Saturday, 31 December 2011

Once a Puritan

We're somewhere on the m11, heading from Huntington to Lewes. The car stereo is blaring out dance floor classics, I have a bag of wine gums and life is good. Bring on 2012. 

I'm looking forward to seeing the back of 2011 for so many reasons, and having just had lunch with Lisa,  Mark and Poppy, who lost George this year, I know I'm not the only one. It might be my take on things, but it feels like 2011 has been a very violent and unfair sort of year; a year where bad things have happened to many good people. My birthday was marred by the worst rioting seen in this country for a hundred years. People are poor, people are put upon, people are stressed and people have been ill. It feels like it's been a year for wicked people to rub their hands together in glee.

I guess it's been something of a year of consolidation for me. Matt Lucas always says that you alternate between years spent taking steps forward and years where you take stock of your achievements and polish your armour for the next defensive. I've won awards this year, written a Requiem, had a concert to celebrate fifteen years of writing, lined up jobs for 2012, and floated to the surface when I was expected to drown. Many people in my life have shown themselves to be extraordinarily loyal friends. I feel loved. I am healthy. Those around me are healthy. Maybe it's not been as bad a year as at times it's seemed! 

On the last day of 1661, Pepys and Elizabeth went back to Mr Savill, the painter, who put a few final touches to Elizabeth's portrait at Pepys' request. When they were done, Elizabeth's little black dog was plonked in her lap, and drawn, much to the merriment of everyone present. 

Pepys then went to his office to finish totting up the Navy's debts on behalf of the Duke of York. They came to a staggering 374,000l. 

After being trimmed by the barber, Pepys wrote up his journal, summing up the year, estimating he was worth 500l, moaning about the business of his Uncle's will, listing his servants, claiming to be in good health but for a slight cold, and so on... He vowed to spend 1662 searching for a wife for his brother, Tom, and vowed to be less of a spend thrift. His final resolution was to drink less and pay fewer visits to the theatre. Quite why the theatre was considered so morally reprehensible, I've no idea. Pepys loved plays. They made him happy... But once a Puritan, always a  puritan...

Friday, 30 December 2011


We're at Julie's house, watching the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's beautifully shot, but it's as dull as dishwater. In fact, it's duller than dishwater. We've actually just given up on it!

On the way here I did a terrible thing. It's been pissing it down all day. The roads are shining like glass, reflecting headlamps and neon lights and creating something of a blaze. As I drove along a road somewhere near Bermondsey, with misty, smeary windows and not a great sense of what was going on around me, I found myself hitting an enormous puddle. A massive wall of water surged from underneath the car and burst onto the pavement next to the road, just as someone was passing. Unfortunately that person was a) an old man b) a very old man c) a disabled, very old man d) a disabled, very old man, struggling his way down the street with the aid of two enormous sticks. According to Nathan, he got a drenching, and I am going straight to hell!

350 years ago, Pepys hosted a dinner at the Mitre Pub, to which twelve friends from his previous job at the department of the Exchequer had been invited. He shelled out for a good chine of beef, three barrels of oysters, three pullets and "plenty of wine." At the end of the mirth-filled dinner, Pepys made a "foolish promise" to do the same thing in twelve months' time. By the end of the day, however, he'd decided that it was definitely a promise he wasn't prepared to keep!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Man 'flu

At 2pm this afternoon, whilst Miss Marple was on the telly, I heard the sickening crack of my iPhone hitting our tiled kitchen floor. I’m now the proud owner of one of those rubbish iPods with a smashed screen that looks like it’s been dragged through a spider’s web at dawn. I've had to stick tape everywhere to prevent shards of glass cutting my ears to shreds every time I make a phone call. Frankly, I’m astonished it still works, but this iPhone has survived all sorts of falls, Frisbee incidents and immersions and doesn’t seem to want to give up the ghost at any cost. I immediately took the poor thing to the Orange shop in Crouch End and was told I'm just 11 days away from a free upgrade which means I can progress to a sparkling iPhone 4s, or something...

It would apparently cost me £50 to make what’s called an early upgrade, or, for the same amount, I could set the balls rolling on an insurance claim. I am (as I am with all the technology I possess) insured up to the hilt. The man in the shop, and the guy on the phone both agreed it was better for me to claim for insurance rather than opt for an early upgrade, because - and I was astonished to hear them both saying it - "you can flog it on the Internet when you get your free upgrade in 11 days time." Wow!

Anyway, here I am, trying to back up all my contacts, which is surprisingly difficult if your laptop is not made by Apple. Nathan is currently on the phone to Orange (what is this? A fruit salad?) stranded in the mother of all automated systems which apparently costs 5 pence per minute. For every extra second that he spends listening to a silly woman's voice, I feel less guilty about my plans to flog the iPhone as soon as they deliver it tomorrow!

350 years ago, Pepys found himself drafted in to sing with the choir at Westminster Abbey! It seems an almost impossible thing to imagine. He was musical – and had regular singing lessons – but I can’t imagine a passing singer being offered the same opportunity these days, however talented he was (and however many of the boys had gone down with man 'flu)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

It’s been a slow kind of day; rather typical for this time of year. We had a bit of a lie-in, and then got up, rather languidly, to do some work. Nathan sat in front of the television watching what seemed like an endless episode of Only Fools and Horses. I shivered at my keyboard in the loft, trying to come up with some melodies for the Hattersley project, constantly aware that the tunes I write need to be catchy enough for non-singers to remember, but dark and melancholy enough to fit the mood of the films I want to make. For my own sake, I need these films to be a real departure; very different to the celebratory pieces I've made in the past.
I worked sporadically, looking for any opportunity to down tools for an hour or so. I went for a run; up over the heath. It was like pushing a broken shopping trolley around a supermarket; heavy, listless and a bit comical. Still, I feel a great deal better for the exercise. After my run, I treated myself to a massage, which has left me very relaxed. I returned to find Nathan watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks and felt obliged to join him for old times’ sake. I must have watched that film at last once a year throughout my childhood. It goes on forever, however, and always leaves me with one question: Was Angela Lansbury ever actually young? Whilst we're on that subject, I think this little ode to the final “wacky” freeze-frames of Murder She Wrote is worth a gander. This is a comprehensive guide to fabulous ham acting.
The following picture was taken on Christmas Day at Nathan's house. When my Mum and Dad left the party, everyone gathered at the window to wave.

And here's the light that my father described as "Oswestry light"

Saturday 28th December, 1661 found Pepys in his office, summonsed there by the Duke of York, who wanted a speedy estimate of all of the outstanding debts of the Navy. He went home in the evening with Sir William Penn and his children – and they played cards until late.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Birthday wishes

We've been in Thaxted all day celebrating my mother's birthday with various Thaxtodian friends. It's been a very charming day, although my body is now officially screaming the word detox. I feel like a cream sponge soaked in chip fat. 

I cooked most of the afternoon. A soup for lunch (for much-needed vitamins) and a couple of quiches for the party in the evening (for a massive dairy overdose. I should have deep-fried the buggers whilst I was at it!) Nathan, meanwhile, sat in front of the open fire knitting socks. You'd struggle to find a more homosexual stereotype than the pair of us this afternoon. 

I also managed to rustle up a chocolate log. We've always had a tradition in our family of making a wish as we fold the flour and cocoa into the eggs and sugar. The rules are simple. It has to be a selfish wish. It's the one time in life you shouldn't feel obliged to ask for the happiness of someone else. This is when you get the chance to wish for a baby or money or a job! The success rate is freakishly high! 

...And so we enter the really bizarre part of the year when nothing really happens. Some poor sods return to work and sit miserably behind their desks, sweating Christmas pudding and dreaming of the January sales. The lucky ones, the ones who have been forced to take holiday, simply sleep and watch Busby Berkley films on BBC 2, contemplating visits to the gym and long walks which never materialise . Being a freelancer, I get to decide what I'm going to do. I suspect I need to knuckle down to some serious writing for the Hattersley piece, although, the way I'm feeling tonight, I think I'd sooner stick a pin in my belly to see whether I burst like a balloon. 

350 years ago Pepys spent the day looking for a decent thesaurus to donate to his old school, St Paul's. Imagine attending the school that Samuel Pepys went to? That said, they probably take him a bit for granted.  I'm sure St Paul's school has a list of famous alumni as long as your arm; like the Brit School, only Nobel Prize-winning. The Ferrers School in Higham Ferrers (which is where I went) is famous for nothing and nobody.  I find it sad that I'm  regularly asked back to York University to talk about my career... And, in fact, to schools across the country to try to encourage kids that it's okay to dream about careers in the arts. But I've never once been even approached by my old school, which, ironically, now claims to specialise in the arts! 

Monday, 26 December 2011

Cake coma

We're speeding across the Midlands  from Wales to my parents' house in Thaxted.

We stayed the night at Nathan's sister's last night and I insisted on sleeping with the window open to hear the noise of the wind buffeting the trees in the fields outside. It was such a romantic sound, which made me feel very safe and warm. The room we were sleeping in had an enormous window and we could see the stars from the bed. I almost didn't want to go to sleep, I was enjoying the experience so much.

