Tuesday, 30 November 2010

He meets us at the lift waving his walking stick

I woke up this morning to discover Highgate under a blanket of snow. As I left the house, I realised the snow was very wet under foot, and decided it wouldn’t stay around for long, so immediately ‘phoned Nic to ask if she wanted a walk around Abney Cemetery in Stoke Newington.

I drove there and arrived ridiculously early, so busied myself sending letters and looking for a pair of Wellington boots. I’m off to Newcastle tomorrow, where the snow is apparently ridiculous, so want to make sure I’m as prepared as I can be.

Nic was well. We ate lunch in a cafe on Church Street. It was all a bit organic for my liking; own brand cola, tepid baked beans which arrived looking like cat food, bread which I could only swallow with gulps of water – and the cafe was freezing cold. Nic was given the wrong plate of food entirely! The staff, however, were incredibly polite! At the end of the meal, Nic paid, which was lovely of her and we set off for a stroll around the cemetery.


The snow had started falling again by this stage, and it was getting more and more intense. We met up with a couple of Nic’s friends who were doing a photo shoot for an album cover. The artist, Vashti, was dressed in nothing but a black tutu and a tiny lacy top. I couldn’t feel my toes. Heaven knows how she must have been feeling!

Nic was given the task of holding an umbrella over the photographer to protect the camera but after about 20 minutes, it got a bit too intense for everyone, and we all went our separate ways.


I drove back home through a blizzard, dumped my Wellingtons in the kitchen, and hurtled into Central London to drop off the collar studs, which I'd fortunately managed to find yesterday. For some reason they were nestling in our bed – on Nathan’s side. I think he must have slept on top of them for two nights without realising. Talk about the Princess and the pea... or not.

Oxford Street was as miserably crowded as ever, and the central line from Tottenham Court Road was about as horrible as tube trains get. I took it to Liverpool Street and then walked to the Barbican to see the world premier of Badenheim 1939, by Arnold Wesker. It is a devastating and haunting piece about blind optimism in the face of adversity. It was wonderfully acted by the students at Guildhall, extraordinarily staged, and, though it pains me to admit it, the music was spot on!

Sir ‘Nold was there, and did a Q and A beforehand. It upset me to see him looking considerably less robust than he had when we last met just over a year ago. He now walks with a stick and is suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s, which makes travelling into London intimidating. This makes me sad. Arnold is my mentor. He spotted me when I was at drama school, and we wrote our first piece together when I was just 22. He intimidated me in those days. I looked up to him and soaked up everything he told me like a sponge. We used to drive across the country together, trying to whip up interest in Letter to a Daughter. During those long car journeys he taught me Jewish folk melodies and I sang English folk songs to him. He told me endless stories about the theatre world in the 1950s and 60s. The days when everything was politicised and the Workers Revolutionary Party under Redgrave and De La Tour ruled the roost. The days when theatre mattered.

I arrived with him and his wife, Dusty. I went up to a woman who was holding programmes (all of which said Wesker's name in large letters) and said "I'm here with Arnold Wesker, is there anyone here to greet him?" The woman sucked her teeth at me before saying; "who's that then?" "He wrote the play" I said. She sucked her teeth again; "what was his surname?"

He may no longer be a household name for the younger generation, but he knows how to write a play!

I congratulated Arnold and left. I wanted to be on my own to contemplate the final image of the piece; thirty young people carrying suitcases and musical instruments rushing into a cloud of white smoke; the flames of the gas chambers turning them instantly into silhouettes.

I left the theatre and snow was falling from the sky and swirling around the City skyscrapers like ash.

On a balcony in New York, it's just started to snow
He meets us at the lift, like Douglas Fairbanks waving his walking stick
But he isn't well at all
The buildings of New York look just like mountains through the snow


Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive


And I can hear my mother saying
"Every old sock meets an old shoe"
Isn't that a great saying?
"Every old sock meets an old shoe"
Here come the Hills of Time

(Kate Bush, Moments of Pleasure)

On the last day of November, 1660, Pepys was horrified to learn of the King’s plan to pay sailors with “tickets”. These glorified IOU's were being offered because there was no money to pay up front. It was hoped that the navy boys would be lured into accepting these essentially worthless pieces of paper by promises of incredibly high rates of interest. Pepys, being a man of great integrity, realised the tickets would only temporarily solve the problem. Money still needed to be found to pay the sailors – but now with a great deal of interest. Sadly, Charles II had less integrity. By 1667, these tickets, which in many cases still hadn't been paid, were causing mayhem and mutiny. The Navy was on its knees and the Dutch were sailing merrily down the Medway!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Pointless stations

There's a tube strike today and many stations across London are closed. A woman with a voice like nails on a blackboard was sitting opposite me on the Central line earlier. She wanted to get off at Chancery Lane and was shrieking at anyone who'd listen; "if the tube's going through the station, I don't see why it wouldn't just stop." I think she'd slightly missed the point. There'd be no point in striking if it didn't cause disruption.

For my part, I'm thrilled! I've been all over London today, and sat on lovely empty carriages and whizzed through all those pointless stations like Goodge Street and St Paul's. My journey times have been halved. I reached Tottenham Court Road this morning in record time. Perhaps this strike will introduce people to the joys of walking!

Unfortunately, as I was exiting the tube earlier, a woman from London Tonight stuck a camera in my face. "What do you think of the tube strike?" she asked. "I think it's marvellous!" I replied "I've made it to my destination in half the time, and Oxford Street is empty!" She laughed. I walked away, wondering if my hat looked silly on camera!

I was less thrilled, however, to discover that I might have lost the studs from the shirt I hired from Moss Bros for the premier. I had no idea what they were for or where they went, so decided to leave them somewhere safe. Unfortunately, I've no idea where this was. I've been given 24 hours to find them or I lose an undisclosed amount from my deposit.

I retire from this blog entry, quoting an article I read in the Metro this morning, which upset me greatly. Many of us often feel as though we're up against it and the world is a tough place, but there's always someone worse off...

A paralysed man who is living in a tent by a canal said yesterday he had given up on life and was waiting to die, as temperatures dropped below freezing. Homeless Mark Payne became stranded by a lock in Oxford when his wheelchair got a puncture. The 52-year-old then refused to move. 'I'm just going to stay here and let nature take it's course,' he said. 'To be honest, I wish I was dead now. If they find my body, they'll cremate me and I won't have to wake up any more.' Mr Payne turned down offers to take him to a hostel but said he had accepted food and a tent from concerned passers-by last week. He added: 'I never knew people could be so kind.'

Poor Mr Pepys woke up 350 years ago to discover a “great deal of foul water come into my parlour from under the partition between me and Mr Davis [his neighbour].” He immediately went next door to report the problem, and Mr Davis promised to try and do something about it as soon as he could. Perhaps in an attempt to move the conversation away from matters faecal, he proceeded to announce that thieves had attempted to break into his house the previous night, which freaked Pepys out good and proper.

The world became a wonderful place again when he received his first quarter’s pay; “and do bless Almighty God that he is pleased to send us so sudden and unexpected payments of my salary so soon after my great disbursements. So now that I am worth 200l again.”

That’s alright, then. But with all those thieves around, we’ll have to hope our hero put all this money into a well-locked chest!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

My own choir

It must be freezing cold outside. There's still frost on the trees and the sun, which is the colour of golden syrup, is really low in the sky. It's nearly 4pm and I've done nothing but sit on my sofa underneath a rug, whilst watching the telly. I’m waiting for Nathan to get back from his rehearsal for Just So and then we’re going to bed down with a nice stir fry.


I'm currently toying with the seed of an idea, which is to create my own ensemble. I love my career. I love creating works for very specific ensembles in very specific corners of the world, but I also have to acknowledge that there often isn’t the potential for what I write to be performed again, and that's an incredibly important part of being a composer. I've never had anything published, for example, and that upsets me.

I've therefore decided to try and form a 16-voice choir, who will specialise in singing documentary compositions; works which are based on actuality, but could also be easily adapated for and performed by any choir. I would write much of the repertoire, but we’d also perform other work that fits the brief; even if this involves performing music by Purcell, for example, within the context of what was happening in the world at the time. I’d want the ensemble to be gifted singers, all able to perform as soloists, but with voices which have the capacity to blend as a chorus as well as being able to convey the emotion central to the works we perform.

In theory it all sounds incredibly exciting, but no doubt it will involve a great amount of hard word as I try to track down singers who want to join me on the journey. I’ve even thought about the first work I’d write for the ensemble; a choral piece based on letters written during the two world wars.

They say money breeds money, and on November 28th 1660 was Pepys received two large payments amounting to a mini-fortune of around 40l, which keen readers will remember was about the sum total of his worth at the start of the year. He was also thrilled to discover that his salary at the Navy office had been okayed by the treasury, so the money would continue to roll in at least for the time being. Unsurprisingly, there was much praising of God etc... Pepys was never happier than when earning huge sums of money!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Brighton Rock

I am sitting in a car, heating blaring out on full, heading back from Brighton, which could well be the coldest place in the world right now!

What's very odd for me is that I have nothing to do for the next few days, and this makes me almost panic! Still, there's nothing like the bitter cold to numb your mind and make you forget everything, including your own name!

We have come to Brighton with our American friends Adam and Leon. Whenever Adam comes to the country, we try to take him on a road trip somewhere either typically English, or quirky and unique.

