that I'd like them to have. Works of this size need to be peppered with countless bars of rest or you know instinctively that things will sound impenetrable. 

350 years ago was Pepys' parents' wedding anniversary and a big celebratory dinner was planned. Unfortunately Pepys could not attend so sent his wife whilst he took care of Navy business. Perhaps Elizabeth drank too much becasuse she snored so much that might that Pepys couldn't sleep at all!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A2 paper

Things feel like they're moving forward slowly but surely. If I squint, I reckon I can see the proverbial chink of light at the end of the tunnel. The accumulation of two steps forward and one step back definitely means I’m a great deal further forward than I was last week. We may have some trebles. We may have four out of five gospel singers.

I still dread emails, in case they harbour bad news, but fewer and fewer do. I'm reminded at this point of something one of the sagacious contestants on the X-Factor uttered when asked how he’d feel if Danniiiii didn’t put him through to the next round; “I think it would be easier to hear a no” he said, flicking his hair and pouting, “I’m so used to bad news that I don't know how I'd respond to anything else.” His comment hit me like an iron bar, because I suddenly realised that it's exactly what I do. I constantly prepare for the worst because when something inevitably goes wrong, I can move on, without sinking into a pool of depression.

Today was a day of admin. I wrote various lengthy lists and sent a emails to a bewildering assortment of people. I also had to format a full score of the motet to print out and give to our conductor, who I can now reveal to be the wonderful Jeremy Haneman. With so many individual lines, the full score will need to be enormous! Initially I’d thought it might even be wise to print it on A2 paper, but when I phoned the printers, they told me each page would cost £20 at that size. We worked out that one full score printed this way would cost £1,500... and I need three! So we decided to opt for A3 scores instead, which still cost £100, but we’re having it printed on lovely quality paper, so at least it's going to be a thing of great beauty!

This evening we had a rehearsal with the musical theatre choir in our loft. It was really exciting. They’re beginning to gel as a unit and sounding extraordinary. They flew through sequences I thought they'd take forever to learn. Our final rehearsal next week will be about really finessing the music, which is brilliant news. I feel very honoured that so many fine, fine singers are taking part in this project, and thrilled that everyone seems to be enjoying the process.

Sunday 14th October was a rainy day in London, and Pepys called in on his parents but found his father at church and his mother asleep in bed. He went to White Hall Chapel, to hear an “indifferent” sermon made by one Dr Crofts and an anthem sung so badly it made the King laugh. It was here that Pepys saw the sickly Princess Royal for the first time since she’d been in England. He’d visited her in The Hague and found the experience pretty depressing. Pepys observed the Duke of York talking “very wantonly” with Mrs Palmer (“My Lady Castlemaine”), who became the mistress of Charles II, and the object of many of Pepys' fantasies. Elizabeth and Samuel dined with Jemima, wife of Sandwich, and even though they'd borrowed coats for the boat journey home, they arrived in Hart Street “wet and dirty”.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

He looking as cheerful as any man could...

Maybe I was just tired, but breakfast television this morning turned me into a quivering wreck. They were slowly winching people out of that mine in Chile and seeing those men in sunglasses, hugging family and friends who they probably thought they’d never see again, filled me with such elation that I thought I was going to burst. And then, five minutes later, a little lad was sitting on the sofa next to Bill Turnbull, talking about an all-male squad of cheerleaders from Leeds and how it didn’t bother him that the kids at school ragged him for being a member, because he loved dancing wanted to play Billy Elliot one day. I suppose I felt really proud to live in a society that allows a group of boys to be cheerleaders and for some reason this also made me feel emotional. I'm all for ripping gender barriers limb from limb.

Today’s been about visiting the four corners of London. I started in Greenwich, auditioning potential gospel singers at Trinity College. I sat in the courtyard outside the music college listening to the sound of hundreds of musicians playing hundreds of instruments through hundreds of open windows. It was a true cacophony and took about 2 minutes to shift from being an impressive noise to the stuff nightmares are made of! I was waiting on a bench, in my new cloth cap, for a girl who never came. When I texted her, she reminded me that we’d actually agreed to meet tomorrow and I realised with horror that I was meant to be at Goldsmith’s College instead. She kindly told me that if I came to her house there and then, I could save myself another early morning trip to the arse end of the East End, so twenty minutes later, I’d postponed my meeting in New Cross, ventured to Charlton and was listening to a soul singer from Italy who spoke English with a broad Dublin accent. I decided that this was a good sign. If she can speak a second language flawlessly, she had to have a good ear – and she did. Her voice was breathy and jazzy, and I liked it enough to immediately offer her one of the places in the choir.

