Wednesday, 31 August 2011

what has become of my painting?

I woke up this morning with the mother of all writer’s blocks. It was ever likely to appear at some point during this requiem project, but to happen when I’ve sailed effortlessly all the way to the last movement feels a bit like a slap in the face! It’s utterly predictable, as well. The London Road business slightly dented my confidence, and last night we went to see Parade at the Southwark Playhouse, which has got to be one of the greatest musicals written in the last 20 years. I saw the show at the Donmar Warehouse about five years ago and was left distinctly cold. It can’t have been a very good production, or perhaps my head wanted something different from new musicals in those days. I went with my friend Matt, who’d gone on and on about it and I really couldn’t understand why. Maybe it’s one of those shows which mellows when you see it for a second time, because I now fully understand why people love it. It is brilliant, and I recommend anyone who likes their musicals on the dark side to go and see it before the run ends.

Of course when you see something as well-written as Parade, it can inspire, but it also has the potential to niggle. Will I ever match it with something of my own? Will people ever mention my name in the same breath as Jason Robert Brown? Will I achieve what I want to achieve as a writer? Will I ever be described as great? I’m certainly taking my time!

I went back to what I’d written for the Dies Irae sequence in my requiem and immediately discarded the lot and started again... and then after lunch, ripped up everything I’d written in the morning and started a third draft. I suspect I’m considerably closer now, but I'm still in this sort of weird, hazy, formless, messy place, which I don’t really recognise. Nathan suggested I take a break, but psychologically I need to get to the end of the work. It’s been going on too long now. It just needs to be done, so that I can put it away as a complete work, and return to it afresh, after a time away.

Anyway, that’s pretty much been my day. Slightly dull. Unusually frustrating. I  went to the gym and ran about a bit, then drove into town to pick Nathan up, who is working front of house at the Shaftesbury Theatre, where Rock of Ages has just started playing. I saw the piece in New York (get me) and can't imagine it will have the same resonance over here.

I also can’t believe it’s the last day of August. Where has this year gone? The slow march towards Christmas is upon us...

350 years ago, Pepys went with his old friend Luellin to the famous Bartholomew Fair. Luellin convinced Pepys to accompany him to a dodgy pub, “a pitiful alehouse”, which was filled with all kinds of undesirables, “where we had a dirty slut or two come up that were whores, but my very heart went against them, so that I took no pleasure but a great deal of trouble in being there and getting from thence for fear of being seen.”

After sensibly ditching Luellin, Pepys went back to the fair with two of Montagu’s daughters and they saw monkeys dancing on ropes, which didn’t impress Pepys at all, not just because the monkeys were fairly stubborn, but also because he found himself surrounded by such terrible people. On the way home, he bought all the women in his company a glass bauble, which seemed to please them a great deal.

He used the end of August as an opportunity to sum up his life, which was troubling him somewhat, because, amongst other things, he felt he was seeing too many plays. He was also worried about politics, his brother Tom, a lack of money, and, of course, the business of the will, which was still dragging on. His entry ends with the most chilling sentence: “The season very sickly everywhere of strange and fatal fevers.”

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

See how that building there is nearly built

I've come to London Bridge to watch Parade at the Southwark Playhouse. The idea had been to find a quiet coffee shop to do an hour's work, but this place is a living hell! Everywhere I turn there's building work, or huge queues of traffic, or trains rumbling and screeching and whistling over bridges, or closed shops, or motorbikes, or road works, or drills, or car horns, or oceans of people shuffling along like their feet are made of lead, or those irritating charity workers with their branded macs, silly clip boards and fake smiles. There's some kind of machine outside the London Dungeons which is belching out the most hideous high-pitched noise, which sounds like a cross between a bagpipe and a death rattle, and it would seem there's absolutely nowhere to escape! I've seldom felt less comfortable in my own city and must remember to avoid this place like the plague in future! Still, The Shard of Glass is an impressive building close-up and it's very nearly complete, so there are small mercies! 

350 years ago, Pepys and Elizabeth went to see a French farce at the Drury Lane Theatre. Pepys didn't enjoy the experience and wrote that  "the scenes and company and every thing else so nasty and out of order and poor, that I was sick all the while in my mind to be there." I know the feeling...

Elizabeth bumped into one of Lord Somerset's sons at the theatre. She'd known him as a child, when she lived in France and I'm sure was very pleased to see him. Perhaps Pepys was jealous, for he described him as "a pretty man" before adding, "I showed him no great countenance, to avoyd further acquaintance." And that was that for the day. "That done, there being nothing pleasant but the foolery of the farce, we went home." Spoil sport!  Still, if you insist on going to see French farce, you only have yourself to blame.

Monday, 29 August 2011

I can be driving, driving home

It's our 9th anniversary today. 9 years! It's astonishing how these things can suddenly come upon you, and how old they can make you feel! My 20's now seem like a very long time ago and I feel like I've known Nathan my entire life.

We've just been to Jem and Ian's, who are the other two monks in Nathan's Brother Act cabaret. I was lucky enough to be the first person to see and hear a collation of their material, and it's really very impressive. Brilliant songs, immaculately performed. I felt immensely proud. Jem is also a pretty amazing cook, and made us a quiche, which is, after all, heaven for all gay vegetarians!

The rest of the day was spent sitting in various cafes. It's a bank holiday, so my favourite place was closed. I went instead up to the village, and worked in Costa. 

It's funny how little significance bank holidays can have to freelancers within creative industries. Theatre shows don't get cancelled on bank holidays - far from it - and people like me are just as likely to spend the day writing as any other day, unless, I suppose they have kids who are off school for the day, or a partner with a proper job!  When I worked in the corporate field, we were actually forced to take time off on bank holidays and not paid for the privilege, which used to annoy me rather spectacularly! Surely the point of a bank holiday is that you get paid to do nothing?

Incidentally, if any one reading this blog likes baking, do take an hour out of your life to see The Great British Bake Off, which started again two weeks ago. It's basically Delia Smith meets the X Factor, and is, without doubt, my favourite programme on telly at the moment. Bakers are such lovely people! Catch it on iplayer. You will not he disappointed.

350 years ago, Pepys was entertaining various family members including his Aunt Wight, who'd never seen his house before. He spent the afternoon with a bookseller - no doubt adding copious books to his ever-growing library - and the evening with his father, who was off to his country cottage in Huntingdonshire the following day. Conversation, as usual, was about the will. When would it ever not be, I wonder? 

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The sun coming out

It's been a cold, miserable sort of day, and we've spent much of it lazing around whilst trying to avoid the rain showers. We went to my new favourite cafe this afternoon, to drink hot chocolate and do a bit of work in a sort of "it doesn't matter if we don't actually do any work" sort of way.

Throughout the day we've been receiving regular updates from various friends in New York. The much-anticipated hurricane seems to have become something of a damp squib. In fact, when we spoke to Christopher last night, he simply said; "yeah, it's raining a bit... no wait, it's stopped..." Sharon told us the sun was shining and that they'd managed to escape with just a few heavy gusts of wind. Thank God. Sometimes I wonder why the media makes such a big deal about these things. When they start to count the cost of this hurricane, it'll surely not be in damaged buildings, but in revenue lost when half of New York was evacuated, and all the shops, theatres and businesses were closed unnecessarily.

Whilst sitting in the cafe, I stuck a hand into my computer bag to find a pair of headphones and immediately felt my entire body engulfed by a searing pain. I looked down to see a wasp hanging from my finger. I can't remember when I was last stung by a wasp, enough, one assumes, to forget what an unplesant experience it can be! Five hours later, and I'm still feeling a bit sore, although thankfully I'm not one of those people who swells up when bitten or stung. There were no dramatic high-speed trips to A and E for injections of anti-histamines!

We went to see the film One Day tonight, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Nathan was considerably less impressed, describing the piece as "dismal." The only slightly irksome aspect from my perspective was Anne Hathaway's Yorkshire accent, which I genuinely would describe as, at least approaching, dismal.

The other dismal aspect of our evening was the cinema itself. Screen One at the Odeon in Muswell Hill is a barn of a room; a 1930s haven, which is beautiful to look at, but both freezing cold, and incredibly unclean. When I got up to leave, I realised my feet were stuck to the floor, and heaven knows what was lurking in the darkness under the seats! The screening room has also become hugely impractical as a space. For some reason people are no longer allowed to watch from the stalls, so the entire audience now sits in the circle, which, at its closest point, is at least 20 meters away from the (relatively small) screen.