Despite the cold, Brighton was wonderful. The lanes were crammed full of things we all wanted to buy, we had fabulous food in a pub and a brilliant time on the pier, where we ate the finest doughnuts I've ever tasted. I also bought a toffee apple, which was disappointingly furry. I opted not to get involved with the rides at the end of the pier, and instead stood and watched the chaps whizzing about on THE most terrifying looking contraption, which took them 100 feet into the air before plummeting them towards the pier at a terrifying speed. Apparently the view from the top; Brighton twinkling in the night sky, was extraordinary, but the wind was so biting they thought they were going to die of hypothermia!


350 years ago Pepys got stuck in a traffic jam of carts and horses caused by a terrible incident of 17th Century road rage, which led to the death of a footman!

It didn't seem to bother Pepys too much, for he dined very comfortably with the Sandwiches before heading off to the theatre whilst his wife went to a christening. Pepys rarely bothered himself with things like christenings and weddings. Perhaps they were considered feminine pastimes.

He arrived home late at night, and remembered with horror, that he'd left his boy Wayneman in Whitehall with strict instructions to remain there until he returned. He was therefore grately relieved when the boy took the initiative to make his way back to the house, no doubt cursing his employer with every frozen footstep of his journey!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Triumph!

Yesterday was a triumph. Believe it or not, the first time all 40 singers had performed together was during the performance at 6.30. We’d had a run at 5pm with 39 of them, but the last singer rushed rushed through the doors just as the audience was arriving! Everyone looked incredible, having dressed fabulously, yet appropriately for their style of their singing. We had early music singers in 17th Century corsets, opera singers in fabulous frocks, musical theatre performers in black tie and sequins, the Navy boys in full uniform with swords, Magdalene College chaps in university robes and folkers wearing garlands of corn in their hair. Everyone looked so wonderful and colourful and acted their way through the music beautifully. There was one moment, whilst the gospel choir were singing “we to a little house on the Bank Side and saw the fire grow” when I swear they were seeing the fire itself in a giant arc engulfing the City on the other side of the water. All the performers shone – every single one of them.


The full choirs

It was our coup de theatre that seemed to get most people excited. At the end of the second movement the choir went from standing in a clump in front of the audience to standing in a circle around them. We performed the last movement therefore in complete surround sound. This dissected the music – and gave it space, so that people could really hear the choirs working as individual units within the whole sound. It was very exciting as well for people in the audience to have at least one group of singers within touching distance.

Benjamin and the Navy Boys

It was an utterly engaging experience for the audience. When a choir dresses in black, and buries their heads in their score, the audience become passive observers and might as well be watching the performance on a television. If the choir in front of them is dressed in a riot of colours and every face is contorted with the emotion of every line, then they're dragged, kicking and screaming into the experience. Of course, this approach won’t work for everyone. Some people love to sit in an audience with their eyes closed, allowing the music to wash over them and I suspect these people might have been rather freaked out by our performance.

Katherine from the "trebles" choir

That said, most of the audience genuinely seemed to love it. So many people rushed up to me afterwards, and there's been a steady stream of emails all day today. A lady even came up to tell me she brought news from God, who's apparently been lighting fires for me for the past ten years and wanted me to know that I had a very bright future ahead. It was a lovely thing to be told, but I hope she wasn’t trying to blame me for the Great Fire of London!

After the performance, I was presented with a bottle of champagne by the church, a wonderful hat from the Navy Boys and a programme signed by everyone. All items I shall cherish forever... until I drink the champagne, that is.

Oranges and Lemons was a triumph as well, and it was fabulous that so many people came back to perform the work. We were also joined at the last moment by my very dear friend, Tash, who performed in orchestras with me when we were children.

Add to this, an audience filled with deeply loving friends and family, all of whom seemed genuinely thrilled to be sharing my happiness. My Mother said this morning how astonishingly loyal my friends are. Philippa was in floods of tears, Meriel and Roy were on their feet afterwards, cheering, as were the two Matts. Edward and Ellen sent wonderful text messages. And the choir itself, peppered with people I've known for years, and of course my brother singing in Oranges and Lemons. It was engulfing and overwhelming and I felt like the luckiest man alive.

To answer the question posted on my blog yesterday, yes, a CD IS being cut of 5 of the movements of the work, which the church is going to sell for something like £15. If you'd like a copy, email me at ben@benajmintill.com and I will forward the details to the necessary people. In the meantime, if you'd like to hear our recording, you can go to www.benjamintill.com/pepysmotet. Pour yourself a nice cup of tea, find a pair of headphones, and allow the music to pull you in. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

It’s a double bill tonight on the Pepys diary front because I was so drunk last night when I came to write my blog that I could barely remember how to sign into my account.

Sunday 25th November 1660 and Pepys was doing a tour of many of the churches in the City of London. He visited his parents and found his mother very ill and suffering from her bladder and kidney stones.

Monday 26th November 1660 and Pepys dined at home with his father; “who seems to take much pleasure to have a son that is neat in his house.” He spent the afternoon in the Navy office and then went to the pub, where he talked about poetry, returning home to discover that Sir William Batten’s wife had called in on Elizabeth, the first visit she’d ever made, which pleased Pepys very much because it was another indication that his wife was being accepted into society.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Pepys Motet

Pissed as a fart. It was amazing. I was terribly proud and utterly humbled and there was a standing ovation. The choir were remarkable. I cried. Goodnight, Mr Pepys - and thank you.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

In the round

I'm so tired I can barely stand. Thankfully I’m sitting – on the tube – whizzing up the Northern line on my way home, where I’m going to eat porridge. I’ve been on my feet since early this morning and I’ve only managed to eat a boiled egg.


The day started on Oxford Street, where I had hoped to collect my suit for tomorrow, but it wasn’t ready, so I went to the second hand record shops on Berwick Street and stared lovingly at rare ELO vinyls. I drank a cup of tea on Old Compton Street, and by the time I’d returned to Oxford Street, the suit was there, so I went home, excitedly, to try it on. There are a few too many fiddly little collar and cuff studs for my liking, but I think I shall look very fine indeed, even if the bow tie is ready tied... Something I object to on principal, but they didn’t have any white ones that weren’t.

I left the house again in a panic. Heaven knows how, but it was suddenly almost five o’clock and I only had an hour to get to St Olave’s to do a telephone interview with Radio 3 before the rehearsal kicked off. The interview went well. I’ve no idea what I said. Burble burble, Royal Navy, burble. They played a bit of movement 4; perhaps all of it, but they cut me off, so I couldn’t hear.

When I arrived at the church, there were electricians, and ladders and bits of wire everywhere. They’re sorting out the lighting in there, and it’s going to look incredible. Unfortunately, people kept texting to say they couldn’t make the rehearsal, including poor Katherine who ended up stuck in the middle of the riots in Westminster. Many were ill. I sincerely hope they’re all better tomorrow because I’ve still not seen more than 33 singers in the space at the same time. I’m not sure what the contingency is if someone is ill...

The rehearsal went well. Movement 5 was a bit scrappy, but we have decided to perform movement 6 as I initially wanted it... in the round. Very exciting. Big up for the gospel choir today, who were there in force and absolutely on it.

350 years ago, Pepys was drinking wormwood wine at the Rhenish Winehouse in Westminster. Whether this particular substance had any of the hallucinogenic qualities of that other favourite wormwood-tinged drink, Absinthe, we can only imagine. It seemed to calm our hero down, however, for he went to see Mr de Cretz to collect the painting he’d had copied of Sandwich (paying 3l 10s for it, which he thought a very good price) before heading home, where he had a cosy fire made up in his closet and spent hours working on various papers and sorting through his books.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

SAD

It’s freezing outside and I'm shivering like one of those silly hairless dogs. I’m now pretty sure I’m coming down with the cold that seems to have torn through the Pepys performers like a wild fire. I feel pretty rough and a gland on my neck hurts like hell. I’m also very worried about my voice, which hasn’t been working properly for a few months. I suspect I might have some form of acid reflux, but of course there’s always that niggling doubt that it’s something more sinister. I hope none of the other singers are suffering from this cold, however. It's certainly not the best time of year for trying to perform a work which relies on exactly 40 singers!


I had lunch at the Flask in Highgate with Fiona today, and said goodbye to her for another few weeks. She’s off to Texas, where apparently it’s almost as cold as it is in London. I’m sure it’s not as murky, however. If I don’t see the sun soon, I’m going to have to buy one of those lamps that people with SAD are forced to stare into for hours.

For those of you who remember the soup-gate scandal from the 31st March, I'm thrilled to announce that a tin of courgette and gruyere soup no longer costs £3.49 in the delicatessen in the village. It now costs a slightly less extortionate £2.99. It just shows what a phone call to a press office can achieve. Or maybe it was simply that no one was buying it at the former price!

I've just seen a weather forecast and the temperatures will continue to drop over the next few days. It might well be time for me to dig out my winter coat. Apparently it gets colder the further north you travel, which doesn’t bode well for my week in Newcastle at the start of December! I think I could well see snow...

I’m shocked to see that there’s a new adaptation of a Christmas Carol on the telly this year in amongst a sea of repeats and old formulas revived like the un-dead. I think it’s time for TV executives to start being braver and programming things that people might actually want to see.

