Monday, 31 October 2011

Casting shadows on the walls

Last night we had an adventure on our way home from Brother Edward's house. It was fast approaching midnight and we were very keen to mark the arrival of hallowe'en by hollowing out a pumpkin. It's an age-old family tradition. I've carved pumpkins on October 31st every year of my life for as long as I can remember. As children, we used to go to a magical yard, where hundreds of different sized pumpkins were stacked up. The large ones cost ten pence and the small ones were 5p. I think we were allowed to pick one of each sort, and it was the highlight of the year. I longed for hallowe'en more than I longed for Christmas. I've always been a proper little pagan!

Anyway, at 11.30pm on a Sunday night, searching for pumpkins is like looking for the Holy Grail. We drove through Holloway, Muswell Hill and Crouch End, searching for little shops with racks of vegetables outside. A surprising number of these sorts of shops exist in North London, but most of them are Greek or Turkish-run, and pumpkins must be fairly culturally insignificant to these Mediterranean types! They don't know what they're missing...

We almost gave up, but decided, just before heading home, to make a detour along the Stroud Green road, where, to our great excitement we saw a great big row of glorious, bright orange creatures, waiting patiently for us under a halogen street light. The feeling of excitement as we rushed over to them and selected two for carving was incredibly reminiscent of the feelings I had as a child in that yard in Bedfordshire. The  very best things come to those who wait, and we carved the pumpkins in front of Glee, whilst Castor and Pollux tried to run away with the little stringy, gloopy, mushy, cruddy inside bits which we were decanting into a washing up bowl. We put little candles inside our masterpieces and they danced all night!

This morning I went to the hospital for my whooping cough blood test. The male nurse took a look at my form, read the words "suspected pertussis" and went a little pale! He vanished for a while, saying he needed to have a little chat to one of his colleagues. I half expected him to return wearing a mask like those little camp Chinese boys in the nail bars. I have seldom felt so much like a leper! 

The rest of the day has been spent preparing music for my concert and studying the music I'll be MD-ing on Saturday's Roy Harper gig. Rehearsals begin the day after tomorrow and I'm excited. It's such remarkable music. I feel incredibly privileged to be helping...

I'm currently in Soho waiting to hear Nathan performing a song from the musical Taboo in a fundraising gala. I expect to feel extraordinarily proud, although I've just had a text from him saying the rehearsals are over-running and that he's planning to "wing it." Jeopardy in a blog. Perfect! 

October 31st, 1661, was a terribly boring day for Pepys. HE might not have been bored, but I'm afraid his account of things is utterly tedious. In short, the diary entry is all about his uncle's will. Someone came from the country to talk to him about the sale of a house that came as part of the estate. I'm falling asleep writing about it... Gonna go hear some West End Wendies! 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The anguish of humiliation

We're sitting in brother Edward and Sascha's sitting room watching the results shows of various talent contests whilst eating delicious wraps. 

We've had a very relaxing day, although the anti-biotics I've been prescribed for my suspected whooping cough are leaving the most revolting metallic taste in my mouth, which has been getting on my wick all day. 

There seems to be a bit of a ruckus brewing with the so-called psychic Sally Morgan, who's been invited by various sceptics to take a test on Hallowe'en to prove decisively whether or not she can talk to the dead. Derren Brown has got involved, and there's been a lot of mud-slinging on twitter but I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable. 

Here's my issue. However much of a money-grabbing charlatan this so-called psychic is, what she's doing is bringing hope and closure to people who are grieving. If people want to believe she's for real, and take solace from what she's doing, then I'm afraid I don't have a problem with her doing it. I certainly don't think she needs to be exposed in some sort of clinical trial.
 
More than this, I believe what she's doing is no different from what priests, vicars and preachers across the world are doing on a daily basis, and no one challenges them. Has Rowan Williams ever been invited to take part in a scientific experiment aimed at definitively proving the existence of God!?

And don't tell me Psychic Sally is different because she makes money out of vulnerable people. There are plenty of born again nutters in the states who'd give her a pretty good run for her money in that respect! 

October 30th, 1661, and Pepys spent the morning playing his newly altered lute, which pleased him greatly. 

He spent the afternoon in Deptford on a ship called The Norwich, meticulously examining every single nook and cranny. Pepys was nothing  if not thorough. 

He returned home to the news that his great friend and mentor Sir Robert Slingsby was to be buried without funeral. His corpse was apparently beginning to stink, but Pepys was furious not to be given an opportunity to pay his final respects. 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A dreadful mighty killer

Hmm. It's the nearest Saturday to Hallowe'en and I seem to be dressed as Dracula, or Beethoven, or someone in a frock coat. I couldn't find anything in the house to give the effect of dark tubercular smudges around my eyes, I so set fire to a piece of paper and smeared the ash all over my face. I look like a pudgy,  middle-aged chimney sweep. That's a thought. When does a person officially reach his middle age? 