To add insult to injury, Odeon policy is now to flog "premium" seats, which means no one with an ordinary ticket can sit in the first 15 or so rows. This obviously leads to the entire audience sitting in a clump in the back ten rows, so far from the screen that the experience becomes a little like watching a computer screen from an arm chair the other side of your sitting room. Only two people in the entire auditorium had paid for premium seats, so I'd wager that it can't be hugely cost effective.

And don't get me started about the person who switched the house lights on before the film ended... In fact, just at its most moving point; and there we all were weeping into handkerchiefs and wiping snot from our chins. Not a good cinematic experience, and Odeon, as a company, should feel ashamed.

350 years ago, Pepys went to see the Sandwich clan at the Wardrobe, and found the two oldest children preparing to leave London for a trip to France, part of some kind of grand tour I suppose. There was lunch at Pepys' cousin, Thomas'. Everyone was very merry, but Pepys felt the food was sub-standard and decided his cousin was something of a miser. After lunch, there was yet another trip to the theatre, and Elizabeth Pepys was thrilled to see the King, Duke of York, and Pepys' pin up, Lady Castelmayne all present. One assumes she barely watched the play itself. In those days, theatres, like churches, were places to watch people and be seen watching people. I imagine fans and things and lots of fluttering eyes...

Saturday, 27 August 2011

I don't want to say it

Nathan went to watch London Road at the National this afternoon, and enjoyed it hugely. People have been telling me to see it for months now. I think its brand of verbatim theatre is considered to be not a million miles away from the work I do in film, although Nathan says it's almost incomparable. Obviously I should be applauding vociferously. The truth is that I find myself feeling slightly envious, and whenever anyone mentions the work, I get a little flutter of weirdness in my stomach. I suppose the inoperable voice of doom in the back of my head warns me that people might start to say the work I do is simply a copy of London Road, or worse, that from now on, there will always be another composer in that tiny pool of people pitching for funds that does something similar to me... Somethig, maybe better. Instead of looking for the bloke who made A1: The Road Musical, they’ll look for the bloke who made London Road.

It’s funny how insecure creative people can be, and how wildly protective they can become of their patches. I talk about creative people. I mean me. I have no idea what goes through the minds of other people, but know the day will come, fairly soon, when I’ll watch a documentary on the telly which features “real people singing.” Obviously I’ll say it’s rubbish, but secretly I’ll be thinking how amazing it is, and wondering why those who made it didn’t approach me! That’s how my mind works! There are so few opportunities in my area of the arts that I end up not being able to feel pleased for anyone who even remotely treads on my toes and that's not a very nice thing to admit. It’s only untouchable success, I fear, that allows a person to be truly magnanimous.

I went to the South Bank this afternoon, to meet my parents, brother Edward and Sascha, who were off to see the James Cordon play, which seems to be the other work that's taking the country by storm. I've been told many times what the play is called but every time, have instantly forgotten. It was quite a coincidence that they were watching theatre at the National on the same day as Nathan, and it meant we could all sit down and eat together at Giraffe. Brother Edward very kindly paid for us all, and it wasn’t cheap.
I walked across the bridge to Charing Cross, with Nathan, and we sat in Starbucks for a while before Nathan disappeared to perform in Naked Boys Singing, which he does every Friday and Saturday night. I came home and worked on the Dies Irae sequence of my Requiem. It’s the final movement, and I’ve left the best til last – or rather, I’ve left what HAS to be the best til last. I think about Mozart’s Dies Irae... Verdi’s... Even Karl Jenkins’, and start to feel a little bit sick with nerves. All composers seem to raise their game for the Dies Irae. Maybe it's because this particular sequence of the Requiem comes from a poem written in the 13th Century, and one has to have respect for something  that was written that long ago. Even to Pepys it would have seemed an ancient work. It’s quite a lengthy piece, however, and, unsurprisingly there are one or two passages that I’ve decided to omit. I'd like to say that this was purely to do with the practicality of not wanting one movement to be a great deal longer than the others... but there also are a couple of lines that I find offensive.

Wednesday August, 28th, 1661, and Pepys was still busying himself with his Uncle’s Will, looking for various attorneys to give him advice about his Aunt Ann, and the £200 that she was expecting. When Pepys returned home in the evening, he set about writing a letter to Sir William Penn that purported to be from the thief who'd recently stolen his prized silver tankard. It was, one assumes, some kind of practical joke, but it doesn’t sound very funny to me!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Let me be weak, let me sleep

I’m watching a programme about bears in Minnesota, which I’m finding rather moving for some reason. Nathan thinks it’s because I’m recognising my own species! They really are the most beautiful creatures, and it surprises me that they’re so openly hunted in the States.

I slept in late this morning. In the wee smalls, just as we were arriving back from Cambridge last night, I received a text from Fiona, who’d found a mouse in her bedroom, which was freaking her out a bit. At one stage the little critter was sitting on the top of the curtain rail which is directly above her bed. Unsurprisingly, she came up to sleep at ours, and opted, wisely, for the loft space, because our feral pet rats were on the loose in the sitting room. Out of the frying pan and all that...
We had a late night cuppa before turning in, and it was 3am before I knew it.

This morning I went to Marble Arch to see Matt’s new house, which is very swanky indeed. We had lunch in an Italian just off the top end of Oxford Street, and caught up on about 3 months’ gossip. After saying goodbye, Nathan and I wandered towards Soho through that rather peculiar part of London which is south of Oxford Street and north of Piccadilly. It’s where all the tailors and posh people hang out, which probably explains why I’d never been there before. The area smelt of wealth. Everywhere we looked, another impeccably-dressed individual was sashaying along the road looking rather pleased with him or herself.  
I had my hair cut in Soho. I liked the lady that did it. She looked about 6 years old, but took a great deal of care over what she was doing, opting to use clippers rather than scissors. She even trimmed my eyebrows, so now I look a great deal less like Denis Healy and probably at least 2 years younger!

I am, however, proper knackered, which makes me feel at least 60 years old. I’m sitting in front of the telly and can barely keep my eyes open.

350 years ago, Pepys was forced to bid a fond – and tearful - farewell to his trusty servant Jane, who was going to live in the country with her mother. She obviously didn’t want to leave, and cried a great deal as Pepys handed over her final wage packet, along with a little something extra for having been a loyal servant for three years; “I shall never have one to please us better in all things.” He wrote, rather winsomely. But fear not, dear readers... she will return.

He then went to see his father, and together with his brother, Thomas, got to work on the family accounts. They discovered their father had but 45l in the world, much of which he owed to others. It was a sobering thought. What if he’d died before inheriting money from his brother (Pepys’ Uncle) Robert? What would have become of his good-for-nothing wife?
Aside from a quick visit to the theatre, the rest of the day was spent dealing with family business; discussions about the will, discussions about potential brides for Pepys’ brother, Thomas... At one point, they were met by a veritable deputation of people who wanted to have a go at Pepys’ father for sacking his servant, Ned. We’re not told what Ned’s crime was.

There was a letter waiting from Sandwich when Pepys returned home. All seemed well, but he was still in Alicante with no plans to return to Britain with Catherine de Braganza any time soon. Ms - or Lady – or Princess de Braganza, had been betrothed to Charles II. She was Portuguese, so heaven knows what Sandwich was doing in eastern Spain. The letter was dated July 22nd, so it took about a month to arrive, which probably beats a postcard sent from Spain via the Royal Mail.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Cloudbusting

We're sitting in a rather desperate-looking strip mall in Cambridge, outside Frankie and Benny's. There are plastic flowers on a plastic gingham table cloth, which is wrapped around a plastic table. I had no idea there were such ghastly places in this beautiful city, or, in fact, so many dreadful people! 

We've come to see some friends in an amateur production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, and I'm very excited. 

The journey up was pleasant enough, not least because it gave me an opportunity to watch the progress of the sky, which was filled with the strangest clouds, of every shade from black to white, through brown and yellow. 

This afternoon we played host to an ITV crew who were interviewing us about our unpleasant experience with bailiffs. They crammed into our living room with various cameras and microphones and for some reason, I suddenly lost the ability to say anything either concisely, or with any meaning. Still, Nathan was on good form, and I think they went away happy enough.

350 years ago, and Pepys was in a pickle. Lady Batten and her daughter had been  looking at Elizabeth "something askew" because, he assumed, she'd not doffed her cap enough in their presence, or as he worded it, "not solicitous for their acquaintance." Good for Elizabeth. 