Back in New Cross, I met my first black gospel singer. Her voice was hugely exciting, so it was with a renewed sense of optimism that I pootled my way out West for a meeting about the American project. Later in the day, I had my second meeting with the folk choir. This took place in Vauxhall, which meant I could add due south to my compass of London locations. The rehearsal was tiring; a really hard slog, but by the end, I’d heard the wonderful possibilities of a group of singers who were opening up and expressing themselves in the folk idiom. A choir, if you like. We’re still only two-thirds of the way through the music, but I know we're going to get there... and get there beautifully.

Incidentally, invitations to the motet will be going out very shortly, so now is the time to get in touch if you’d like to come. Please email me ASAP if you would like us to add you to the official list and if you’d like to bring a plus one. The performances are at St Olave’s Church on November 25th at 6.30pm and 8.30pm and it is invitation only so you can't just turn up. It is free, but there will be a collection at the end for the church. Give what you can. We can’t have the building that houses Pepys’ grave falling down on us!

Speaking of which, January 13th provides us with a classic diary entry; one which, excitingly, gives us a piece of text that we were actually rehearsing tonight! Sandwich was indisposed, perhaps rather conveniently, for it was the day that Major General Harrison was due to be punished for his role in the “murder” of Charles I. Pepys went to Charing Cross to see him being hanged drawn and quartered and ended up writing one of his most laconic and regularly-quoted passages, remarking that Harrison looked “as cheerful as any man could in that condition.” The famous words are even written in enormous letters on the outside wall of a pub next to the Tower of London called, misnomically, “The Hung Drawn and Quartered.” You don’t need to read far into Pepys’ matter-of-fact account of the event to get a sense of the true horror of that most gruesome of gruesome punishments; “he was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was a great shout of joy.” A blood thirsty crowd indeed.

Pepys, who, as a 16 year old, had actually witnessed the execution of Charles I, adds; “thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at Whitehall, and to see the first bloodshed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.” This line is also quoted in the motet.

But Pepys’ Diary, as life, is full of contrasts and contraditions. Following the execution, he blithely took himself to the Sun Tavern for oysters before heading home and getting extremely angry with his wife for leaving her things scattered messily around the house; “and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.” I’m sure he’s not the only person in history to have taken out his frustration on an inanimate object. I once tore an entire newspaper into confetti-sized pieces. Following his outburst, he retired to his bedroom and spent the afternoon putting up shelves for his books. Perhaps the events at Charing Cross had upset him more than he’d thought? He doesn't tell us how Elizabeth responded to his little tantrum...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Shimmering like a soothing harp

Today started way too early in the morning. The alarm clock on my i-phone, which is meant to shimmer like a soothing harp, clanked like the noise Pacman makes when he's eaten by a ghost. I staggered to the bathroom, wondering who I was, and immediately dropped a piece of toast into the bath. The hideousness continued on the tube to King’s Cross when a woman pushed her lard-like body into our carriage and shouted at a bloke for not immediately getting out of her way.“What a foul mouth you have on you,” I said, cuttingly. She responded, “just you wait buster” so furiously and with such little irony that I chuckled all the way to my destination. Periodically, she glared at me from behind her fat, little eyelids.

At King's Cross, I boarded a train to Newcastle, but lost my seat reservation ticket somewhere between taking it from the machine and reaching the actual train. I had, however, and hugely rarely for me, managed to remember the seat number, so was quite surprised when my not being able to produce the actual document for the ticket collector caused so much bother. A second guard was sent to talk to me and I ended up feeling quite embarrassed! I could feel the woman next to me - another fat chocolate froozler - glaring at me like a common criminal.

I spent the day in meetings about my next project; a musical film for the BBC about the Tyne and Wear Metro. I felt uncomfortably southern when they interviewed me on the radio and hope the good folk of the region will trust me with their stories and not write me off as a loony Londoner. No doubt my tragic Yorkshire-nationalist stalker, who recently even went to into an internet forum in Wales to ask people how they'd feel if an outsider wrote A Symphony for Wales (a question that was gloriously shot down in flames by the person who answered “was Mendelssohn from the Hebrides?”) will have something to say about my working in Newcastle without a Geordie bone in my body. What can I say? Sometimes it takes an outsider to capture and distil the essence of a place. I feel hugely privileged and excited to be working in the area and hope I deliver a film that people will feel proud of.