I'm off to a party, by the way, I'm not just dressed like this for a laugh..,

We had a second choir rehearsal today. This time it was the turn of the sopranos to cram themselves into my bedroom. Before anyone accuses me of impropriety, the bedroom is where the piano is kept in our house, ever since my next-door neighbours started banging on the wall every time I so much as opened the piano lid! 

The rehearsal was exhausting, but it went very well. Everyone got the gist of the songs relatively quickly and we were able to do some detailed work. 

After the rehearsal, I went with Nathan into town, and we met Ellie for whatever the afternoon equivalent of brunch is. Lupper? Tunch? Ellie forgot to eat several times, which was amusing.

Back via the tube, which broke down at Goodge Street. I worry about the Olympics in this city. How is the infrastructure ever going to  deal with the massive influx of people?

I'm sad to read of the death of Jimmy Saville. What a bloomin' icon, eh? How many of us wrote to him as children asking him to fix something for us? My letters always started "Dear Jim'll", 'cus I thought that was his name. I thought the letters that they read out which said "Dear Jim" we're rather disrespectful. And for those reading this blog from further afield, Jimmy Saville presented a children's request show in the 1970s called "Jim'll fix it." He was a bit creepy, but we loved him! He also ran the London Marathon 'til he was 118 years old. Strange that he died in his 80s, therefore!

How weird does the first sentence of Pepys' diary 350 years ago sound?

"This day I put on my half cloth black stockings and my new coat of the fashion, which pleases me well, and with my beaver I was ready to go to my Lord Mayor’s feast, as we are all invited."

Double entendre aside, it appears Pepys was all dressed up with nowhere to go, as the two Sir Williams decided the event would be too crowded to stomach! Pepys was not impressed, but as fireworks whistle and whizz past my window, I find myself feeling it was rather an appropriate night for a damp squib! 

Giving up the fight

How easy it is to forget to blog before midnight these days!

I probably forgot to blog because I don’t really have anything to write. The day, as ever, was spent preparing music for the concert on the 27th, and printing out parts for the singers who requested them. Postage is ridiculously expensive. It costs about a fiver these days to send a set of scores to someone...

I went into town to meet Nathan for lunch and we ate at a greasy spoon called Diana’s. I was served a plate of road kill masquerading as a vegetarian lasagne, but ate it with great alacrity. The journey home ought to have taken about 45 minutes, but it was actually never-ending.

We had an incident with a stroppy bus driver. It’s an all-too-familiar occurrence for Londoners. The bus drew to a halt just before Archway Station, and the driver announced that everyone would have to get off because he’d been re-called to the depot. As we milled around on the lower deck, he informed us that there was another bus just behind, which is something they always say. I HAD made a resolution not to pick any fights this autumn, but there was something in his manner which made me want to scream. He seemed to have no concept that his actions were seriously disadvantaging his erstwhile passengers and seemed to take great pride in chucking us all off his big shiny bus.

Fortunately a woman with a baby in a pram made a stand. “I’m not leaving this bus until the next one pulls up” she said, “I don’t want to stand in the cold with a newborn baby.” Obviously, a bit of cold never did a newborn any harm, but I felt proud of her for being belligerent. I joined the game; “I think you’ll find we’re well within our rights to stay on the bus until the next one arrives.” And at that point, the driver got very shirty. He shut all the doors, started the engines, and shouted that he was going to drive us all to the depot if we didn’t get out of the bus. He started to pull away from the curb, so I hit the emergency door open button, and he promptly slammed his foot on the brake.

I went up to his pathetic little bulletproof plastic screen, and asked if he could tell me for a fact when the next bus was coming. “It might be very soon” he said. “But it might not be?” I asked, sarcastically. He shrugged. “Well, can you radio someone and ask?” “I’m on my break” he replied, “I don’t need to talk to you anymore.” And with that, he put his feet on the steering wheel of the bus and took out a newspaper. “Look, just radio your boss!” I demanded, “I don’t want to have to complain about you.” He childishly pressed the appropriate button, and after a seemingly interminable wait, a voice came over the system. The voice asked how he could help, but the driver simply shrugged and indicated that he wasn’t speaking. He looked like a grotesque mime act. I opened the cab door and shouted through; “hello, I’m one of the passengers on the bus. We’ve just been asked to get off, but there’s a woman with a baby on board, so we’re all staying put until the next one comes along. Could you tell us when that will be?” There was a pause, and then a slightly surprised voice replied; “the next bus is just leaving Kentish Town. It will be with you in about ten minutes?” “Thank you” I said, “can you tell me why the bus driver is refusing to co-operate?” The disembodied voice then said something really weird; “some people in this world are nice, and others aren’t.”

There was nothing that I could say to that, so I went and relayed the news to the pregnant woman, who pretended to be listening to me, but made it very clear she was only interested in gurgling at the baby. Am I the only one who gets fed up with going on and on about the fact that they’re amazing multi-taskers? If you’ve ever tried to have an in depth conversation with a mother who’s anywhere near her child, you will know that women aren’t quite the multi-taskers they’d like to think they are!
# Controversial.