Pepys, however, was worried. He'd obviously decided that the women in his life were all out of control, for in the evening there was a hideous scene where he and his father ripped into Pall (Pepys' sister-cum-servant) and told her that she was a proud, lazy good-for-nothing and that neither of them wanted anything more to do with her. The row had been manufactured so that Pepys' father would eventually capitulate and offer to take this troublesome, undesirable, ugly woman to the country with him. Oh to have been a 17th Century woman! 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Walking out in the big sky

It’s been a long, long day, and my feet feel like two lumps of iron.

The morning was spent in my new cafe, working on the latter stages of the Offertory in my Requiem. This movement seems to have written itself, incredibly quickly, primarily, I suspect, because I've given the music so much space. I set out to write something a little less four-square this time; a movement with slightly more rhythmic flexibility for the performers. One of Fiona’s criticisms about what I’ve written so far is that I've tended to rather mark out every beat with music; I've filled all the spaces, and as Nathan puts it; "never knowingly underscored." This is a criticism which rings very true, and I'm going to need to do a large amount of pruning when I start the second draft.

I worked until lunchtime, and then went into town with Fiona, to visit the Vorticist exhibition at Tate Britain. Vorticism is a fascinating artistic movement which started just before the First World War and sadly petered out before the end, partially, one suspects, because a number of its exponents were killed in the trenches. I suppose it sits somewhere between futurism, cubism and dadasim in the spectrum of early 20th Century creative movements. A lot of the art work it generated focuses on metalic-looking, geometric shapes, in muted browns and greys, but there’s also an element of primitivism, which probably intensified as the horrors of the Great War began to emerge.

A little-known fact about my even less well-known musical, Blast, (which you can hear here) is that it’s based on the Vorticist manifesto, which goes by the same name. The Vorticists never took themselves too seriously, and routinely wrote long lists of things they despised under the heading “Blast.” So, for example, they would “Blast Lyons Corner houses, and Beecham pills” and various artistic figures who they'd fallen out with during the week of publication. The opposite of blast was bless. So the Vorticists duly blessed hairdressers... or the French (although they also blasted the French!) There was little consistency, but tenuous reasons were often supplied for their black and white opinions.

It was fascinating to see some of the paintings and passages from the manifesto which had inspired my musical, and I realised how lucky, and, let’s face it, ahead of my time, I was to stumble upon the original manifesto in the British Library in the late 1990s and recognise it as something unique. Bless me, bless Fiona for coming with me, and bless those wonderful Vorticists!
The original Vorticist manifesto front page. The original was a far more shocking pink!

We met up with one of Fiona’s friends, Anthony, at the art gallery, and sat on the steps for some time, comparing dreadful reviews we’d received over the course of our careers. Anthony was once described as "a diminutive man in a cheap, second-hand suit" but I think I trumped everyone with the weird internet stalker I attracted around the time of A Symphony for Yorkshire. He’s the weird bloke who seemed to think it was appropriate to not just write a poem warning me to back away from Yorkshire, but record himself reading it in a sort of creepy “I’m out of my tiny mind” kind of way. You can see the astonishing clip here.
We walked around the rest of the Tate, and I fell in love with a painting of the sea by Turner. I’m not usually a big fan of paintings of the sea – or paintings for that matter – but this one moved me. There was something about the dream-like swirls of light, and the colour of the sky.

This print does nothing to capture the magical light of the painting I saw

We walked from the Tate to Westminster to look at the cenotaph, and then up to Soho where we ate in a cheap Italian restaurant on Old Compton Street. The food, and a remarkable pink and powder blue sky, that Turner would have been proud of, gave us a second wind, and we walked through Fitzrovia, around Regent’s Park, up to Camden and all the way to Kentish Town, where we finally got on a bus back to Highgate. I think we must have walked ten miles today, and I've loved every minute.
Check out that sky!

August 24th 1661, and the diary presents us with a passage that I quoted in the second movement of my motet. Because it’s so fabulous, I feel the need to quote it here in full.

By and by we are called to Sir William Batten's to see the strange creature that Captain Holmes hath brought with him from Guiny; it is a great baboon, but so much like a man in most things, that though they say there is a species of them, yet I cannot believe but that it is a monster got of a man and she- baboon. I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs
Fabulous!


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes

I woke up this morning to find a river running down the Archway Road. It was absolutely pissing it down. I took an umbrella from our kitchen draw and tried to walk up to Highgate Village, but got as far as the end of our alleyway before being forced to find a more local cafe.

Within about a minute my umbrella had collapsed, and frankly, I’d have stayed drier by walking about with a tissue on the end of a straw above my head.
I took myself to a cafe on the Archway Road near Fiona’s house. I’m not sure why I’ve never been there before. I think I thought it was some kind of Thai restaurant because it serves noodles at lunch time alongside coffee and cake. Stepping inside was like finding a new home. It’s a quirky sort of place; double fronted, with all sorts of antiques, mirrors and general bric-a-brac hanging from the windows and stuffed into the corners. I sat at a sewing machine table, which still had a working mechanism underneath, which gave my feet a little something to fiddle with... ADHD? Me?
My new friend, Keeley was in there with her daughter, and her husband, who’s a film director, seemed to be doing the cafe owner a favour by working behind the counter! Fiona popped in, and we all had a lovely little chat, and for the first time in a long time, I began to feel like part of a community, which is very rare in London. I shall definitely go there again.

On my way home, I walked past a new shop, which is one of those places that doesn’t seem to sell anything in particular. There are displays of weird shiny stones in the window, and strange rag dolls. Inside, I could make out a shelf covered in ornate mugs. There were two mannequins at the side of the shop displaying two rather ordinary-looking dresses. It was all a bit weird. A forlorn-looking woman was sitting behind the shop counter, hoping, one assumes, against hope that someone might be drawn into her crazy little world. I’ve never seen a customer in there, and this makes me feel incredibly sad.
Readers will be thrilled to hear that it is “rabbit month” at our local vet. What is a rabbit month, I wonder? Free neutering? Cheap hay? Little parties where children sit with rabbits shivering on their laps? I hate rabbits. I used to love them. They’re silly creatures. Mind you, the worst rodents of the lot are guinea pigs. Nasty little, frightened, pointless shaky things. Our friend Mo, who we stayed with in Malvern, was looking after a guinea pig which spent its entire time hiding underneath a little wicker basket. What’s the point in a pet which is too frightened to do anything but hide?

And what of Pepys? Well, 350 years ago, he called in on his parents to find them tearing strips off one another. He obviously blamed his mother, who he had started to despise, describing her as “simple and unquiet.” He spent the afternoon with his father and various lawyers trying to settle his uncle’s will. In the evening, he took his wife to the theatre to watch The Witts, which he’d already seen... twice.
I am about to go and see The Wizard of Oz, which is, frankly, much more exciting.

Monday, 22 August 2011

This is a song of colour

I’m sitting in the kitchen, watching a very painful television programme which features wannabe stand-up comedians. They keep blanking, and many of the jokes they’re telling are dropping like stones in a wishing well. It’s one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve seen in a while. Canon and Ball are judging. I haven’t seen them since 1986, when they became the Chuckle Brothers. The whole thing reminds me of Edinburgh Festivals in my youth, when we used to go to the Bear Pit and mercilessly boo stand-up comedians off the stage. I’ve seen people throwing tomatoes and pint glasses, and performers bursting into tears. The journey towards becoming stand-up has to be one of the most horrifying that any person can ever wish to go on. It takes someone with the thickest skin, and an ego the size of a bus to succeed. Never let any comedian tell you that they’re shy and retiring.

I worked all day today on the Offertory sequence of my Requiem, which features the first of the Latin texts that I shall not be quoting in full. There are certain statements that I simply don’t agree with, others that I find dull. It’s the passage; “Oh Lord, we offer you sacrifices and prayers of praise” however, that makes me feel most uncomfortable. I refuse to imbue the word “sacrifice” with any other meaning than that which accompanied it when it was written, and I don’t want to honour a phrase I resent by taking the time to set it music. I don’t believe phrases like this should be brought to a wider audience – and I don’t feel hypocritical in any way. There’s not a single Christian who doesn’t take huge liberties when deciding which parts of the Bible to follow.
I ache all over. We went to the gym, and I ran 6km, and then Fiona and I went for the mother of all walks around the edge of Hampstead Heath. We’re told the weather is going to get really nasty tomorrow, and I guess, as the sands of summertime start to vanish into the bottom half of the hour glass, we need to take advantage of any sunlight we can find, however watery. The Heath looked lovely tonight, and was covered in very happy-looking dogs. The sunset over the A1 was astonishing; like a slab of marble with smudgy veins of pink and deeper red.

