Friday, 31 December 2010

£20 of Summerfield vouchers

It’s New Year’s Eve and we’re in a car on the A1 heading up to Cambridgeshire. We’re going to bring in 2011 with our friends Lisa and Mark, who live in a little village rather close to where I was brought up. It was Lisa who suggested I write this blog when we went to visit her exactly a year ago today. Her daughter (Nathan’s goddaughter) was rather miserably born on December 31st, so we often pop in at some point during the day to celebrate.


Two years ago, on our way up, I ate a pasty from Summerfield in Biggleswade which was labelled "vegetarian cheese and onion." Unfotunately, it was actually some horrendous meat-filled catastrophe. I realised after about two mouthfuls and looked down to see pink blobs hanging out in the cheesey nastiness. I vomited, rather dramatically, by the side of the road. When I 'phoned Summerfield to complain, they offered me £20 worth of vouchers, which made me want to vomit all over again. In the end I threatened to take them to court, and settled for £200 in real money. It was more the principal of the thing. I wanted to give Summerfield an incentive to encourage their staff to package goods more carefully. I hate to sound like a whinging hippy veggie, but when you’ve made a decision at the age of 7 not to eat meat, you kind of want that decision to remain in your hands. What if the pasty had had nuts in it by mistake and I was one of those freaks who die when they so much smell a cashew?

I spent the afternoon writing in the Tabard Pub whilst Nathan did his matinee. I’ve finally managed to bash the Metro musical down to 7 minutes. Ideally I’d like to clip another minute off its length, but am not going to bust a gut trying to make that happen. Writing in the pub was a fairly unpleasant experience today. Not only was the music really loud, but it was really bad; a sort of riot of New Jack Swing rubbing shoulders with sub-Witney Houston tripe from the 1980s. There were songs I hadn’t heard for decades; none of which I can remember, all of which were deeply distracting.

The party tonight has a "P" theme. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s because their daughter is called Poppy, or because Lisa (like all the world right now) is pregnant. I am going as a purple pimp, simply because I only had 5 minutes to think of something whilst peering into my wardrobe this morning. Fiona has just texted to say I should have gone as Pepys – and I’m kicking myself - But where would I have sourced Pepysian garb, for no money and with no time? Maybe I'll just tell everyone I'm Pepys.

Monday 31st December 1660 and Pepys went to see Henry the Fourth. He stopped en route to the theatre at St Paul’s churchyard to buy a copy of the play to read and professed to be disappointed with the production, claiming that his expectations were too high and that having the book in front of him “did spoil it a little”. God, I hate Shakespeare.

Pepys then called in on Lord Sandwich, who was playing cards. A woman called Sarah, whom I can only assume was some kind of housekeeper, gave Pepys’ lad, Wayneman, a cat to take home to Elizabeth. It seems the Pepys residence had been plagued by mice.

Pepys’ final paragraph is worth quoting in full; “At Whitehall inquiring for a coach, there was a Frenchman with one eye that was going my way, so he and I hired a coach between us and he set me down in Fenchurch Street. Strange how the fellow, without asking, did tell me all what he was, and how he had ran away from his father and come into England to serve the King, and now going back again. Home and to bed.” So no partying to bring in the New Year, then?

Thursday, 30 December 2010

A significant year

Fiona and Paul popped into Costa today on their way for a stroll around Highgate Cemetery. They left almost immediately because, even though it was only lunchtime, Fiona was worried that the light would go. I don't blame her. This is how it must feel to live in the North of Sweden. I haven't seen sunlight for at least three days; just a misty, moisty murkiness which I'm sure will be making most Londoners feel horribly depressed.


It's strange to think that the year is almost over and more curiously that I’ve written this blog every single day. I shall keep it going for the time being, not least because of something an astrologist told me ten years ago. His name was Dr Morse and he was a gift from Philippa's Mum. His flat in Swiss Cottage seemed to be evaporating into a cloud of melancholic tobacco smoke and his hacking cough made me wonder whether the session might need to be concluded in an ambulance. Nevertheless, he’d carefully charted my stars and pointed out that almost all my planets were in Leo, and those that weren't were hanging about in other fire signs, which will come as no surprise to those who know me. He took me through everything in great detail, which I’ve subsequently forgotten, but I do remember that my significant year was supposedly 2011. At the time I was bitterly disappointed. It seemed like forever away. I thought I’d be grey and wrinkly at the age of 36, and unable to enjoy or deal with whatever the significance brought. I even wondered if "significant" meant I was going to die in the year. We'll have to wait and see. Anyway, if you're at all interested in cosmology, you might want to keep following this blog to see how a “significant year” develops!

I've just had my ears syringed by a nurse. During the party two nights ago I absentmindedly stuck a pen lid in my left ear to see if I could find any wax to play with. Unfortunately, I managed to dislodge enough to completely cover my eardrum and make me go deaf. A very valuable lesson was learnt at that moment. It felt like the nurse was pushing some kind of pneumatic drill into my eardrum, but it seems to have done the trick. We ended up with a sink full of crazy blobs of glistening wax, all of which had come out of my ear. She seemed surprised and fairly horrified when I picked a piece up to smell it. Some people are so squeamish!

I now have a whole new register of soundwaves to listen to. Everything has more of a sheen to it. It suddenly feels like the world has been digitally remastered by someone from the 1980s. As I walked away from the surgery, I could hear a crazy titter-tattering, which I realised was a woman in stilettos at least 30 metres away.

350 years ago, Pepys spent the day, a Sunday, visiting various churches, which was one of his favourite pastimes. Most of the people he called in on were either taking physic (ie taking medicine which would purge their system, and lead to them needing to stay indoors for a day) or sulking and locked away in various chambers. It seems the world was winding down for the end of the year in 1660 as well. Pepys ended up at Westminter Abbey; “seeing the great confusion of people that come there to hear the organs.” Organs, of course, hadn’t been seen in churches for many years, so they'd became something of a tourist attraction.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Hovering like UFOs

Highgate seems to be bedecked in an incredibly spooky and damp fog tonight. Street lamps are hovering like UFOs in the sky. The mist is so intense that you can't see their posts. I always wonder whether this part of town has officially opted to become the 21st Century's embodiment of Dickensian London. I thought the same in the snow. When the rest of the capital had thawed, Highgate remained like a picture on the top of a chocolate box dusted in icing sugar.


I'm easing myself back into work after the Christmas hiatus and spent the afternoon in Costa Coffee, working on the Metro musical, which is probably already a third longer than it should be. It occurs to me that I might be suffering from end of year blues, because I’m obsessing that I’ve not got any work lined up later than March this year. I'm also worried that there's very little in my bank account to protect me during a period of unemployment. These projects don’t just materialise out of nowhere and they take a great deal of time and a lot of planning before coming to fruition.

Last night’s party went splendidly well. I didn’t think it was going to, as the afternoon was plagued by phonecalls and texts from people, most of whom had bugs and colds, some of whom had decided to stay up North, or with family miles away from London for another day.
By 8pm, only my brother, Sascha and Meriel had arrived and I was beginning to think the whole thing was going to be a disaster, to the extent that I texted Nathan secretly to tell him not to rush home. Fortunately at about 8.15, people started to arrive – and by 10 there were 16 of us, which was exactly the number I'd hoped for. We played games, and chatted, and danced and got drunk, and it was only at 3am that the last people left, which I think is the sign of a very good party. I went to bed feeling rather relieved and slept soundly.

Pepys was a busy bloke 350 years ago on this day. There were various meetings, and various visits to various people to brownnose them with various post-Christmas gifts. He called in on his father, who told him that his two female cousins on the Joyce side were making really bad wives! It’s not said why they were so useless. Pepys also talked to his father about his sister Pall, who was coming to live with them as a servant the following week, which is still a situation I find difficult to get my head around!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The most expensive shop

I'm in my sitting room, waiting for my post-Christmas party to begin. Rather foolishly, I told everyone just to turn up if they wanted to come, which means I’ve no idea how many are coming, or what we’ll do with them when they arrive. I've been through my book of party games, and picked a few out in case we need to break some ice with people who don't know each other! The tradition of having a party on December 28th was something that started when I was a young teenager, and lasted into my early 20s. This is the first time I've resurrected the concept in 12 years.


Unsurprisingly, today has all been about preparations. We did a frighteningly expensive shop in Budgens in Crouch End, and don’t seem to have very much to show for it. A party at this time of year is difficult. People probably won’t want to eat very much... but I should definitely have food around, in case they do.

I went for a run, or more like a skate, along the old railway track towards Finsbury Park. The snow has now mostly thawed in North London, but for some reason the Parkland Walk was still extremely slippery and I managed to lose my grip almost every time I ran past a group of teenagers, which was highly embarrassing.

Brother Edward is here, and we’re waiting for people to arrive (or not). Sadly Nathan won’t be here until his show finishes, which is upsetting. It feels highly dishonourable to have a party in his house in his absence.