By the time we'd had breakfast this morning it was past noon, and none of us could work out where the time had gone. We were on the road by  one o'clock. 

We stopped off at Fiona's parents' in Northampton and laughed a lot at their fancy leather sofas which reclined at the push of a button. We ate mince pies, cheese and Roses chocolates. I have no will power. Even when I'm full up, there's always something tastier to sample. I can feel my arteries slowly clogging up, and my body screaming for low fat foods. When we arrived, Fiona's partner, Paul was entering a cake-induced coma, which lasted for about half an hour. For the next few days I want nothing but soup to pass through my body. 

Brother Edward returns from Germany this evening and I'm very much looking forward to seeing him back at Till Towers in time for M's birthday tomorrow. 

Boxing Day, 1661, was a proper day of celebration. It couldn't have been more different in that respect from the muted shades of the day before. Pepys worked in the morning and then went for a walk with Sir William Penn and his son (the founder of Pennsylvania) in Moorfields. The weather was foul, so they headed to the nearest tavern for cake and ale. When they were stuffed to the gills, Pepys invited his servant boy, Wayneman, to eat the crumbs and was horrified when the poor boy, obviously misunderstanding the offer, ordered himself a couple of fresh cakes from the bar. I'd have thought Pepys might have let him off. It was Christmas, after all, but he resolved to tell him off at a later point. 

Whilst in the pub they played cards, ate turkey and we treated to some wassailing (or washeallbowle1ing). Now that sounds like a good old-fashioned 17th Century Christmas to me! 

"Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green..."

Sunday, 25 December 2011


It's Christmas - and we're all in a little village called Penley in Wales doing a big quiz. Penley is where Nathan's sister lives. It's been a right-on, rather modern Christmas. Nathan's family and my parents sat down to a lovely Christmas meal together, just after we'd conference-called my brother, who's in Germany with his partner and his family. 

We did a lot of singing around the piano. Nathan's lot are big singers and at every opportunity we burst into multi-part harmony. 

The sunset this evening was extraordinary and included every colour from black into brown into orange into salmon pink into yellow into white into blue. My father described it as an "Oswestry" sky, after the town down the road where I was born. I guess the position of the Welsh mountains might have an effect on the way that clouds bubble up and the sun sinks in these parts.

Talking to my brother a couple of thousand miles away in Germany was slightly unsettling. It's the first Christmas I've spent away from him and I think my mother also found the experience of talking to him on a camera phone rather moving. 

We went to Midnight Mass last night in a church right on the edge of a windy Shropshire moor. The place looked so pretty with warm, yellow lights pouring into the darkness from out of the stained-glass windows.

Christmas day, 1661 wasn't a hugely exciting day for Pepys, in fact, he spent much of it on his own, having fallen out with his wife for burning the meat at lunchtime. No parties. No presents. No mention of Christmas. Just a bitter row. What's going on?!!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Stuffing my face

Christmas Eve, and we appear to be somewhere in Wales, Wrecsam to be precise, which is pretty much the town that my Nana Miriam was from. It's also within spitting distance of the place where I was born, but tonight we're here as part of Nathan's family's Christmas celebrations, which always include a Christmas Eve visit to Pizza Hut.

I didn't know it was possible to cram as much food into my face as I've managed to cram in during the last couple of hours. I feel quite ashamed, and am quite sure I must resemble a pizza by now. Nathan might have to roll me out of the car when we reach his mother's. We're singing Christmas carols on the way home, and I'm singing as loudly as I can in the hope it might make me lose some weight!

I was pimped into dressing up as Santa Claus earlier on to deliver presents to some of the children on the estate where Celia and Ron live. Obviously I made a big song and dance about how uncomfortable I felt with a pillow sellotaped to my stomach, but after the initial embarrassment wore off, I quite enjoyed the experience. It is rather sweet to see how children respond to a man dressed as Father Christmas; however crudely! I secretly wished I was in a green Santa suit, however, rather than a walking advertisement for Coca Cola!

We went to Shrewsbury this morning, which is a terribly charming market town and a lovely place to shop. Part of me wishes I'd left all my shopping til the last minute, because I could have bought some lovely things today. It's a nick-nacky sort of place. The river looked particularly swollen today, which is strange because I didn't think they'd had a huge amount of rain up here recently. I think it's obviously a town which is very used to flooding, but the big question, of course, is whether to say Shrovesbury or Shrewsbury. I've always said the latter, but is that because I was born in the county or because I've been corrupted by too many years living away?

December 24th 1661 generated the dullest entry ever from Mr Pepys. He stayed at home, then went to work and that was it...

Friday, 23 December 2011

Mother Goose

We're joining the M6 somewhere north of Coventry,  in the vicinity of Nuneaton. It's a proper nostalgia-fest for me, as I have strong childhood memories of travelling from Cov to Nunny; from one set of grandparents to another. 

We used to go along the Foleshill Road, which had a phenomenal number of traffic lights on it. If we caught the first on red, we'd be scuppered for the entire length of the road but if the first was green, we'd sail down it like a pleasure cruiser on the Nile! I can hear my father now, slamming his hands on the dashboard if it was red...

The Foleshill Road was a very Asian area. I remember being intrigued and a bit frightened as a child; a fear that wasn't helped by my Grandparents' slightly less than enlightened views on the subject. The game we were always encouraged to play as as we drove along was called "count the white people."

There were a lot of chip shops in the area as well. My Grannie would drive for miles looking for a chippie with a queue outside because it meant they were being freshly fried. I remember thinking it was really cool that my Grannie ate chips. Being the child of a CND supporter, who preferred to cook with wheat germ and carob, chips were always something of a forbidden fruit! 

We went to see Grannie's grave and I was horrified to find there were no flowers on it, not even plastic ones. I should have thought to take some with me, but the weather was foul and we were pushed for time. Entering Stoneleigh (which is where she lived) felt very natural. We went there every Christmas of my childhood. We were listening to ABBA as we turned right at the hunting lodge and dipped down into the village. I could have been ten years old all over again.

We're on our way to Shropshire for Christmas and stopped off in Coventry to see Mother  Goose at the Belgrade theatre. Our friend Ian was playing the evil king, and he did it beautifully. I'm gonna hold my hands up and admit to getting a little teary-eyed when, during the obligatory UV lighting sequence, Mother Goose flew  through the sky on an enormous goose. I thought how amazing and magical it must have looked to the kids in the audience. I over heard one in the interval asking her mother if the fairy was ACTUALLY magical! Oh to be young again! We all need more magic in our lives...

A busy day for Pepys 350 years ago which saw him up before the sun to call in at the Lord Privy Seal's private residence in Chelsea. He needed some last minute emergency signatures before LPS vanished into the country for Christmas. 

In the early evening, Pepys went for a quick browse in the bookshops in St Paul's churchyard. It was here that he met, by chance, one Mr Crumlum (fabulous name), who was with the second master of St Paul's school, Pepys' former school. The three men went to a tavern and had a lovely evening, which ended with Pepys bequeathing 5l to the school to be spent on books "of their choosing."

Thursday, 22 December 2011


I’m multi-tasking like a crazy thing. I’m doing five minutes of tidying, whilst thinking of lyrics for the Hattersley piece, before washing the floor, before sending emails to recording studios, before sitting down with interview transcripts and thinking of more lyrics, before sending text messages to Paul in Manchester to find out if elderly Mancunians use the word “grand” in the same way as Yorkshire folk. I’m on fire! (Incidentally Paul maintains that the word “sound” is more appropriate than "grand", but if anyone reading this has any thoughts, then please add a comment...)
I worked in the cafe all morning, trying to whip the Hattersley songs into shape. I now have a rough framework. I know what needs to be said, and am debating leaving quite a lot of the lines verbatim – simply setting exactly what was said in interview to music. It means there won’t be any rhymes, but I’m not sure that matters. It’s much more authentic. Besides, Kate Bush very rarely rhymes her lyrics.
We’re off to the Midlands tomorrow for Christmas, which explains the cleaning frenzy. I want to have the house looking decent before Nathan gets back from work, but there’s also that hideous sense that the world will stop if things aren’t sorted before the big day. You try to meet friends for a pre-Yuletide drink. You leave your house nice and tidy. You deal with every last piece of admin in your inbox. In my world, if it’s not sorted before Christmas, nothing will happen before the end of January. People who work in telly must really cane it at the New Year. They don’t even return to their offices until about the 10th!

I had lunch with Fiona and Paul today who are back from Prague, where it apparently snowed “filmically”. I am obviously very jealous. I would absolutely love a holiday.

In the last ten minutes I swept through the bathroom and cleaned the sink and the bath before sticking my hand all the way down the pan of the loo. I feel rather proud of myself for doing that... I’m hardcore. I didn’t even use a rubber glove. I don’t like rubber gloves. They’re weirdly kinky.  