The next bus eventually drew up, and by the time we’d negotiated a set of road works, we were all about 45 minutes late.

I finally heard from the doctor’s today about the whooping cough tests. Apparently I need to have a blood test at the Whittington, but by the time he phoned to tell me the news, it was too late. I’ll have to wait until Monday morning. He did, however, write me out a prescription for anti-biotics, which they usually only give to people in the early stages of the illness, but he said it could do me no harm. I’ve taken one, and am already wondering if it’s done me some good. This obviously irritates me no end, because I feel it’s something that should have been spotted more than a month ago, before I potentially ruined my voice by hacking my vocal chords into my tonsils every five minutes!

350 years ago, Pepys went to St Paul’s churchyard to pick up his theorbo, a kind of lute, which he was having altered. It cost him 26 shillings and George Hunt, the instrument repairer, told him it was now as good a lute as any in England. Pepys lapped this particular comment up like a hungry kitten drinking milk.

He went to the theatre with the roguish Captain Ferrers to watch a production of Argalus and Parthenia, and noted that the lead was played by a woman; a woman with “the best legs that ever I saw.” He was well chuffed. Pervert.

In the evening, the men went to the pub, where Pepys brought a belt for “second mourning” which cost him 24shillings, and was, apparently, “very neat.”

Thursday, 27 October 2011

And me I get so tired

I'm utterly exhausted! We've just had our first rehearsal for the concert on November 27th. It was a second tenor sectional, and it went extremely well. It was particularly useful to see how difficult each of the pieces of music are to learn. The irony, of course, is that we polished off learning all the Lincolnshire songs within seconds. They truly are the easiest pieces of music I've ever written! I can only assume that the choir leader has an extremely low opinion of what her choir is capable of! 

The most difficult song in our set is probably my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky. It shouldn't be hard, but the intricacies of Jeff Lynne's writing can make the internal parts seem somewhat random - particularly for a non-music reader (of which there are several in the choir) or someone who doesn't know the original song.

Anyway, running a tenor sectional with suspected whooping cough is no laughing matter. Every time I sang too high or forgot to breath, I'd be rewarded with another coughing/honking fit. I was hoping to go to the doctor's today to have my official test, but I had a phone call in the afternoon which informed me that the laboratory who issue the swabs weren't answering the surgery's calls. Oh, the blinking NHS... 

350 years ago Pepys went to St Olave's church and sat in the fancy Navy pew with the two Sir Williams. The hot topic of conversation was the death of Robert Slingsby. Pepys was devastated, but was dubious as to whether the two Sir Williams were feeling the pain as much as he was. The pain he felt when he saw his wife's old-fashioned, and rather threadbare mourning garb was a great deal more tangible. He wrote that he was ashamed to take her into the church! Poor Elizabeth.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Help me cope with everything

My mother 'phoned this morning to tell me that my brother’s partner, Sascha, had been diagnosed with whooping cough. I found the news disturbing, as, the last time I checked, Sascha was not a six-year-old child! I genuinely thought the illness was something that only affected children. I remember how the words “whooping cough” used to terrify me as a child. I think there was something of an outbreak of the disease in Bedfordshire in the late 1970s. We never got it, but there was always some child on our street who was close to death. The word “whooping” always felt so shockingly onomatopoeic. You’d hear these children coughing, and shudder!
Anyway, with Sascha confirmed with a case of whooping cough, I started to look at my own symptoms in a different light. I’m in my 7th week of coughing. I cough uncontrollably and then gasp for air, a process which often ends ups sounding like I’m honking like a goose. I have a constant itchy sensation in my throat. I cough every time I laugh, or run, or get cold. I cough at night. I often cough so hard I give myself a headache.

I immediately went back to the doctor’s – for the third time in two months. I described my symptoms, and explained that my brother-in-law had been diagnosed with the illness. The doctor dropped everything and made a phone call. With diseases like whooping cough, there's apparently a procedure that needs to be adhered to. I think he was talking to a government organisation who track infectious diseases. They asked him lots of questions, and the doctor got rather angry because, he said, he only had 7 minute appointments and was already running late. He eventually asked me to talk to the woman direct. She asked all sorts of questions. Had I been abroad recently? Had I come into contact with anyone else who seemed to have the symptoms? I felt a little bit like I was in one of those films about a deadly world virus, and wondered if a group of men in white boiler suits were going to appear in a helecopter to take me away.

Anyway, the upshot of everything is that I have to go to the doctor’s tomorrow for a swab test which will confirm everything. There’s nothing they can do if I have the illness. It’s only something you can treat in its very early stages – and they failed to diagnose it on my previous two visits, which makes me feel a little angry. It seems whatever symptoms you go into a doctor’s surgery with, you’re always told to come back in two weeks. I’m told the Chinese call it “the 90 day cough”, and the only thing I can do is sit it out. Still, the knowledge that something definite is wrong with me will probably ensure that I get better more quickly. I'd started to panic that my vocal chord polyps had returned. Better the devil you know, and all that.