I'm not sure all the text message and emails I sent out to people about this party have got through. So if anyone is reading this and fancies coming along, just show up!!

350 years ago, Pepys was having a quiet day within his house. He dined with Elizabeth and then spent the evening playing his lute “with great pleasure.” He went to bed with great content and doesn't write a great deal more!!

Monday, 27 December 2010

Reverting to type

It's my mother's birthday, and we've come down to London to celebrate. We had to get up at a ridiculously early time in order to facilitate meeting my extended family for breakfast in a hotel near the London Eye. It's astonishing how some of my cousin's children have grown. I feel like one of those elderly aunts who smells of butterscotch and wee and usually points out such things.

My family all seemed well, and I enjoyed chatting to Boo, who married my cousin about 18 years ago when I was a student. I think, because she never knew me as a precocious child, she was always able to judge me as a proper human being. I feel my other cousins, all of whom are a great deal older, still look at me and see a lunatic 8 year-old, which makes me feel painfully shy when I'm with them!

We walked en masse to Trafalgar Square before group inertia took over and everyone went their separate ways. We ended up eating cake in the cafe at the National Gallery before popping in to the Portrait Gallery to pay homage to Pepys et al.

My mother's birthday treat was a visit to the matinee of When We Are Married at the Garrick Theatre. It's one of those plays with everyone you can think of of a certain age in the cast. Well, after you've listed the cast of Calendar Girls! Maureen Lipman was there, Roy Hudd, her off of Frank Spencer, him off of Allo Allo, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel and the one that did the TV announcements in Victoria Wood who knows my mate, Nat. It was all very beautifully acted but my God it was dull. On the bright side, the theatre was wonderfully warm and dark, and I had a lovely sleep during act one!

350 years ago, and Pepys and his wife went for lunch with Sir William Penn. Elizabeth felt ill and went home leaving Pepys to consume copious quantities of alcohol, so much, in fact, that he spent the night vomiting and was forced to call on his maid, Jane. Hungover, he may have been, but he still felt able to compliment her on her appearance as she ran "up and down so innocently in her smock." He woke up the following day and had trouble weeing, which made him fear that the dreaded stones were returning.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

And as the shadows lengthen over Cambridge...

It’s Boxing Day, and the family have just sat down to watch the new version of Upstairs Downstairs. My parents were both enormous fans of the original series and are hugely excited that

everything looks exactly the same; right down to the cupboards and wall friezes... or so they say.

We went to Cambridge today to do some shopping in the sales. The place was freezing cold and half empty, which was surprising, particularly when we saw the news reports from Birmingham and London, where the crowds are large and rowdy and women are apparently scrapping in the shop aisles over cheap bikinis.

John Lewis, which is Cambridge’s flagship department store, was closed, as were many of the smaller shops, but I did splash out on some patent leather shoes. I’ve always wanted a pair for posh events, and Fiona always told me she thought I ought to have some from one of the old Northamptonshire cobblers. A pair of Barkers jumped out at me. Barkers shoes were made in Earls Barton, which was just down the road from where I lived in Higham Ferrers. They were too expensive, but I had to buy them. They will henceforth be for special occasions only, and I will try very desperately not to wreck them, like all my other shoes!

On the way home, we walked past Edward’s old college, King’s, which looked stunning as a silhouette cutting into the electric blue early evening sky. Today is apparently the last day of proper winter weather, and we can expect the temperatures to rise towards the double figures later in the week, which I find, for same strange reason, slightly disappointing.


Edward and Sascha... More blue shadows in the snow

Wednesday 26th December 1660, and Pepys got drenched whilst passing underneath London Bridge. In those days, the narrow arches beneath London's only bridge, created dangerous rapids in the river. Taking a boat through it, could often mean risking life and limb, so much that boatmen would often deposit their passengers one side of the bridge to walk to the other whilst they got on with negotiating the fast-flowing water.

Gossip in the upper society echelons was all about the death of the Princess Royal. The blame had been put rather squarely on the shoulders of her doctors.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

I wonder if Jesus knows he shares his birthday with Annie Lennox?

And a Happy Christmas to you and yours...

I’m currently sitting in front of an open fire feeling utterly stuffed, yet somehow still like I could cram something else into my mouth. It's funny the tricks that this date plays on your digestive system! The rest of the family are watching Doctor Who next door, which I've decided to give a miss this year. We’ve just watched some utterly embarrassing old family videos, including footage of me dancing the Charleston as a slightly gauche teenager.

We arrived in Thaxted at about 7pm last night and milled about for a few hours before heading off to Midnight Mass in the church. I don’t really know why I bother to go. I suppose it feels like a tradition, and the church is so beautiful inside, but it’s such a ghastly occasion, which, it seems, fewer and fewer people are attending each year. The choir attempt to sing some ghastly mass; nothing by anyone decent, just tuneless dirges which seem to be entirely lacking in structure. The order of service is the same every year. They simply recycle the programmes.

You’d think the vicar would see this as his ONE opportunity to attract a new congregation, but each year he gives the same sermon. He never mentions anything relevant, or relates Christianity to something tangible. This time we even had to say prayers for the bishops, and those who deliver the message of God to others. Do they really need our prayers?  He then urged us to go and look at the ridiculously over-sized crib, so that we could “remember Jesus, and emerge from the church as better people...” No, you silly bastard, if you want us to emerge from the church as better people, encourage us to call in on our neighbours on the way home, perhaps making sure that elderly people on our street aren’t cold or lonely. If we can't do that, perhaps suggest that we're simply kinder to those we love, or appreciative to those who cook our Christmas turkeys. If nothing else, we should at least be encouraged to put an extra bit of effort into praying for world peace. I'm sick to the teeth of religion merely becoming about a selfish relationship between a person and God. If life is only about taking communian, having blessings and ticking simple boxes to make sure we’re okay in the next world, then we’re utterly lost in this one. I absolutely refuse to sign up to follow a God who is only interested in my whispering a quick prayer whilst kneeling in front of a ridiculous crib, where Joseph seems to be dressed in 1930s country casuals because they couldn’t find a more appropriate statue to represent him. Frankly, a garden gnome would have looked more appropriate.

If there is a God, he is watching us very carefully to see if we are living good lives on earth; and that can ONLY involve understanding others and spreading love regardless of a person's colour, sexual preference or gender. Christmas is an anagram of “crams shit” and that’s exactly what the vicar of Thaxted was doing!

We woke up this morning to a beautiful blue sky. There’s still deep snow all over the fields, so we took ourselves for a walk. I have seldom seen such glorious scenery. I have never known a more delightful Christmas day. The sun was casting long, blue shadows across the clean, white countryside. Curious animal tracks stretched across the fields and every building we passed was bathed in the most glorious treacly light. I stopped at one stage to take a photograph of three figures walking towards us, who had been silhouetted beautifully by the low sun and suddenly realised it was my friend from London, Alex, whose mother lives in Thaxted. It was a very pleasant surprise to see him.


The fields behind Thaxted

Christmas Day 1660 was a rather subdued occasion. I guess I was wrong to assume the death of Puritanism would immediately turn Christmas into an excuse to party. Pepys went to church... twice, and ate a shoulder of mutton and a chicken for lunch, but spent the evening on his own, playing the lute and reading a history book. No gifts. No dancing. I suppose at least he had the day off work, which possibly would not have been the case in 1659...

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas, Abba

Christmas Eve, and I’m sitting in the Tabard Pub in Chiswick waiting for Nathan to emerge from his show. The car is crammed full of Christmas presents and we’ll soon be leaving for my parent's house in Thaxted. I’m excited about Christmas this year. Bizarrely it’s going to be the first time in our 8 ½ year relationship that Nathan and I will have been together on the big day. I’m looking forward to stuffing my gills with good food and playing some legendary games.


The Tyndarids are currently sitting in Nathan’s dressing room. I hope they’re not scaring any of the cast. I’m never quite sure why people have issues with rats, but at the same time I’d hate to think the boys were frightening someone. As we carried them in their cage through Chiswick to the theatre, people were literally stopping in their tracks. I thought one guy was actually going to fall off his bicycle! Surely two rats in a cage are not that strage or terrifying a sight?

I ensconced myself in a corner in the pub, opposite a lovely group of Anglo-Swedes, who were buying scratch cards from the Newsagents opposite, and strangely, winning every time! Initially, they won two pounds, which they spent on two more cards, and won £10 on them, so off they went to buy another 10 cards. By the time I was forced to leave my cosy corner in the search of a power supply, they’d won £17! Merry Christmas, ABBA!

Sadly, the only power source I could find was in a much draughtier place where a deeply neurotic woman, who works in “media, dahhling” was talking far too loudly. She was so far away from me that I actually started to wonder if she'd been amplified somehow. She seemed to be a deeply bitter woman and did nothing but spread poisonous gossip whilst slagging her work colleagues off. All at the top of her voice. I now know everything about a “dreadful bitch” in her office who spends all her time, either at work, or training for marathons. Men apparently love her, but the shouter, whom I know to be 35, and already considering herself to be a spinster, wonders why on earth men would find a woman attractive who spends all her spare-time keeping fit. She had one of those ghastly Australian accents which had slid towards Sloane to mark her status as an honourary Brit. She talked a lot about Bovril and was telling the guys she was sitting with that they had to set her up with all their friends. Her list of requirements for men, however, were so ludicrous that I doubt she’ll ever be more than a self-confessed spinster. At least until she learns to talk more quietly.