We have a record company interested in releasing the Requiem should we find the funds to get it recorded. They’re well-respected and I would be more than happy to go with them. Gone are the days when record companies would hand over ridiculous sums of money to make albums. Even the big companies are not prepared to take a risk, so the model these days is that you have to record it first and then find the company who will release it. I guess it’s similar to film in that respect – and it allows a creative person a great deal more control. Anyway, I’ve done a costing – and come up with a figure of £20K (over half of which would be used to pay musicians and singers.) It sounds like a lot of money, because it IS a lot of money – but when you consider that there are shows in the West End which need to take £200,000 per week in ticket sales just to break even, then the figure suddenly seems rather reasonable. The joy with a recording is that it never goes away. It could suddenly chart in ten years' time.

This project isn’t about hand-outs, however, it’s about investment, so I will come up with a plan early in the New Year and start ruthlessly searching for wealthy people with a few extra pounds in this hideous financial climate. If the same number of people brought the London Requiem as bought the DVD of A Symphony For Yorkshire, we’d make a profit, which is a comforting thought.

350 years ago, and Pepys was picking arguments with his wife again; “home to dinner, and there I took occasion, from the blacknesse of the meat as it came out of the pot, to fall out with my wife and my maid for their sluttery, and so left the table, and went up to read.”

I think Pepys probably soon regretted his grumpy outburst, for later on, when he and Elizabeth went to church, they found themselves joined in their posh gallery pew by Captain Robert Holmes in his “gold-laced suit”. Pepys was wary of Holmes because of some “old business” involving Elizabeth, which obviously dated to the time before the diary. One assumes it was some kind of sexual advance, which is why Pepys was so intimidated by the man appearing in his fancy suit, just after he’d given his wife a million and one reasons to be unhappy!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Lord Privy Seal

I’ve only managed about half a day’s work each day this week. Something Christmas-related always draws me away from my favourite seat in the cafe. Today it was the need to do some last-minute shopping. We’re off to Nathan’s family this year, which means a whole host of extra little presents; some for people I’ve not yet had a chance to meet. It was only last night that I consolidated everything I'd bought so far, and realised, to my horror, that I’d brought some people two presents, and others nothing at all. It’s a freekin’ mine-field, this yuletide business!
Still, Christmas cheer had definitely descended on Muswell Hill this afternoon. Strangers were chatting to each other in the queues, swapping ideas for gifts, and trade secrets regarding where to find said gifts. One woman was determined to help me find a photo frame, even though I wasn’t looking for one, and if I had been, certainly wouldn’t have entertained the thought of a Winter Wonderland-inspired three-dimensional horror. "Lovely for the kids," she said. Surely a photo frame is the last thing a child would want for Christmas? Surely buying anyone a Christmas-inspired anything for Christmas is a very silly idea? By the time Christmas rolls around next year, it will be buried in the bottom of a drawer, entirely forgotten.
I've been doing some work on my Golden Jubilee commission for the Fleet Singers; a choir who rehearse in Gospel Oak. We’ve asked them all to submit two memories from two different decades – in about 200 words. The memories can be anything; from something deeply personal; a thought, a conversation, a moment in time – to something which documents a major event; 7/7, the eclipse, the ‘89 storms, the Silver Jubilee. There are some wonderful submissions – which will, I’m sure, inspire me greatly.

Pepys went to the Privy Seal office, 350 years ago, to be told that no more signatures would be granted this month. Sir John Robartes, Lord Privvy Seal, was spending Christmas 30 miles out of town. Pepys was secretly pleased, though worried that the King might decide to send him after him to get an important document signed.
The Lord Privy Seal is often used in documentary making terms as a warning not to do too much visual word-painting. If, for example, a person being interviewed mentions that they enjoy gardening, an inexperienced director or editor might show a cutaway of a garden – despite the fact that we all know what a garden looks like. It’s called Lord Privy Sealing after the apocryphal tale of a young researcher who was told to go away and find pictures of Lord Privy Seal. He returned with photographs of Lord Lloyd Weber, a toilet seat and an elephant seal!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


I decided to go for a run tonight. I went up to Kenwood House, and then down through Hampstead Garden Suburb. As I was approaching the A1, I came upon two women with an Alsatian dog ambling across a little area of dimly lit grass. I was slightly annoyed that the women didn’t try to bring the dog in line as I jogged past. I hate running past dogs. They often bark, or jump up, and I often find myself plagued by childhood memories of our nutty miniature long-haired dachshund, Sally, who used to bite the ankles of joggers in parks.
I decided to cross the busy A1 at the traffic lights by the garage where the road forks up to East Finchley. As I jogged on the spot, waiting for the lights to change, dancing slightly to “Moves Like Jagger” on my iPod, the women and the dog drew level with me. There was a lull in the traffic. I saw my opportunity and darted across the road.
The next thing I heard was a sickening thump and a scream. I turned round, thinking that one of the girls had stepped out in front of a passing vehicle, but saw instead the pitiful sight of the Alsatian howling by the side of a car which had screeched to a halt. I’ve never heard screams from a dog like that. He was in terrible distress. The two girls were in shock. One of them was standing on a little wall with her hands over her ears. She stayed like that for 2 minutes. The other simply ran away not knowing what to do.

The dog got up and ran – still yelping – towards more cars, which were playing dodge ball with him in the middle of the busy road. Fortunately, a sensible woman pulled over and ushered the dog towards her. The poor creature’s back legs weren’t looking too good, but he’d at least stopped crying.
Another woman appeared. “I’m from Dogs Matter” she said. It seemed very strange that she would appear at the scene of an accident so promptly, until I followed her pointing finger, and saw that there was, rather handily, a shop called “Dogs Matter” on the other side of the dual carriageway.

It transpired that neither of the two young women who had been with the dog had anything to do with him. They’d thought he was with me. The owner was nowhere to be found. The sensible woman carried the dog into the back of her car, and they drove off to find a vet, which left me to deal with the driver of the car who’d hit the dog and was in terrible shock. The poor woman had been completely ignored whilst everyone rushed around trying to deal with the dog, which had done a fair amount of damage to the front of her car. Little bits of bumper and headlight were strewn across the road, being smashed into ever smaller pieces by the passing traffic. I went over to her; “there was nothing you could have done, you know that don’t you?” She nodded, “and the dog looked like he was going to be okay” I said. She nodded hopefully. We went to have a look at the damage to her car and I gave her my phone number for insurance purposes.
She said she didn’t have far to travel, so I suggested she get herself a nice cup of tea, and sat down as soon as she got to where she was going. It’s weird when you’re out jogging with no phone or wallet. I felt rather helpless.

I hope the dog’s okay. I really do. And I hope there’s a reason other than neglect that it was wandering by the side of a busy road without its owners. I also hope that the woman who hit him is okay. That is not a nice thing to happen to anyone, but she seemed particularly kind, and terribly fragile.
350 years ago, Pepys had a lie-in before heading to a tavern with his bessie mate Henry Moore and a gentleman by the name of Mr Swan, who bored Pepys to death with his “old simple religious talk.” The “coxcomb” said he was going to write a book entitled “The unlawfull use of lawfull things” which Pepys thought was utterly pathetic. It was a dark night, so on the way home, the men were forced onto the relatively well-lit Cornhill. One assumes the back alleys would have been a haven for a) potential accidents and b) pick-pockets.

Monday, 19 December 2011


I’ve spent the day transcribing some of the interviews we did in Hattersley. There’s a lot of them –which means a lot of words. I hate the process – not only because I’m not the fastest typist in the world, but because listening to the interviews involves listening to myself interviewing people. I drone on in a monotone, slightly lisping, patronising voice - getting through half a question, and then changing my mind. I can’t imagine why anyone would bother to listen to any of the questions I ask!
It’s this stage during any project that scares me the most. It’s a very slow process of pulling stories together and finding the conversational sound bite that will trigger a decent lyric. I feel like I’ve been in a box all day, plugged into my computer, Mancunian voices bouncing around my brain like a metal marble in a pin ball machine. I haven’t really spoken to anyone all day, which means when Nathan returns from work I’ll be taciturn, which might upset him.

I went to the gym earlier on. I’ve been pigging out on all sorts of unsavoury food stuffs for the past month and can feel unsaturated fat limping through my veins. I very much need to get the blood flowing properly again. The experience of running on the treadmill felt worryingly unfamiliar – and I got a bit anxious at one point. Absolutely proof positive that, in the words of Olivia Newton John, “I better shape up.”

350 years ago, Pepys’ wife dressed herself up to go to the christening of Elizabeth Hunt’s child. In the interests of killing two birds with one stone, she was ushered to Mr Savill, the painter’s studio, for a lengthy portrait sitting. It was whilst they were at the Mr Savill’s, that Pepys’ boy, Wayneman, arrived to pass on the news that the christening had been postponed for a week. Pepys and Elizabeth returned home but "in the way I took occasion to fall out with my wife very highly about her ribbands being ill matched and of two colours, and to very high words, so that, like a passionate fool, I did call her whore, for which I was afterwards sorry...
I’m not surprised. What a ridiculous argument to have picked!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fourth advent

It's the fourth Advent, and we've been with Brother Edward and Sascha at Till Towers in Thaxted. When I was young, the four advents - or four Sundays before Christmas - were always something that we marked. On the morning of the first advent, we'd go for a long walk across the misty fields to find holly, fern, berries and ivy to use as the basis for an advent crown. All manner of green stuff got ripped from hedgerows and gardens across Higham Ferrers and mounted in oasis alongside four proud red candles. It was one of the most exciting routines that we had as kids. It signified that Christmas was very nearly with us... After making the crown, we'd light one of the candles and leave it burning whilst we ate our roast dinner - a nut roast for me and my Mum - on a table which had been set up specially in front of the open fire in the sitting room. On the second advent we'd light the first candle again alongside a second one, and so on, until the last advent meal when Edward and I would battle over who got to light all four candles for the first time. We'd then go to a carol concert and sing songs about a bloke called Jesus who shared my mate Stephen's birthday.