Thursday 22nd August, 1661, and Pepys went to his Uncle Fenner’s house, who was having some kind of party. Unfortunately the place was desperately over-crowded and the house became too hot for Pepys and his father to bear. They went instead to a pub to cool off a little before going to Pepys’ Auntie Wight’s house to sup upon a Westphalia ham, whatever that is. Ham is pig, right?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

This woman's work

It’s been a day of obsessive house-tidying. I woke up this morning and walked into the kitchen to find a mountain of dirty dishes, a bin that smelt of rotten fruit, and a table covered in piles of paper. It made me feel embarrassed and then sick. My new regime of early starts and productive days of writing starts again tomorrow, and it’s almost impossible to organise a messy mind like mine, when everything around you is in a state of shocking shambles. I started with the kitchen and worked through the house at lightning speed, throwing cloths into every corner, and wiping, polishing and washing floors and surfaces so thoroughly that a number of sponges simply disintegrated.  I was a whirling dervish, the super hero of clean, a one-man Cillet Bang. I'd built up such a sweat by lunchtime that I almost had to take a second bath.

We went to see brother Edward and Sascha this evening. Sascha made a fabulous lasagne and we watched the X Factor. We say it every year; that by the time this season ends, it will have snowed and we’ll have bought all our Christmas presents. And it is a weird thought. Summer, for most gay men starts with Eurovision and ends with the judges houses on the X factor!
The view of the Millennium dome from Edward and Sascha’s house was particularly pleasant today. As the sun set it became increasingly golden, and then slightly pink. It has to be one of the greatest views in London and I always rather take it for granted. After dark, the dome starts to glow magestically, and then all manner of boats and things pass in front of it, covered in little twinkly lights, which reflect perfectly in the black water of the Thames. I could sit on his balcony for hours watching them...

How many people have this view from their balcony?

Wednesday 21st August 1661, and Pepys went with his father to see a lady called Mrs Terry, who’d suggested her sister as a potential wife for Pepys brother, Tom. Marriage was a complicated business in those days, which in many cases was more about money than romance; the woman usually expected to come with dowry of some description – in this case, 200l. Pepys was keen. He didn’t think much of his siblings. His sister Pall was working as his servant because he considered her to be so undesirable, and Tom was a troubled bloke with a speech impediment, who would die from a sexually transmitted disease within a couple of years. He tended to prefer the company of servants and wasn't exactly a catch... so any offer was to be taken seriously. And in case you’re wondering, Pepys and Elizabeth were rare in the fact that they actually married for love. Elizabeth didn’t come with a dowry but Sam loved her too much to care.
Astonishingly, we also discover in this entry that Lady Sandwich had given birth to a little girl on the previous day. I don’t think I remember reading that she was even pregnant, and she certainly seemed to be going about her business without making a great deal of fuss! Mind you, she’d had about 10 children, so at a certain point, it must have felt a bit like shelling peas. She was 36 years old, and this child was her last, and went by the name of Catherine. She was blessed with longevity, and lived to the ripe old age of 96!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

But every time in rains

I travelled back from Malvern this morning and as soon as I arrived in London, the heavens opened. I took advantage of a gap in the clouds to go for a little walk, but immediately got soaking wet. I might as well have thrown myself in a river, or just sat in a puddle and waited to be run over by a bus! It was hot as well, so after the rain had stopped, I couldn’t tell what was water and what was sweat. It’s my least favourite form of weather and it makes me deeply irritable. I’d rather a driving gale than rain on a muggy day. I was speaking on the phone to Fiona whilst walking up Highgate West Hill, when it suddenly became clear that I’d sweated into the earpiece to the extent that I couldn’t hear her any more. I had to hang up and let the phone dry out!

I genuinely don’t have anything else of interest to say. The rain has cleared and it’s turned into a very pleasant evening, so Fiona and I are going for a nice walk, which I’m very much looking forward to now that I’ve dried myself off a little bit.

It’s a double bill in the land of Pepys today. In order to find 3G reception on my iphone in Worcestershire last night, I had to drive down about sixty country lanes, so was unable to access the internet to see what our 17th Century friend was up to.

On the 19th August, 1661, Lady Sandwich came to collect her sons John, Oliver and Sidney Montagu, who’d been living with Pepys since their brother had contracted a disease similar to small pox. Said brother was well enough to be taken out of quarantine, so it was time for the lads to go home. Pepys had obviously enjoyed their company. He always longed for his own children. When he came home at the end of the day, to a relatively empty house, he described himself as “troubled” to have lost their company.

During the day he did business in Whitehall and whilst waiting to meet a couple of Lords, he was fairly surprised to see the King drifting through a room “in a plain common riding-suit and velvet cap, in which he seemed a very ordinary man to one that had not known him.” As my Grannie said, “they’ve all got blood” even if it is blue...

Pepys went to Chelsea after lunch, and sat for some time in an alehouse with his mate Mr Moore, but by the time they’d finished, their coach had buggered off, so they were forced to walk home, which Pepys, ever the miser, wasn’t hugely bothered about. Besides, as they walked, they met interesting people, and by the time they’d reached Westminster had made all sorts of new friends including a lutenist, who they took for a drink and a bit of a sing song.

Tuesday August 20th was a quiet day for Pepys spent entirely at the Navy office. I can’t think how to make that statement sound more interesting, so I’ll just leave you with a joke.

Q. Why did the girl fall off the swing?
A. Because she had no arms.

Friday, 19 August 2011

It gets dark

I'm in a little village outside Malvern in a ramshackle Victorian house watching logs burning on an open fire. The smell is intense. It reminds me of Christmases as a child. I suppose there's something a little doleful about an open fire. It implies the onslaught of autumn. The nights are definitely drawing in...

I don't know this part of the world, but its incredibly pretty. It's where Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams all come from, and the breathtaking scenery obviously inspired them all.

As the sun set, we drove to the top of the Worcestershire Beacon, slowly snaking our way through the little villages which lined the route. One of them was hosting an art fair and most of the garages in the place had been thrown open and lined with paintings. A hugely eccentric sight.

The higher we drove, the more intensely lime-green everything became. I have seldom seen such beautiful shards of light raining through the over-hanging trees.

We stopped by the side of the road at a fountain which was gushing with water from two taps. This was famous Malvern spring water, and it was free for anyone passing to drink.

My Dad and I walked to the summit of the hill as the sun set. The views were staggering. They say you can see three counties from there; Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, but I'm convinced you could see as far as Wales to the West and Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in the East. The sun was disappearing behind dark clouds and throwing all sorts of peculiar patterns of light across the plain. What was really interesting about the view up there was to see how the ridge of hills had created a "rain shadow". The fields to the east were yellowing and brittle whilst the fields to the west were much greener and better watered. Intriguing.

A rare photograph of my father climbing up the hill

And here he is at the top...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The buidings look just like mountains

I’ve been in the south east corner of London all day today. I went there to visit two graveyards; one in Woolwich, and one in Bexley Heath. The Woolwich cemetery was a sort of double-graveyard, and it had a really heavy, dark atmosphere, which I didn't like at all. The first part was almost an empty field with a very steep gradient and nasty scrubby grass. There was something very wrong with it. The few graves that were still standing were scattered around, with enormous spaces of grass between them. Many of the others were lined up in rows against the cemetery walls. It was as though they’d all been swept aside with a giant brush - the graveyard equivalent of slum clearance - or lifted from another graveyard and simply dumped on the site. The place felt ill at ease. There was a violence there, like the bones had been separated or ripped apart, like nothing was resting in peace. It was a very unsettling experience.

The more official area of the graveyard was, in total contrast, overcrowded. It looked more like a Jewish cemetery, with rows and rows of graves crammed into neat lines. The wind was howling through the place, and everything seemed incredibly bleak. At one stage, I almost jumped out of my skin, when I heard the words “I love you very much” coming from a whispered voice which seemed to be directly behind me. I looked around to see a woman, probably 50 metres away, standing, talking to a loved one. I found it very moving, not just to see her there, talking to the gravestone, but to think that the wind should have chosen to carry that particular phrase to me.
I’m constantly astonished by how much segregation there is in this world – even in death. Every cemetery I’ve visited has got individual sections for Muslims, Catholics, Greek Orthodox... Even within these divisions are further divisions. Today, for example, I spent a great deal of time wandering through an area of Turkish graves, before heading into a section within the Christian zone where the majority of inmates were black. From my perspective, it would be wonderful to think it would be possible for a Muslim to be able to tend a grave next to a Christian, so that both could see that grief is grief and death is death, regardless of religion or colour. As my Grannie would say in her faintly racist way; "they've all got blood." Except, of course, the born again Christians, who don't have blood, they have fart bubbling through their veins.