I wished that I was still sitting opposite the Anglo-Swedes to find out how much money they’d made on the scratch cards, but by the time I returned, they'd gone. Maybe they'd won the jack pot!
Christmas Eve 1660, and it was announced that the Princess Royal had died at Whitehall. Pepys had some workmen in (again) and spent the afternoon watching them painting the arch around his front door. Once they’d gone, he started to decorate his house, in preparation for Christmas Day. Just as I’d hoped! The Puritans had gone, and Christmas was back!!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Lethargy!

Lethargy. I’m seeing it everywhere! I hauled myself up the hill to Highgate this afternoon and sat in Costa surrounded by teenagers; three of whom had draped themselves over a sofa and were so low-energy that they could barley talk. When they did manage to open their mouths, they spoke only about "gap yahs" and the fact that they all wanted mummy to buy them clothes for Christmas. One of them was so monged out, that, in the absence of conversation, she started delivering a monologue which revolved around her saying how much she loved Christmas in a variety of ways. “I love Crimbo" she mumbled "I love X-mas... Je T'aime Noel.” On and on it went. I doubt she even knew why she was opening her mouth. Words were just trickling out. The other two girls were merely looking at her, too lethargic to tell her to be quiet. But it wasn't just the teenagers who seemed exhausted. The man opposite me was asleep. Someone else had finished his hot chocolate, but didn't seem to have the energy to stand up. By the end of the day, the staff were trying to close the cafe, and people were simply shuffling towards the door at a snail's pace. It was like some kind of zombie film.


I am pleased to report, however, that I now have 1620 Costa Coffee points, which is apparently the equivalent of ten cups of free tea. Maybe I should start redeeming them before I inevitably lose my card!

Obviously, I'm having to listen to a great deal of music from 1980 at the moment, to try and get myself in the mind-set of electro pop for the Metro project. I watched this today.  If nothing else puts a pre-Christmas smile on your face, this will.

December 23rd 1660 was a Sunday, and Pepys was feeling festive. He went to church and found his pew decorated with winter shrubs and spices; rosemary and bay. A rather glorious thought. He returned home to find Elizabeth and her maid, Jane Birch, struggling to cook a particularly large turkey. Pepys tried to help them, but soon gave up, and took a book to bed.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Winding down for Christmas

I guess, like most people at this time of year, I’m feeling hugely listless. My brain has wound down and there’s very little I can do about it. I did some writing this morning and then merely sat in front of the television for about 6 hours. This isn’t exactly the behaviour of a man with an important deadline on the horizon, but the icy weather, the grey skies, and the imminent promise of Christmas all seem to be conspiring to turn me into a pointless waste of space. Ho ho hum...


I’m sitting in the laundrette watching my clothes spinning in endless messy circles. They all look so pathetic in there, jumping around shambolically like a class of 8-year-olds doing gymnastics. I realise now that I have dreadful clothes. I’m never able to afford anything nice. Nothing fits, most things have either shrunk or been pulled into weird shapes and everything I own seems to have a hole in it somewhere; even my suits.

My friend Ellen had her first episode of Coronation Street broadcast two nights ago. I felt pathetically proud when the words; “written by Ellen Taylor” popped up on the screen. It’s a shame in a way that they had to be part of the newly revamped titles sequence, which is a terrible 1990s disaster zone. Ellen’s writing, however, is wonderful. She’s not a Northerner, but seems to fully understand the rhythm and pace of the Mancunian dialect. Everything felt rather brilliantly understated. It was a rather odd experience to watch a soap opera whilst concentrating on its dialogue. Usually everything just wafts over my head. Like a well-lit room, you only notice the dreadful wallpaper if one of the lights suddenly goes out - as it did with Scott Maslan on the live episode of Eastenders earlier this year. My experience of soaps is watching them in a sort of daze, periodically waking up to notice, for example, that Steve’s complexion is as pallid as his eyes are dark, or to wish I’d watched more carefully as the tram descended onto Rita’s shop.


Our subterranean yoyo
A flash of cadmium yellow
M m m m m m metro

(Think Paul Hardcastle, and you’ll realise where I’m going with this lyric...)

I've only sent two Christmas cards this year. What am I going to do? I don’t know any addresses. Everyone’s on Facebook but I refuse to send Christmas greetings via the internet.

Pepys’ slow march towards Christmas in 1660 involved, once again, sitting with his workmen, before heading out to a tavern where he obviously had a very good time because he used the word fine, three times within the space of a paragraph. He walked home, late, with Sir William Penn, who “was so overcome with wine that he could hardly go; I was forced to lead him through the streets and he was in a very merry and kind mood.” It’s good to know that the office party hasn't changed in 350 years!

Pepys returned home to find the workmen gone, and their work complete, but his head was so “troubled” with wine that he went straight to bed without admiring his newly decorated house.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Tarquin

I spent the morning at Jackson's Lane Community Centre, shivering in their cafe and trying to write lyrics whilst watching actors filing past for auditions and children screaming their way in and out of a play in the main house. The parents of Highgate are a funny bunch. Two sat down next to me with a clutch of children all of whom were being fed apples and some kind of crazy dried white fruit which looked like maggots. What's wrong with Mars Bars and Coca-cola? Get them climbing the walls, I say! The conversation bewteen the adults, unsurprisingly, revolved around organic food and all of the children seemed to be called Tarquin. They were freakishly polite but annoyed me horribly.

I'm currently sitting in the Woodman pub, listening to live jazz with Fiona and Paul, who are back from Texas. The singer is not great, but I applaud anything that's live. The pub smells of poo today, which is unfortunate.

I heard yesterday that Philippa's dear Grandmother has sadly died. I think she could well have been the last Grannie within my friendship group, and by all accounts she was a remarkable woman who seemed to take almost everything in her stride. She will be sorely missed.

Friday December 21st 1660 and Elizabeth bought herself a lovely new muff, fnah fnah. Pepys had dinner with Lady Sandwich and learnt "how dangerously ill" the Princess Royal was. In fact, there were rumours that she was already dead.

At seven at night Pepys walked "through the dirt of Whitehall" to find Sandwich, who had recently returned from the family seat. As Pepys' distant cousin, he was able to bring news of various shared Huntingdonshire relatives. Pepys' Auntie Anne, for example, had voided a massive kidney stone and it was said she wouldn't live long. Poor Auntie Anne. P'Anne.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Barry Manisnow

I'm at Matt's house at the end of an incredibly long day. We're sitting at his piano playing Barry Manilow songs whilst outside the snow falls and glistens in the orange light of a street lamp. It feels like Christmas.

I did a morning's work in a cafe just off Oxford Street before going to a meeting at Broadcasting House. We were discussing an incredibly exciting project, which obviously I can't relay for fear of jinxing it!

I rushed to Portobello Road for the Tomboy Films Christmas dinner, which felt like a grown up affair this year. The last few years we've ended up staggering out of pubs in the middle of the night, but this doesn't seem to have been a year of decadent partying. Maybe it's the recession. Maybe all my friends are nesting. Maybe I'm finally a grown up!

350 years ago, and Pepys was still watching over his workmen, desperately hoping they'd be out of the house before Christmas. Towards the end of the day he heard that Princess Henrietta, the eldest daughter of Charles I had small pox. It wasn't looking good for her.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Just Snow

David Beckham is on the telly at the moment, receiving some kind of award whilst talking in his distinctive monotones. His is, undoubtedly, one of the most recognisable faces in the world, yet Nathan has just asked who it is! Hysterical.

I’ve just returned from watching him (Nathan, not Bex) in Just So at the Tabard Theatre. It's a lovely little show. The first half has something very magical about it; and there are some wonderful performers in this production. I’m probably biased when I say that Nathan and his co-performer, Luke Fredericks were the best things in it, but Lee Greenaway was heartbreaking as the Elephant Child and Lisa Baird made a particularly feisty Kolokolo bird.

I thought the production unwound slightly during the second half, which was probably a result of the director running out of time during the rehearsal period. We’ve all been there. Rehearsals always start at the beginning of a show, and as a result, the end often ends up feeling less polished. That said, it’s a production that all the actors can and should feel very proud of. It’s also reappraised my opinion of Drewe and Styles as musical theatre writers.