Brother Edward is spending Christmas this year with Sascha's family in the Black Forest. It'll be the first time in our lives that we'll be apart on the day, so today was our alternative Christmas. We exchanged presents. I got a lot of delicious chocolate and an amazing Poole pottery plate.

We had a little stroll around the town and saw some brilliant houses which were lit up like space ships with hundreds of waving elves, flashing stars and nodding reindeer.

On the way home, we paid our annual homage to the ultimate Christmas House; so ultimate, in fact, that it's known amongst my friends simply as The Christmas House. Its owners activate the lights on December 1st, and they delight passers-by for a full month. They encourage visitors to pull up outside, pop in and wonder around a courtyard filled with thousands of tiny twinkling lights and hundreds of projections of angels, snowmen and semi-religious-looking Santas. Christmas music is piped out of speakers. A full nativity scene rests on an ornamental fish pond. It's gone beyond ghastly and tawdry into an epic world of great beauty. Children stand and stare at every corner with open mouths; the absolute magic reflecting in their eyes.

It's times like this that I remember the true meaning of Christmas, namely the joy of sparkling lights and the effect that beautiful shiny things, and buckets of snow and wonderful mythical stories, have on a child's imagination. The whole Mary and Joseph story can be used to trigger all sorts of interesting paintings and songs.

350 years ago, Pepys spent much of the day at The Wardrobe, the official residence of his patron, Lord Sandwich, who was still in Portugal. Pepys felt responsible for looking after Lady Jemima Sandwich whilst her husband was over seas, and she became increasingly dependent on his help. In later years, when the Sandwich star began to descend, she would even borrow money from him to see her through leaner times.

The Christmas House

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Poor Zeneb

We're at Julie's house, watching the final of Strictly Come Dancing and feeling incredibly  pleased that Harry won. It's been a somewhat eventful day, which started with pie and mash in Camden. 

We went to Julie's house via Central London and had an afternoon of craft and cake whilst listening to manic oboe music. 

We were joined by Jess, who was knitting a very complicated jumper, and Julie's cleaner, Zeneb, who was knitting a tiny pair of booties and speaking to everyone in German.

Zeneb left the room at one point and, as she went down the stairs, I heard a muffled rattle, followed by a couple of coughs and a sigh, which were barely louder than the tapping of knitting needles in the room.

About a minute later we heard Zeneb's voice; "Julie! Hilfe! Hilfe" 

I rushed out of the room and found Zeneb in a little heap half way down the stairs, whimpering like an animal trapped in a snare. It was a very upsetting sight. She'd obviously had a very nasty fall and was in a great amount of pain. 

For the next hour, Julie and Sam held her hand as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. We were told not to move her or give her pain killers until the medics arrived. Sadly, they couldn't prioritise her, because she was conscious, so the wait was excruciating. 

When they finally arrived, she was given laughing gas (a slightly comic sound) and carted off to hospital. Julie went with her. Six hours later, we discovered that she'd badly torn the ligaments in her knee and been sent home with two paracetamol and a pair of crutches. Poor woman! 

Julie's Christmas tree has real candles on it, which is such a treat. I've felt Christmassy for the first time this year, despite the terrible drama. 

350 years ago, Pepys went to Mr Savill the painter to see how his portrait was progressing. He then trundled off to the Privy Seal office where he was kept waiting for hours, much to his chagrin. 

Friday, 16 December 2011


On the tube today, I sat next to a woman who was writing the most brilliantly vitriolic text message, which included a liberal smattering of the c word, alongside various threats of violence and a few cries of "pity me!" I tried not to look, but it was all too delicious! I was sort of hoping that she'd reach her destination and decide not to send the text, but the look of defiance on her face told me it was a done deal!  Happy Christmas! 

The tubes in London are full of very strange people at the moment. Christmas time has arrived. During the day, thousands of over-excited school children scream and wave and run around, and in the evenings it's people dressed up to the nines, pissed out of their skulls, barely functioning and destroying the lovely clothes that made them look so sharp and sophisticated at the start of the evening. Yesterday, as I tried to rush from the Central line to the Northern line at Tottenham Court Road, I came across a group of girls trying to negotiate a small flight of stairs. It was not pretty. There were broken stilettos, patches of mascara and clasp handbags spilling tampons all over the place. One girl had decided it was all too much and was lying horizontally along a step. It took me 3 minutes to negotiate the obstacle, during which time not a single one of them seemed to notice me or realise I was trying to pass. 

Last night's autocue gig was hideous! There was a technical problem which meant I couldn't actually hear Matt. I could hear his echo and could lip-read him on a monitor, but nothing else. I kept going too slowly. I think he thought I'd got myself drunk in the break! We had to keep re-doing links and I felt terribly guilty. 

This afternoon I did a corporate drumming gig for the wonderful Drum Pulse at the Truman Brewery in the East End. It was great fun, although hauling 70 large drums up several flights of stairs brought on a few little whoops. When on earth will I finally shake this blooming' illness? 

350 years ago, and Pepys was up at 5am by candlelight. He went to Chelsea to do some work with or at the Privy Seal before returning to London where he went to the theatre.  
The Cutter of Coleman Street was a premier, which meant tickets were double the price. To save money, Pepys and Elizabeth sat in the gallery - and were pleasantly surprised by the view. 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Dai bach

I'm still giggling about the brilliantly tragic computer-automated message  triggered by the word "taxi" on my last blog. 

I'm eating a pot of leek and potato soup in the break before we shoot the last in the series of The Matt Lucas Awards. It's been a very tiring rehearsal, but the extraordinarily high calibre guests would wake even the most tired man up! We're fortunate enough to have David Baddiel, Ruth Jones and Griff Rhys Jones. With Harry Seacombe's daughter, Katie in the show, it's an all-Welsh affair. I learnt today that Baddiel's father is actually Welsh. Welsh AND Jewish; the best combination. They're actually singing a folk song in the show which includes the words "Dai Bach", a name I remember my Nan once calling me in the days I decided my Welsh heritage was more important than my Biblical name! 

Matt sent me a lovely card and some champagne to thank me for doing the autocue. He is the nicest man in show business and a very generous friend. 

I'm secretly rather loving this job. All those months of living on the absolute breadline this year, I'd forgotten that autocue is actually a job I'm quite good at. Maybe I don't need to enter the police force after all! 

I can guarantee this is the last time I'll ever set foot in BBC TV centre, which is a rather sad thought. If I hadn't been booked for a last-minute drumming gig tomorrow, I'd consider having a little drink!

The 15th December, 1661 was a Sunday, and Pepys went to church twice. He retired to his chamber all alone and read until bedtime. Yet again, Elizabeth was rowing with the servants. Pepys' description of the business is written in such colourful 17th Century language, it's worth quoting in full...

"I have been troubled this day about a difference between my wife and her maid Nell, who is a simple slut, and I am afeard we shall find her a cross-grained wench."

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


I got a letter this morning from the Inland Revenue reminding me that I'll need to pay about £4,500 in tax at the end of January. 

It seems my earnings for 2009/10 went above a certain threshold, which means I have to start paying my tax in advance again - in effect, a double payment, which I'm going to struggle to find. I think it's utterly ridiculous to expect a creative person, whose earnings fluctuate, to pay his or her taxes in advance based on his or her's previous year's salary! This approach surely only works if a person's earnings are remotely consistent. And it's not just the tax system which doesn't work for freelancers. We also struggle to get mortgages and pensions because it's apparently invalid to live a life of feast or famine...

Here's a conundrum. The money I was forced to pay back to the Lincolnshire Soul Sisters was money I'd already paid tax on. My earnings for 2008/9 were actually two thousand pounds lower than the figure on which my tax was calculated. One assumes I can expect a rebate on the tax I paid that year, and that the tax burden for this amount now rests with the Choir Invisible instead? 

Fiona and I went to the markets in Camden today. It was freezing cold, but the experience of shopping on a week day in the run up to Christmas  is considerably less painful than the hell of a Saturday afternoon in the Arndale Centre! 

We even managed a spot of lunch, which would have been very bourgeois, had I not been scoffing a slightly mangy veggie burger (sold to me by an ageing hippy) whilst Fiona chowed down on pie and mash. She said it was so delicious it had made her week. Or should that be "made her weak"?