The second graveyard was a great deal more beautiful; situated on a hillside in Bexleyheath, which would appear to be a particularly green suburb of the capital. It's one of those lovely spots where bits of the greenbelt begin to creep into the urban landscape. The first gravestone I saw there belonged to Damilola Taylor, the little boy who was stabbed to death by other children in an estate, I think, in Peckham. The wording on his gravestone was very moving; “I will travel far and wide to chose my destiny and remould the world. I know it is my destiny to defend the world, which I hope to achieve during my lifetime.” (Damilola 2000) I assume it’s something he wrote one day at school. Sadly, it seems that in death he could well have achieved his goals.  

There was a rather nasty, beady bloke driving around the cemetery, who'd obviously decided I shouldn’t be there. He drove past, unwound his window and said; “can I help you at all?” I was tempted to use the line I use in all shops and say; “no thanks, I’m just looking...” but ended up saying; “no, no... I’m just searching for inspiration.” It felt better than telling him I was writing a Requiem, which could well have opened up a massive can of worms. I decided if he asked me to elaborate that I'd lie and say I was looking for a good poem to use on a relative’s gravestone. I didn't need to. He sort of nodded, and went away. He returned a few minutes later; “this is a cemetery" he said, rather obviously "and I wouldn't want any of our relatives to be upset.” The place was empty. I couldn't think of anything to say, so just smiled. I was hardly dancing on the gravestones. He vanished again, and immediately returned to say; “and you’re not really meant to take photos.” Not really meant to? Surely it's either allowed or it's not? Perhaps I was meant to reach for my wallet? I'm sure he's taken plenty of pictures to show to people who are prepared to pay wildly inflated sums of money to be buried in his cemetery. And by his cemetery, I mean the council's cemetery. I nevertheless put the camera in my bag, and started walking towards the exit. I really didn't want to be thrown out of the place.

I went to Lesnes Abbey instead, which sits on the other side of the beautiful wooded hill behind the graveyard. I’d wanted to visit the place ever since Philippa recommended it to me. It’s essentially a ruined abbey, which overlooks the grey concrete buildings of Thamesmead. The 1960s concrete towers poke up behind the 13th Century abbey walls and create the mother of all juxtapositions. The trees around the abbey are full of strange birds like parakeets and jays. Flashes of greens and yellows everywhere I looked...

Lesnes and Thamesmead

I couldn’t resist a trip to Thamesmead. It’s probably the most extreme example of 1960s brutality in London, and as such has become the setting for a series of dark, brutal films and TV shows. Clockwork Orange, Beautiful Thing, Misfits... I'd never been before, and because of the aforementioned films, I fully expected to be blown away by its eccentric, symmetrical, quirky concrete beauty. Actually the place  just seemed a little tawdry. Based around a lake, it felt like a shittier version of York University - and the water smelt horrific; like rotten eggs and plastercine. I can't imagine living there.

Nasty...

I returned home to the official news that my pitch had been unsuccessful, which is a shame, but, as I say, you win some, you lose some. It's someone else’s gig to get excited about. They did give me the opportunity to have another bash, but frankly there wasn’t enough of a sense from producers of what they wanted from the music, so I ran a mile instead.
18th August 1661 was a Sunday, and Pepys, went to St Olave's church, before taking lunch at the Wardrobe with Lady Sandwich, where he discovered the family's young heir, who had been gravely ill, faring a little better. He was up and walking around. General Monck, however, was still poorly... Did I mention that he was ill, with plague-like symptoms? Pepys went for a walk in St James’ Park, where he too, saw loads of strange birds floating and flying around. Bet he didn't see a parakeet!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

There's a photograph where you're dancing on your grave

So, we had the long-awaited response today from Haringey Council regarding our problem with their bailiffs. It came from someone called Gary Weston, who's not dealt with us before, but didn't see any need to introduce himself. He's also taken himself off for 2 1/2 weeks' leave, so any attempts to negotiate with him will prove rather fruitless. His email is deeply clinical and exceptionally badly written! I’ve enclosed it below, with my response. I think what upsets me most of all is that no one, throughout this entire process, has felt the need to say sorry to us, or even sympathise with us. It would have been no skin off Mr Weston’s nose to start the letter by simply saying; “I’m so sorry things went so badly wrong”, but, as discussed in previous blog entries, this really doesn’t seem to be the way of things these days.

I went to two more North London cemeteries today. Who’d’ve thought there were so many dead Londoners?! The first one, in East Finchley, is also known as Marylebone cemetery, one assumes because the (then) greenfield plot was originally purchased as a alternative to over-crowding in churchyards in that part of central London. It's an incredibly pleasant, peaceful graveyard, well-maintained and filled with beautiful flowers. Unfortunately a police helicopter was buzzing around overhead for at least 30 minutes, and the constant noise really started to irritate me, before beginning to freak me out. It was circling the cemetery at a very low level and I kept wondering if there was some kind of criminal rushing about with a gun. The cemetery was empty and I got most indignant at one stage that police on the ground hadn’t told me to vacate the place for my own safety. Just before it disappeared forever, I’d even started to wonder if it was me that they were observing! Stranger cases of mistaken identity have happened, although I'd have be a very useless criminal on the run, walking very slowly from grave to grave, armed with nothing but a cup of tea in a polystyrene cup and a camera.


The cemetery yielded many lovely gravstone quotes, my favourite of which was for a man who “loved London... and the cinema.” PC Blakelock was also there. He's the policeman who was murdered in Tottenham's last riot, the infamous Broadwater Farm business. It felt rather strange to stumble upon his grave, particularly in the light of recent news.
The second graveyard was up in Hendon, and was a great deal less inspiring. It's an uglier place and there were too many ill-conceived quasi-religious inscriptions, which left me feeling rather cold. Why do so many people go for the poem that goes; “it broke our hearts to lose you but you didn’t go alone, for part of us went with you when God called you home?” And why doesn't it scan properly? And why are graveyards littered with shockingly awful rhymes? Surely these dead people meant more to those they left behind than being forced to suffer the humiliation of having the same epitaph as the person next door for eternity? That’s like a ground hog day when you constantly attend a cocktail party in the same dress as someone better looking! Note to everyone reading this blog; think before you chose your epitaphs. When the stone mason shows you a book of poems, say thanks, but no thanks, because if it’s in there, however moving you find it, it’ll be on a million and one other gravestones. Write something original. Something about the person. It doesn't have to rhyme. It probably shouldn't rhyme. Choose something that makes that person more than a statistic; something that makes the millions of people who will pass their grave in  the years to come think; “oh I bet he was a nice bloke.” Rant over!


Here’s the council response...
Dear Mr Till

I am now in a position to be able to respond to you having looked into all of the issues that you have raised. As previously arranged a refund of the fees to the Bailiff was made previously. Please firstly accept my apologies for the delay in replying beyond our normal timelines.

We contacted DVLA via our secure electronic link to obtain vehicle keeper details on 2nd October 2009 and information was provided to us on 5th October 2009. For the other second notice we made a request on 14th April 2010 and information was provided on 15th April 2010.

For both of the Penalty Notices, we were provided with the address of 353a Archway Road.

Appeals were made and correspondence was received showing the correct address of 343a Archway Road. Unfortunately we are required to contact the DVLA to obtain details of the registered keeper and accordingly the information from DVLA (although the wrong address) was correctly used.

The DVLA have confirmed that their records with the correct address were updated in December 2010 and if Mr Gaitch requires copies of that correspondence he should write to them directly.

We do not have the resources to contact those individuals personally where payment of penalty notices is outstanding and we are not permitted to make use of Council Tax records in this way either.

No County Court Judgements were or have been sought in this matter and it will not be recorded in anyway against Mr Gaitch. Our Bailiffs, whilst undertaking their duties on our behalf, are expected to do so in an ethical and professional manner at all times. All parking debts are registered with the Traffic Enforcement Centre, which is based at Northampton. Equita have offices in a number of locations including Northampton and London.

The address for the warrant was different to that of the premises they visited and this should not have happened. We are taking this incident very seriously and it will be subject to a further review when I met with our Bailiffs, when I return from leave on 5th September 2011.

As explained previously, the address error was not something that we were directly responsible for.

I am satisfied that we could have done nothing different with the information received from the DVLA. I am however mindful of the actions of the Bailiff visiting an address different to that on the warrant and I am willing to refund the sums you have paid to us, in recognition of this error and the difficulties subsequently caused. These will be refunded in the next 14 days.