The staff at BBC Newcastle are absolutely fabulous and really enthusiastic about the project. I was given a tour of the city; which was bustling in the unseasonably warm sunshine. We looked at some of the metro stations, but I agreed not to actually travel on one of the trains until they could film the momentous occasion for another documentary. We discussed how hysterical it would be if I went completely over the top; like they do in the documentaries when people see the pyramids or the northern lights for the first time. I could burst into tears and say; “I can’t believe I’m finally here. I had no idea a train could be so beautiful or that a door could make such a sweet hydraulic sound. This is the happiest day of my life, [weep/honk/splutter etc.]” Knowing what I do about Geordies, I’m pretty sure none of them will care two hoots about my going on the Metro for the first time! "Who's the daft Northamptonian talking about Newcaaaaaaastle?"

Our day ended with a big meeting at the Sage in Gateshead where I also met one of the members of 80s pop band Prefab Sprout. I stared at her from across a coffee table, wondering if she'd sung the line “Hot dog. Jumping Frog. Albuquerque” or had appeared in that iconic video by the swimming pool.

What an amazing venue the Sage is! It sort of hangs over the River Tyne and standing in the foyer feels a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff, with the most perfect views across Newcastle below.

I’m now on the train home, feeling stressed about Pepys; about gospel singers, and the fact that the whole thing seems to have suddenly landed on my shoulders again. I'm simultaneously doubting myself and going through all those composer-specific thoughts which niggle in my mind when I start rehearsing my music. Is it all too hard? Have I over-scored? Will the audience understand what I've written? Roll on Newcastle when I’ll have a team behind me again!

The 12th October 1660 and Pepys made a big deal about eating a Venison pasty at the Dolphin in on Tower Street. Venison was obviously a rare meat and one that he enjoyed the taste of. After dinner, he returned home to the news that his beloved Lady Jemima was in town. The wife of Sandwich had been extremely graceful and gracious towards the younger Pepys and he’d developed a sort of school boy crush on her which lasted until the day she died. She was obviously a formidable woman and a veritable baby factory, giving birth to an impressive10 children (two in one year). "She made me sit down all alone with her, and after supper staid and talked with her, she showing me most extraordinary love and kindness."

She also told Pepys that his uncle Robert, who had a sizeable estate in Huntingdonshire was planning to make him his heir, which was particularly exciting after Lady Jemima also let it slip that said uncle was about to become an ex-uncle.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Crying out for Desdemona

It is horrible to have to start a week feeling angry and stressed, but unfortunately the first email I read this morning was from a singer who’d told me more than six weeks ago that he was hugely interested in performing the Pepys Motet and just needed a little time to sort things in his diary. In the meantime I sent him 3 emails asking him to confirm this interest... but heard nothing. Eventually Nathan tracked him down on Facebook and told him it might be polite at least to let me know. The response arrived this morning: “I'd been biding my time because I wasn't sure if I would actually be able to do it. I realised after I first contacted you that the week of the concert is the week of Thanksgiving back in America AND my 10-year High School reunion... Best of luck with it though!”

It's kind of fair enough, but it took him six weeks to come up with the excuse! For future reference and if there are any performers or wannabe performers reading this; no one minds if you can’t do something, particularly if it’s unpaid, but if you're at all unsure, as the kids from Grange Hill once said; “just say no.” Preferably as soon as you can, because whilst you’re making up your mind, some director, producer or composer is going slowly mad!

It won’t surprise anyone to discover that the performer in question is a gospel singer and that once again I find myself back to the grindstone and running out of time at an alarming rate.

I’m sitting in a cafe in Greenwich, where I’m about to meet a potential female gospel singer. I suspect from her name that she is white; a concept I struggle with, but I suppose there’s no reason, other than gross stereotyping, that I should feel black people have the monopoly on gospel singing. The girl in question performs in a gospel choir and does “worship singing” at her church, which I assume is the WASP equivalent of gospel, so she’s probably as legitimate as any black person. She also studies at Trinity College in Greenwich, which is part of the Navy College there, and I suppose any link to the Navy – particularly in that part of the world – is worth a few Pepysian brownie points!

It's another beautiful day in London. Greenwhich looks stunning. I guess the world's not such a terrible place...
The11th October 1660, and Pepys spent the day in Westminster, by all accounts drinking and eating in pubs. He had a cow's udder for lunch, which sounds almost too hideous for words. For some reason I'm stuck with the mental picture of him eating a pair of washing up gloves!