I like the markets at Camden. A seemingly endless warren of corridors and passages, all smelling of frankincense and Thai noodles whilst selling anything you could ever imagine recycling, or crafting or knitting or sculpting. We even found old-fashioned tapes, turned into necklaces. Camden market really has maintained a sense of true independence and nutty Bohemianism,  whilst everywhere else in London, these sorts of places have sold out, raised  their rents and become the exclusive stomping grounds for chi-chi furniture shops, cafe Pauls  and "too-cool-for-school" designer brands. Take Spitalfields for example, or Hoxton... Or the King's Road.  

I've just been to meet a record producer in Kennington. We talked about music for the Hattersley project and I like him very much. He's top notch and I think he's going to bring something highly unique to the table which could well force me to raise my game big time. We met a number of his colleagues in a pub who included the most astonishing bundle of energy I've ever encountered. He appeared from nowhere, clutching a pint of beer and delivered a 32 minute monologue about microphones and sonic waves without pausing for breath. I listened intently, desperately trying to learn something from the experience, but couldn't understand a word of what he was saying! Not one word! 

350 years ago, and Pepys had a long lie-in with his wife, something he confessed to having done more and more of late. Perhaps it was the cold weather. Perhaps he was simply getting lazy! 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Shit sandwiches

I left the hotel room for the last time this morning and did an obligatory “whally check” as I left. I think there’s something very wrong with the way I process visual information, however, because as I faffed about at reception, attempting to check out, a cleaner came rushing up to me with my camera. My camera is not a small thing. Heaven knows how I missed it as I glanced around the room thinking; “must make sure I don’t leave anything important behind.” The last time I stayed in an hotel, I left my shoes behind. I’m sure Freud would have a field day on me...
Today the sun shone across Manchester and the sky was a brilliant blue. We decided not to go to Hattersley. We’ve already found our five protagonists, and most of the groups that we’d planned to visit were either taking a break for Christmas or had been cancelled. We went instead to Salford Quays to create a buzz about our project amongst the good people of BBC Manchester.
The new BBC building will never cease to delight me. It’s incredibly well thought-through, highly practical and very pleasing to the eye. We had a long chat over lunch with someone from the National Union of Journalists who had been handing out fliers. She asked if I was a member, so I proudly flashed my Musician’s Union card at her. She looked suitably impressed, and said that she liked the MU because members of the BBC Phil had been helping her with the NUJ’s ongoing battle for better pensions.

I think our visit ticked all the right boxes. We thrashed out a very detailed timescale for the rest of the project and got a number of people excited about what we’re doing. There is, after all, no point in making a beautiful film if the people with the power to “talk it up” don’t know it exists.
Nathan just 'phoned to tell me that all the box office staff in the theatre he’s working in received a lovely Christmas card from the producers of the show they're currently selling. They were all terribly touched. It was a lovely card, with a picture of the theatre on it covered in snow, and a lovely message printed inside. The gesture instantly became the mother of all shit sandwiches, however, when they discovered that the cards had come from a stack, wrapped in an elastic band, with a post-it note attached to the top which simply read; “casual staff – card only.” What a way to make your staff feel really special – and then immediately dispensable! I love the concept of a shit sandwich; a shocking insult delivered with a charming smile, a kiss from a person with smelly breath, a commission from a choir in Lincolnshire...

The train I’m on is delayed in the station; 25 minutes and counting. To make matters worse they’re now allowing people on board who would have caught the next train, which means it’s becoming more and more crowded. It’s also incredibly hot.
Friday 13th December, 1661, and Pepys stayed at home all morning. The recent spell of freezing weather had caused considerable pains in his bladder. In the afternoon, he accompanied Elizabeth to Mr Savill the painter’s, and watched as the “dead colour,” or first layer of paint, was applied to a pencil outline. He thought the result was rather fine, although seemed to be much more interested in a “pretty lady’s picture" hanging elsewhere, "whose face did please me extremely.” Typical Sam. Lusting over a painting. Whatever next? Embroidery porn?

Monday, 12 December 2011

4 baubles

I was up with the lark this morning, walking along the Archway Road as the blinding orange winter sun rose above the dark terraces. I don’t remember a great deal about my journey to Manchester. I had a cup of tea. I sat in a window seat, and then I was asleep. I slept all the way; my head lolling around and periodically bashing against the window. I finally woke up somewhere in the Peak District, which looked particularly magical in the misty early morning sunlight.
I got off one train and onto another – this one to Hattersley, which looked a whole lot more attractive against a back drop of blue sky; the hills behind, a patchwork of yellows and browns. I now begin to understand what it was that brought the inner city people here.

We met a local poet called Terry; a real livewire, who introduced us to his unique world. We went to the housing offices with him, to the supermarket, to his house, met about 600 people who he seemed to know, and went through his books of extraordinary poems.

The ladies at the community centre gave us a tour of their very special building, which is like a Tardis. Behind every door is another wing. There are changing rooms, classrooms, kitchens, bar rooms. There was even a room they used as a police station at one point. These days, everything is crumbling. The ceiling tiles are broken. The heating doesn’t work. Various doors, that would have been open to everyone are now kept locked. For the past 7 years, the authorities have been trying to close the centre down and replace it with a private building (no longer council-run), across a busy road, on the outskirts of the estate. This building, once the venue for weddings and fabulous New Years Eve parties, is soon to be no more. I have grave worries that the building that replaces it won’t be run by the community anymore. I worry that no one in the community will be able to afford the facilities.

Today, a group of pensioners were playing bowls on an enormous green baize carpet, which they rolled out and carefully hoovered before using. I just can’t imagine them being allowed to do something like this in another space, and that makes me feel very sad.
I bought 4 baubles from the table as a memory of my first period of time on the estate. They wanted 40p. I gave them a pound.
I came back into Manchester this evening and went out with Brother Tim and John; a couple of drinks sandwiching a very nice Italian meal, which John kindly paid for. We talked about politics. Both of them are horrified by Cameron’s recent behaviour in Europe. I’ve given up even caring about politics because I know there’s no point.

350 years ago, Pepys dined with Lady Sandwich and was worried to see a “strange gentlewoman” dining with them at the table as Lady Sandwich’s servant. Pepys assumed that this meant that the usual serving “Madamoiselle” had been dispatched, but he later learned that this wasn’t the case.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Autocue village

We left Brother Edward's rather late last night and because I had a crumblingly early start, I didn't really get that much sleep. 

I'm currently at the BBC, sitting in autocue village in a ten minute oasis of tranquility before the mayhem kicks in and we record Matt's show. 

I rather like the calm you always get before the storm of a well-organised recording. Everyone goes on a break at the same time, and silence descends. I even have the time to write this blog whilst pulling pieces of roquette out of my sandwich. Roquette, in my opinion, is the scourge of all vegetarian cuisine. No veggie dish seems complete these days without a mountain of the stuff obliterating all the nice flavours with its bitter after taste. 

Today's rehearsal went well, although it was utterly exhausting towards the end; a combination of my being knackered and Matt making a lot of last minute changes to the script. The last hour turned out to be one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I've ever had. I was making notes with my left hand and spooling through the script with my right, whilst operating a talk back system with my chin! The moment there was a pause in the script, I was double checking things I'd been forced to type at freakish speeds seconds before. I deserve every minute of this break! It's a shame I couldn't find anything more interesting to eat than this blessed tasteless, soggy BBC canteen sandwich. I did want soup, but it was carrot and coriander flavoured, and smelt, like coriander always does, of baby sick, soap and phlegm. 

350 years ago, Pepys was a very busy man. He was invited to a dinner, and turned up to find no one there who he recognised, so went home in a bit of a strop, feeling horribly hungry

He went to a pub with Sir William Penn after a walk in the freezing air at Moorfields, and ate a plate of cheese and bread, before calling in on the other Sir William, who was absent, but his daughter fed him the spoils of last night's dinner, which were apparently fabulous! 

Saturday, 10 December 2011


I had a bit of a strange turn last night. I was exhausted, but felt that, because it was a Friday night and I was in Manchester, I ought to go out. I made my way down to the hotel foyer but immediately began to feel agoraphobic. I sometimes get like that when I’ve spent a long period of time away from my close circle of friends and family. I could hear the hotel bar teeming with people, all screaming their heads off. A cover version of that terrible Shakin Steven’s Christmas song was playing. There’s only one thing worse than a bad Christmas song, and that’s a cheap cover version of a bad Christmas song. I started to panic, went to the reception, and immediately ordered room service. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve needed to order room service. It felt decadent and unnecessary, but I just wanted to hide.

This morning I was awoken by the sound of guests shouting at each other and slamming doors through the paper thin walls of the Days Hotel. I switched the television on, and watched in disbelief as the sports presenter on BBC Breakfast was asked to demonstrate an adult baby-grow. It wasn’t funny. It was emasculating and silly. I now know how my Grandad felt when he tried to stop us from watching playschool because there were men playing with dolls!
After a while, and seeing that there was a smudge of blue sky outside the window, I got dressed and took myself to the Arndale Centre, which is a dreadful, dreadful place! I was searching for a bowl of porridge for breakfast, but ended up having to make do with a Greg’s pasty. As soon as I’d entered the shopping centre, I knew I’d made a horrid mistake. The artificial lighting, the shiny decorations, the Santa hats, the nasty music, the ever-growing hoards of people. Within five minutes, I was in a panic, running about in ever-decreasing circles in an attempt to find the way out, which I reached just as the heavens opened and engulfed Manchester in another terrible hail storm. Hopeless.