If you are unhappy with my response, you can get a senior manager to look at your complaint at the Service Investigation Stage (Stage 2) of our procedure.
If you would like us to arrange a Service Investigation, you should tell our Complaints Officer what you remain dissatisfied about and what you want us to do. This normally has to be done within 12 months of this response. The contact details are:



(...titty blah titty blah)


My response was sent to our local MP, Lynne Featherstone, who has been brilliant all along. I simply copied Mr Weston in on it, 'cus I had no idea who he was, and he hadn't bothered to introduce himself.


Hey there,

Unfortunately, I am still slightly unhappy with this response because no one has yet apologised for the extreme bother and upset that this business has caused. Or, for that matter, given us PROOF that Nathan's credit rating will not be affected by this court business. Mr Weston says that the council don't seek CCJs, but the fact remains that Mr Gaitch was taken to court. So exactly what court proceedings were undertaken and what are the possible implications for Mr Gaitch? Is it even legal to take someone to court without having proof that this person has received notification?

I am sceptical as to why the DVLA would have an incorrect address for us, and furthermore why this would have been changed in December 2010. What prompted them to change the address? I'm also not sure why it is the DVLA's responsibility to send us this information, and why Mr Weston feels it's appropriate for us to go further out of our way to ask that this information be sent to us. Mr Weston does not even provide us with a contact name at the DVLA. What are we to do? Just call the switch board and spend another full day trying to get to the bottom of things?
 
I am also unclear as to what Mr Weston means by compensation. In the light of the fact that we had a valid permit to park, are they planning to pay us back £100 for the original two fines as a gesture of good will? I think this would be acceptable, but need to know that this is the plan.
 
It's the apology, however, that I would love most of all. It doesn't take much to say "we're sorry you've been through all of this." There is, it seems, fault on all sides... except ours... and I don't think it would take a great deal to acknowledge this.
 
Following the press interest that this case has generated, we've been asked to take part in an ITV documentary which looks into the behaviour of bailiffs - and those who employ them - so I think it would do the council no harm at all to talk very sternly to the bailiffs it employs to make sure that they do, indeed, behave in an "ethical and professional manner." I am seriously concerned to see that Mr Weston thinks it's only necessary to rap their knuckles for getting our address wrong, and not for frightening us, using physical threats and extorting money from us in the full knowledge that we were a) innocent and b) trying to get to see Nathan's mother who had recently had a heart attack!
 
Mr Weston's letter will be handed to the documentary makers and I have left him a message to call me to discuss these remaining issues when he returns from his annual 2 1/2 weeks' leave.
 
I do not want to have to go to the bother of taking this issue to a higher level at the council and feel that all of these concerns can and should be addressed by Mr Weston. They are very small points in the scheme of things and I think it's the least we can expect after waiting the best part of a month for a response.
 
I remind everyone, once again, that this entire business has been costly, upsetting and hugely time consuming. A refund of the £100 we have paid to the council in those two parking fees would barely cover the cost of phone calls made to sort the matter out, but it's a gesture we would both appreciate. 
 
Regards
Benjamin


And what of Pepys? Well, 350 years ago, after a morning spent working at the Privy Seal office, he went to the newly refurbished St James’ Park with his distant cousin Ned Pickering from Northamptonshire. Pickering had been working in the royal palace, was a little holier than thou, and had become the source of much gossip - which would eventually see him disgraced. What he said upset Pepys. It sounded like Charles II’s court was completely out of control, and Pepys worried that it would lead to the ruin of the country. 

By the way... is this cute, or sinister?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Every old sock meets an old shoe

Just after lunchtime today, I drove to Enfield to deliver my pitch. They've been filming the drama in a big old Victorian school up there, and when I arrived a group of children on scooters were bombing their way through the school hall, screaming wildly, followed by the actress Sue Johnson. Unfortunately, circumstance dicated that I was forced to play what I'd written on a laptop, which felt like about the worst way to showcase my work. I could barely hear the music over the whirring of my computer and I’m not sure the response to it could have been more lukewarm! I guess you win some and you lose some. Incidental music is a strange beast. It’s either right or it’s not. You get it or you don’t, and I suspect on this occasion, it was someone else’s turn to hit the nail on the head. Still, I’ve seldom laughed as much as I did in the studio yesterday, and it's important to embrace any opportunity to have one's work recorded.

So, it's out of the bubble and back to the grindstone. I think tomorrow I may well go to Greenwich to have a look at the maritime graveyard there. I've officially used up all my cemetery quotes, but still have two movements left to write. Seeing as the work is continually pushing me towards thoughts of wide expanses of water, I can think of no better graveyard to visit than this one. I have to say, I'm tired of writing the requiem now. I need to get to a stage, rather rapidly, where I can stick the first draft in a bottom drawer, and return to it with a fresh, objective pair of ears. I've written close to an hour's worth of music, and my brain is fried.

We went to Stingray in Kentish Town for tea today and had their Prix Fixe as a sort of “tomorrow the regime changes and I get fit again” gesture. When you’re a freelancer you crave routine; even just the routine of going up the hill to the village to write at 9am every morning becomes a form of pilgrimage. Too much time spent bouncing from one weird, unstructured day to another can end up being incredibly unsettling. It makes me feel like a drifter, which is the most dreadful thought of them all...

When I first moved to London, I lived in Hackney with my friend Jo and her sister. At one point, a bloke in his 30s moved in with us. He was an (unsuccessful) actor, had crazy shoulder length curly hair and used to pay his rent in cash, which he took from a sort of roll of money that he kept in his pocket. I remember being utterly horrified that someone of his age could have such a rootless existence, and that, at the age of (I guess he was no older than about) 34, he would not have a mortgage, or any desire to live like a grown up.

I’m now 37, and I don’t have a mortgage, or a pension... I wonder how horrified I’d have been of me!

Friday 16th August, 1661 and an ill-wind was blowing. Pepys went to the Navy office and found the place almost empty. Most of his clerks had gone to the funeral of Tom Whitton, who Pepys described as vibrant young man, and as likely to live as any of the clerks in his office. Whitton had died of the plague - and this was officially the first reference in Pepys' diary to the calamitous disease. “It is such a sickly time both in City and country" he wrote "every where (of a sort of fever), that never was heard of almost, unless it was in a plague-time.” A number of other celebrities of the day had also died, or were seriously ill with “fever-like symptoms.” It would take a while to reach pandemic levels but little did our hero know that within 4 years, something like a quarter of Londoners would be dead.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Across the water

It’s been a long old day and we’ve been in a recording studio for much of it. Heaven knows how Fiona must be feeling, who was in Liege this morning and came to the studio directly from the Eurostar.

We were recording our pitch for a TV comedy series. Heaven knows if we’ll be successful. I assume some of the other writers who are pitching for the same job will have a great deal more experience when it comes to this kind of composing, and home studios designed to better bring it to life at this stage. What telly people like is a nice safe pair of hands, and though I consider mine to be the safest around, I reckon I might be perceived as more of a musicals man. Still, I’ve had a lot of fun in the process, and today, particularly, was an absolute blast.

At lunchtime, four female singers were clustered around a microphone pretending to be a choir of children, which has to be one of the most hysterical things I’ve ever witnessed. I’m not actually sure whether anyone listening would realise that it wasn’t children singing. They were utterly convincing and afterwards, not a single one of them could pick out their own voice within the kosher sound.

The laughter in the studio reached fever pitch with Fiona’s recorder solo... Yes, I scored the work to include a recorder. Why on earth wouldn’t I? It’s set in a school! Anyway, the only recorder I could find came from my parents’ house in Thaxted and seemed to have been partially eaten by a small child... so much, in fact, that Fiona was forced to disinfect it before she dared blow into it. “There’s bacteria on this from the 1970s!” she yelled...

Suffice to say, that, over time, the recorder had lost a little bit of its ability to play in tune, and after one take, which was almost a semi-tone sharp, Fiona uttered the immortal question “should I pull it out a bit?” There are very few people who would find this funny. It's not the sexual innuendo that we were lauging at. In fact, I suspect the only person reading this who will now be smiling is our old friend, Sam. It was the line we’d always hear in youth orchestras coming from the wind section. They’d play a solo - out of tune – and then someone, usually the conductor, would say; “try pulling it out a bit...” referring to the mouthpiece of the instrument, which is how most wind instruments are tuned. Anyway, in the context of a moth-eaten recorder, the line seemed hysterically funny, and Fiona and I howled uncontrollably with laughter, to the extent that the session came to a crashing halt.