Pepys was supposed to travel to Kingston 350 years ago to meet Sir William Batten, who was on his way back from Portsmouth, but a series of important people arrived at the office, and the morning became all about meetings instead. In the afternoon, Sir William Penn accompanied Pepys and Elizabeth to the King’s Theatre, where they saw The Country Captain. It was the first time the play had been performed since before the interregnum, and by Pepys’ reckoning, it should have been left in mothballs; “so silly a play as in all my life I never saw, and the first that ever I was weary of in my life.” So there.

Pepys returned home and was met with the news that Sir Robert Slingsby, comptroller of the Navy, had died. Pepys was devastated and could not sleep; “he being a man that loved me, and had many qualities that made me love him above all the officers and commissioners in the Navy.”

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Crackin' up!

I seem to be in Newbury Park. More when I establish how or So, here we are in Newbury Park, which is about as far east as it's possible to journey within London. We seem to have missed the last tube home and we're currently standing at a bus stop, looking at bus routes which go to places I've never heard of. Who knows if Leytonstone, Romford or Barking is any nearer to Highgate than this god-awful place? All I know is that we're on a dual carriageway, surrounded by dodgy-looking geezers and there's not a flipping bus in sight. I can see a drive-thru' Macdonalds, a Topps Tiles, a JD Sports superstore and a lot of rubbish, which has gone all squishy following the mother of all rain storms this afternoon. I can hear a group of lads talking in hushed voices in an alleyway somewhere behind me. The air smells of sulphur and wee! Can anyone remind me why we've decided to hold the Olympics in this ghastly part of the world? I think East London is about as horrid as the world gets. Worse than the slums of New Delhi and possibly even worse than Slough. 

Still, we've had a lovely night with our friends Karen and John, which included a very fine pasta meal and a lot of laughter. 

Earlier today, we went to the BBC Club on Great Portland Street to hear the wonderful Circus Envy. They were, as ever, brilliant, playing an unplugged set of three songs from their new album, Secrets, which everyone should go out and buy immediately. Go on. Do it whilst you're reading this. Then buy a extra copy to give to someone for Christmas. It struck me, as I watched them play, just what increfibly fine musicians they all are. They're also a thoroughly decent set of lads. 

Two buses later and we seem to be heading for Tottenham. I repeat. Two buses later and we're still nowhere near civilisation. Everywhere we turn, nasty people wearing hoodies are swearing or pissing against walls. There are no buses. I'm going to need your prayers tonight! 

October 25th, 1661, was a busy day for Pepys, which began with lunch at The Wardrobe with Lady Sandwich, whom Pepys described as looking "very handsome." He was plainly on heat, one assumes because the bruising in his testicular zone had become somewhat less troublesome.

There was a post-dinner trip to the theatre, to see Love and Honour for the third time in as many days. Pepys thought the play was marvellous, but was the first to admit that his semi-residency at the theatre was bordering on tragic! 

On the way home, Elizabeth and Samuel bumped into Mrs Pierce, who'd recently become something of a pin-up girl for Pepys.

Elizabeth saw right through her husband's desire to hang about like a puppy dog whilst talking "innocently" to Mrs Pierce, and there was a bad atmosphere all the way home. 

Pepys took out his frustration on his clerk, Will Hewer, who was royally ticked-off for behaving arrogantly around the house. I'm sure poor Hewer had merely learnt a trick or three from his employer! 

02.12am, and we're at Archway tube, about to get on our fifth bus of the evening! 24 hour city? I don't think so!

02.25am, finally home!

Monday, 24 October 2011

On and on and on

I have a three-page list of things I need to achieve by the end of the week. All sorts of things need to be done for the concert; mostly so that people have enough time to rehearse the music I’ve written. I still have to find a pianist, but more worryingly, the choir is still an alto down. This evening I have to create a poster which I’m going to put up around various stage doors and drama schools to see if anyone comes forward. I’ve no idea why this search is proving so difficult - possibly because I'm looking for a chesty, belty, gospelly alto who reads music, and there probably aren't a great many of these around. Still, the best things come to those who wait. I did put a status update on Facebook asking if anyone was interested, and have subsequently been besieged by requests for friendship from people with all sorts of bizarre names. I entirely fail to understand why people can’t just send me a message, rather than seeing my post as an opportunity to add more friends to their lists. On closer inspection, however, I'm beginning to wonder if these people are even real. The names are so odd; Priscy Love, Edith Brazal, Nur Hani Murfiquah Hanafi, Young Ritchie. Is this spam? 

Anyway, I’ve gone a bit low blood-sugar, so I’m sure this blog entry won’t be making a great deal of sense. Suffice to say, after the excitement of the weekend, I've done nothing today but sit at various tables, trying to tick off various points on my seemingly never-ending list.