Brother Edward and Sascha were watching with me and seemed to like it very much. The Just So stories are a riot of Colonial political incorrectness, much of which has been hoovered up by this musical adaptation. Nathan’s character, the Jaguar, for example, is actually an Ethiopian in the original stories. In the Stiles and Drewe musical, we discover why the Jaguar gains its spots, but in the original stories, we find out why the Ethiopian is a “blackish-brownish colour with a little purple in it and touches of slaty blue.” Which is obviously wince-worthy. Fortunately, the piece hasn't been entirely stripped by the PC police. I was particularly amused to hear references to “deepest darkest Africa”, which became the more comical because Sascha is South African.

We went to Tesco Metro on Chiswick High Road after the show and it was the least pleasant shopping experience of my entire life! The shop had pretty much sold out of everything useful and there were queues stretching all the way down one of the aisles and round the corner into another. It was all a bit communist Russia. People were entering the shop, getting stuck in the crowds and then getting into panics because they couldn’t get out again. Come on Tesco, get your act together! If you need more staff, there are plenty of people who would love the work in the run up to Christmas.

The snow is still deep on the ground. Our front door is now impossible to open without a serious shunt to break the build up of icy water which has dripped down from the guttering above and set like concrete.

We went for a walk late last night and I’d say there was at least 5 inches on the ground. Cars turning into Southwood Lane were immediately rolling back down the hill towards the A1! I'm told my parents are close to being snowed in in Thaxted. They can’t start their car, have had to dig a path to the garden shed and think the entire village might have been cut off. I've never known weather like it.

December 19th 1660 and Pepys was obviously winding down towards the end of the year. He had lunch with Lady Sandwich in Whitehall, before returning home to watch over his workmen. In the evening he was sent a “great chine of beef and half a dozen tongues”. How lovely!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

White out

I'm returning as quickly as I can from the hell of central London on the busiest shopping day of the year in the biggest blizzard London has experienced possibly ever. Heaven knows why I thought Christmas shopping was a good idea today. I shuffled miserably around the shops on Tottenham Court Road, failing to find anything that looked interesting, whilst listening to Christmas song after Christmas song, many of which seemed to be covers of covers. You haven't died a painful death until you've listened to a female session singer indulging her way through I wish it Could be Christmas Every Day or stood in the longest queue in the world whilst that prannie from The Goons sings I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas, which I think might just be the most irritating song ever written. If you don’t believe me; click here and spool to 1’58” which is the part that made me throw down what I was trying to buy and run out of the shop.


I’m over-heating, incredibly hungry, needing the loo, and have just found out that no Northern Line trains are running north of Archway due to the adverse weather conditions. I knew this trip to the West End would end in tears!

Charles II in Soho Square today

I reached Archway and was forced to trek up the A1, ankle deep in snow towards Highgate. London has ground to a standstill. The Archway roundabout was gridlocked, and cars were going into wheel-spins almost everywhere I looked. A bus had broken down on Highgate Hill, and blocked all north-bound traffic. There were snowmen all over the place and the air smelt disconcertingly of burning leather, which I assume is the stench of car engines blowing up. The likelihood of my going to Julie’s tonight to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing is diminishing by the second. After yesterday I’m convinced I won’t even manage to get into my car!!

The A1 from my window

I went to Nic’s Christmas do last night. That girl knows how to throw a party! She’d laid on the most incredible spread of food, which featured the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever tasted. I only knew about three people there, so it was interesting to get a chance to make some new friends. The room was full of creative types. I met composers, directors, playwrights, singer-songwriters, photographers and actors and spent the majority of my evening asking them questions and listening intently to the answers they were giving. It is, however, fairly interesting to mention that it was only the very last person I spoke to – right at the end of the evening – who asked me what I did, or what made me tick. A room full of creatives will often do nothing to dispel the myth that our industry is jam-packed with neurotic, self-obsessed individuals. A shame, because individually I know all of them would have been very wonderful people.

Tuesday 18th December 1660, and Pepys wrote his shortest diary entry ever, which I shall quote in full:

All day at home, without stirring at all, looking after my workmen.


Entering Highgate tube (now closed!)

Friday, 17 December 2010

Trapped!

You gotta laugh! Believe it or not, I'm sitting in the car park at the gym trapped in my own car! We had a surprise flurry of snow in Highgate this morning and when I got to the car, I found myself unable to open the driver's door because it had frozen shut! As if that weren't bad enough, the car alarm then decided to go off! Utterly mortifying!

I managed to open the boot. I removed the parcel shelf and climbed into the drivers seat. Putting my key in the ignition stopped the alarm, but unfortunately I still couldn't open the door from within.

At that moment an elderly couple pulled up and started honking their car horn. In my excitement I'd left my gym bag in the street and they wanted to get past it. I managed to open the window and the lady hobbled over. I explained the situation. "Shall I put the bag in your boot?" she asked, "Go on then" I said, exchanging pleasantries about the bizarre weather. "Shall I close the boot?" she asked. "Why not" I replied, and she went her merry way. Further up the hill, I could see her reversing her car into a lamp post!

I thought driving to the gym would give the car enough time to warm up. Apparently not! So here I am, stuck in the car park, unable to do anything but listen to Radio 4 whilst writing this blog!

6.30pm - I am now out of the car, but cannot get back in! These temperatures are not normal for London! 350 years ago, and Pepys spent the morning watching over his workmen, who were "guilding" his parlour. Sounds a tad fancy for my liking, but he seemed thrilled enough with the results. He was also thrilled to discover that The Assurance, the Navy boat whih had sunk in high winds near Woolwich, was actually reparable. It was only the goods which had been on board when it went down that were ruined beyond repair. A relief all round!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Flying spicatto

I’m trying to knuckle down to some serious work on the Metro piece, but I keep being distracted by people who seem to think the world will come to a hideous end if we don’t manage to meet up “before Christmas”! Not that I'm complaining. I'm obviously in a place where I need to procrastinate. I saw my very old friend Tara from university today. We sat in Sable D’Or in Muswell Hill. She had soup, I had a Greek salad and we caught up on about 7 years. She got married two years ago in New York, which strikes me as very romantic. She seems very well and has barely aged since I last saw her.


I spent the afternoon looking for a songwriter’s rhyming dictionary. Fiona brought me one about 10 years ago, which has assisted me ably on countless projects, but it's on its last legs. I sat in Cafe Nero today, trying to stick all the pages that have fallen out back in again. It's a losing battle!

At the moment I’m trying to find interesting words which rhyme with Metro, but I've not yet had a break through! It’s a very difficult balance. Obviously I'd love to write witty, sparkling lyrics, but I'm neither witty nor sparkling, so have to stick to words which are as direct as possible. There’s no room for arty, winsome poetic stuff in my films, because most people will only see the piece once and it needs to have an instant appeal. I work very hard on my lyrics, but this doesn't seem to stop me being accused of writing them on the backs of a cornflakes boxes! If you look at Coventry Market: the Musical on You Tube, you'll immediately see the comment; “who wrote these lyrics? A gimp?” Pass me the rubber mask...

Speaking of which, I felt like a bit of a gimp in the gym today. One of my favourite pieces of music to listen to at the moment comes from Plan B’s extraordinary concept album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks. The song is called The Recluse, and it includes the most outrageous string writing that I've possibly ever heard; so outrageous, in fact, that I can’t work out whether it’s a sample, purely because I’m not sure anyone’s written strings like that since the days of ELO. It bristles with flying spicatto! Anyway, the song came on in the gym and I felt the need to dance. I'm a terrible dancer, but sometimes the desire to dance washes over me. Dancing fills me with joy. When I lived with Sam, we used to have regular evenings when we’d just dance. We once learnt the entire routine to Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. How gay is that? Anyway, today’s desire to dance was so intense that I was forced to rush into a quiet corner, where none of the gym bunnies could see me. I danced on my own, like a lunatic, for 3 whole minutes. It was heavenly.

After the gym, I drove through driving snow and rush hour traffic to Hackney for Uncle Bill’s official birthday drinks at her bar in Broadway Market. It’s a funny old part of town. It seems so different to the rest of Hackney and is peopled by all sorts of crazy arty types. Walking into Rupert and Uncle Bill’s bar is like stepping back in time. There are young men everywhere dressed in rather fuddy-duddy 1950s suits. You get the impression that everyone who lives in the area is some kind of artist or musician, but you also get the impression that most of them are desperate to demonstrate the fact. It reminds me a bit of how I was at university, when I used to walk through the snow barefoot, and wear kaftans with little ethnic hats emerging from my bird’s nest of henna-tinted hair. Those were the days when people used to empty ashtrays into my lap...

Sunday December 16th 1660, and Pepys was actually doing, what I reported he was doing 2 days ago. I got my dates mixed up in Lewes. On Friday 14th December 1660, Pepys went to a coffee house where he had a very good discourse about insects “and their having a generative faculty as well as other creatures.” Before you get too excited about Pepys' burgeoning scientific mind, it’s worth remembering that he thought frogs were insects!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

He's behind you!