Aside from my friends Ellie and Michelle, we were also lucky enough to be joined by Leanne Jones, who was the original Tracy Turnblatt in the West End production of Hair Spray. Nathan sent out a round-robin text to some of his friends and colleagues this morning when it looked like our choir of children might consist of me and my imaginary friend Ruth the Mong. Anyway, we were delighted when Leanne turned up. She's an Olivier Award winnning actress and she was particularly good at accessing her inner child!

We came home this evening, and I cooked for everyone.Whilst eating we watched a documentary about the Placebo World Tour, which, of course, is what Fiona has been doing for most of the past two years. It's a very beautiful film, and it was incredible to see Fiona playing in front of thousands of people in pretty much every country in the world!

After dinner I played her my Requiem... or what exists of my Requiem so far, and she made some very good comments, including the observation that my movement about Jacqueline du Pre doesn’t feel like part of the overall work. And she’s right. Of course it doesn’t mean that the piece doesn’t work in its own world, but not in the world of my Requiem, which I'm increasingly viewing as a sort of ocean, filled with tiny drowning people who are waving – desperate – but not expecting to be heard. It was quite astonishing, therefore, when I discovered that the last line of the entire piece – purely by chance – has turned out to be the text that I found on the gravestone of a former navy man; “you weathered the storm, reached harbour safely, horizon is peaceful. Ahoy!” And frankly, I can think of no better, or more uplifting message to leave an audience with at the end of what is bound to be a very upsetting experience.

And speaking of great navy men, young master Pepys (for let us not forget that he was just 27 at this stage of the diary) spend the day at the Privy Seal office in Whitehall doing, well, stuff. He lunched with Lady Sandwich, and was able to bring with him the good news that her husband, somewhere off the coast of Spain, had not yet died, and in fact, rumour had it that he'd fully recovered from whatever had been wrong with him. Seemingly trapped wind! Lady Sandwich was unconvinced. In those days rumours were often wrong. For all she knew, he was already dead... The definite good news, however, was that young master Sandwich, who had been close to death the day before, was now showing signs of recovery. The worst was over.

After lunch, Pepys went to The Opera, that swanky new theatre at Lincoln’s Inn, which was showing a new play, The Witts, by Sir William Davenant. The King and Duke of York were there. It had rapidly become the place to be seen, and by all accounts, The Witts was a thoroughly decent play, so no one was complaining.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A little piece of rope won't hold it together

We're at Daryl and Philip's house in Kensington listening to show tunes whilst talking about the sorrowful state of musical theatre in this country. Well, that's what I'm talking about. I seem to be standing on a soap box, spitting vitriol. I didn't know I felt so passionately about the subject! There is no investment in young writing talent over here. None whatsoever. In the States, every university has a programme for musical theatre composers, and every major city has a bursary which helps people who want to write musicals. Over here there's nothing. I spent ten years failing rather spectacularly to get my head above the parapet as a composer of musical theatre, yet in half that time, have made leaps and bounds in the medium of television. It's very wrong! Musical theatre is falling apart...

Otherwise, it's been a very relaxing day, so much that there's very little to report. I slept in late, very late, and then we sort of pottered about, watching telly and eating pasta. I'd love to say I'm more interesting than that, but I'm not. 

350 years ago, Pepys went with the two Sir Williams to see the Duke of York. They wanted to whinge about the state of the navy and the lack of funding which was creating disillusionment within the rank and file. This argument would continue for years to come, and reach crisis point in 1667 when the Dutch invaded the country. 

In the afternoon, Pepys went to see The Alchemist at the theatre with Captain Ferrers. The evening was spent in the company of Sir William Penn (father of the father of Pennsylvania) and a bottle of wine. Lovely.  



Saturday, 13 August 2011

Tu as des ailes

I walked to the Caledonian Road with Fiona today. We wandered through Waterlow Park, up Brecknock Road and down York Way, catching up on 6 months’ gossip in the process. She introduced me to a really cool network of warehouses filled with music shops and rehearsal spaces, which I was surprised to know existed. She was buying various cables and pedals for a live gig this evening where she’s playing electric violin with a DJ... She’s so cool.

We walked home via the Holloway Road, and stopped at Amazon Cafe for food. Amazon has been around for as long as I can remember and is famous across North London for the quality of its chips, which are hand cut, and more delicious than anything I could ever describe. The first time I visited the place was over ten years ago, when I was rehearsing a ballet at the former National Youth Music theatre buildings. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t actually in the ballet. For some reason, probably because times were good for the creative industries, it was decided that a director should come into rehearsals in to help the dancers access their inner actors. I made all the right noises – and was thrilled to be given my own dressing room at the Royal Festival Hall for the run of the show - but I was ultimately a huge waste of their money. Once a ballet dancer, always a ballet dancer... and these kids couldn’t even walk without turning their feet out!

Ballet dancers are a funny old breed. They retire probably earlier than members of any other profession, with absolutely wrecked bodies, and then have to retrain as physiotherapists and stage managers. One of the male dancers actually became a porn star. Rehearsals are conducted in absolute silence, and having come from opera, where the choruses behave like six year olds with ADHD, I found the lack of noise almost sinister. The choreographer was the only one who spoke – and that was only to calmly say; “I want a grand bouffant, followed by a passe l’aspirateur, a poisson rouge and then a fait la plait” whereupon, in absolute unison, a group of dancers would sort of float across the room like glorious winged beasts with a routine that would have taken a West End chorus the best part of a day to rehearse. My job was to then go in and say, “now, to make these utterly pointless steps seem more like acting, how about you try to think of something really sad... Imagine someone’s told you you’ll never go on point again... Or that Rymans have run out of tissue paper...” (genuine gasps of horror)

Anyway, to get back to the narrative, whilst rehearsing said ballet, one of the dancers came bounding in one afternoon to inform us that she’d been to this amazing cafe called Amazon where the chips were to die for. She’d had a huge plate of them, she told us, alongside a delicious omelette. I couldn’t quite believe a ballerina had been eating anything other than tissue paper, and kept an eye on her all afternoon to see if she was rushing to the loo for a sneaky vomitting session, but she genuinely seemed to be one of those people who could eat, and more bizarrely, dance on anything.

August 13th, 1661, and young Edward Montagu was still rather gravely ill. Suspecting small pox, his mother, Lady Jemima, immediately dispatched her other three boy children to Pepys’ house. One assumes the girls were left to fend for themselves. After dinner, Pepys went to see his father, who had returned from the country. The two men discussed Pepys’ sister, Pall, who, it had been decided, was no longer welcome to stay with Pepys as his servant. Poor girl... not even useful enough to be her own brother’s servant. Pepys’ father was rowing bitterly with his mother, who had, apparently, turned into a “very simple” woman. This diary entry is utterly misogynistic!

There was a big family meeting in the early evening, with various uncles and such, coming together to read Uncle Robert’s will and thrash out some form of compromise in terms of divvying up the money.

Friday, 12 August 2011

We got the job sussed?

Fiona is back in town, and it was lovely to see her for lunch today. Her hair is a great deal longer than it was the last time I saw her. We ate, with Nathan, in my favourite greasy spoon on the Archway Road. I go there as often as I can for poached eggs and mushrooms. Fiona has been touring in Germany with Placebo this week, and I think too many nights on the tour bus have taken their toll. She retired for an afternoon nap.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on a pitch to write the music for a TV comedy series about a school. The pitch involves writing a theme tune and incidental music for a number of scenes. Writing background music is always a challenge because it requires a completely different set of skills, the most important of which is mathematics. It’s all about timings; working out what time signature and tempo something needs to be in, so that a certain visual moment can be underpinned with an appropriate passage of music. I therefore spend long periods of time with a stop watch surgically attached to my hand. This kind of writing is often about creating music which has no function other than to simply create a mood, and this is a real skill. Sweeping melodies are usually way too distracting for TV music, and I love to write a nice melody. It's also a British comedy, and British comedies don’t tend to use that much music, so there’s very little for me to cross reference. It's one heck of a challenge. Still, after a few days of high-level anxiety, I think I finally cracked it today. I couldn’t have done it without Nathan, of course, who has actually learnt a new computer programme simply to help the process go more smoothly. I do not deserve him...

Because of all this, I've been living a rather hermit-like existence. I wake up and walk into Highgate Village to do a morning of writing, and then come home and write some more. It's a never ending cycle and I must remember not to drink too many cups of tea, which are apparently bad for my voice, alongside pretty much every food stuff that I really enjoy, from vinegar, through pasta sauce, into dairy produce. The voice specialist I saw yesterday was hugely apologetic when she told me that white wine wasn't very good for me, but no pasta sauce? No cheese? No vinegar? Come on!