In the afternoon he went to St James’ Park “where we observed the several engines at work to draw up water, with which sight I was very much pleased.” He particularly liked the engine which his great friend Ralph Greatorex had patented, which by his description would appear to have been based on the Archimedean Screw. I love the thought of all these early mechanical creations lined up in the park pumping water. It’s at times like that that I wonder what Pepys would have made of life in 21st Century London; the cars streaming past, the coffee machines, music on the radio, even bicycles and tea bags...

In the evening, Pepys went to the theatre to see The Merchant of Venice and seemed pleased enough with the performances, particularly that of the actor Nicholas Burt, who had last been seen in theatres before the Civil War as a child actor playing women’s roles! There was an incident when a “very pretty” woman sitting near Pepys in the theatre cried out in panic when Desdemona was smothered. I suppose many people in this era had never been to the theatre before and would find the whole experience highly believable and therefore deeply traumatic.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Beef Wellington

It’s 10.10.10. and the sun has been shining all day, which will no doubt thrill the hundreds of couples who’ve been scrambling to get married on this palindromic date. The leaves are turning brown on the trees and the air was ripe with something that looked like pollen. It might have been dust or little bits of leaf but it looked incredible, glinting in the sunshine like a never ending shower of fairy dust.

We dedicated the day to relaxation. I woke up at 11am and immediately nodded off again, dreaming that actress Sara Kestelman had died her head bright red!

We had lunch with Fiona at the Woodman pub opposite our house. I had a vegetarian “wellington” but randomly went up to the bar and requested the beef wellington. I’m not sure why the word “beef” fell out of my mouth, but if it weren’t for Nathan intervening, I might have ended up with something ghastly. There was much laughter when he pointed out that I was a card carrying veggie. The bar woman suggested that it was my sub-conscious craving meat...

On the subject of vegetarianism, I was thrilled to discover today that Scott Maslan, that Eastenders-actor-cum-Strictly-Come-Dancing-contestant is also a life-long herbivore. A less likely vegetarian I’ve never seen.

After lunch, we went for a stroll; through Highgate Woods, up into Muswell Hill, down to Crouch End, and back up the hill to Highgate. It was extremely pleasant. Fiona talked about the mayhem of US green cards. It seems it’s next to impossible for a working woman to marry a Yank without her life being put on hold for a ridiculous amount of time whilst the red tape is being trawled through. This process can take up to a year, during which time the new bride is not allowed to either leave, or work in the country that she’s adopting; absolute nonsense if you have a career that’s dependent on travel, or based in the country you’re leaving. I wholeheartedly believe that if the borders were opened between the US and the UK, neither country would find itself with any extra citizens after all those who want to relocate have relocated...

We’re now sitting in a laundrette waiting for clothes to dry. Our tumble drier broke a couple of months ago and neither of us have had the time or the money to have it repaired, so instead we find the time and money to sit in a laundrette watching our clothes flying around in a giant industrial drier being burnt to a crisp. Nowt so queer as folk...

10.10.(16)60 was a Wednesday, and Pepys spent the afternoon with his upholsterer, making sure his soft furnishings and walls were being properly covered. Pepys’ new bezzie mate, Mr Moore the lawyer, dropped by to discuss the gossip du jour; the trials of those who’d signed Charles the 1st’s death warrant, or at least the ones who hadn’t already wheedled their way out of punishment by paying large sums of money or by disappearing into the country. They were referred to as “barbarous regicides” often by people who could best be described as turn coats. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the likes of Monck and Sandwich, who were on the bench baying for their blood, had made excellent little Puritans in their time...

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Chocolate chip scones

I’m back in an overcast London feeling exhausted and jet-lagged. I woke up at 5am this morning and was wide awake for about three hours. I got up and pottered around for a bit before going back to bed and drifting into a coma. I forced myself up at about 11, fearing that I could otherwise have slept all day and I refuse to become crepuscular!

We arrived home yesterday in a murky fog and poor Nathan had to leave immediately for an 8 hour shift selling tickets at the Shaftesbury Theatre. I slept for much of the day, and then drove to Cambridge to do my first rehearsal with the five motet singers from Magdalene College. Rather excitingly we were rehearsing across the courtyard from the Pepys library; within earshot of dear old Dr Luckett and the very texts that we were singing excerpts from.

They were good singers, and we staggered our way through about half the piece, so, despite the fact that I STILL don’t have a choir of gospel singers for the work, I’m feeling a tiny bit more relaxed about things.

Cambridge looked rather wonderful in the autumn mist, which had descended on the city. I’ve written before that I feel most optimistic in the autumn and as I walked back to my car, and took a few gulps of that heady East Anglian air, I decided that life was pretty good.