I'm sitting opposite Mr Philip Sallon on a train returning to London from Bristol. Philip is asleep. We're in first class and a nice lady keeps walking past with a trolley crammed with lovely food which she seems keen for us to eat. I've never travelled first class on a train before and won't be in any rush to repeat the experience. I'm surrounded by rather ghastly people! Philip has now woken up and is singing Hello Dolly, much to the chagrin of those around us. He wants us to sing something else in harmony, which will, no doubt cause some kind of polite riot in the carriage... We're singing Jerusalem The Gold.


We've just been with Matt to see Barbara Windsor in a pantomime at the Bristol Hippodrome. She was playing the fairy of the Bow Bells in Dick Whittington, which is about as perfect as casting gets! It's a wonderful production. My eyes were almost blinded by the sheer amount of sparkle on the stage. Everything shimmered and glistened, even the crests of the waves painted onto the backdrops. I recommend the production wholeheartedly! Matt was asked if he’d mind going up on stage with all the children during the song-sheet section, and like a trooper he did, which must have been a proper treat for the audience. It is wonderful to sit and watch the way that children respond to pantomimes. Barbara arrived on a floating moon at one point and started waving at the audience, and all these children were waving back, eyes wide with excitement. It was, for them, a truly magical experience.

Matt on stage

We went backstage afterwards and drank champagne in Barbara's dressing room, which felt hugely decadent. She was extremely gracious; exactly what you’d expect from a Grand Dame of the entertainment industry. Speaking of which, I wonder when we can expect her Dame-hood to be confirmed. Surely it's just a matter of time?

All of us were exhausted as we met at Paddington this morning. Matt's just returned from the States and Philip was up all night worrying about a party he's organising tomorrow night. For my part, I'd been up all night with chronic diarrhoea. Not the nicest thing to have to write about, and not the most enjoyable evening of my life. I don't know whether I'd eaten something weird in Brighton, but it was hideous, and the gripes accompanied me through the entire night. I haven't eaten much today but had a pasty a few minutes ago, so we'll have to see if the gripes begin again.

Mr Sallon

350 years ago and Pepys found himself with very little to write about. "We had three eels that my wife and I bought this morning of a man, that cried them about, for our dinner, and that was all I did to-day."

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Blooming.

I am in Lewes with Hilary. Her house is absolutely beautiful, if a tad on the cold side. Apparently her landlord keeps promising to bring curtains round but keeps forgetting! I think I must have been lying when I said I rarely get cold because I am now wearing two jumpers.

We've just sat down to eat supper; baked potatoes and chilli. That'll soon warm us up!

We just spent the day in Brighton. I set out to buy lots of Christmas presents and seem to have succeeded in my mission. It was a lovely place to be; not too crowded, wonderfully crisp and sunny and full of really interesting, arty shops. Uncle Bill was great company. It was her birthday on Saturday and we celebrated with a revolting milkshake! She looks very well at the moment. You might say blooming...

December 14th 1660, and it rained all day. London was buzzing with talk of a plot against the King, for which 40 people had been arrested.

Pepys spent the afternoon in the pub, talking about women and it's a wonder that he had any success in that department at all, "in discourse I learnt a pretty trick to try whether a woman be a maid or no, by a string going round her head to meet at the end of her nose, which if she be not will come a great way beyond."

We all know that women's noses shrink by a foot when they lose their maidenheads... That's why they call it a Maidenhead!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Christmas launch

It could never be described as hot outside, but I feel as though I've had a sweat on all day. Much as I complained about the freezing temperatures oop north, it was nice to be able to put a coat on and not feel too hot within a few minutes if being outside. Till men are hirsute, you see. I think it's the Welsh genes. Obviously not everyone likes an hairy man, but it can have its benefits. We get into bed, for example, and immediately double-up as hot water bottles and I can deliver twice as many pieces to camera on a winter day as a cold-blooded presenter! But the drawbacks are manifold; people love to pretend that they are repulsed by body hair and in a typical English winter, when the temperatures hover between 4 and 10 degrees, I sweat like a weirdo! That said, I'd have been incredibly popular in the 1970s, and like to think I might have survived the Titanic!

Now, here’s a conundrum; why do you suppose someone has sent me an enormous bag of John Lewis towels through the post? It’s a lovely thing to receive, but I daren’t use them because I’ve no idea who they’re from, why they were sent, or even if they were meant to come to me. They have my name clearly marked on them, but there’s no note. Initially, I assumed my brother or someone had sent them to me so that I could pass them on to someone else... but in retrospect this makes no sense. I am perplexed!

Today went past in a flash. We slept in until about 11, but by the time we’d gone into Muswell Hill, and I’d been to the gym, it seemed to be 5pm. I treated myself to a massage. I can’t really afford it, but it’s so lovely to just lie there and drift into nothingness for an hour. My masseur did some pretty good work on the knots on my shoulders which had formed after hours trudging around Newcastle with my laptop and stills camera surgically attached to my back.

This evening saw the launch of Christmas at 343 Archway Road. Nathan dusted down his tree, and we covered it in hundreds of shiny baubles. We’ve lit lots of candles and as soon as I’ve written this blog, we’re going to open our advent calendars, which have chocolates inside. I’m in something of a rush to get to the chocolate, so forgive me if this entry feels rushed.

I received a lovely email today from a lady called Maureen about A Symphony for Yorkshire. I’m still getting about one email a week from people who enjoyed the piece. Today’s was particularly sweet, and ends:

"I have watched it so many times, over the past couple of months, that your music and the words of Doreen Brigham's poem come to mind frequently. I am a poet so it's understandable that the poem delighted me so much but the combination of words, song, brass bands, male voice choirs, harpist,the hilly street in Haworth and general good spirits of the piece is captivating. There is something very steadying and consoling about Doreen Brigham's words and the music set to them. I had to have an operation late November and pre going into hospital A Symphony for Yorkshire and Leonard Cohen's music proved a calming influence. I particularly like the section at York station when the singer sings 'And when I've done my roaming'."

It genuinely means so much to receive these kinds of letters. The fact that they’re still coming in really does make me think that I might have produced something over the summer that will stay around in people's consciousness. I certainly feel it's something I can be immensely proud of. Let’s hope Metro proves to be as good.

December 13th 1660, and Pepys, it seems, didn’t have a great deal to write about. Workmen were back in his house, this time painting his parlour. At noon Lady Batten and Elizabeth finally returned from Woolwich and their safe return was celebrated by cracking open a very good bottle of red wine “of my Lady’s own making in England.” Red wine? From England? In the Late 17th? During the second ice age? Hmmm... Though it’s not out of the question to think that this wine might have been made from red grapes, from somewhere like Kent, it’s worth remembering that wine doesn’t necessarily refer to a drink made from
grapes. This red wine could have been made from blackberries or red currents...

Christmas in Highgate

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Give me back my heart

I’m once again sitting on the enormous sofa in my brother’s appartment, staring at the reflection of The Greenwich Dome in the pitch black water outside. The Dome's bright lights make The Thames look rather like molten lead.

It’s the X Factor final tonight, and we’re eating wraps to celebrate. Apparently brother Edward and Sascha eat wraps every Sunday, and I'm a man who loves regimes. I suppose I want Matt to win the competition, although none of the acts in my opinion is that great live. Many of my singers in Newcastle knock the spots off them in the talent stakes.


We spent the day in a church crypt near the British Museum, work-shopping Jo’s new comedy drama, which is about a rather hopeless spiritual retreat. She’s written a wonderful script and assembled some brilliant performers. I put myself in charge of music, and at once point managed to encourage all the actors to do a ridiculous contemporary dance to Dollar’s excruciating Give Me Back My Heart, which I found particularly amusing. Many of the performers had worked with Jo and me in the National Student Drama Company all those years ago in Edinburgh and it was great to see Claudia and Helena again, the latter of whom I’d not seen for at least ten years. She arrived with her third child in tow, who she’s still breastfeeding. We were immediately transported back to 1994 to those sunny, carefree days, when we thought we'd be young forever, and the concept of having babies seemed about as far away as the Millennium! We sat together eating poached eggs at lunchtime, remembering the old days and catching up on all those missing years.

I have a bit of a headache, which, since last night has periodically been stinging the back of my head. It may well be time for me to pay a little visit to the doctor, to sort out this business with my singing voice cutting out and feeling constantly tired. I have a very strong suspicion that it’s some kind of acid reflux, but the hypochondriac in me is obviously assuming it’s something a great deal more sinister.

Pepys spent much of the day 350 years ago today worrying about the absence of his wife, who, we assume, was still attending Lady Batten in Woolwich. Pepys collected 100l worth of his earnings from Whitehall and took it home to store it with another bag containing the same amount; “it being the first 200l that I ever saw together of my own in my life.”