Fans of Fisher Price nostalgia will be please to read that I've now moved four of my new plastic figures into an aeroplane. They went on a day trip this afternoon to the sofa and have now returned to the book shelves, where they seem to be sitting patiently inside the plane ready to alight. The blonde woman, the one we used to call Sally-Anna, is plainly a drunk, and finds it very difficult to sit upright in her seat. It’s what happens when you realise you’re set to spend eternity wearing the same dress and sporting a timeless, peroxide blonde 1960s hairstyle!

Away home. Looks like the plane's been flying through some volcanic dust clouds...

Speaking of timelessness, 350 years ago, Pepys was told the troubling news that Edward Montagu, the 13 year-old son of Lord Sandwich, was very poorly. Immediately assuming it was something to do with the fruit that he'd fed him two days before, our hero immediately made his way to The Wardrobe (the London residence of the Montagu clan). He found the boy, very ill indeed, but not with food poisoning – with suspected small pox. Even more worrying was the news that Sandwich himself was ill, somewhere off the coast of Alicante. Perhaps he'd spent too many nights clubbing. Pepys went to bed, troubled at the thought of what would happen to the Montagu name if the Lord and his heir both snuffed it simultaneously.

I met a lady once whose husband and son had died on the same night in two different London hospitals; the son of Lupus and the husband of a heart attack. When she heard they were both gravely ill, she didn't know which hospital to visit first. Talk about Sophie's Choice...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Speaking in sympathy

I was back at the Ear, Throat and Nose hospital today, finally getting the opportunity to discover whether my operation in June had been a success. I saw the big cheese, Mr Rubin, and the head of speech therapy, a wonderful Israeli woman called, Ruth. They wanted first to talk about the bad experiences I’d had in the hospital, and in fairness I couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic pair of ears. The first thing Mr Rubin did was apologise profusely, and with that, the anger I'd been carrying around for weeks vanished in a puff of smoke. It's amazing how effective an apology can be. The ability to apologise – and more importantly mean it – is something that separates the great from the mediocre. It doesn’t take very much, and it instantly defuses tension. Even if the other person is still violently angry, he will slowly simmer down, because shouting at someone who is holding their hands up and accepting responsibility becomes ultimately futile.

I’m afraid it’s something of a generational thing. Mr Rubin, I’m sure, will not mind being described as an upper-middle-aged gentleman. He comes from an age of chivalry; an age where people seem to understand the importance of taking responsibility, not just for their own actions, but for the actions of those who work with them. I learnt a great deal in that meeting; mostly about myself.

Anyway, the good news is that my vocal chords have healed “rather perfectly.” Rubin was extremely impressed, and said that I could take full credit, because he could tell that I'd been conscientious, not spoken for a full week after the procedure, and therefore given the chords the time they needed to heal properly. And with that statement my respect for him grew even more. Earlier on, he'd taken responsibility for the bad things that had happened to me - none of which he was personally responsible for - and now he was allowing me to take the credit when plainly the extraordinary success of the operation was entirely brought about by the absolute skill he showed when removing the polyp from my vocal chords. I guess when you're the best in the business, you have nothing left to prove.

In any case, a large weight has gone from my mind. After the session with Rubin, Ruth took me through lots of vocal exercises I can now do to strengthen the muscles and get me singing again.

August 11th, 1661 was a Sunday, and Pepys went to church at St Olave’s in the morning, before heading up to Clerkenwell for the afternoon service, where, by chance, he was able to look longingly at the renowned beauty, Mrs Frances Butler, who was known in society circles as La Belle Boteler. Butler was the sister of the enigmatic friend of our hero, who Pepys referred to as, M. L’Impertinent. After church, Pepys went to Gray’s Inn Fields – a spot where posh Londoners would take the air and simultaneously exchange tittle-tattle. The gossip du jour was about the king, and it really wasn’t very interesting. He’d been out hunting for stags the previous day, and had been so devastatingly thrusting about everything, that all his horses had been run ragged, and only two or three of his courtiers had been able to keep up with him. A man in his prime... And poor Catherine de Breganza was only 12!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Afraid of what might be

I've just been in Old Street, visiting three generations of my god-daughter's family. It seems they've been having quite a rocky time out east with all this rioting and looting. They burned a car two roads away, and Kate, my god daughter's grandmother, could hear them running through the streets in the night. Terrifying, really. Some of the neighbours were apparently sleeping with pitch forks and cleavers hidden behind their front doors, which feels a little wild west!

There are noticeably fewer people on the streets as I walk towards the tube, and not a second passes when I can't hear some form of siren blaring in the distance. Philippa reckons that the police are using their sirens more liberally as a form of deterrent, which makes sense.

Still, the winds are up, which makes me think we might be in for a storm. This may well be just what we need to send the trouble makers packing. That said, there was considerably less violence last night, so maybe the bubble has already burst. 

350 years ago, Pepys met his new maid for the first time. We will never learn a great deal about her. She was called Doll, and according to Pepys, was dog ugly. Unsurprisingly, it was Elizabeth who hired her! 

Pepys had lunch with Lady Sandwich, before taking a group of society types to the theatre to watch The Devil of Edmonton, which sounds somewhat intriguing. After the play, he hired a coach and took them all back to his house for fruit. Very nice. See, he didn't live exclusively on a diet of meat! 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

They're in the trees, they're coming...

We've just been to see Betwixt at the Trafalgar Studios. It's a fairly surreal experience from beginning to end, and not without its flaws, but it's well worth a punt... particularly if you're interested the almost extinct art form of musical theatre written by British composers. The cast are tremendous. Steven Webb, who I'm told is also the partner of Stephen Fry, is a very fine comic actor, but it was most exciting to see the legend that is Ellen Greene live on stage. Greene played Audrey in the film version of Little Shop of Horrors. The Trafalgar Studios is a tiny theatre which seats less than 100, and we were right on the front row. The man who sold us the tickets joked that, "Ms Greene will be siting in your lap." And he was right. I wouldn't want to have been sitting anywhere else. She is a remarkable performer particularly when she bursts into song. She has a fragility about her; a deeply moving vulnerability. She ripped herself apart in her last number - rather needlessly in terms of the material she was performing, but it's what we all wanted to see, because it's what she does like no other performer. It will go down in my list of all time theatrical highs, which include watching Bernadette Peters singing Send in the Clowns and Maggie Smith performing A Bed Amongst the Lentils.

London is bristling tonight. It's on edge. There was rioting all last night, and more is expected. I don't like the idea that my birthday could go down in history as the date of the worst rioting ever experienced in this country. I wish they'd all go and do something more constructive... like commit suicide. My Dad rightly points out that we probably just need a few days of solid rain to send everyone back inside.

It's the only topic of conversation I've heard on my travels today. I've walked past countless people in little clusters on street corners proffering various thoughts and philosophies. "Society is melting" said one woman in a broad New Zealand accent, "I blame the parents. They don't even know their childrens' names." "It's the olympics" said a cockney bloke outside the dole office, "they're diverting too many funds away from people who need it." "Too many years of prosperity," said the Asian man in the shop, "those looters are just too used to having everything given to them on a plate..." And so it goes on. Reason after reason. But we don't need reasons. We need curfews, and jail terms.

We've heard that Kentish Town is in danger tonight, which is suddenly a bit too close for comfort. Our gym was closed early, and as we drove through the district tonight, the place was like a ghost town with shops that would usually be open, dark and shuttered, and all the pubs closed and boarded over. We saw no signs of violence or looting, but the night is young...

We bought tomatoes in Muswell Hill, where people are also worried. Rumours begin to fly around. A homeless person was telling the world that a gang was coming up from Camden Town. I think he was frightened. Though it pains me to say it, I've felt a remarkable sense of community in London today; people wishing each other a good night, and urging each other to stay safe. Perhaps a little external threat does no one any harm...

350 years ago, Pepys wrote an incredibly long diary entry with very little substance! Mr Pearse, the purser was apparently dying, and called Pepys to his bedside to ask him to remain a friend to Mr Pearse after his death. Pepys didn't think he seemed that ill, so took the request with a pinch of salt. Whilst Mr Pearce was dying, or not dying, Thomas Hayter, Pepys' clerk, was about to become a father. Elizabeth Pepys was dispatched to help with the birth (long before official midwives, one assumes), but by midnight, there was still no sign of a child. Pepys, meanwhile, was out drinking and ogling the ladies... Some things never change...