Not a greatly inspiring diary entry from Pepys on this date 350 years ago. Elizabeth and Jane spent the day “doing the linen” four days after they’d started the process of the monthly wash. Meanwhile, Pepys was doing business at the office and at a variety of City Inns.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Gloria Paige

I'm stranded in central London! I'm in a Cafe on Carnaby Street, a grotty part of town, which I'd normally try to avoid like the plague, but it beats trying to tackle Oxford Street, which is my idea of absolute hell in the run up to Christmas.

I'm waiting for a call from Moss Bros who are presently deciding whether to be generous enough to provide me with white tie and tails for Thursday's performance for anything less than an extortionate price! Considering that one of the main purposes of our concert is to raise money for St Olave's Church, I think it's a pretty poor do that they're even questioning it. There should almost certainly be a reduced rate for people doing charity gigs, but their only reductions seem to be for corporate bookings, which says as much as you need to know about society today. They have a reduced rate for bankers heading off to a fancy dinner, but the rest of us have to pay the full rate. Bah humbug!!

The hideous part about sitting in Starbucks is listening to the Christmas tracks playing on a never-ending loop. Fortunately, the music they've opted for is less Slade and more sub-Ella Fitzgerald, but I'm sure the staff are already wanting to pull their teeth out. At the best of times, there's nothing worse than a female vocalist emoting her way through a song, but when it's I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, this becomes almost as unforgivable as the lady on the ads at the moment offering her most "soulful" rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or Cher Lloyd on the X-factor this week noodling her way around the untouchable melody of Imagine.

It must be remembered at all times that "soulful" doesn't mean forgetting to sing the melody! It's also worth remembering that being black doesn't give you the monopoly on soul. Singing from the heart, singing with honesty or singing one's hurt and pain into a song is devastating if it's real, regardless of the colour of your skin. Waving your arm in the air whilst singing, as though playing an invisible Theremin, does NOT constitute soul! Affectation is not soul...

At this point in my rant, I'm reminded of the Abba prom in Hyde Park that I was lucky enough to attend last summer. Word went round that Chaka Khan was going to perform The Winner Takes It All, and as she took to the stage, the crowd went silent in excited expectation. If anyone was going to do the song proud, it was Chaka Khan!

...Sadly, she murdered it. She either forgot to sing, or thought she was better than the melody, and started riffing, wailing like a deeply inappropriate, and slightly senile banshee. The lowest point was undoubtedly the moment she decided to sing "hallelulya" instead of one of the choruses. If Bjorn was dead, he'd be turning in his grave, because he's still alive, I'm sure he was simply reaching for the telephone to speak to his lawyers! Matt Lucas, who was somewhere else in the audience, sent a text message as the ripple of disappointed applause came to a close, which simply read "Chaka Can't".

This was the concert when also I discovered to my horror/ amusement that Elaine Paige has started to resemble Gloria Hunniford, begging the question; which is which?


 


















How can I leave this blog without encouraging its readers to listen to the original and best version of The Winner Takes It All. If this doesn't break your heart, then your heart is made of tin!!

I'm delighted to announce that Moss Bros have come through with an offer of a £60 voucher towards the hire of a suit, so we now like them very much and hope they have exceedingly high profits for this quarter!

350 years ago, Pepys and Elizabeth travelled to Whitehall. They'd been invited to watch the Queen Mother and her two daughters eating a meal, which strikes me as one of the more bizarre 17th Century customs. The Pepyses hadn't be invited to actually sit down and eat with the royals, they'd merely been invited to stand and watch them scoffing. I can't imagine anything more embarrassing for everyone concerned, but Pepys was excited enough. Elizabeth had been offered a very good position, standing behind the Queen Mother's chair, and Pepys was thrilled with the way that his wife looked as she watched the proceedings, no doubt with a great deal of dignity; "The Princess of Orange I had often seen before. The Princess Henrietta is very pretty, but much below my expectation; and her dressing of herself with her hair frized short up to her ears, did make her seem so much the less to me. But my wife standing near her with two or three black patches on, and well dressed, did seem to me much handsomer than she." I sincerely hope he told Elizabeth how nice she looked...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Gas! Gas! A ecstasy of fumbling...

I am exhausted, but jubilant. We just had a rehearsal with the full 40 singers (well, 33 of them) at St Olave's and it went wonderfully. We got quite obsessed with running the movements in a full circle with me conducting in the centre. It was such an extraordinary experience to be able to stand there, spinning round and round, looking at all the faces close up. Some of them were giving it absolutely everything. 

There are so many good things to report. The Navy choir rocked. The Magdalene Choir sounded magical. Ian, the opera tenor had been very poorly, but came straight from hospital to bellow out a series of top c's. 

The word humbling is used way too often in the media, but I felt truly humbled. I've yelled and screeched and completely melted down in front of most of those singers, but they gave me absolutely everything today.

At the end of the rehearsal, I got to sing Pepys' own composition, Beauty Retire, whilst standing on the alter underneath which the great man is buried. I found the experience overwhelming. By this point, the singers had all left the building but they'd whipped up the most incredible energy in the space which I swear at that moment, was still heavy in the air.

Last night I arrived home from my brothers to find Nathan in the dark waiting for the emergency gas man. There was obviously a leak somewhere because the whole place stank to high heaven! 

A very nice man arrived holding a strange rubber tube and something which looked like a thermometer.  He confirmed that there was indeed some kind of leak, but couldn't find any evidence of it in our kitchen. He suggested that the leak was probably in the downstairs flat. Ben, who lives below, had gone away for the weekend, but fortunately I still had a key for his flat from the days when I used to work there casting films with Shaheen. 

Just as well, because the smell was overpowering when we got in. He'd left the hob on! I asked the gas man how serious it could have been, and he scoffed and said "Manchester". I assume referring to the recent explosion which destroyed a street! Eek!!

350 years ago and Pepys spent the day shopping with his wife. They bought some posh green fabric for a waistcoat, paintings for the house and a knife with a posh handle. Back home, and he spent the evening making music, first on the violin and then on his lute. He was chuffed to report that his neighbours came into the garden to listen to him playing. Let's hope they were enjoying the experience! I assume it was something of a novelty to hear any music in those days. We're all so used to a world where music never stops! 

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Fisher Price

It's extremely cold and damp. A sort of driving fog seemed to engulf London last night. It swirled past our window like the smoke from a ghostly cigar and seems to have left a sort of misty moisture in its wake. I'm sitting with Sascha and Brother Edward, watching the X-Factor, with one eye on the boats floating past on the Thames below us. Sascha just pointed out THE most tragic-looking party boat. It had all the disco lights flashing and yet only about ten people were on board. No one was dancing. Shocking. It seems the weather has turned everything into a damp squib!


I went to see Philippa and my god-daughter today. It was wonderful to see them both. We made a walnut cake for Philippa's father which I was forbidden from tasting, and I made a curious piece of headgear, which I shall be wearing at the premier of the motet!

Philippa has dug out a Fisher Price garage from a loft somewhere and Deia and I had great fun cranking tiny plastic cars up the little lift and down the curvy ramp. It proves just how well they made their toys back in the 1970s. 30 years since Philippa played with the same plastic garage, it was still looking sturdy and still bringing joy into a little girl's life! And not just a little girl's life... It made a 36-year old man very happy, too!

The joyous garage...

November 20th 1660, and the first frosts of the year came to London. Spare a thought for poor Jane Birch heating up vats of water in the back garden in preparation for the monthly wash.

Pepys made his way by land to Sandwich's house and spent the morning playing on his organ. Oo-er. In the afternoon, he went with his Bessie mate, Mr Moore, to the theatre to see Beggar's Bush. Pepys was particularly keen to point out that Michael Mohun had been in the cast, who was said to be the "finest actor in the world." Pepys seemed much more impressed by the theatre, however, the newly built King's House, which he claimed to be the "finest there ever was in England." A day of superlatives!

He returned home late at night and found the house in a "washing pickle". What a wonderful turn of phrase the man had!

Friday, 19 November 2010

An 18th Century Klotz

Today’s been a very social day. I had lunch in Jackson’s Lane Community Centre, where I met up with Louise, who's going to be editing Metro The Musical in Newcastle. It was wonderful to see her again. She’s looking very well, having been in Dohar for the past three months. Heaven knows how she survived there as a vegan, but she seems to think it was quite easy. I always forget how nice the cafe is at Jackson’s Lane. A cup of tea is far cheaper there than it is in Costa, and if you don’t pick one of the times when a thousand little girls dressed as princesses are preparing for a ballet class, it’s got a very nice atmosphere.


Fiona joined us and we went into town to look at violins, spending a couple of hours in a room above Guivier’s in Fitzrovia sampling scores of English violins. It was a German one, however, a Klotz, from 1717, which really stood out. It sounded stunning, and I could tell by the way that Fiona was responding to it, that she felt she’d uncovered something extraordinary. She’s now borrowed it for a few weeks to see how the pair of them get along.

I spent the rest of the day trying to deal with the issues that seem to have been thrown up by our decision to make the Pepys Motet an invite only event. Unfortunately it seems that not everyone who was invited has responded to say whether they’re coming, and more worryingly that a number who DID respond, haven’t found their way onto the official guest lists! There’s nothing we can do, I suspect, other than wait, and hope it all comes out in the wash. I got incredibly stressed about it all this morning, but suspect there’s nothing more I can do, other than pass on the worried emails and apologise for the misunderstandings. As long as no one decides – or is told - not to come, and we get everyone into the church, I’ll be thrilled. So if you’re reading this, and you’re worried, send me an email and I’ll check that you’re on the list.