I went back to London via Thaxted, stopping off at my parents’ for a natter and a late night cup of tea accompanied by three of my mother’s speciality chocolate-chip scones. Heavenly.

350 years ago, Pepys visited Sandwich and found him ill in bed with a portrait of himself by Lely hanging on the wall above him. Pepys thought it a fine piece of art and admitted to “being with child” – ie very excited - at the prospect of getting his own copy, perhaps when Sandwich was next at sea. Pepys met up with Sir William Penn, and the two men went by water to Redriffe (Rotherhithe) before walking across the fields to Deptford, “the first pleasant walk I have had a great while.” Pepys very much enjoyed chatting to Penn, describing him as “a merry fellow and pretty good natured” adding that he “sings very bawdy songs.”

They stayed in Deptford eating, doing business and chatting until 10 at night. Pepys was told the story of a black man (meaning one with dark hair) who scolded his beard on a mince pie. The beard apparently turned white, and never regained its colour in the many years before the man died. They returned to the City by barge in a “clear moonshine night” and it was midnight before Pepys got home, finding his wife in bed, in a semi-upholstered room, which he felt had been done so badly, he barely slept.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Mid Atlantic

I'm writing today’s blog somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I assume in the region of Greenland. It’s the middle of the night and someone on our plane has just fainted. It was getting really hot, so I’m not entirely surprised. She’s presently lying in the aisle with her legs in the air whilst an air hostess administers oxygen from something which looks like a fire extinguisher. The shame of it!

It’s been a fairly bumpy flight, which is making me slightly uneasy, but I'm nothing like the quivering wreck I used to be when flying, when I’d sit on a plane with a pen and paper, writing apocalyptic thoughts because it made me less likely to scream like a girl!

It was sad to leave New York, especially today as we were having the most wonderful time. We met Sascha, brother Edward and Ailsa in Cafe Angelique on Bleecker. It’s our favourite cafe in the city, primarily because the staff there are such extraordinary people. Lee, for example, is an artist who studied at Yale. The food's pretty good as well. Sascha declared that the feta cheese omelette he was eating was the best he’d ever had!

We wondered through the West Village, calling in at Magnolia Bakery for cup cakes before heading up to the High Line; a former railway track which has been turned into a wonderful pocket park. It runs from the lower West Side, all the way up to about West 34th Street and is the most pleasant way to get away from the traffic and constant noise of Manhattan. Everything there is so well though through. One section features a number of giant wooden deckchairs which have been attached to a set of former railway tracks in a way that you can wheel them towards and away from each other, for privacy, or so that you can chat to the person next door.

We took the subway up to Central Park. The sun was shining and we ate lollypops, took photographs and avoided the rabid squirrels...

And then it was time for us to get our things and head back to JFK airport. Ailsa went to work and Edward and Sascha went to the top of the Rockerfella Building. Their holiday is just beginning. Next week they’re off to Vermont and Massachusetts to see the multicoloured autumn trees and I'm hugely envious. I suppose today was the first day I felt truly relaxed and it would be incredibly lovely to be joining them in those magical sounding states... But London is calling. I have work to do. I have to change my diet, take multi-vitamins, lose weight and readdress that life/work balance so that I don't resemble one of those rabid racoons in Central Park by the end of November!

October 8th 1660 and Elizabeth was out of the house all day buying “household stuff”. Pepys dined alone, before heading off to Westminster, where he met his great friend, the lawyer, Henry Moore, of whom he wrote; “we love one another’s discourse so that we cannot part when we do meet.” And indeed, they stayed in one another’s company until 9pm. The two of them trekked around London together, nattering and gossiping constantly. At one stage they called in on Pepys’ father to talk about the possibility of gilded leather being used to cover the walls of Pepys’ new dining room. No “on-trend,” wealthy late 17th Century abode was complete without at least one formal room being decorated this way!

Thursday, 7 October 2010


Today’s been about nothing but theatre and started, after lunch, with the matinee of The Adams Family on Broadway. We weren’t expecting to enjoy the show hugely. Word on the town was that it was pretty rubbish, but, and perhaps because our expectations were so low, it ended up being great fun. It was a proper Broadway show with wall of sound vocals, great visual effects and stunning performances from all the lead actors. Bebe Neuwirth absolutely stole the show as Morticia. I literally couldn’t take my eyes off her every time she appeared on the stage. Her movements are so subtle, yet so perfect, that the merest flick of her wrist, or a twist of a finger pulls the entire audience in.