I remember seeing my first 20p piece. My mother, who was reading with the drongoes in my junior school, called into my classroom and handed me one to show to the rest of my form. I instantly became the most popular boy in school!I also felt incredibly rich for the first time in my life. I couldn't decide whether to spend it or stare at it. I'm sure Pepys felt the same - for at least an hour or two, btu later in the day, he must have become incredibly bored and lonely, for he called in on the Batten’s house and talked with their daughter for an hour or two. He went to bed, “reading myself asleep, while the wench sat mending my breeches by my bedside.” There’s something remarkably moving about that image, but I can’t think why!!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Rat pee

I went into Central London today to buy a new plug for my iphone which I'd managed to leave at the Travelodge. When I got home and finally unpacked my suitcase, I realised I hadn’t lost the plug at all! Still, it's good to have a spare, and it was rather nice to be wondering around Covent Garden in no kind of rush. I pottered about with my ipod blaring in my ears, singing Paloma Faith songs whilst garnering all sorts of strange looks from people who were passing.

I popped into some of the music shops on Denmark Street before jumping on the tube and heading back to Highgate, vowing that the time has come finally for me to get back to the gym. Newcastle’s food leaves a great deal to be desired, and I have to attempt to unclog some of my arteries!
I'm currently watching the Strictly Come Dancing final with my dear friend Jo. I haven’t seen her for far too long, and it's fabulous to have her sitting on the sofa next to me. We’ve actually known each other for the best part of 20 years, which is as wonderful as it is shocking. We were in the National Student Drama Company together. My first memory of her was a trip to the animal park in Golder’s Hill Park in the long, hot summer of 1994. We had a picnic and fed the deer and it seems like another world, which is fast vanishing into the mists of my mind.

Tonight is the first night she’s ever had away from her two kids, and it must be very strange for her to be away from them. Our two children, the two rats, have been out to play and took very much to her; so much, in fact, that they marked their territories by weeing all over her arms! Suffice to say, they’ve now gone back into their cages.

December 12th 1660, and Pepys was up early despite the weather being really bad, with rain and high winds. He went with his wife, Lady Batten and her maid by barge to Woolwich to see the wreckage of the Assurance, which had recently sunk with the loss of many lives. Only the upper deck, and its masts were visible above the water, which must have been a rather ghostly sight. The bad weather had also taken out another ship, the Kingsdale, which made everyone worry that the fleet's planned trip to Africa was doomed.
Lady Batten, who'd been terrified throughout the journey to Woolwich, refused to travel back into London, and insisted that Elizabeth stay with her. Pepys returned home alone to find his maid, Jane Birch doing the monthly wash.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The mother of two queens

I’m currently on a train, winging my way towards London, whilst watching the most intense sunset glowing in the West. As we chugged out of Newcastle, the sky was a sort of bizarre blend of iridescent blues and pinks, and it’s now the deepest of orange colours. The dark clouds above are descending, however, and very soon the sun will have vanished for another day. The first part of my Newcastle journey is now over, and I’m returning to the capital to write music. It’s at this stage that the niggling doubts begin to bubble up in my mind. What if I’m thwarted by the mother of all writers’ blocks? What if I write music that no one enjoys listening to? I’ve never thought of myself as a lyricist, so what if I write words that are a load of rubbish? It's at this stage that I just have to sit down and trust that inspiration will come...


Everything else about the project is falling rather wonderfully into place. I'm thrilled with Nexus; the people who run the Metro system. They seem to care very deeply, not just about their trains but about the people who travel on them. We had a meeting with them earlier today and they're bending over backwards to support the project; as they should, really, but I'm very grateful, because without their support this wouldn't be anything like as potentially exciting.
I wish I could say we're getting as much enthusiastic support from our partners at The Sage, who I’m still not convinced, have any interest in the piece at all! I continue to give them the benefit of the doubt because The Sage itself is the most wonderful resource, which facilitates world class community projects. If I was from Tyne and Wear I’d be immensely proud of it.

I'm about to write the mother of all letters of complaint to the people at Travelodge. I was left without hot water in my room for two whole days during this current stay, which as you can imagine, in all this snow, was fairly gruesome. For two mornings running, I’d go down stairs, after a cold shower, and report the problem. For two days running, I’d return to my room, freezing cold and think “ooh, what I’d love is a nice hot bath.” Sadly, it was only when I insisted on a room change that the problem resolved itself.

I also want to bring the collective Travelodge attention to their appalling vegetarian menu, which is basically geared towards offering meat-eaters two lovely "alternative" dishes that work well without meat; namely spicy dishes. The only two veggie options are therefore a hot bean chille – garnished with coriander, and a spicy noodle dish – wait for it – garnished with coriander!If you don’t eat coriander, or like spicy dishes, you're screwed! Where’s the bean burger, or the bland veggie lasagne? To make matters worse, their only veggie starter was a tomato and pepper soup; and they didn’t have it in stock for the entire week and a half that I was staying there! Shocking. You know you're fighting a losing battle on a menu if you've resorting to marking bread rolls as vegetarian starter!

The 10th December 1660, and Pepys was up with the lark. He wanted to visit the Navy’s Comptroller, and walked in moonlight to his residence to find he was not yet up. He therefore “went and walked all alone twenty turns in Cornhill, from Gracious Street corner to the Stokes and back again, from 6 o’clock till past 7, so long that I was weary," but when he returned to the house, the Comptroller had got up and left! So Pepys went to Westminster in hot persuit. Westminster Hall was abuzz with the rumour that the Duke of York, was about to marry the Lord Chancellor’s daughter, Anne. Because Charles II died without a legitimate heir, the crown was passed to his brother, and Anne became the mother of two future queens of England; Mary II and Anne.

In the afternoon, Pepys went to a coffee house back in Cornhill. Coffee houses were still rather new to the capital and it was the first time Pepys had visited this particular one, finding much pleasure in it “through the diversity of company and discourse”.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Pallion Aldi

We’ve now visited every station in the Tyne and Wear Metro network. We’re totally exhausted, but I feel like we’ve accomplished something really special. 60 stations over the course of two days is no mean feat. We didn’t just pass through them, we got out and had a proper look around. We’ve been to Gateshead, Jarrow, Sunderland and South Shields. We hurtled almost as far south as Durham, and all the way north into the Northumbrian foothills. We even visited an airport! Newcastle's airport is a funny little place. Whilst London airports are filled with posh perfumeries and sushi bars, Newcastle airport has a Greggs!

The last stop

I’ve started to collect statistics about the Metro network. It’s apparently the only underground system in the country where you can use your mobile phone. All the signs for Wallsend – or Segedunum – are written in English and Latin to celebrate the influence of the Romans in the area. And we’re learning a great deal more from fellow travellers. Every day, people come up to us wanting to tell us what THEY consider to be the most interesting places to visit within an area. Some try to encourage us to visit a local church, or a beach, or beauty spot, but one lady today said she felt we’d love Pallion because it had an Aldi! What she forgot to mention was that there was the most astonishing scrap yard by the side of the Metro tracks in Pallion, which I instantly fell in love with. Sadly, I couldn’t find Aldi!

Alistair on ferry

I did feel I was being recognised by strangers, however. Alistair said he’d seen a number of people trying to wave at me, and when we got off at one station, a whole carriage full of elderly people were waving like lunatics! That's what comes on being on the local news every night!

The highlight of my day was definitely a ferry trip across the Tyne from Southshields to Northshields. I don’t know why I found the experience quite so moving; perhaps it’s because it seemed so genteel. We sat with a group of old ladies who were nattering away and I suppose I imagined the same journey being made come rain or shine way back into the previous century, and perhaps even earlier than that. I like routine. I like things that never change.

Heaps of snow

My great friend Sam sent me a wonderful email this morning, which included a document written by the composer William Byrd in 1588, in an attempt to persuade everyone to learn to sing. His final point is somewhat questionable, but he was completely on the money in every other respect!

FIRST, singing is a knowledge easely taught and quickly learned, where there is a good master and an apt scoller.
SECOND, the exercise of singing is delightfull to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.
THIRD, it doth strengthen all parts of the brest, and doth open the pipes.
FOURTH, it is a singular good remedie for a stutting and stamering in the speech.
FIFTH, it is the best meanes to procure a perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.
SIXTH, it is the onely way to know where Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyce: which guift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand, that hath it: and in many, that excellent guift is lost, because they want Art to express Nature.
SEVENTH, there is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.
EIGHTH, the better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith: and the voyce of man is to be employed chiefly to that ende.

350 years ago, and Pepys was awoken early with the news that one of the ships in the Navy's fleet had been caught in a gale, and had sunk with the loss of twenty men. Pepys spent the day in Westminster delivering this particular message to various people, most notably Lady Sandwich, who engaged him in conversations about beauty. Readers who have been worrying about Pepys' mother’s bladder stones will be relieved to hear that she was well when he called in on her later in the day. All good... except the boat sinking, which was bad.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Coastal Loop

Today’s task has been to visit every station on the Metro Coastal Loop, which starts and ends in Central Newcastle and goes all the way out to North Shields and the glorious Witney Bay. There are around 30 stops on this section of the system and we explored every single one. Hurrah! It was, however, a fairly perilous journey. Every time we got off at a station, we ended up skating around on glass-like ice. I fell over twice; once rather spectacularly at Wallsend, on our way back from Hadrian’s Wall.