I did, however, manage to buy myself a pair of shoes and a winter coat before the panic set in. I’ve started to grow weary of people telling me I look like a tramp, and thought I needed something that might make me look smart for a change.
I had lunch on Canal Street in the most deserted-looking pub I could find. I ordered a cranberry juice and was astonished to find it cost £2.15, and even more astonished to hand over £3 and get no change. “You haven’t given me change,” I said to the sour-faced Lesbian with a man’s voice behind the bar. “Actually you gave me £2.10,” she barked, with a frown I could have driven a train across. There was something of the Fat Pat about her and she was in no mood to back down, “there was a 5p on the bar, so I didn’t ask you for the rest.” It was a strange statement, which rather disarmed me, but I wasn't going to thank her, because I didn’t believe her for a moment. “I definitely gave you £3,” I said, “if I didn’t give you the right money, and you were doing me such an astonishing, and pointlessly alturistic favour, why on earth didn’t you say?” She looked at me blinkingly until I retired to my seat. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place, and scuttled back to my hotel room for some peace and quiet.

I’m now on the train back to London for a day in the big smoke. I return to Manchester first thing Monday morning and am going to watch the X Factor final at Brother Edward’s tonight, which I'm very much looking forward to.

It’s very claustrophobic on the train. I’m sitting next to a Grandmother and Grandchild. As an act of kindness to make space for other passengers, the Grannie’s put the child on her lap, but there’s now a tower of person between me and the train aisle. It’s very sweet, but it’s playing “peep-o”, it hasn’t stopped bouncing up and down and yabbering and it’s eating a chocolate ├ęclair, which I’m terrified is going to squirt all over me and force me to tell the Grandmother that I don’t mind because the jumper needed a wash anyway, and I’ve always loved the smell of fresh cream going rancid on my clothes. I’m hoping the inter-generational tower of person is not coming all the way to London with us.

350 years ago, and Pepys went to a formal dinner at Sir Thomas Crew’s house. He doesn’t say what was on the menu, or who he chatted to, simply that he ended up in a 45 minute traffic jam on the way there and nearly didn’t make it. How little London changes.

Friday, 9 December 2011


Bizarrely, after yesterday’s blog entry, I am thrilled/horrified to announce that the heel of my shoe fell off last night. I think the rain was just too much for it, and somewhere between York and Manchester, it dropped off. I hobbled back to the hotel from the train station as one of the nails from within the broken shoe pushed its way up into the sole of my foot. In the absence of any time to replace the shoes, I’m forced to wear my hideous trainers today, which is the only other footwear I have up here.
I was in York last night for all of two hours; another meeting about the Ebor Vox project; the choral work I’ve been commissioned to write to celebrate the 800th anniversary of York City being granted its charter. I am rather blithely saying yes to everything at the moment, very much aware of what happened when I said no to things last year. I’m going to need to be astonishingly organised if everything comes off, however. I’m also going to have to think about having weekly massages or something, simply to keep myself relaxed; walking around Hattersley in the driving wind and rain whilst carrying computers, keyboards and cameras is slightly more than my shoulders can cope with at the moment.

I received a text message from Alison yesterday, telling me she was on her way to Manchester. Not only this, it transpired we were staying in the same hotel. I had thought I’d go and find them, but when she told me where they were, it seemed an awfully long way to hobble with a nail sticking into my foot. At about midnight, however, she texted again to say she was on the way back to the hotel, so I went down to the bar in my pyjamas and we chatted for an hour over a glass of whiskey. Alison produced A Symphony for Yorkshire, and we’ve shared much over the last couple of years; soaring highs and crashing lows. It’s always a treat, therefore, to see her. Her relentless “can-do” optimism took a bit of a bashing from BBC politics and lack of funds over the summer, but she seems buoyant again – and making plans. It must be very disheartening, however, as the BBC Regional network is being starved of funding and, as a result, turning much more into a newsgathering organisation, which could well mean there will be no more projects like Hattersley. Surely, as society struggles its way through recession, news is the one thing we don’t need in abundance. I often find myself turning the news off because it’s depressing, and I’m powerless to do anything about what Cameron does in Europe, or the weather, or the state of the economy. Sometimes, I just want a bit of escapism, or a few ideas as to how I can make an actual and direct difference in my own community.

On that note, I found myself incredibly moved yesterday to learn about a little table in the community centre at Hattersley. The table has existed for years. It’s very much in the “bring and buy” tradition; those on the estate with things that they no longer need bring stuff to the table; books, clothes, toys etc. The people at the community centre price them up, and they are all sold on to other members of the community – for silly low prices. A little doll’s house might sell for £3, or a soft toy for 45p. They’ll simply give something to someone they know is in trouble. Some books do continual rounds; they get sold to a person who reads it and then brings it back for someone else to buy for 15p... At the end of the year, whatever the table has made is used to fund the Christmas celebrations within the community centre. They made £800 last year, so every penny counts. Maybe I was hormonal yesterday, but I found the whole thing incredibly moving. Because it’s Christmas, the table is filled with toys at the moment – and children were rushing in all the time to see what they might be able to buy. What a fabulous resource for someone in a financial crisis. It could well make the difference between a child getting a present and not this year. It’s this sort of example of a community supporting itself which makes me feel very proud to be British.

Today’s trip to Hattersley was incredibly fruitful – bitterly cold – but fruitful. Throughout the day, the sky must have changed colour 100 times, from cornflower blue to brown to yellow to pink to black. It snowed, it hailed, it rained, the sun shone... but at all times, it was bitterly cold.

We met even more wonderful people and now have enough stories to fill our five slots; a wonderful position to be in with 2 days to go. I think Paul and I are very excited. Tonight is all about R and R in my hotel room.

350 years ago, Pepys went to The Wardrobe, and found Lady Wright, a bit of a snob, bemoaning the fact that the age of gallantry was over, and that most English men were not fit to be courtiers “but such as have been abroad and know fashions.” The woman was obsessed by fashion. A couple of weeks earlier, she’d launched a diatribe at Pepys over a very similar issue.

Pepys sat up until midnight writing letters to Lord Sandwich and many of his other comrades at sea. His friend, Monsieur d’Esquier was off to join the fleet, so Pepys wanted to use the opportunity to make sure various important letters were delivered by hand.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Soaked through

I am fantastically unlucky with shoes and have spent a lifetime trying to work out why this might be. Perhaps it’s because my feet are like Hobbit feet; almost as wide as they are long, and flat as flat can be. Maybe it’s because I walk like a slightly disabled person with a pigeon-toed, low-gravity shuffling gait, that could never be described as elegant. I shuffle. It might be because I can never justify spending top dollar on shoes, because I assume they’ll merely fall apart within seconds? Or perhaps there’s simply a shoe God who wants to punish me.
I suspect it’s a mix of all these things, and maybe myriad reasons I’ve not yet considered. Whatever the case, it’s not much fun. People laugh at my shoes and then look at me, with pity in their eyes. Every time I visit my parents I’m frog-marched to the nearest shoe shop because they feel so ashamed to see their son looking like a tramp. But often the shoes I’m wearing are brand new! I go to the local shoe shop with them – buy another pair  – yet within minutes, something goes spectacularly wrong. The lace snaps, the side splits, or more often than not, the heel mysteriously drops off.

I took my most recent purchase to the new cobbler on our street a couple of weeks ago, and he gave them a lovely new lease of life. Imagine my horror, therefore, in the midst of the traumatic hail storm yesterday, when I discovered that some of the stitching on the top of the boots had disintegrated and was letting in water? I immediately bought myself some superglue to remedy the problem, but had to sit all day with wet socks, no doubt slowly developing trench foot whilst chatting to old ladies.

I went out in Manchester with Ellen last night, an old university friend who recently relocated here after becoming a writer on Coronation Street. She looked fabulous, and we had a tasty Japanese meal in a really cool restaurant with a dark little shop in the basement selling all sorts of weird and wonderful Japanese delicacies. Ellen is very happy up here and it shows in her face. She describes Manchester as having a village-like feel. All her friends are within a much smaller radius, and she loves the fact that it doesn’t take her at least an hour to get anywhere – as it always seems to in London.

We went for a drink on Canal Street, which is the gay district up here, famous for its erstwhile vandalised sign, which had the first two letters of each word painted out, thus spelling “Anal Treet”. It’s also the prettiest road in the centre of Manchester. Wednesdays in Manchester is trannie night. The bars were very quiet, but a large number of the customers were trans-people, which I liked. One lady looked absolutely fabulous; really dignified and willowy, in an arty, very demure sort of way. I was going to compliment her, but decided she might find me somewhat patronising. She was also sitting next to someone wearing a Queen Elizabeth II wig, who looked terrible, and I didn’t want to feel obliged to compliment her!