November 11th 1660 and Pepys spent the late morning shopping for framed pictures. The two he eventually chose went down really badly with Elizabeth, so one of them, a picture of Paris, was sent back. He was obviously feeling flush, for after work, he also purchased a silver tankard for 20l. He came home and played music into the early hours, whilst his wife sat up waiting to wake the wench, Jane, so that she could do the monthly clothing wash. Apparently, 2am was the time she needed to wake up to start boiling the water, but in the days before alarm clocks, who else was going to wake her up?!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Coming out of the shadows

When I woke up this morning, London seemed to be bathed in a beautiful milky light, which by 3pm had turned into hideous driving rain and that sort of blue half-light I associate with St Petersburg in February. 

We went to Russia, rather bizarrely, on a school trip  at the start of 1989, and for the first three days of our time in Leningrad, were engulfed by an impenetrable, grainy light which would have sent the strongest of men to an early grave. I remember standing in front of a grey concrete communist building, looking out across the grey Baltic Sea and remarking that even the white horses on the crests of the driving waves, were grey. No wonder the Scandanavians have such a high rate of suicide. For some reason I also remember singing Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love at the same time. More reasons for depression...

I did a morning of admin before meeting Fiona for lunch at our favourite Greasy Spoon. We then went for one of our epic treks across London whilst talking ten to the dozen. She brought some tangerines in the Co-op at Archway, which were, without wishing to sound too much like dear Mr Pepys, some of the best I've ever tasted. I'd eaten three by the time I reached home and upon walking through the door, washed them down with a big, fat banana. 

I'm about to start our second rehearsal for Oranges and Lemons, which I hope will prove to be as exciting as the first. A couple more first altos and a barrage of tenors and I'll consider myself to be a very lucky man! What would be nice, however, is for this tube train to leave Moorgate Station! 

November 17th 1660 was a Sunday and Pepys went to St Olave's Church not once, but twice. It was the first time the Gentlemen of the Navy Office had taken their wives to sit in their new balconied pew and a great fuss was made of Elizabeth. It seems Pepys was finally beginning to view his wife as the asset she obviously was! Elizabeth was emerging from the shadows!

Coming out of the shadows

When I woke up this morning, London seemed to be bathed in a beautiful milky light, which by 3pm had turned into hideous driving rain and that sort of blue half-light I associate with St Petersburg in February. 

We went to Russia, rather bizarrely, on a school trip  at the start of 1989, and for the first three days of our time in Leningrad, were engulfed by an impenetrable, grainy light which would have sent the strongest of men to an early grave. I remember standing in front of a grey concrete communist building, looking out across the grey Baltic Sea and remarking that even the white horses on the crests of the driving waves, were grey. No wonder the Scandanavians have such a high rate of suicide. For some reason I also remember singing Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love at the same time. More reasons for depression...

I did a morning of admin before meeting Fiona for lunch at our favourite Greasy Spoon. We then went for one of our epic treks across London whilst talking ten to the dozen. She brought some tangerines in the Co-op at Archway, which were, without wishing to sound too much like dear Mr Pepys, some of the best I've ever tasted. I'd eaten three by the time I reached home and upon walking through the door, washed them down with a big, fat banana. 

I'm about to start our second rehearsal for Oranges and Lemons, which I hope will prove to be as exciting as the first. A couple more first altos and a barrage of tenors and I'll consider myself to be a very lucky man! What would be nice, however, is for this tube train to leave Moorgate Station! 

November 17th 1660 was a Sunday and Pepys went to St Olave's Church not once, but twice. It was the first time the Gentlemen of the Navy Office had taken their wives to sit in their new balconied pew and a great fuss was made of Elizabeth. It seems Pepys was finally beginning to view his wife as the asset she obviously was! Elizabeth was emerging from the shadows!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A semi-tamed beast

So there's to be another Royal wedding, and today's front pages are daubed with images of Princess Diana's ring glistening on top of a curiously gnarled finger. Am I the only person to wonder if Kate Middleton might be one of those vaguely neurotic women with scaly hands who spends her life applying E45 cream? I'm certainly not the only person to notice the frightening fact that dear William is becoming more and more the spitting image of his Uncle Edward! It's astonishing how inbreeding can wreck the appearance of a lad who had so much promise in his younger years!

I find myself wondering if I really care about the possibility of a lovely, shiny Royal wedding and come to the conclusion that I don't, although I am mindful of Nathan's plea for me not to spoil it for him. 

Do I hope people will have parties? Absolutely. Anything that brings communities together is fine by me. I've already been invited to a street party in Yorkshire to celebrate the death of Thatcher (when she dies, obviously), and that's what I call a TRUE occasion to be marked with jollity and ice cream. But if a wedding has the same effect, and puts smiles on a few troubled faces, I'm happy enough.
 
As I get older, I find my staunchly anti-monarchy stance beginning to wane. Obviously the notion of birth right still sits uncomfortably within the democracy that I'm  proud to call my home, but at the same time, the idea of a US style president fills me with a sense of horror.

They say if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In this instance, it plainly IS broke, but kind of irreparably so! 

...And you've got to have a modicum of respect for the Queen. She is an almost painfully dignified woman and I must confess to being rather excited by the notion of her becoming the longest running monarch of all time. That WOULD be an excuse for the mother of all parties! 

Today saw me finishing off the recordings of The Pepys Motet. Sure, they're a bit ragged in places, but I feel astonishingly proud of our achievements. There's some heartbreakingly beautiful singing going on, and having been furious with many of my singers at various points along the way, I'm now beginning to see them all as wonderful people, whom I must protect at all costs. Call me fickle! The great director, Joan Littlewood, used to refer to her actors as fragile eggs in a nest and I know how she feels. 

So as I head home on the tube, via Chalk Farm, because I forgot to change at Camden, I feel exhausted but radiantky happy. The Pepys Motet is a troublesome beast, but it's also a very wonderful beast. Like the most aggressive dog, it fights and fights, but tonight I know it will be trained! Maybe not fully by Thursday, but at least I now know he's not going to wee all over the carpet! We'll not need to lock him in the cellar just yet!

Speaking of which, Pepys was his usual busy self on this date 350 years ago. He didn't do anything particularly exciting; a few forms here, a bit of money there. Add a sprinkle of gossip, a  quick scrape on a viol and a drink in The Devil Inn and you have a fairly typical day in the world of our hero!! 

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A rather mellow warmth

Today seems to have lasted forever, and from beginning to end I’ve felt a rather mellow, warm sensation radiating from the pit of my stomach! The feeling kicked in whilst I was on The Strand having lunch with my dear friend, Ellie. We were at university together; fellow 'cellists in the orchestra, and inseparable through much of our college careers. She now works as a producer at Radio Three, has a tidy little nuclear family of two girls plus a husband who recently qualified as a lawyer. She got married at 32, had her first child a year later and now lives in a cottage in East Sussex. She is, in short, exactly where she predicted she'd be at the age of 38 when we first met back in 1992. I have enormous respect for her single-mindedness. Nathan always describes her as my most sensible friend. Sensible in a completely non-boring way, that is.


I met my lawyer from the MU in Farringdon in the afternoon and took to her immediately. I wasn't at all surprised to learn that she’d grown up ten miles down the A6 from my childhood home of Higham Ferrers. I could have talked to her all day, but had to leave at 5 to attend the first rehearsal for Oranges and Lemons at St Olave's Church.

For some pathetic reason I found the whole experience incredibly moving. Here was a choir of odd balls; some of whom I'd met through the Pepys projects, others who'd performed the work before. We nestled together in a corner of St Olave's, singing by lamp-light, dusting off the pages of my beloved score. As I studied the choir, I felt continual waves of warmth drifting towards Nathan and me. One girl in particular, who also sings with the trebles in the Pepys motet, has the kindest face I've seen in some years. Everyone worked so hard, and the musical notes felt like old friends. The biggest treat of all, however, was having my brother in the choir, singing proudly and beautifully with the basses. There are few words to describe how magical and right that rehearsal felt, and how lucky I'm feeling as I write this blog tonight.

November 16th 1660 didn’t yield a particularly interesting diary entry from our hero. Pepys went to the Temple and then to Westminster. After dinner, he discussed the possibility of loaning a man 80l, who was offering 15l per year for 8 years in return, which Pepys refused, writing; “I did not think [it] profit enough, and so he seemed to be disappointed by my refusal of it, but I would not now part with my money easily”

Monday, 15 November 2010

Raising the blinkin' roof

I ache all over. I spent this evening at St Olave's Church, conducting the first full rehearsal for the Pepys motet. The constant waving of arms can be murder for the muscles, particularly when one cannot conduct! It was a thrilling rehearsal, however. It's so inspiring to be in the church where Pepys is buried, with the statue of Elizabeth peering down. I’d say only about half of the 40 singers were there. Various people were ill and others had previously booked NA’s. But we raised the blinkin' roof! We got through the two movements we’d decided to definitely perform, and for “fun” (although it was anything but fun) staggered our way through a third, which I've now decided we'll also perform live. Without wishing to blow my own trumpet too hard, there is something about the Great Fire movement which seems to whip people up into a bit of a frenzy. Perhaps it’s the driving rhythms, or more likely, it's the glorious text. It’s a hugely complicated piece of writing, but I think it definitely falls into the type of writing that becomes fun because of its complexity. If you're prepared to put the work in, which everybody there had, it becomes rewarding. I now find myself actively looking forward to the next rehearsal, which is something I never thought I’d find myself writing! When we left the church today, I could have sworn Elizabeth's statue looked a great deal more jovial than she had done when we went in!