It was a fabulous day; bracing, but the sun shone throughout, and the sky was a deep cornflower blue. Highlights have to include eating chips in beautiful Tynemouth, the art deco windows in Monkseaton glowing magically in the late afternoon sunshine, and standing knee deep in untouched snow at the top of a multi-storey car park at Northumberland Park. Alistair was a great companion throughout the day and we’ve found some wonderfully quirky little corners, which will work fabulously on screen.


Visiting Byker was a particular thrill, although I was very disappointed not to see Spuggy sitting on the platform. I was also disappointed to learn that the building featured as the grove in Byker Grove, was actually nowhere near Byker itself. To make matters worse it’s recently been bought by an Islamic group and earned itself the new nickname, "Burka Grove."

I’ve just met a Northumbrian piper who is going to be taking part in our film. He played a few airs and jigs and almost broke my heart. What stunningly beautiful and delicate instruments Northumbrian Pipes are. I'm so excited at the prospect of writing something for him.

Speaking of Northumberland, we’re off now into the wilds of that particular county to listen to a former colliery brass band in Morpeth. They've also expressed an interest in being involved in our film and I can’t wait to hear them. It will be nice to take a little trip up the A1 as well. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the single carriageway stretch of my favourite road. As you'll no doubt have sensed; I feel incredibly lucky today and extremely happy.


Saturday 8th December 1660 and Pepys went to dinner with his wife and Mr Pierce the surgeon to Mr Pierce the purser’s house. Family fortunes again! It was his first visit to this particular residence and Pepys was impressed, describing Pierce as living “plentifully and finely”. They ate a lovely chine of beef, whatever a chine of beef is, and Pierce’s daughter played the virginal. Pepys returned home by lantern and went to bed with his head spinning as a result of too much alcohol. He also had a rather chronic case of flatulence, which isn’t an image I particularly want to maintain in my mind. Poor Elizabeth!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Like two rolled up sleeping bags stuffed into nylon

I woke up this morning and received another letter from Tfl, who keen readers of this blog will remember are in charge of dealing with the very kind donation that the Mayor's Office offered us for last week's motet. The latest in this sorry story is that they've lost all of my details, which considering how many forms, letters, faxes and emails they asked me to send in the past, is no mean feat! The letter I received this morning, surely takes the biscuit in terms of blatent nuttiness. It reads: “As part of our ongoing customer service commitment within the Financial Service Centre, the Accounts Payable Team is reviewing all open items on our finance system. We therefore request an open item statement for all accounts you have with our Company.” A what? A who? A Why So Many Capital Letters? I actually think it must be a scam. Surely they can't seriously be asking all of their personnel to resubmit their financial details? The letter was addressed "Dear Sir/ Madam." I just 'phoned the number written on the letter, but couldn’t understand a word the guy who answered was saying, so I had to hang up... He was mumbling so much that I couldn’t tell if he was speaking with a thick accent, or had a half-chewed banana in his mouth. I think he said he was the only person answering the phones today. You think they’d have chosen someone with a bit more life about him to represent their company... unless he was the scammer and I've just 'phoned Africa. Gosh, now that would turn out to be an unexpected item in the bagging area!


I’m now on a train heading back to Newcastle; and am very excited about the prospect of finally getting my teeth into the Metro project, particularly now that I know we have a brilliant cast of performers. I love my new little family at BBC Newcastle. It has to be said that the BBC Regional Network is one of the greatest resources in the world. It is filled with people who know and care passionately about their patches and in my opinion, it single-handedly justifies the license fee. I’m beginning to feel hugely protective about it, particularly now that I’ve seen it working so well, and in so many parts of the country.

Unfortunately I'm currently sitting opposite a woman with the largest legs in carnation. They are long, and thick; like four rolled-up sleeping bags positioned at right angles and stuffed into nylon. To cap it all she seems to be wearing the largest boots in the world, as though she’d stepped into two Shetland ponies before getting on the train. When I move my legs, I bump into her, and she over-reacts every single time. We’ve had tuts, and gasps of pain. Short of suggesting she puts herself on a leg diet, I don’t know what else I can do! I’ve never had this problem with anyone sitting opposite me before.

December 7th 1660, and Pepys went to see Sandwich, but discovered that he’d left London to do some business at his Huntingdon estate. He found Lady Sandwich, the delicious Jemima, at home, and they had lunch with the mother of Sandwich’s page, Loud. I SAID LOUD! Later in the day, Pepys called for Loud and “examined him in his Latin and found him a very pretty boy.” I said he “EXAMINED HIM IN HIS LATIN...” (never mind...)

Pepys returned home and discovered his wife reading a book called Cyrus The Great; a novel in ten volumes by Madeleine and George de Scudery, who were siblings. I'm a bit confused to find references in the diary to novels. I always thought the first novel was Robinson Crusoe, which was written at least 50 years later. A bit of research informs me that this French book, is considered by some to be the longest novel ever written; a bewildering 2,100,000 words! You learn something new every day.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Frustration!

Today ranks amongst the most frustrating days of my life. I woke up, horrifically early, in order to get to King’s Cross. The plan was to catch the 9.45 train to Cambridge to meet my parents who were planning to pick me up and drive me to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, where my preliminary hearing was due to take place.


I’d just got on the train when I received a phone call from a chirpy lass at the county court, informing me that the defendant was ill and in hospital, and that as a result, the judge had no option but to cancel the hearing. The news hit me like a lightning bolt. “But I’ve already come all the way down from Newcastle” I whimpered, “and I’m already on a train to Cambridge. And this is a preliminary hearing for a small claims court issue, which is very unusual, and if we’re not careful, I’ll have spent as much as I’m owed in the process of claiming it back.” In fairness, there was nothing she could have done or said that would have made the situation any better, but when she told me the next potential date for a replacement hearing was in February, my blood started running cold.

It’s strange, and somehow horrible to admit that in the pit of my stomach, I knew this hearing would be cancelled. I had thought the snow would get in the way, but the choir mistress has been suffering enormously from her health throughout the year, and this has regularly created stumbling blocks, which we’ve needed to try to find ways of working around. I suspect the stress of this whole process is grinding us both into the ground, but I find myself wondering what would happen if she was ill the next time, or the time after that. How long can this process last? How much money will I be forced to spend?

So, I reached Cambridge, and after a terrible argument with my parents, when the stress of the entire situation just poured out into a torrent of tears and swear words and stroppy marches through the misty city streets, we headed back to Thaxted for a pub lunch and an afternoon of telly. Thaxted was coated in a hoar frost and looked hugely romantic in the mist. My parents did their best to change the subject, but my mind kept flicking back to the fundamental problem, namely that no-one is denying that I did the work, delivered it in time, and wrote something which the choir mistress described as “one of the best things you’ve done.” So, why on earth am I forced to go through this absolute mayhem, just to be paid? It’s actually becoming rather surreal.

So tomorrow I’m back to Newcastle, having nothing to show for my 300 mile round trip other than a suitcase filled with newly washed clothes, that I’m worried I won’t have the chance to dry before I have to leave.

December 6th, 1660, was a busy day for Pepys, who spent his time doing business in various Whitehall taverns, where he also bumped into countless friends and associates. Much of his evening was spent in the company of an incredibly witty army man who sang songs and told stories in a Scottish accent. There was obviously something a bit wicked in the air, for Pepys returned home by water, “ it being a most pleasant moonshine night, with a waterman who did tell such a company of bawdy stories, how once he carried a lady from Putney in such a night as this, and she bade him lie down by her, which he did, and did give her content, and a great deal more roguery.” He returned home to discover his servant Jane waiting patiently outside the house. Elizabeth had sent her on some “trivial business” and inadvertently locked her out! Genius!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Bladder stones in the ashes

I’m currently sitting on a train which is speeding its way back to London. I’m absolutely shattered. The rail network is in total disarray this evening, and an “emergency” service is being run, so I’m not altogether sure why all the seats seem to have been reserved. I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to get as far as York before being decanted into another carriage by a belligerent old bat.

My trip to London will be short and potentially not that sweet! I have an awful lot of washing to do before I return to Northern climes. I’m up with the lark tomorrow for a preliminary hearing at Melton Mowbray County Court. Apparently, I can only expect the meeting to be 15 minutes long, which seems a bit tough after an 8 hour journey! A preliminary hearing for a small claims dispute is apparently incredibly rare. We’re there to decide if an expert witness needs to be called to assess whether my writing is too difficult for a choir to perform. From my perspective, one shouldn’t attempt to argue that something’s impossible to perform until one has actually tried to perform it, but I guess I’m just the writer!

Upsettingly, my lawyer from the MU is stranded somewhere in Manchester, so won’t be able to attend the hearing with me. This frightens me, because the world of courtrooms is totally unfamiliar, but as she points out, I’ll be in and out in seconds. I’m to remember that this is not the actual hearing, and my parents will be there for moral support. Deep breaths...