Until yesterday I had a repulsive beard, which was itching like crazy and making me look like I had a bad case of mumps. I decided to shave it off this afternoon for something to do, but couldn’t find any shaving foam. I therefore pinched Nathan’s electric razor, but it was no match for my facial hair, and got itself all clogged up. I found a little button which flipped the head of the razor up, and allowed a cascade of stubble to pour into the bin. I gave it a few taps to get rid of the last dregs, but unfortunately this action sent the tiny little internal mechanisms of the razor flying into the dustbin, which was full of bits of rotting pineapple. I tried to fish them out again, but it's no good. The razor is completely broken, and Nathan’s going to be very angry with me.

I seem to have been a day out reporting Pepysian activity for almost as long as I can recall, so am going to give him a rest today, so that he can catch up... in a 350 year lag sort of way!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Sing the songs

We’re back at Cork airport after what feels like the longest two days of my life. It’s been an absolute blast. We met Roy and his wife Tracy in our B&B in Clonakilty, and were immediately whisked off to a stunning recording studio in the rolling hills above the town, which felt like some kind of exotic Swiss chalet, with every keyboard instrument you could ever imagine crammed against the walls. Fiona borrowed a fairly basic violin from the engineer’s wife, and the three of us worked through her arrangements, making sure they matched what Roy was intending to play at the Royal Festival Hall. The rehearsal went about as well as you could expect. It was wonderful to see Fiona and Roy reaching out to each other musically; working together, sensing each other. I wished I’d had my own instrument to add to the mix... But instead I just studied the score, and practised conducting... just in case.
Roy Harper is an astonishing musician who has given so much to the music industry over the years. In the late sixties and early seventies, he was way ahead of his time; creating epic 15-minute tracks years before the prog-rockers jumped on the bandwagon. His music is also blessed with space, which is a rare thing in an age in popular music where every last sonic layer is filled with sound, and every last beat is marked by a drum. His influence extends to Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin, who even recorded a track called “Hats off to Roy Harper.” I felt very privileged just to be sitting in a room with such a charming, talented man, and encouraged him as often as I could to tell me stories about those heady days when anything seemed possible at Abbey Road Studios.

I very much liked his wife as well, who I suppose is also his manager. We drove back to Clonakilty and ate at a lovely fish restaurant by the side of the estuary. It was pitch black. Looking out of the window at the view, it was impossible to tell where the sky met the hills and where the hills melted into the peaty water. Dotted about in the darkness, and glowing like tiny balls of fire, the odd house, or passing car was reflected in the water.

We also had a chance to visit a folk music club called De Barra, which has to be one of the most charming and authentic live venues I’ve ever set foot in. It also had a most peculiar, spooky atmosphere, which literally stopped us in our tracks. It was a very strange sensation. We came through the main door, through a sort of conservatory, and then entered the live room, which was a barn of a space with a little gallery. As we walked towards the back of this room, it almost felt as though the place was suddenly swimming. Fiona describes it as like “walking through a heavy cloud.” We stopped, shivered and laughed at ourselves, before walking down a small flight of steps where we were immediately confronted by a room filled to the brim with African voodoo masks! I immediately went up to the barman, and asked if the place was haunted. The answer was affirmative, although you’d probably expect to hear that from any tall-tale-telling Irish barman. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to whip out a photograph that had, apparently, been taken by a psychic. It showed the weird African masks, but between two of them was the very odd sight of the floating, disembodied head of very thin man with a pale face, and razor-sharp cheek-bones. It’s difficult, of course, in this day and age to claim that it wasn’t some kind of photo-shopped spoof. Furthermore, if you were going to photograph a “ghost” in that particular bar, you’d be most likely to do it in amongst the set of African voodoo masks. But it was strange that the two of us had had such a simultaneously strange reaction, just before entering the bizarre and “haunted” room.

The streets of Clonakilty are charming. It reminded me a little of Thaxted, with all sorts of beautiful buildings painted in a variety of pastel colours. The air had an almost permanent rather rich scent to it; slightly sulphurous, slightly-perfumed, which I’m told is the smell of peat bricks being burned; a substance which is far more popular than coal in this part of the world. You see it for sale in big piles with the newspapers outside convenience stores. We went to bed early and slept like the dead, although I woke up at one point in the night feeling sure that a ball of light had just flashed through my room!

It was still raining when we woke up this morning, probably even more than it had the day before, but we wanted to experience the joys of Western Cork, so wrapped ourselves in cagoules, jumped in the car and drove along the coastal road to a charming harbour hamlet called Glandore. We sat in a lovely pub and ate lunch whilst the rain fell in sheets outside and a series of buckets underneath the windows collected the water which was pouring through the ceiling. Even the Irish were complaining about the weather!