November 15th 1660 was a cold, cold day. Pepys took a boat to Westminster, but it was so cold on the water that after disembarking, he immediately went to a pub and treated himself to a glass of mulled wine. He went to visit Sandwich, and found Mr Child there, playing the organ that had recently been installed in the dining room. We know from a previous entry that Pepys didn't think it was an attractive organ, but we're not told how it sounded.

Elizabeth tipped up, just in time for dinner, and Pepys seemed extremely pleased that Sandwich even knew who she was, and for the first time, was treating her with respect. Small things. It's my view that you can always tell how much your friends value you by how kind they are to your family and partners, and Pepys' star was obviously still in the Sandwich ascendant. Elizabeth, who was French, proved extremely useful for Sandwich’s wife, Jemima, who’d just hired a French maid. French maids were all the rage at the time, and no upwardly mobile house was complete without one. Unfortunately, Jemima spoke no French, and her maid, not a word of English, so Elizabeth became the official translator.

In the afternoon, Pepys went to Sir William Batten’s to discover that two of his staff had got married, and, in line with the custom, Pepys threw 10s into the newlyweds' hat, writing; “I believe most of the rest did give more, and did believe that I did so too.” Tight fisted so and so...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Fountains of Les Mis

I've just been to the Vue in Leicester Square with Matt to see the film version of the 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables at the O2. Matt was playing Thenadier and did an extremely good job. It seems he was born to play the part, and all the other platitudes that people without proper words use on these occasions. The entire cast was wonderful and the new orchestrations are incredible but Alfie Boe playing Jean Val Jean completely blew me away. His standing ovation for Bring Him Home lasted four whole minutes, during which time he stood, rather uncomfortably on the stage, wondering whether to come out of character to acknowledge the applause, or just stand there looking grief-stricken. In the end, he acknowledged the audience with a subtle blown kiss which felt deeply appropriate and made me warm to him even more than I had when he cooked us Sunday dinner a few weeks back. What an extraordinary voice that man has and anyone who doubts this fact, should see the film of him singing for his supper at Matt's house here...


Les Miserables gets a lot of stick from classical music snobs, but my God, it's a great show. I first saw it as a sixth former. We went on a school trip to London and were given the choice of either seeing Wogan being filmed or going to see Les Mis, and it was only me and another girl who wanted to see the show. A teacher rather begrudgingly took us and we sat in the Gods with a box of Maltesers between the three of us. I burst into tears at the end of One Day More. It was horribly embarrassing, and I didn't know where to put myself and I refused to talk during the interval for fear of crying all over again. I don't think I'd ever heard music so loud or so stirring and I'd played The Fountains of Rome in Youth Orchestra!

350 years ago was the first day of a new regime at the Navy office. It's not clear why, but it had been decided to shift from working during the mornings to working in the afternoons. Pepys therefore had a morning free to visit a goldsmith, but found himself working late into the evening. After finishing, the Navy team went drinking at the Dolphin Tavern, where they found Sir William Batten, a man for whom Pepys was beginning to develop something of a grudge, writing snidely that barely a night went by without him being found in there. Nevertheless, a great deal of fun was had by all "and there we did drink a great quantity of sack and did tell many merry stories, and in good humours we were all." I'm beginning to wonder whether I shouldn't organise a story telling evening. What a wonderful way to pass a candle-lit evening!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

I'm currently sitting on Julie's sofa watching Strictly Come Dancing. I love coming here and eating cake and nattering.

I feel like I've been all over London today. I spent the afternoon with brother Ted in Canary Wharf going through the music to Oranges and Lemons. He's going to join the choir for that particular piece, which I'm very excited about. 

One particular passage stands out in Pepys' diary entry for this date 350 years ago, which I like so much, I'm going to quote it in full;

"So home to dinner, where I found my wife making of pies and tarts to try, her oven with, which she has never yet done, but not knowing the nature of it, did heat it too hot, and so a little overbake her things, but knows how to do better another time."

Elizabeth Pepys is not the only person who doesn't know how to use her oven.  Our oven is temperamental at the best of times and never seems to want to cook food properly. I burnt a pie in there only yesterday!! 

Friday, 12 November 2010

Bring out your Chinoiserie!

If anyone is looking to hear an amazing piece of pop music, I suggest you go immediately to You Tube and listen to this. The epic strings on the track, which is by Patrick Wolf, were arranged by my friend Fiona Brice, and she's done the most stunning job. It’s a fabulous piece of music, which is somehow simultaneously melancholic and uplifting. The album is released in a few weeks' time, and I for one, will definitely be buying myself a copy.
I’ve just returned from Ladbrooke Grove where we had yet another meeting about the American roadtrip project with the wonderful Glyn. It was one of those watershed meetings where I found myself beginning to dare to hope that something might actually happen. I try to maintain a sort of glass-half-empty attitude towards the commissioning process. The likelihood of something actually being made is so minute, that it’s best to just carry on saying yes with a big smile plastered across your face until someone eventually says no. The person who usually says no is a lovely lady at the BBC, called Jan Younghusband. I'm not sure she's a fan of my work, and I try as often as I can to save her the embarrassment of projects with my name attached dropping into her inbox!
On the way home on the tube I started to feel very uneasy. I don’t often travel in the rush hour, and by the time it came to change at King’s Cross, both the station and the tube were full to capacity. A group of squaddies were on the tube in their fatigues, loaded with huge backpacks, which struck me as a rather eccentric form of army endurance test. Instead of making their way up and down hills on Exmoor, the real test of manliness is apparently being able to make your way through rush hour London! I don’t know why, but I suddenly started wondering what might have happened if one of the backpacks were filled with explosives. Suddenly I realised what ridiculous sitting ducks we all are in London.

A horrid Chinese vase has just sold in auction for £52m! How good can a vase actually be, and why would anyone want to own something so ugly, that could potentially break so easily. The auctioneer got so excited, no doubt at the prospect of at least £10m in commission, that he broke his gavel when he brought it down at the point of sale! It was eventually bought by a Chinese buyer. No doubt in my mind where the money in the world currently lies. Bring out your nasty Chinoiserie!There’s a market for it out there!

I had some great news from Yorkshire today. The DVDs of A Symphony for Yorkshire, which are now on sale for Children in Need, have sold 3000 copies in the space of a week, raising a whopping £15,000 for the charity. I'm absolutely thrilled.

Pepys had a lie in on this day 350 years ago, and then managed to make his way around what seems like most of London, visiting Deptford, and the City, before heading to Westminster. He called in on his father, and found his sister, Pall there. After much discussion behind closed doors, it was decided that Pepys would officially invite her to live with him: "there I told her plainly what my mind was, to have her come not as a sister in any respect, but as a servant, which she promised me that she would, and with many thanks did weep for joy, which did give me and my wife some content and satisfaction." Pepys at his very worst!

He mentions at the end of the diary entry that the previous evening had found Elizabeth and himself being kept awake all night by the sound of drumming. Drumming in those days could mean all sorts of things; mostly bad news. In the morning they found that the sound was actually their neighbour, Mr Davy, who'd had a jack fitted in his chimney, a sort of engine powered by the rising heat of a fire. The heat turned a set of blades, which turned a roasting skewer, and Mr Davy was roasting meat for a party.

So strange to consider that the slightest unusual noise in those days would keep two people awake all night. 21st Century London is a cacophony of bizarre noises, which we tend to just accept. Sometimes from the sitting room I hear the sound of a horse whinnying. I can’t work out why on earth I’d hear this sound coming from the A1 – but I do - and I simply accept it!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Broken windows, not broken bones

It’s a horrible windy, rainy day. The beautiful autumn leaves are flying off the trees and turning into slippery mulch on the pavements and roads. I'm in the laundrette wondering if there’s any way that I can get home without being drenched.


I’ve just had a chat with my Dad on the 'phone and both of us are agreed that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of student rioting! The government, for way too long in this country, has had a licence to dictate. One million people marched peacefully against the war in Iraq and they simply said; “there there” and got on with smashing the country to pieces. It’s all very well for television presenters to universally condemn the rioters out of hand, but my generation and those above us have all benefited from free tuition fees. In fact, with student grants we were effectively paid to study. It’s about time that the government understood the difference between a debt and an investment. Students earn more and therefore will end up paying more tax. It’s a simple formula.

“Broken windows” says my Dad, sagely, “not broken heads...” So a big slap on the wrist to the person who threw the fire extinguisher. But let’s not forget that the last riots in this country ended the poll tax and civil disobedience brought women the vote. If the Government refuses to listen to anything else, it might be time to hit them where it hurts...

...Or to play them at their own game. The Student Union is threatening to use the government’s proposed “rights to recall” act against them. This proposed act comes in the wake of the expenses scandal and says that if something like 10% of a constituency is dissatisfied with their MP, they can force a bi-election. Now, we all know that many cities with a high student population, like Cambridge, also have Liberal Democrat MPs, many of whom were elected on a platform of not raising tuition fees. It is therefore not difficult to imagine an entire student body rallying together and causing mayhem by forcing a bi-election. This is democracy. Power to the people!