We met up with Nathan’s friend, Daryl, after the show and sat eating apple pie in his wonderful Hell’s Kitchen flat.

This evening found us at the Walter Kerr Theatre watching A Little Night Music, which featured proper Broadway royalty in the forms of Elaine Strich and Bernadette Peters. Our great friend Adam had managed to get us a pair of comps, and they were literally on the front row of the stalls, so at times it felt like the actors were performing to us and us alone. Desiree is a role they’d probably say Bernadette Peters was born to play. It’s a cliché but she was heartbreaking. I’m sure I’ll remember her interpretation of Send In The Clowns for years and years to come.

Rather strangely, my brother Edward is also in town. He flew in today, but jet-lag got the better of him before we’d emerged from the theatre. The plan is to meet up with him for breakfast in the village tomorrow, before we make a dash for the airport. I’d love to have spent longer with him and shown him our New York, but it will be a thrill just to touch base with him and I’m very excited.

The prospect of leaving the bubble of New York is not hugely thrilling, however, because it means one thing; hard work. The moment I touch down, the Pepys circus rolls into town and I won’t be coming up for air until the end of November. Deep breath. Eyes down. Here we go...

Farewell to Times Square...

The 7th October 1660 was a Sunday and Pepys went to Whitehall by foot, calling in at his father’s en route to change his long cloak for a short one, stating that “long cloaks being now quite out.” Remarkable to think fashions changed so quickly all those years ago. After church he met up with his old friend, Jack Cole and the two of them discussed scandalous royal gossip in French for the rest of the afternoon!

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Cut throat razor

We walked the length of Central Park yesterday; all the way from its Northern most tip on Cathedral Parkway, past the Eleanor Roosevelt reservoir and the Shakespeare Theatre, through Strawberry Fields and down to Columbus Circle. It’s a lovely place, which is presently marred only by ugly, make-shift signs almost everywhere, informing us that some of the racoons within the park have tested positive for rabies. As a result, I refrained from feeding and photographing the squirrels. The signs all feature “rabies” written in several different languages. What is it about that word in French, La Rage that sounds so sinister? As a child I remember getting on a ferry to Holland and encountering La Rage for the first time. It gave me nightmares for weeks. I remember wondering if any of my soft toys had caught La Rage whilst they were on the continent.

We had lunch in Hell’s Kitchen, which is also where we passed an old-fashioned barber shop. Someone inside was actually being shaved with a cut throat razor, and I realised that I’d never had that particular experience before. Five minutes later I was sitting in a chair which had been cranked back into a horizontal position and a Russian man was doing the business. It was a hugely relaxing experience, which took, I suppose close to half an hour. There were hot wet towels, balms, warm shaving foams from a special machine, aftershaves, and all sorts of talcs. Occasionally, he’d do something with the razor which felt really quite dangerous, which I guess just added to the experience. The end result was incredible; a very close shave. He didn’t go quite close enough just under my nose, and nicked me slightly on the right of my chin, but it’s certainly an experience I’d repeat for ten dollars.

I then bought a hat, which makes me feel very excited. I buy and lose hats all the time but am determined to keep this one because it’s a proper one-off and I love it very much. Here’s me wearing it in Times Square...

In the evening we went to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which the toast of Broadway at the moment. It’s a sort of modern-day, agit-prop Brechtian re-telling of the story of President Andrew Jackson; the guy who appears on the backs of twenty dollar bills. He’s a controversial character, who seems responsible for annexing great swathes of the southern United States, and finally kicking the Brits out of the country. He’s also responsible for slaughtering thousands of Native Indians. Was he THE great 19th Century president? Or was he an early Hitler? It seems no one can decide, although the production seemed to want us to think he was as nutty as a fruitcake. It had shades of Oh What a Lovely War and I suppose more than a nod towards Spring Awakening with its stirring rock music and physical theatre, but I was slightly unimpressed. It was very earnest. It’s the sort of thing that British drama school students devise. A box-ticking excercise. Now we’re doing funny. Now we’re being physical. Now we’re being quirky. Now we’re doing schtick. Unfortunately, the one thing they managed not to do was truth, and I left the theatre feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

We met Ailsa and Adam afterwards and went for a bite to eat in Vinyl back in Hell’s Kitchen. This diner needs to be seen to be believed. All of the menus come attached to classic rock and pop album covers and the loos are dedicated to four cheesy pop legends; Cher and Dolly Parton included. Each individual cubical room inclues a giant mural of the star in question, and, in the case of Dolly, which was the one I visited, you hear 9 to 5 whilst you ablute. Aisla was looking incredibly well and seems very happy over here. We walked with her to Times Square and took photographs in the fabulous bright lights.