Today’s auditions went extremely well. We were in a shopping centre in Newcastle, and I was particularly thrilled that someone I’d met at the Karaoke on Friday night had been able to come along. We met some wonderful singers and some incredibly inspiring characters. One lady made me cry with a rendition of that song about remembering September. I don’t know what it’s called, but it broke my heart because she sang it like Judith Durham. She was also blind, which had no bearing on her performance, but brought a whole new meaning to the lyric. Earlier in the day, we’d had a real Susan Boyle moment, when a woman in a scruffy woolly hat turned up, opened her mouth and unleashed Shirley Bassey!

My Judith Durham

It’s amazing to hear people’s stories. I realised today how often sheer good luck, or a face which somehow fits the Zeiitgeist, makes the difference between someone becoming wealthy and someone languishing in a life of bitter disappointment and missed opportunities. Some of the people I heard today have voices which knock the spots off many of the professionals I’ve worked with; and their attitudes are streaks better. One of the things I love most about my career is that I get to work with people who seem to care passionately about what we're doing together; it's not just great fun, but it also improves their outlook on life, and their sense of self esteem.
So life is good, even thought this train carriage smells like a combination of poo, cheese, and eau de Cologne, which is disconcerting to say the least!

Wednesday 5th December 1660, and Pepys was once again at the theatre, this time watching a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he thought was generally badly acted. On the way home, he called in on his parents and found his mother still ill with her bladder/ kidney stones, one of which she’d newly “voided” and dropped into the fireplace, no doubt horrified at its size and the pain it had caused on its way out. Pepys, being an inquisitive/unsqueamish sort, asked to see it, so his poor, (unwell) mother was forced to get onto her hands and knees to sift through the ashes until she could satisfy her son’s request.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Al-reet

I went out on the town last night, lured into the icy, almost empty streets by the promise of karaoke. I thought it would be good if I whipped up a little bit more interest in this weekend's auditions. Karaoke was happening at a pub called The Dog, and a rather motley crüe of individuals had braved the snow to gather there.

As I arrived, a cheeky chap with a ridiculously charming smile tapped me on the top of my flat cap and said "al-reeeeet". He then dropped to his knees and started to take photographs of my wellington boots, claiming never to have seen anything as cool as someone hanging out in a karaoke bar in wellies! I wasn't sure if he was taking the micky, but I'm not sure I care...

I think this was the turning point for me and Geordie folk. From then on I spoke to almost everyone I passed. It seems to be the thing to do. No wonder they think the Londoners are all rude bastards!

As I walked home I was astonished to see how many women were out and about wearing mini-dresses and 4-inch heels, despite the treacherous conditions. Similarly, almost every man I passed was dressed in nothing but a t-shirt and jeans.

One guy was standing behind me in the queue for the cash point, and I immediately forced him to go in front of me. "You're half naked!" I told him. He complimented me on my hat, no doubt because it looked warm, and I asked him why he didn't have a coat. Apparently his mates had ragged him so much for trying to wear one, he'd left it at home! These Geordies genuinely seem to be made of sterner stuff!!

Today's auditions took place south of the Tyne and the Wear in Sunderland, and the turn out was exceptional. I was so pleased. There were some brilliant stories and some wonderful faces and in some cases these were also accompanied by beautiful voices. We auditioned close to 50 people and only found one nutter, who told me he didn't need to be in the film because he was already a celebrity, and, he added, a Christian!

Is this the most beautiful bridge in the world?

My hotel is rammed full of stag parties. One suspects I won't be allowed to sleep tonight.

On this date in 1660, Parliament passed a bill stating that the bodies of Cromwell and other traitors should be exhumed from their graves at Westminster Abbey and drawn to the gallows where they should be hanged, which made Pepys feel uncomfortable that, "a man of so great courage as he was, should have that dishonour, though otherwise he might deserve it enough."

Friday, 3 December 2010

Newcastle or New York

Last night's snow...

Ten observations about Newcastle:

1. It’s very cold
2. The people here are very proud to be Geordies
3. The quayside area is stunningly beautiful and reminds me of Brooklyn
4. It's very cold
5. There can’t be many vegetarians in the city because the vegetarian food is rubbish
6. The BBC Staff up here are incredibly friendly and passionate about their patch
7. Young ladies here don’t wrap up warm enough when they’re out on the town.
8. Everyone sounds like Sarah Millican or Matt Baker.
9. When walking through the streets, it's difficult to stop oneself from singing the theme tune to Byker Grove
10. It's very cold.

The temperatures here dropped to minus 14 last night, which was just ridiculous. Today is officially my day off. It wasn’t meant to be, but the shocking weather has meant that countless meetings have been cancelled. It’s no longer snowing – but the lack of cloud-cover has led to the temperatures dropping even further. I went for a walk today but ended up having to turn around. My feet, through two pairs of socks and a pair of wellies, felt like blocks of ice and my hands had frozen solid. I can safely say I've never felt such arctic temperatures, not even in Leningrad. I’m told it’s colder here than it is in Iceland. There seems to have been a spate of pensioners freezing to death in their gardens up here, which is incredibly sad. I wonder what’s happened to the man in the wheelchair by the canal in Oxford.

There’s not really much else to say. I'm marooned in my hotel room, really. I should try and take myself out for supper, but I’m not sure I have the guts! At least there’s a bath and a television. I've already had two baths today – mostly just to thaw myself. The heating is on full blast and yet I'm still needing to wear a jumper. Madness. Utter madness.

Newcastle or New York?

350 years ago, Pepys had set himself a resolution to get up as early as he could. He rose by candlelight, noting that it was the first time he’d done that this winter. He subsequently spent an hour playing his violin before going to work. He tells us that the House of Commons spent the afternoon debating the concept of tickets, finally arriving at the compromise that half the sailor’s pay would be given in cash up front, and the rest paid with said tickets. Pepys thought this was a great deal more sensible.

He went home, and two of his friends arrived whilst he was he was being shaved by a barber, so he gave them a good bottle of sack and told them to make themselves at home.






Thursday, 2 December 2010

Sage stuffing

It was still dark when I got up this morning. I thought that opening the wipe-clean curtains in my Travelodge room would help matters, but it didn’t. I stumbled around a great deal and fell headfirst into the bath. A car arrived to take me to BBC Newcastle, where I was being interviewed on the breakfast show. I’ve no idea what I said. These things tend to fly past and I was holding my eyes open with matchsticks.

Later in the day we went back into Newcastle centre to do some more filming. People seemed a bit chirpier. The sun was shining and glinting on the snow, and everything looked absolutely glorious under the cornflower blue sky. We roamed about the Metro system looking for people who might be interested in singing a few lines of music for us. The experience was, once again, catastrophically embarrassing, but because people seemed happier to be on the trains, we got a great deal more in the can. I’ve still not seen much of that famous Geordie wit and hospitality, however, but in these temperatures, I suppose it's hardly surprising. I've been quite grumpy, too.

We ended up emerging into a charming market near the Monument. Every stall sold the most incredible looking food; each one originating from a different country. I chatted to Spanish, French, Dutch and Jamaican stallholders before the skies opened again and we were forced to run back into the Metro looking like snowmen.

We went to The Sage in Gateshead to talk to them about their involvement in the project. They are the BBC's official partners for this musical, but the meeting was distinctly underwhelming. When we first chatted to them, they seemed genuinely excited about the project, giving us lists and lists of their ensembles that they felt sure would love to get involved. Today's meeting was with a bloke who told us repeatedly how busy he was and that he couldn't promise a single one of their ensembles would want to get involved because their rehearsals might clash with ours! I do hope that our meeting at least semi-rekindled his interest in the project. The Sage is such an extraordinary building and it looked particularly wonderful today...


Back at the Radio Station, I took a call from a lady who wanted to know if she could use a photograph I’d taken of Derren Brown for a TV documentary about him, which was hugely flattering, particularly when she pointed out that Derren himself had requested the photo be used. They've also offered to pay for it, which is, of course, totally unnecessary, but a lovely bonus.

So, England will not be hosting the 2012 World Cup. It’s probably a controversial thing to say, but it would, no doubt, mean another huge chunk being taken out of Arts budgets, so I can't bring myself to feel too sad. It also means that there’s now the glimmer of hope that people might actually start producing art for other purposes than in association with sport. I’ve never understood why sport and the arts are lumped into the same governmental bracket. It strikes me they are more diametrically opposed than home and foreign affairs! Perhaps we finally have to acknowledge a) that England can’t play football, b) that the world doesn't care and c) that the England brand is at an all-time low. I long for the day when we can celebrate our beautiful country without feeling shame - or talking about football.

Sunday 2nd December 2010 was a Sunday and Pepys woke up with a crashing hangover; “My head not very well, and my body out of order by last night’s drinking, which is my great folly.” He ate a leg of mutton with his wife, but the sauce was too sweet, so he threw all of his dollies out of the pram and refused to eat anything but the bone marrow. I have no idea what bone marrow is in relation to a pig or a deer, or whatever mutton is, but it sounds absolutely disgusting.