We’ve been in Hattersley all day, consolidating things and doing in depth interviews with two people I think we want to feature in the film; a lady called Jean, who was one of the first people to move into the estate, and a young photographer who sees Hattersley through very different eyes. “The architecture here is dull” he said, “everything is uniform... except the people – who are the opposite...” Yet again, we were welcomed with open arms into people’s houses, and I now have tea pouring out of my ears.

I’m also soaked through. During the 3-minute walk, from one particular house to the community centre, we could see a weird, and very thick white cloud hanging over the hill in front of us. “I wonder what on earth that is” I said, and 30 seconds later we found out, as torrential rain and wind almost battered us to death. I have never experienced rain like it. It was like a thousand daggers hidden within a million buckets of water. All we could do was laugh hysterically with another woman who was similarly caught out, Back at the community centre we were rewarded with cups of tea and a plate of cheese on toast by a group of lovely ladies. I have never felt such warmth from a community I’ve worked with.

December 8th, 1661, was a Sunday, and Pepys lay in bed wondering if he wanted to take physique, but it being frosty outside, Elizabeth “would not let him.” It’s a strange remark, which makes me quite convinced that my interpretation of “taking physique” (ie staying within the house all day and mooching around) is incorrect. Perhaps taking physique is actually taking a form of medicine – which Elizabeth would need to prepare on his behalf, or visit some kind of apothecary to purchase. Who knows?

In any case, Pepys didn’t take “physique” and went instead to visit Lady Sandwich at the Wardrobe. They talked about a christening the day before, which had been filled with more pomp and ceremony than anything either of them could ever have imagined.

On the way home from Ludgate Circus, Pepys called in at every church that he passed, one assumes simply to soak up the atmosphere. I don’t know why this diary entry should please me so much – but it does! I assume one of these churches was a pre-fire incarnation of St Mary At Hill. A comforting thought...

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I save the sugar bit for the wine!

I didn’t sleep very well last night. I think I was cold, which is really strange for me. The duvet on the bed was as flimsy as paper, and I fell asleep with the television on. I woke up periodically through the night to hear little snippets of various TV programmes, culminating in BBC Breakfast. It was very surreal. I got up having subconsciously ingested the main headlines of the day and learnt how to sign the word "explosion."

I had a horrible breakfast near the train station; half-cooked mushrooms on soggy toast, before meeting producer Paul by the train to Hattersley. The weather turned nasty as we trundled out of Manchester. A thin rainbow was glowing in an otherwise angry sky and then it started to rain.
The walk from Hattersley train station to the community centre where we were basing ourselves for the day was cataclysmic. The skies opened and we were attacked by millions of razor-sharp hail stones, one of which lodged itself in my eardrum and melted painfully.

The community centre was buzzing, however; filled to the brim with tables neatly set out for a Christmas party. Sitting at the tables were 150 elderly people tucking into plates of pork pies and turkey sandwiches. A middle-aged man with a mullet was singing classic hits to backing tracks, whilst his wife sat at a computer looking like the lovely Debbie McGee. We felt a little bit like intruders and, as we arrived, the community centre manager rushed over to say she’d been trying to contact us to tell us that today wasn’t a very good day for us to start our search.  
As it happened, it turned out to be the most perfect day to hang around the community centre. Everyone was in a really good mood, we were able to make a little announcement to tell people what we were doing, and we were very wonderfully welcomed into the community fold. Hattersley estate, with its links to the Moors Murderers and Harold Shipman, has had a lot of unnecessary bad press over the years, but, and maybe even because of the press, its sense of community spirit is remarkable. We were sat down, given a cup of tea, and then a lovely plate of meat, and then even a little Christmas present.

We met some proper characters including a wonderful lady who cares for a blind gentleman who’s also slowly going deaf. She is literally becoming his eyes and ears, and he is utterly dependent on her, which is particularly sad as he’s a pianist and she used to depend on him as her accompanist when she sang.

Quote of the day came from a lovely woman with purple hair, who, upon winning three pots of jam in the raffle, took a large glug of wine and announced excitedly; “I love the pots... I can’t eat the jam, of course, I’m diabetic. I save the sugar bit for the wine.”

350 years ago, and Pepys was hanging out with a Captain Ferrers and a German gentleman, one of Montagu’s footmen, called Emanuel Luffe, who borrowed Pepys’ theorbo, and by playing beautifully reminded Pepys what a wonderful instrument he’d acquired. Ferrers and Luffe departed after a breakfast of mince pies, but the German returned minutes later, covered in blood, nursing a massive wound to his head, saying that Ferrers had been killed by a waterman at the Tower Stairs. Pepys immediately rushed to the place where the murder had happened, but found all was well. Captain Ferrers, in true Ferrersian style, had picked a fight with a couple of watermen, provoked a rather sound beating for himself and his German companion, who had rushed at one of the watermen with his sword, before heading back to Pepys’ house for extra manpower. In the meantime, Captain Ferrers, who had at least nine lives, had escaped on a passing boat. Pepys returned to his house to find his wife dressing a wound on the German’s head. Luffe was presented with a cravat to protect another wound on his neck, and a crown as a thank you for protecting their troublesome mutual friend.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Is it grim up North?

I'm on a train, wending my way through the Midlands towards Manchester. I have no idea where we are, and it's incredibly dark outside, so I can't see if there's snow on the ground. I've heard it's very cold up north, however. It always is when I start these film projects. Last year, my trip to Newcastle was accompanied by some of the coldest weather the North East has ever experienced. My first meeting about this project was two years ago, and happened on another snowy day. The latter part of my journey from London to Manchester was terrifying. The city centre was experiencing a white-out and I was weeping as I drove along. I went into a massive spin at one point and simply deserted the car where it came to a halt, somewhere near the pavement, somewhere near the BBC!

I'm excited and nervous because, as ever on these projects, I've no idea who I'm going to meet, what I'm going to write, or what the film is going to be about. All I know is that it will be fabulous! 

I spent the day with Penny in the East End. We're making an application for funding for a performance of the Requiem in a graveyard next September and were talking to Rich Mix about the possibility of their coming on board. They seemed to love the idea, as everyone has, really. This particular work has stirred up so much emotion and imagination. Everyone has a different, yet equally interesting take on how it might be used as the basis for outreach work, or associated projects. I suppose the bottom line is simply that death is inspiring. Perhaps I am also inspiring.

I got to Euston station way too early and the place was rammed with commuters heading home. There was nowhere to sit, so I found myself perching on a little ledge behind the Sock Shop. Periodically, a train would be announced and a terrifying, seemingly endless cluster of people would rush past me in the direction of the platforms. None of them seemed to notice me squatting there at knee height, and they kept knocking my suitcase over without apologising. On one occasion I vanished temporarily underneath a passing coat. It smelt musky and damp, like a gym changing room. The only person who came close to spotting me on my little ledge, merely commented on the paper cup I'd left on my right hand side. "Mind the paper cup, Mum," she said, "it might have something in it." Mum trod on it, and tea squirted onto my trouser leg. 

The man sitting next to me, who I know has seats booked for himself further down the carriage that he "couldn't be bothered to walk to," is coughing like a maniac. Normally I wouldn't be bothered, but having still not entirely got over the whoops, the experience is terrifying me. He's also giving off a huge amount of heat, so  trapped between a radiator under the window and Fuzzy Bear, I feel like a toasted sandwich. 

350 years ago, the Navy office did a trade deal with the East India company. Bombay had just become part of the British Empire as a result of Charles II's union with Catherine de Braganza. 

The Navy crew went to talk to the King about the deal, but there was a major falling out on the way home after Pepys jokingly accused Sir William Batten of only wanting to visit the Three Tuns pub to catch an eyeful, and probably cop a feel of the pretty bar woman there. Not a word was spoken all the way home and their relationship would never fully recover! 

Monday, 5 December 2011

British Pride

I don’t have anything to say today. Not one thing. I’ve not done anything interesting. I’ve merely sat at various tables, attempting to tick mundane tasks off a list written on the back of an envelope. I’ve done washing, I’ve tidied things, I've sent invoices, I've played with the rats, I've sent ideas for projects to various producers, drank copious mugs of tea, sent a shirty email to an agent who crossed someone I care about. Nothing of any great consequence and certainly nothing to write about in great detail.
I notice that the government has decided to double the budget for the Olympic games opening ceremony. Another £41m to spend on a massive display of British pride. No doubt an old rocker will play guitar licks, and Leona Lewis will wail a bit, whilst 26,000 deaf school children hold little cards above their heads to form a variety of world flags whilst signing "Hey Jude" or Elbow's "One Day Like this a year will see me right." I’m pretty sure there’ll also be some optical illusion/ lighting effect which turns the entire stadium into a lake, whilst a life-sized ferry floats through the sky on wires. There's a limit to what you can do in a circular stadium when it's raining. The audience will all be given glow sticks - and from helicopters the whole place will look like the milky way. I suspect the injection of cash will mean the key artists double their fees. The 25,000 school children, wheelchair dancers and community choirs, however, will still earn nothing.
I was really proud when I heard that the original plan for the ceremony reflected the austerity of our times. When there’s less money, people have to be inventive. Leona Lewis drops off the list of performers, but you get someone less well known - but crucially, better! We all know we can’t afford the Olympics. They're going to cripple the economy, and I hate the fact that we’re using the platform to try to pretend to the rest of the world that we’re fine and dandy. What’s wrong with an austere opening ceremony? Why don't we spend £40m on creative projects outside London for people who can't afford to be there?