We visited a circle of standing stones called Drombeg. It was a sort of mini-Stone Henge. I suspect, under any other circumstance, we might have gone barefoot, and spent hours feeling unnecessarily spiritual, but the rain continued to lash down in impossible quantities, and it was as much as we could do to stand up straight in the wind. As we left the site, we watched a very sad-looking horse in a field, trying to stay dry underneath a tiny blackberry bush, which was barely covering his bottom. He looked so very depressed, and for about three minutes, we felt his pain, before jumping in our lovely warm car, and leaving him to his living hell. On another occasion, I’m pretty sure Drombeg would have been the most astonishingly beautiful and hugely electrifying experience.


As we continued to drive, the rain became even more intense. Periodically, we’d thunder through a giant puddle at the same time as a car on the opposite side of the road, and a sheet of water would rise up like a mini-tidal wave, which prevented us from seeing the road again for what seemed like an age... certainly long enough to go off the road, or be maimed in an horrific head-on smash.

I fulfilled something of an ambition at about 4pm, however, because I kissed the Blarney stone! Yes, I did... (And so did Fiona)

It’s housed in a quirky little castle slightly north of Cork, and the one benefit of the dreadful rain was that we didn’t have to share the experience with two thousand rather crude American tourists. Visitors start at the bottom of the building (obviously) and work their way up to the top via a series of snaking stone corridors, and tiny darkened spiral staircases. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and something of a health and safety nightmare! The Blarney stone – or witches stone – is right at the top of the castle, in the open air, where the views over the battlements of the lime green, gently undulating Irish landscape are almost legendary.


To kiss the Blarney stone, one must risk life and limb... In the olden days, I’m pretty sure many would have fallen to their deaths whilst attempting to reach it. The stone hangs out over a 100 foot drop, and if you decide to kiss it, a special man appears who grabs hold of your waist as you shuffle backwards to the edge of a ledge before allowing the top half of your body to simply drop. You kiss it whilst hanging upside down, the blood rushing to your face and nothing but air between your head and the ground 100 feet below. It’s actually a pretty shocking experience for a bloke with vertigo and it triggered a coughing fit! I’m irritated, and more than a little concerned to report that my cough still hasn’t entirely cleared up!

Still, the benefits of snogging the stone are said to be huge. Winston Churchill kissed it just before his meteoric rise to power. I’m told the band Megadeath did the same. And The Simpsons. Although I’m not altogether convinced that a cartoon counts. The process is said to improve one’s oratory and communication skills, so, if you’re enjoying this blog a great deal more than usual today, it’s because I’ve been hanging off a battlement whilst being manhandled by an Irish brute!

snoggig the stone!

During our two-day trip, it became apparent that the Irish, though lovely people, probably need to let go of one of two national obsessions. I have therefore created a list, which I’d like to share with you:

1.      Penny whistle music

2.      The Gaelic font

3.      The colour green

4.      Leprechauns

5.      Blarney

6.      Singing whilst they speak

7.      Rain

350 years ago, Pepys had lunch with his old friend Peter Luellin. During this period, Pepys and Luellin were close drinking buddies. They’d both been clerks together, and Pepys’ meteoric rise had not yet found him moving away from friends he’d made in his former, less glamorous life. Sadly, Luellin died of the plague. Pepys probably never knew. The double tragedy of the plague and the Great Fire meant that many people simply disappeared from life or from London. I’m sure, in later years, when Pepys thought about Luellin, he’d wonder what became of him. Did he move on? Seek a life for himself in the new colonies? Perhaps he heard on the grapevine that he’d died. Perhaps he never knew.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The cool morning breeze

I'm in a little town in the west of Ireland called Clonakilty about to meet folk music legend Roy Harper. Fiona has been arranging several of his songs for a live gig at the Royal Festival Hall, but isn't in London for any of the rehearsals, so I'm stepping in as musical director. Roy lives in Ireland, so we've come over to go through some of the music and hang out with a legend! His previous musical collaborator of many years standing was the genius, David Bedford who sadly died last month. We have extraordinarily large shoes to fill.

The magnificent thing about this part of Ireland is that it has very few chains. I've not seen a Macdonald's since we arrived, or, for that matter, a Costa, a Subway or a Starbucks.

Unfortunately, it's bucketed it down from the moment we arrived sometime after shit o'clock this morning. We wanted to take a stroll around Cork this morning, but were repeatedly battered back into our hire car. 

We had a lovely drive around the city, however, and were particularly intrigued by the rows of multi-coloured, single-storey terraced houses. Not even 2 up 2 down, just 2 down! Who on earth would have lived in them originally? In fact, who on earth would live there now?

We ate breakfast in a charming little cafe which had a sign on its door "welcoming our LGBT customers..." I rewarded her tolerant views by ordering almost everything on the menu!

We drove to The Old Head of Kinsale, which was the windiest, most rugged place in the world! Fiona's Texan husband had visited it whilst touring Ireland a few years ago, and suggested we take a look. At one point I was nearly blown off the edge of a cliff, but it was absolutely worth it for the view!

Weirdly, autumn is already over in this part of Ireland. The trees are all entirely bare, which feels very strange; a strangeness compounded by the fact that many of the coastal roads are lined with palm trees! I guess this part of the world is wet and windy, but never hugely cold. 
 