October 6th 1660 was a busy day for Pepys which involved the sorting out of various vessels to take the Spanish ambassador back to Spain after his visit to England. Pepys’ chief rival, Creed was back in town and brought with him a set of “well bound good books, which I thought he did intend to give me but found that I must pay him.” No doubt if he'd have given them to Pepys, something else would have been wrong with them! They went together to Whitehall with plans to see Montagu/ Sandwich to help him in choosing a fleet to bring the Queen (Charles II mother) back to England, but when he hadn’t appeared by 9pm, they left.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010


Today marks the first anniversary of the suicide of a very close friend. It feels very strange not being in London to somehow mark the occasion with his other friends but Kevin loved New York and we spent a great deal of time with him in this city. He was with me on my very first visit to the city and shared many subsequent trips here with me. No doubt everywhere I turn today will trigger another memory.

Yesterday found us back in New Jersey, this time in Weehawken, a town just over the Hudson River with the most glorious views of Manhattan. We were visiting our friends, Drew and Heather, who live in a gloriously arty apartment in a little wooden house there. Drew is a filmmaker and Heather is an artist who specialises in embroidery. It was lovely to spend time with them, sharing ideas and talking about the strange goings-on and characters in their neighbourhood, whilst their dog, Honda, nibbled my fingers. A couple of months ago there was a major fire on their street, just four doors down from their home, which completely destroyed three houses. I suppose when your house is made of wood, you have to be ultra careful during periods of drought. And this summer in New York was apparently one of the hottest and driest ever.

We ate in a Cuban Cafe and I had a delicious plate of black beans and rice.

Drew, Honda and the view from Weehawken

It was another drizzly day in New York and the umbrella I bought to replace the umbrella that fell apart has now fallen apart. Sadly, I don’t think we’re going to see any more sun before we leave this place, so the rest of the trip will have to be about seeing theatre and sitting in lovely cafes. Frankly, as long as I’m still unwinding, I’m happy!

Splash: Nathan attempting to jump over 42nd Street

Last night we went to Musical Monday at Splash, a club in Soho where they play songs from the shows on giant screens all night. The love the Americans have for musical theatre is astonishing and puts the Brits to shame. Periodically, they’ll show some footage from the TONY awards, which are always televised and include massive set-piece performances from all the musicals which have had nominations that year. One montage featured cameos from Dolly Parton, Elton John, Liza Minelli and Stockard Channing! Imagine that at the Oliviers!

A very short diary entry from Pepys on this date 350 years ago, which I might as well quote in full:

Office day; dined at home, and all the afternoon at home to see my painters make an end of their work, which they did to-day to my content, and I am in great joy to see my house likely once again to be clean. At night to bed.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The glory of ABBA

Sharon’s wedding was an absolute delight, which was no surprise to any of us. She exudes a warmth which is so unbelievably contagious that just seeing her happy was enough to make us beam!

The ceremony took place on the roof of a building in deepest, darkest Queens, in one of those districts that they call Skid Row in the films. It was one of those places where an entire community nestles underneath a subway track. A nearby factory billowed smoke and a rather beautiful, yet slightly concerning shimmering metallic dust into the air. I'm not sure I'd want to be breathing that in on a daily basis, but it looked glorious is the sunlight! The views of Manhattan from the venue were stunning. Sometimes you need to get off the island to see how beautiful it is!

The wind was up. Sharon’s voluminous veil billowed around her so much that her maid of honour had to stand behind her for the whole service, keeping it in check whilst looking as inconspicuous as possible! She did brilliantly!

They do weddings very differently over here. There were five bridesmaids and five groomsmen who seemed to have no function other than to stand at the front looking pretty. They come down the aisle in pairs before the bride’s entrance like actors at the end of a play; like some kind of grown up beauty pageant. Just before the food, they appear again, still in their pairs, but this time their names are announced, so they run in waving like only Americans can, whilst everyone cheers as though they were contestants in a game show.

The vicar sounded like Top Cat. There’s little else I can say on the subject, other than I think it was a Catholic ceremony. There were lots of references to God, but I was focussing on the veil and wondering whether the second violinist in the string quartet was Chinese or mixed race.

I suppose the strangest thing to us Brits was watching the bride and groom eating their wedding meal at a separate table for two. It would seem that the Yanks don’t have the concept of a top table. The married couple sit all on their own, looking horribly lonely, separated by an enormous dance floor from their guests. As soon as we saw them, we howled with laughter, because it looked like they were on some kind of naughty table.