It is Armistice Day and I stopped what I was doing at 11am and pottered about the living room in silence, which in fairness is what I was doing anyway. I looked out of the window in the vague hope of seeing a lone figure standing by the side of the A1 in silent contemplation, or perhaps a traffic jam caused by someone who'd stopped driving for two minutes, but it was raining, and sadly no-one seemed to be interested in the inconvenience.

November 11th 1660 was a date with little significance, other than that it was the day that Pepys first entered the galleried pew that the Navy Office had built for themselves at St Olave’s Church. Pepys sat there with the Sir Williams, and because none of their wives were present, the servants sat behind them, Pepys commenting; "I hope it will not always be so, it not being handsome for our servants to sit so equal with us." What a snob.

Pepys then walked to Westminster in “cold, foul and rainy weather”. Some things don’t change! He ate at his father’s house; his cousin Thomas telling his brother Thomas that he loved Elizabeth so much that if she bore Pepys the child that he was desperate for, he would never marry, but leave all that he had to the product of their combined loins. A strange promise. Perhaps he secretly knew that Pepys was infertile! They walked home, Pepys’ boy, Wayneman carrying a link torch, and Will Hewer leading Elizabeth through the pitch black streets.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A call to arms

I'm waiting for Nathan to return from his first day of rehearsals. He's playing the Jaguar in Just So at the Tabbard Theatre in Chiswick. The very fact that he's decided to work on the London Fringe makes it clear in my mind, that in these deeply troubled times, the Fringe is where the exciting stuff is going to start happening.

The sad truth is that everything seems to be going down the pan in the West End at the moment, certainly in terms of musical theatre. There was even a rumour some weeks ago that the new production of Flashdance was going to get its notice on its press night... before the reviews came out. Fortunately this didn't prove to be the case, and instead, the production limps forward, watched by tiny audiences who can’t afford the £50 ticket prices.

Producers are running scared and no one seems prepared to be bold. Boldness is the only thing that will breathe new life, and more importantly bring new audiences into musical theatre. That said, there are now an increasingly large number of high calibre performers and directors who are turning to the Fringe to finally play the roles and direct the shows they've always longed to do. As a result, the standard of work on the Fringe has sky-rocketed like a missile off the coast of California. The Fringe is no longer just the terrain of wanna-bes and never-weres, and has instead become the place where you go to see an intimate close-up of your favourite West End performer doing his favourite show. With any luck, people will begin to take risks with the types of shows they decide to put on and a few young, fresh composers will suddenly see the point in writing works of musical theatre... And the revolution will be upon us. If I found a decent book writer, even I may well find myself attracted back to the medium. These could be incredibly exciting times...


I was astonished yesterday when I called the Arts Council to ask if they'd help to promote the Pepys Motet (which they'd very kindly funded) and was told that they’d do what they could, but that their press team currently had their work cut out dealing with stories about cuts in the arts and the way that the Arts Council was being re-aligned. I thought how sad it was for a wonderful organisation to be forced to pass up an opportunity to promote what it’s funded in favour of promoting stories justifying what it’s not!

The moral of this blog is three-fold. Firstly, support the Fringe. The show you'll see is likely to be much better than you expect. Secondly, lobby the government to create bigger tax breaks for individuals who fund the Arts. If we had a philanthropic system more akin to the one in America, the Arts wouldn’t need the public purse. Thirdly, a group of wealthy bankers needs get together to create a pot of funds specifically for the promotion of the arts, but they need to think out of the box. We don't need any more money to go into buildings, or to fund actors through drama schools. We do, however, need a fund which enables young composers to get their work recorded. No one reads scores any more, and there are no bursaries available for recording projects, so it’s very difficult for composers to get their feet on the bottom rung of the ladder - particularly in musical theatre.

This is a call to arms. Do your bit for the Arts. Forget about expecting the government to provide actual cash for the industry; that money’s long gone... It's time to approach the problem from a different prespective.

November 10th 1660, and Pepys was a busy man in the Navy office. There were debts to be paid and Parliament needed to be lobbied to pay them. Pepys spent the afternoon darting from Westminster to various coffee houses, where he missed almost everyone he’d set out to see. He found himself in St Paul’s Churchyard buying books, which was very much his default setting. If in doubt, buy a book. On this occasion, he bought something called Montelion, which he didn’t like, so burnt it. Pepys got quite into burning books that he thought were silly, or dangerous. It's not something I’m entirely comfortable with. In my opinion, after photographs, books are about the most horrendous things that you can burn! Well, perhaps apart from my arm hairs, which so often go up in smoke when I’m cooking, it’s not funny.

On the way home, Pepys bought a goose. If I’d have managed to leave the house today, which would have been a proper treat, I wonder what I'd have brought. I still need soap... and Ribena.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A water proof towel

I think I’m coming down with the lurgy. It's pretty typical for me, and always happens just as the stress levels have started to come down. Bodies are funny things, aren't they?
I've sat on a sofa all day sending email after email, telling press people about the live performance of the Pepys Motet, and looking for extra singers for Oranges and Lemons. There is now a me-shaped dent in the cushion where I've been sitting.
I wish I could think of something more interesting to write. I had tomato soup for lunch and haven’t seen a decent piece of fruit or a vegetable in what seems like weeks.

At about 2pm I went to the laundrette and watched my clothes going round and round in a tumble drier. I called my mother who's not yet recovered from her accident a few weeks ago and I feel sad that she's in such a pickle.

My friend Nicky has my hat and scarf. She's taken them hostage. I left them there on Sunday after a delightful lunch and evening of game playing. When we returned to the car, however, we found our second parking ticket of the week. Apparently you're not allowed to park on Nicky's street on a Sunday between the hours of 2 and 4! And so the councils continue to print money...

Very shortly I shall clean out the Tyndarids and I may then try and pick Nathan up from work. Well, it gets me out of the house...

I've had two baths today. The second was hotter than the first, but the weather is so horrible that I soon felt damp and cold again.

All my socks have vanished and there is no soap in the house. I washed myself with shampoo earlier. My towel didn't dry me properly. It's green and blue and seems to be made out of a water proof fabric. I do not like my towel.

If you're still awake, let me tell you about Pepys, who was all over London today, eating in a fish restaurant with a bloke who didn’t eat fish, scrutinising an organ that Sandwich had had set up in his dining room, which he described as “ugly”, having a lute lesson with one Mr Evans, and then journeying to his father’s house. It was here that he discussed his sister, Pall (Paulina), who was a great embarrassment to Pepys. The poor woman was often described as something of a lummox; a plain girl, growing old and with little allure. Pepys was forever trying to get her married off, but felt that no man in his right mind would want her. She was living in Pepys’ father’s country house and Pepys discussed the possibility of bringing her to London to live with him... not as a sister, sadly, but... and wait for this... as his servant! So so shocking...

Monday, 8 November 2010

Captain Caveman

Sincerest thanks to everyone who left a message about the Pepys Motet. I'm thrilled that so many of you enjoyed it, and grateful that those who thought it was rubbish chose not to say! 

I've just got on a tube and am trying to eat a pot of yoghurt. Sadly, the whole thing exploded as I took the lid off and now my lovely jacket has pink polka dots all over it. A similar thing seems to have happened to the lady next to me, but I daren't apologise because there's an outside chance she won't notice before being engulfed by a rain storm the moment she exits the tube! I'm praying for rain...

I wouldn't describe the yoghurt I'm now eating as a good. It tastes like a blend of grotty perfume and chalk dust and its after taste is that weird chemical flavour that always follows low fat food. I persist, however because by eating it I feel I'm losing weight. I looked at myself objectively in a mirror this morning and found Captain Caveman staring back. A stocky, hirsute club-shaped being with Disney eyes was standing in my bedroom looking at himself from a variety of angles. Thank God for my big puddle-coloured eyes...

I continue to unwind, and took myself off to Muswell Hill for a fabulous massage this afternoon. For the first time in ages, I managed to completely switch off and found myself drifting into a wonderful floaty place where the pan pipe music I was listening to transported me first to a supermarket via a lift and then onto a golden beach where the sun was glinting on a turquoise sea and someone called Precious was handing me a bright red drink in a coconut! 

The 8th November 1660, and Pepys had diarrhoea all day. At one point he got so badly caught short that he was forced to buy the most ridiculously expensive pint of ale simply so he could use the facilities.

Pepys got home incredibly late at night and found his wife waiting up for him. Heartbreakingly she'd had her hair done and wanted her husband to see it, and compliment it, before the pillow ruined the new look! 

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Introducing... The Pepys Motet

I'm sitting in the kitchen of Helen's stunning house in Cambridge. I'm trying to make myself a cup of tea but can't work out if the thing I'm filling with water is a kettle or a fancy water filtering machine. I'm being watched by two delightful fluffy kittens, one of whom I'm going to put in my pocket when I leave.


Helen has done her house beautifully. Every room looks perfect. She's obviously incredibly proud of it, and I'm not at all surprised. It's in a stunning part of town and it's a really good house. I'm envious!