As we travel around, we're having discussions about the places that this country reminds us of. Parts of it feel very Germanic, whilst other bits seem very British, specifically Welsh. But there is also something very other-worldly about the place, which we're both rather loving!  

350 years ago, Pepys spent the day in the office. He heard the troubling news that his friend Sir Robert Slingsby was ill with "this new disease, an ague and fever." Worrying news. 

Friday, 21 October 2011

I let the music speak

I've just had an incredibly charming and productive day in York. I came up to discuss a very exciting choral project, which could see up to 500 singers performing a specially written composition in various locations across the city.

I arrived here just before 10am, and immediately experienced a rush of the feeling I have every time I enter Yorkshire. It feels like coming home. I like the people up here. I like that they're open and welcoming. I also like the fact that an unusually high percentage of people up here seem to know, and respect my work. I introduced myself to someone at the Theatre Royal, who merely said "I know exactly who you are!" Introduce yourself to someone in a London theatre and they immediately  look over your shoulder to see if there's someone in the room who can better assist them with their career!

My companion on this project is called Stephen and I hugely enjoyed spending time with him. He's a Mancunian who was adopted as a baby, and recently tracked down a half-sister, which, of course had huge resonance for me, having relatively recently gained my own Mancunian half-brother.

We walked and walked around York looking at potential locations and talked and talked about life and creativity and the exciting task in hand.

In the evening I was able to meet representatives from some of the choirs who will, fingers crossed, be joining us on this potentially thrilling journey. I hope we were able to inspire them. I certainly managed to inspire myself!

At the end of the session, two lovely ladies, both staff at the University, came to introduce themselves to me. We talked about the good old days and then they asked if I'd be prepared to come in and talk to some of the composition students, which felt like a huge, rather scary honour! "You realise I'm more of a tunesmith than a composer, don't you?" I felt the need to mention this fact, knowing how completely out of my depth I'd feel talking to proper composers about their music. "But you work,"  they said, "so few of our graduates manage to make a living writing music and I think the students would benefit hugely from talking to you." I thought for a moment about the knock-backs, the pathetic piles of rejection letters, the court cases and the periods spent standing in dole queues and decided that they were absolutely right. I should speak to students. Any potential composer should go into this business with his or her eyes wide open, knowing that it can be a rocky but potentially fabulous ride.  And I realise there and then that there is nothing else I could ever do with my life. For every tear of pain, there are ten tears of joy. For every evening where I've slammed doors and whinged at friends and family, there are scores where I have felt utterly alive. Tonight is one of those nights, and yet again I find myself thanking Yorkshire.

350 years ago, Pepys went to Chelsea to do some business with the Lore Privy Seal, who was, unsurprisingly, absent. Instead he went for a drink with Mr Pargiter, the Goldsmith, whom he described as "the man of the world that I do most know and believe to be a cheating rogue." Eek!

Apologising to God for so flagrantly abusing his vows, he took himself to the theatre in the afternoon to see Davenant's Love and Honour, a good plot, by all accounts, well acted.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Flying high

We’re still looking for a name for the choir I’ve formed. Various people are grabbed by various options, but I’m not sure that enough people have been grabbed by a single suggestion. The Hellfire Club has proved fairly popular – named after those 18th Century naughty boys. I guess there’s nothing wrong with a bit of moral turpitude, but I don’t want to offend anyone. Another recent suggestion is “The Orphic Cubes”, named after the early 20th Century Art movement, Orphic Cubism. I like the idea of anything with “cube” in it because it sort of implies 4x4, which is the number of singers in the group. Nathan of course tells me that this theory makes no mathematical sense whatsoever! Any adjective that relates to Orpheus brings with it am obvious sense of the mystique and the afterlife, and this, of course, works well for the Requiem. One of the dictionary definitions of orphic is, “that which is capable of casting a charm or spell; entrancing.” I  obviously like this very much. I also quite like “The Omega Workshop”, which was the commercial arm of the Bloomsbury Group. The more I think about it, the more I like this particular name, because it comes with branding opportunities. The Greek letter omega looks like an O when it's capitalised, but like a W when it's in small case. O. W. Omega Workshop...

Today wasn’t quite as relaxed as I was hoping it would be. I wanted to do a day’s work, rather calmly and quietly in the cafe, but there were suddenly hundreds of things that needed to be organised. I’m off to York tomorrow and then straight to Cork in Ireland, via Doncaster, Peterborough, Cambridge and Thaxted – and every aspect of the weekend has required careful planning regarding train tickets, and timings. We’re flying to Cork with the hideous Ryan Air and are trying not to pay the ridiculous amount of money they charge for suitcases these days. You’re allowed to take one bag with you as hand luggage, but its dimensions can’t exceed 55cmx40cmx20cm. Everything needs to go inside this minuscule space, including cameras. I’ve just measured my little rucksack, which seems to be 5 centimetres too long... but surely that’s okay? I can’t fit my camera in my laptop bag – or, for that matter, a couple of pairs of pants, a toothbrush, some deodorant and a T-shirt. I can’t believe I’ve actually just measured my rucksack!
350 years ago Pepys spent the much of the day convalescing, a process which no doubt involved pouring various lotions and potions onto his balls. Pepys was also greatly offended by his clerk, Will Hewer, who was wandering around the house wearing his hat, which was, apparently an indication of pride and an over-inflated sense of his own importance.