There’s also a rather cute tradition in the US where a table of guests will start tapping their glasses with knives; a cue, apparently not for speeches, but for the bride and groom to kiss. Periodically the sound of glass tapping echoed from one corner of the room, and Sharon and Dan duly kissed.

Later in the evening, the Bride is expected to do a dance with her father and the Groom with his mother, which all seemed slightly strange but then again, this is America, and America seems to have more upheld traditions than anywhere else in the world!

Everything had been meticulously planned, but what Sharon couldn’t possibly have organised was the extraordinary sunset which suddenly appeared and framed the view of Manhattan like something from a movie. It was idyllic, and to see Sharon leaping around like a five-year old excited child in front of it was the highlight of my evening.

Other highlights from a wonderful day include seeing Sharon walking down the aisle for the first time and boogying to Dancing Queen at the reception. There are so many differences between weddings in our two countries but it was a huge relief to see that, wherever you are in the world, no wedding is complete without ABBA...

Thursday 4th October 1660, and Pepys met two cousins for the first time. They drank together in an ale house near the Navy Office and then went by water to Whitehall to attend a service at Westminster Abbey where countless bishops in full regalia were doing whatever it is that bishops in those days did. Pepys was angered by the way the congregation responded to them; “But Lord! At their going out, how people did most of them look upon them as strange creatures and few with any kind of love or respect.”

There followed Pepys’ first oysters of the year at the Reindeer, before dinner with Montagu/ Sandwich, where Pepys was shown a model of a ship by a navy man who told him many things, one assumes about boats and shipping, “that I desired to understand”.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Rehearsal dinners

I’ve just woken up. The sky is a brilliant cornflower blue and it seems Sharon may well have picked the right day to get married. What a relief.

Yesterday was unseasonably warm in New York. After arriving back in Manhattan, we immediately made our way to the West Village and I went for a second massage. I couldn't really afford it, but when you're in pain, it's not easy to think about money. Thankfully, and touching all the things in Christopher’s apartment that at least resemble wood, it seems to have done the trick. My back is still a little tight, but it feels so much better than it did.

Last night was Sharon’s “rehearsal dinner”. This typically American tradition has always struck me as being a somewhat bizarre thing to do and if it wasn’t for Friends, I wouldn't have known it was something that even happened. I’m still not quite sure what the point of a rehearsal dinner is. I, for one, don't need any practice eating food, and if you practice reading your speeches, then surely the point of them is lost? Rehearsal dinners have always struck me as one of those American traditions, like baby showers, that seem to exist purely as a licence to print money.

That said, Sharon’s version made perfect sense. We didn't all sit down formally. She’d hired a largeish room in the condo where they live, organised what my Mum and Pepys would call a cold collation, ordered a few drinks, and we all stood around having a natter and meeting some of the people we’ll be spending time with today. Sharon and her husband to be, Dan, looked very well indeed. Both had lost weight and seemed terribly nervous yet incredibly excited, which was rather sweet. I was thrilled to meet at the party two people who lived at the two ends of Route 50, which is the US road I am hoping will form the basis of a follow up to A1: The Road Musical. One of them runs a restaurant in Sacramento, California and the other is a musician from Maryland, thousands of miles across the country. Two people united only by a road.

The Happy Couple to be...

The party was in Brooklyn, and we walked back over the Manhattan Bridge at night, which felt incredibly romantic, although terrifying every time a subway train rattled across and made everything vibrate. We walked up through China Town and Little Italy, which was positively buzzing with everyone eating out on the sidewalks and twinkling red and green lights as far as the eye could see. By the time I’d got back to the apartment I was ready to drop and I slept like the dead for 9 hours flat.

A view from the bridge

Wednesday October 3rd 1660, and Pepys’ day started with a big meeting in White Hall attended by, amongst others, the Duke of York, Monck and Montagu, who by this stage in the diary was constantly referred to by his newer title, Lord Sandwich. Pepys was sent by his Lord to over-see the delivery of an iron chest into the King’s Chamber and was astonished to see the fine artwork hanging all over the walls, including an example of trompe l’oeil, that technique of making two dimensional paintings look three dimensional, which was all the rage at the time; "among the rest a book open upon a desk, which I durst have sworn was a reall book."

There then followed the arrival of all Sandwich’s belongings from sea, which were delivered to various addresses across London, including his new official home at the wardrobe.

Pepys went home in the evening and watched over the painters who were now at work in his house (following the plasterers and carpenters...) Would his house ever be ready to live in?