350 years ago, and Pepys went for a fourth sitting with Mr Savill the portrait painter. The picture still wasn’t pleasing him, and he was starting to get worried. Pepys had mince pies for lunch. Sadly, I think it was a coincidence that he ate them so near to Christmas, as they used to be eaten all year round. They were enormous things as well – a savoury/ sweet mix of meat, fruit and sugar which could weigh up to 20lbs. Still, they were obviously something a bit decadent, reserved for a special occasion, as Pepys used them as the basis for an impromptu party. The evening was spent at the theatre, seeing Hamlet.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

All change

It's gone very cold and we've retreated into the sitting room to watch The Cube whilst eating a pizza. 

We've been helping Jem and Ian to move this afternoon. They've  left the horrors of Streatham and are now in the relatively civilised confines of Totteridge and Whetstone, which is only a ten minute drive from us. 

Their new flat is lovely; incredibly light and very open plan. It's part of a  1960s block, which would have been very fancy when it was first built. Many of the original features are still there, including sliding internal doors and enormous picture windows. 

There's nothing else to say about today. I'm just trying to relax so that I can face my incredibly busy week in Manchester with properly recharged batteries.

Wednesday 4th June, 1661, and Pepys went to Whitehall by boat with the two Sir Williams. At Westminster Stairs, where the boat was moored, Pepys discovered the corpse of a man who'd drowned in the Thames the day before. One assumes, in those days, it was no one's problem, so the corpse, like the heads of traitors on various spikes across the city was probably merely left to rot, or kicked back into the river to float somewhere else. 
Pepys went to his painter to collect his wife, who was also having her portrait done. They went to the theatre, but arrived too late for the show, and Pepys wasn't feeling too good (describing himself as being a bit "out of tune") so they went home and read until bedtime. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Strange lights

Whilst driving through the country lanes that twist their way towards Stansted Airport from Thaxted this evening, I became very conscious of the strange reflections that the headlights of my father's  car were casting in the sky on the left hand side of the car. A shower of feint lights seemed to be dancing in the darkness. 

I pointed them out to my Mum, who said "gosh, is that just the effect of the headlights?"

...It wasn't. We turned a corner and drove along a straight section of road, where the hedges were low, and were astonished to discover that the lights in the sky were nothing to do with our car. 

I warn all readers that there is no satisfactory end to this story. I will probably never know what caused the phenomenon. Low in the Eastern sky, two smudgy rings of light were hovering in the sky. The rings spread out and then closed in again, repeatedly, like one of those bizarre electric jelly fish you get miles below the surface of the sea.

It was plainly not something supernatural. I'm sure it was merely a set of party lights on the ground that were somehow being reflected by low-hanging cloud. It was, however, rather odd to see, so close to the airport, as though some strange space ship was trying to make contact with the metal flying birds it had observed on earth! 

I had a lovely afternoon today on Upper Street with Julie and the guys who run the beach bar we used to hang out in in Italy. It was such a privilege to  hang out with them. They've become complete Anglofiles and were photographing every street sign, antique store or display of wool that we passed! 

I don't think there's anything more important in life than enthusiasm. I have inherited a love for life from my parents, who I guess must have taught me that there's something uniquely interesting or entertaining in any situation. "Only boring people get bored," my mother would say, and she was right. Boredom is dangerous. Those without a lust for life become engulfed by bitterness which eats away at them from the inside. I therefore greatly appreciate the great lovers on this planet. They're the ones who will keep us going when we're all forced to return to more simple living. 

Less fun was trying to find a space on Upper Street, where parking only becomes free on a Saturday after 1.30pm, and otherwise costs a staggering £5 per hour. I drove round and round desperately looking for a meter, only to find one that was broken. The only method of payment available was the dreaded automated phone system. I was in my parent's car, and its registration wasn't logged on the system under my phone number. My most recent debit card was similarly unrecognised by the computer voice, which eventually decided it was best all round if the virtual conversation was brought to an abrupt halt. "Goodbye!" she said, before f***ing off! 

By the time I'd called again, and painstakingly typed various letters and numbers into the system, periodically failing, and needing to start all over again, it was almost half past one. The whole process took precisely 23 minutes, which cost the council about £2 in lost parking revenue.

350 years ago, and Pepys sat for Mr Savill the painter. He obviously had a crafty peak at the unfinished picture, because he left feeling unhappy that the image wouldn't be a good likeness. 

He lunched with Lady Sandwich and a ghastly woman who talked obsessively about the importance of being on trend when it came to fashion, and spent hours rubbishing country gentlewomen for their outdated taste in clothes. Pepys was unimpressed, despite being something of a 17th Century dandy himself. 

He had a run of very vivid dreams that night. He dreamt that his wife had been thrown badly from a horse and broken her leg and then that he himself was in so much pain that he woke up... In terrible agony. Fortunately, it appears the pain was psychosomatic, as the following day, he was as fit as a fiddle. Maybe waking up with the terrible pain was also part of the dream. Poor Pepys, ever worried by his health. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Floods and sewage workers

I am about ready to drop. My eyes are going slightly blurry as I type and my face feels hot. I’ve been a very busy boy this week and cannot wait for the weekend.

Today, I was up at ridiculous-o’clock to go to Birmingham. Unfortunately, none of the taps in the house seemed to have water coming out of them, so I was forced to do the thing I hate most in the world – and start the day without a bath... or a cup of tea.

My mood was lifted, however, by the dawn sun, which was casting the most extraordinary light on one side of the pavement of the A1 outside. I watched, transfixed, for some minutes as commuters emerged from the shadows and immediately brought their hands up to shade their eyes from the intense orange light, which lit them up like halogen lights.

As I was preparing to leave the house, I found the chap who lives in the downstairs flat – also called Ben – rather pathetically standing at his door. It became apparent that the cause of the lack of water was something to do with his flat. When he woke up this morning his kitchen was under a good inch of water, which was still pouring out of his washing machine. It was dripping down into the shop below. The poor man had tried to mop the water up, and then thrown every towel he owned on the kitchen floor, but the water continued to pour, and his face continued to redden and sweat.

I felt awful leaving him to his crisis, but I needed to be in Birmingham. I cruised up the M1 at hyper-speed. 8.30am is obviously a good time to head north out of London. I was at Watford Gap within about an hour, so stopped off for a cup of tea and a nose about. Watford Gap was the focus of one of my musical films, which featured all sorts of friends from back home in Northamptonshire. It was a wonderful project, and the place is full of happy memories. It’s a troubled place, however. Once almost legendary as the spot where all sorts of pop and rock stars converged in the wee smalls after gigging around the country, it had character and charm. It’s now part of a generic chain of service stations; branded to the heavens, and decorated cheaply. It had a refurb before we shot the film, and it’s had another once since. It still looks tatty. Like a Woolworth’s shop. You don’t even enter the place by the main doors any more – and horror of horrors, the Wimpey has now been replaced by MacDonalds.

The job I was doing in Birmingham involved teaching a group of sewage workers how to sing, but they were a fabulous bunch of people. It was an absolute privilege to work with them. They were charming, friendly and up-for-it, which made my job so easy. I taught them to sing Winter Wonderland in two-part harmony, whilst ringing hand bells, and making the sounds of snow. Every time I get north of Watford Gap, I realise how much more friendly the people are. There was no edge to any of them. They were true West Midlanders. A number of them were from Coventry, which pulled my accent all over the place. I sounded like Cat Dealey by the time I left! The guy that met us knew my Grandfather’s butcher shops in the city and sounded like my old Uncle Charlie. I recognised immediately that he was from Cov and the first question I asked him was “so, where in Cov are you from?” “Coventry” he said – before realising quite how specific my question had been. I explained my link, and later over-heard him telling someone that I had a broad Coventry accent as well. I must have done by the time I’d finished talking to them all. It’s an accent that makes me feel very safe.

I came home via Northampton, and picked Fiona up in Collingtree where she’d been spending a couple of days with her family. Barbara, her mother, created an enormous and glorious collation of food in the time it took me to play Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends with Fiona’s hysterical nephews. There were five different types of cake. It would have been rude not to sample them all.

We drove back to London nattering – and here I am, really. The top half of me suited and booted, the bottom half wearing pyjamas.

It’s the second of December. Can someone tell me where the year went?

December 2nd, 1661, and Pepys went for a sitting with the painter, Mr Savill, who was doing his portrait. Mr Savill was ill, however, so no work got done. The rest of the day was spent with various friends, their various mistresses, in various pubs, at various theatres, drinking merrily.