We came third in the quiz last night. The last round was a wipeout round, which meant if you submitted a wrong answer to any of the questions, you'd score zero. You could, however, opt not to put an answer at all, but for every question you got right, you'd get double points. Having ascertained that we weren't in the lead, we decided to go for the high risk strategy... And were wiped out! Which singer became the first American artist to be invited to sing a James Bond song? We put Louis Armstrong. The answer was Nancy Sinatra.

Had we played it safe, we'd have won the whole thing! There's a lesson in there somewhere...

From about 4pm, when Helen and I arrived in Thaxted, we did nothing but eat. Beautiful soup by the fireside in my parents' house, crisps and nibbles at the quiz, an almost inedible vegetarian chile in the interval and my own weight in chocolate which seemed to just fall into my mouth. I woke up with stomach gripes. Another valuable lesson learnt!

These few days away have done me a great deal of good. A bit of space away from the motet has made me realise quite how far towards madness, and let's face it, absolute dullness, I've been heading over the last couple if weeks. I'd be hugely surprised if anyone was still reading these dark, aggressive, self-indulgent entries.

All that changes today. The old Benjamin has returned.

Melt down aside, and with a couple of lie-ins under my belt, I'm finally in a place where I can acknowledge that we have already achieved the impossible with this work, and have it in us to rock the live performance. As evidence of this, and as an exclusive for all the readers of this blog who have journeyed with me over the past 300 days, I offer you Movement Four of The Pepys Motet: The Great Fire of London. Listen to it on headphones for the best sonic experience, but beware... It's hugely dynamic and gets very loud towards the middle! I'd love to know your thoughts, and look forward to hearing them...

Here it is

November 7th, 1660, and Pepys was summonsed by Sandwich, who seemed to want to crow (all be in in secrecy) about the fact that the King had offered him the whopping sum of £4000 a year for the rest of his life. I can't remember the rule of thumb for converting 17th Century money into today's figures, but frankly, if someone offered ME 4k a year for the rest of my life, I'd be pretty chuffed, so I'm sure Sandwich was thrilled! So thrilled, in fact, that the William Lawe song book and several violins were called for, and an afternoon was spent making sweet music. Joy!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Porterhouse Blues

I'm in Cambridge in a Subway joint, waiting for my friend, Helen. We're going to a quiz in Thaxted tonight. Outside the window, a constant flow of bohemian people on bicycles is passing by. One was carrying a violin. Another had a basket filled with beautiful flowers. It's a genteel place, Cambridge, which, at the moment, smells of wood smoke; one of the aromas of my childhood. Sometimes I think this place might just be the only place I could live other than London. The idea of retiring to a little house by the Cam with a punt in the garden sometimes appeals to me more than words can say. 

The headteacher of the school I visited yesterday is a man I've known since my early childhood. We once debated on a team together, hysterically against my father and best friend, Tammy. He is married to Catherine, a teacher of history who had a very profound impact on my life. She's the reason I went to York University and got me through some very dark times in my teenage years. It was, therefore, a wonderful privilege to spend time with her last night. She was on very good form. 

350 years ago Pepys had the mother of all rows with Elizabeth, once again about their dog. Pepys in the past had threatened to throw said creature out of the window for pissing in the house and on this occasion was threatening to lock it in the cellar for defecating all over the place. Any threat of violence towards the dog was a red rag to a bull for Elizabeth, and the row obviously  disturbed Pepys more than he was prepared to admit;  "We went to bed and lay all night in a quarrel. This night I was troubled all night with a dream that my wife was dead, which made me that I slept ill all night

Friday, 5 November 2010

Wimden

Happy Birthday, Fiona! 

I am in the deepest wiles of Norfolk in a town called Wymondham. Oddly, it's my second visit to this place this year. We came here in January to celebrate my close friend, Helen's, birthday an event which became one of the highlights of the year. 

Today I've come to Wymondham College to discuss the idea of my writing a composition which celebrates the school; and what a fine school it is. I've just been given a tour by a group of charming sixth formers. 

The drive here from Derby took me through the middle of Thetford Forest, which looked incredible; the deep greens and charcoal grey of evergreens stood out against the deep oranges, yellows, crimsons and golds of the trees who were shutting up shop for the winter. 

Needless to mention that we didn't win an award last night; well, we did, but it was bronze. Our service station musical was up against packages about war and mental health, so winning was never an option! 

The evening itself was great fun. I had three vodka and cranberry juices, which got me feeling very merry, and after the awards were done, we danced for hours to cheesy 1980s pop. The place was full of people from the BBC Regions who I've worked with on previous projects. The whole team was there from Yorkshire as well as Northants, Coventry and London. My next boss from Newcastle was also there, so we got to have a good natter about Metro The Musical. It was wonderful just to forget about Pepys for an evening. 

Speaking of which, it's s Pepys double bill today as I didn't have the time to read what he was up to yesterday. November 4th, and Pepys went to Westminster Abbey and heard its organ playing for the first time. All organs were removed from churches by the puritans, so one can imagine the impact this instrument must have had on Pepys listening to it for the first time. I'm told, and I'm sure this can't be true, that in the 17th Century, the sound of a church organ was the third loudest sound man could produce after canon fire and blacksmith's furnaces! 

We're also told how strangely beautiful Pepys felt Elizabeth was looking on that date, it being the first time she wore fashionable black patches on her face. 

November the 5th, 1660, and Pepys spent the day doing Navy work. His entry for the evening appeals to me;  "the 5th of November is observed exceeding well in the City; and at night great bonfires and fireworks." I don't know why I'm surprised that a) they were already celebrating the date by 1660 (I assume it was the first time it could happen since the end of the interregnum) but also that fireworks existed back then. 

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Traffic jam

Trying to get to Derby. Meant to be there in 40 mins but cruddy traffic means I'm still in London. Had email from conductor Jeremy today who says 50 % of our singers are either incapable or not well enough prepared to perform the motet live. Studio sessions continue but I am out of money and have no more sources of funds. I may well have to admit defeat for the first time in my life. 

Off to Derby for the Gillard Awards. Watford Gap: The Musical has been nominated but I'm sure has no chance of winning. This was meant to be a really fun evening for me but I have no hope of arriving there in time. I now have half an hour to get to Derby and am still on the North Circular! 

Listening to accounts of the engine explosion on the Qantas airbus. It sounds armingly similar to what happened to us as teenagers on a flight back from Canada, right down to the rather calm announcement made by the pilot. We'd been on an orchestra tour and had to make an emergency landing in Toronto after dumping all the fuel over the Great Lakes. We landed on foam with all sorts of emergency vehicles screaming down the runway behind us. It was terrifying but sadly we didn't get to take our high heels off and bomb down the emergency slides! 

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Ng Ng Patel de Cruz Lima Smith von Hausen

I’m currently in the recording studio mixing the motet. I think I’m going to spend this entire process wishing we’d had more time with the choirs to really finesse the work – or perhaps that we’d simply chosen two of the movements to work on and make them sound really special. It is an extremely complicated piece of writing, that’s for sure. I don’t know whether I should apologise for writing something this hard. I suppose you wouldn’t get Schonberg worrying about the practicalities of his performers playing 12 tone music.


It’s going to take much longer to mix the music than we’d initially thought, which means more money that I don’t have flying out of my bank account, but having heard Movement 4 shaping up today, I think it’s probably worth it. That said, if I lose my court case, I shall really be in trouble! At a certain point you just have to take a deep breath and assume things will be okay, for no other reason than that they always have been.

I’ve been having terrible problems with the London Mayor’s office over the past few weeks. I shouldn’t complain, because they’ve very generously offered to pay our conductor, Jeremy for the live performances. Unfortunately, for them to actually relinquish the funds they’ve promised, I’ve had to wade through a bewildering amount of red tape, which, like most things recently, has driven me to the point of madness. I’ve filled in countless forms and contracts, all of which have needed to be sent through the post, and most recently I was asked to fill in a 21 page online form, which is designed specifically for companies... and not individuals. Just logging in required four calls to an advice line and all of the questions I was required to answer were dripping with management jargon, which I think anyone would have struggled to understand. When I raised an eyebrow, the Mayor’s Office told me just to fill it in “as well as I could”. Now, I’m not an imbecile by any means, but the questionnaire had me absolutely stumped. After spending two hours trying to fathom what most of the questions meant, I sent an email to my contacts at the Mayor’s Office, which might give an indication of quite how ridiculous things had become. It went something like this:

“Dear Nateisha and Matthew,

What is a factoring company? What is an ethical procurement policy? And what is CIS? What is a commercial contact? The woman on the helpline told me this meant "commercial contact", which obviously didn't help a great deal...


Forgive me, but because I’m an individual and not a company, I’ve had to make up names for the people who are in charge of my "company's" ethical, green and harassment policies. These people are all figments of my imagination. I like to think they’re the people I would employ if I was a company. I don’t actually have a manager responsible for equal opportunities but if I did, I like to think he'd be called Ng Ng Patel de Cruz Lima Smith von Hausen.

I assume my organisation's parent company is my mother and father, so I’ve put that. And I hope you're okay for me to claim that it was founded in 1974, the year of my birth?


I’ve written that there are more than 10 shareholders in my company... For no other reason than that I felt it was a nice number.


I would love to know what my "position of workforce information" was. I know what all the words mean in isolation but together they make me feel hot-faced and sweaty palmed.


In the meantime, I shall print all 21 pages of this form off... but where do I send it?


I do hope you'll take a look at this system and introduce something that's a little less complicated and little more suitable for individuals... particularly those in the creative industry."

A few hours later I received a reply from Matthew, saying;

"I have spoken to the CSR team and they have updated your profile for you so it is now ready to be activated. The final step is that you submit your bank account details on company headed paper to their office..."

I’m not sure they’ve still quite understood the concept that that I’m not a company, and therefore that company headed note paper is not something that I can provide. I think my mother has little stickers with her name and address on them. Perhaps I can borrow one of them?

But I mustn't forget, that these people are giving the Pepys project some money and I am very grateful. It’s more than I ever got when Red Ken was in office. I do wish they'd learn to call it the Peeps Motet, however, rather than the Peppies motet and that when written down, it doesn't need an apostrophe after the y. All my contracts refer to the Pepy's Motet.

Midlake played incredibly well last night at the Roundhouse, and their support act, John Grant, had the most stunning voice. Unfortunately when we came out, there was a parking ticket on my windscreen. Apparently you can’t park on a single yellow line in some Camden streets until after 11pm (even when there's a tube strike) A license to print money, me thinks. There should be a law that brings in London-wide regulations on such things. I genuinely thought that yellow lines were up for grabs for anyone after 6.30pm.

Saturday 3rd of November 1660, and Pepys called in on Sandwich to find that he’d gone with his wife, Jemima to “kiss the hand” of the Queen. So, instead, he went to Westminster Hall and took his soon-to-be mistress Betty Lane for a drink. He made her very unhappy by telling her that her new sweetheart was “too good for her”, which strikes me as incredibly unkind particularly as he seemed to be amused by her rushing away in floods of tears... It’s amazing how unkind you can be to someone you fancy!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Day off!

Today has been my first day off in ages and I spent it doing admin and housework. I then began the process of creating a master score for Oranges and Lemons with all the cuts and changes that went in when it was last performed. Tonight I'm off to see the band Midlake at the Roundhouse, which is an exciting prospect. 

We had our final recording session for the motet last night in Cambridge and it was okay. We were working with the singers from Magdalene College who have wonderful voices; individually some of the strongest voices in the whole piece. I feel very privileged to have them as part of the project. Unfortunately they felt a little, either nervous or unprepared. Half way through the session I got slightly offended when I heard them discussing which of the movements they'd rather not record due to our running out of time and their having homes to go to. Obviously my initial response was to feel a great deal of guilt but it must be said that if a little more homework had been done, they wouldn't have taken precisely twice as long to record their music as any other choir! 

In absolute fairness to them, I reckon they are within the top three choirs when it comes to sheer amount of musical material but I also got the impression that a fair amount of sight-reading was going on, frustrating because they're such damned fine singers who could have delivered a spotless performance. I still maintain they're going to end up being one of the star choirs in the live performance but they're going to need to do the legwork. 

I suppose it was just that when home was mentioned, London suddenly felt like a very long drive away - particularly for Julian whose work-load has been ridiculous on this project. 

On this date 350 years ago, the Queen arrived in town. Pepys found himself in Whitehall and was excited to report a river filled with little boats peopled by those who wanted to capture a glimpse of Charles I's widow. The banks of the Thames were also rammed, so it becomes surprising that Pepys opted to sum up his diary thus;

"So to bed. I observed this night very few bonfires in the City, not above three in all London, for the Queen’s coming; whereby I guess that (as I believed before) her coming do please but very few."

Monday, 1 November 2010

Bumps

So, this is a guest entry again.  My second of the year.  I should first explain why I'm standing in for Benjamin today.
He is somewhere on the M11, I suspect, driving back home from Cambridge with studio producer, Julian, after another exhausting day recording the Motet.
He started the day in Limehouse, the usual home of the recording sessions, indeed the home of most recording sessions of Benjamin's music over the past five or six years.
I was there myself, only yesterday, with the rest of the musical theatre choir, laying down our sections of the piece.  I had high hopes for us.  Having sat through many of the other sessions over the past few days, and seen how many people have seemed to think that they can just wing it when they get to the mic, then watching them fall apart, as they realise that that is just not feasible (not by any means everyone, but enough to send Benjamin to the brink of a nervous breakdown as hour by hour, time trickles past), and having myself done a lot of homework, and knowing the standard of the singers we had in our group, I thought it would be a breeze.  Sadly, it was not to be, and we worked for a full extra hour after we were due to have finished, and I'm ashamed to say that some bits were still rather scrappy.  I was, however, rather pleased, when I recorded one of my solo lines, and nailed it in one take.  Benjamin made me do another, just because he wasn't happy with the concept of someone managing to get it right first time, but even he had to admit that I had!  I felt proud.

Back to today, and he started out with the Navy boys.  I only have sketchy details as to how it went, so I'll leave him to tell you about it. He was also joined at the studio by close friend Fiona, who mercifully was able to step in to record the most important lines that poor Nic has been unable to do.  Apparently, she is still desperately ill, and pretty much bed-bound.  Get well soon, Nic!

After this, he and Julian headed off in the car to Cambridge in order to work for a second session with the Magdalene College Choir, who had had such a trouble time last week.  The last I heard, they were back in the car on their way home, but Benjamin assured me that there was no way he was going to make it back in time to write and post this blog, and so would I do it?  So here I am.

It's been a bit of a weekend for me.  Not only did I spend all of Sunday in the studio, Saturday for me was an epic jaunt up to Manchester, to do a surprise singing gig at a wedding.  Now, I wouldn't normally desribe a little hop to Manchester as an epic jaunt, but on Saturday, that's exactly what it turned out to be.  I was driving the three of us who were going to be singing up the M1, and we got snarled in a horrendous tailback.  While waiting to move on, several fire engines screamed past us on the hard shoulder, so it was clear that something pretty awful had happened up ahead.  When we got to the accident site, some 40 minutes later, the car involved was actually on its roof! I sent a silent prayer that everyone had got out safely, and we carried on our way.

Imagine my horror, then, when halfway up the M6, we found ourselves once again, stationary.  I couldn't believe it.  Another accident, another double lane closure, and this time it took us 45 minutes to travel precisely three miles.  That's an average speed of 4mph!  By this time there was no way we were going to get to Manchester in time to do a sound check, but luckily, we had the CD of backing tracks in the car with us, so were able to have a good sing song, and get our voices ready.

It got worse: when we eventually found the hotel, in Central Manchester, we were told that there was no car park, and that we'd have to go to an NCP job some way away.  We were just getting later and later.

As suspected, there was no time to do any kind os soundcheck, as by the time we arrived, the wedding guests were already milling around, and the element of surprise would have been totally ruined if they has seen or heard us rehearsing.  We were going to have to fly by the seats of our pants, and hope for the best.

As it turned out, they were a fantastic bunch of people to sing for, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the gig. We got a massive standing ovation at the end of Nessun Dorma, which always brings the house down, but this was something else!  I absolutely love singing at weddings.  There is always so much good feeling in the room, and people genuinely want to have a good time.  These kinds of people are easy to entertain.

The trials of the day were nowhere near over though, as on the way home, a short section of the M56 had been closed for resurfacing, and we found ourselves on the most ridiculous diversion you can possibly imagine!

Now, I know road works are inconvenient at the best of times, but sometimes, the people who plan these things need shooting!  Not only did the diversion take us miles back the way we had already come, towards Manchester, but we were taken so far from where we had started that I was scared we had gone wrong somewhere along the way.  Nope! Every few miles, there would be a yellow sign by the side of the road, with a black arrow, and the word "Diversion" on it, assuring us that we were indeed going the way these planners intended us to.  But I thought, "Hang on, this is the M62 to Leeds.  This can't be right."

Suddenly, halfway along the M62, just at the point where I was sure I had missed a turn of some way back, there was one final sign, telling us, "Diversion Ends."  Pardon my ignorance, and call me old fashioned, but surely, the point of a diversion is to take you around whatever obstruction has spawned the diversion in the first place, and deliver you safely back on your original route?  This had done nothing of the sort.  It was as if the planners had said to themselves, "Oh, let's just get them as far from Manchester as we can, then they wont be our problem any more!"  Ridiculous.

So we continued all the way to Leeds, and came home down the M1.  All in all, I was driving for about 9 hours on Saturday.  Utter madness. I'd complain, but 1) who to? and 2) who'd care?

On this day 350 years ago, Samuel also did a lot of travelling.  He and William Pen rode out early to William Batten's house, and were shown "many great rarities," including a chair, known as "king Harry's Chair," that when you sat on it, you could be constrained in it with irons.  Some sort of torture chair I assume, but one that apparently, "makes good sport!"

They were joined over dinner by Samuel's old school chum, Mr Christmas.  Sam was a bit concerned that he would remember some anti-royal statement that Sam himself had made as a boy, but apparently all was well, and Mr Christmas had left the school before the offending remark had been made.  Phew!  It's telling that he would be worried so long after the event, particularly in the light of his current status.  No one, it seemed was above punishment for such things, and it must have made for a very uneasy life indeed, constantly afraid that your past slights might come back to haunt you in very real ways.

They rode home in the moonlight, "it being about 9 o'clock before we got home."

Thanks for reading.  I hope I've kept the blog in good hands in Benjamin's absence.  More from him tomorrow, and perhaps, more form me another time.