PS - I have just set fire to my iron. Or rather, my iron has just set fire to itself. I plugged it in, it made lots of weird clicking sounds, and then thick, acrid smoke filled the kitchen. The smoke has now drifted through the entire flat, and the whole place stinks of melted plastic. What a nightmare! Now I don't have any clothes to wear tomorrow!

PPS - Tyne and Wear Metro: The Musical has just won silver at this year's Gillard Awards (hurrah!), which very much makes up for the fact that The Pepys Motet was over-looked in yesterday's nominations for the British Composers' Awards!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The game is on again

I'm tired beyond words! I was up with the lark this morning in order to catch an 8am train to Manchester. It was incredibly cold in the kitchen and I shivered myself awake whilst eating a bowl of Shreddies, watching images of people being evicted from the Dale Farm travellers' site. The pictures made me feel very sad.

I wrote music on the way up and barely noticed what was going on outside the train, except on one occasion, when I saw a beautiful rainbow stretching across a field which seemed to be glowing like an emerald in the golden morning light.

The purpose of my trip to Manchester was to talk about my next film project, which focusses on the Hattersley Estate on the outskirts of the city. I think it's probably one of the biggest estates in the world, and was built in the 1960s to deal with the effects of overcrowding and slum clearance in Manchester.

It is, of course, synonymous with the moors murderers, who lived on the estate. The infamous house has been demolished, but the stigma remains, which is a terrible shame. The estate was like the promised land when it opened. Families moved there and had their first experience of indoor toilets, central heating and fitted kitchens. Children had their own bedrooms, and no one had to wash in a tin bath in front of the fire.

We visited the estate this morning and my first impression was that it feels rather like an oasis, surrounded by beautiful moorland. Bang, slap in the middle of the hosues is a wonderful community centre, which is crammed with charm and character. It has a little cafe where you can get a stonking cup of tea and a little table covered with all sorts of shoes and books and things that you can buy for a modest donation. The Hattersley residents look after their own.


The building feels like a proper community space. When we arrived, a group of ladies were sitting at a table, sorting out a massive pile of bunting, which they were borrowing to welcome one of their children back from the Navy. Every day, the hall inside the space is home to an almost bewildering number of classes, from keep fit to tea dances, all well attended, we're told. I think the community centre will make the perfect backdrop for our film. I'm excited.

I'm also pleased to announce that the producer I'm going to be working with is a very charming and interesting man. He may well prove to be a slightly bigger ABBA fan than either Nathan or myself, which is a fairly astonishing achiement! He's seen the band playing live... twice, and even met them in a hotel lobby in 1977. He showed me the photographs, and they were extraordinary. One of them was of Agnetha. She looked astonishingly haunted.

We had a meeting with the big boss at Media City in Salford, home to the brilliant new BBC building which now houses, amongst other TV shows, Blue Peter. The new Blue Peter garden is apparently being built on the roof. The atrium in the middle is awe-inspiring, but with thousands of BBC employees' jobs on the line, one wonders whether there are some people who would have preferred to stay where they were!


awe-inspiring

350 years ago, Pepys went to Limehouse to visit one Captain Richard Marsh, whose house, Pepys wrote with great excitement, had been in the same family for 250 years. Since 1411. They had a “handsome dinner”, but Pepys didn’t enjoy himself as much as the others because he didn’t think he was dressed well-enough for the occasion. I sort of know how he feels. Some days I leave the house wearing clothes that are literally in tatters. I kid myself that it's all part of my charm, but regularly wonder what the official  upper age limit is for bohemian chic. When does it roll into bag lady?

Salford's very cool Media City

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Merry-go-round, where am I bound?

Sometimes my life changes very little on a day to day basis. I wrote in the cafe, as usual, and then, as usual, walked into Muswell Hill with Fiona to buy vegetables for a massive soup which I’m cooking as I type. All my energy is currently going into scoring music for the concert of my work on November 27th. It seems to be a never-ending task, but it’s very important I finish the process with enough time for the choir to learn what I've written. I’m enjoying the process, however, and feeling very upbeat - about life, really. Things are definitely on an upward trajectory.


The best news is that my father, who went to hospital today to collect the results from his tests, has been given the all clear. It’s a massive relief to us all. My mother, too, has suddenly found herself in tip-top health, so I get the very strong impression that someone is looking down at us all and smiling. It’s a very subtle smile at the moment, but I’m hoping that it might break into a grin, or even a chuckle by the end of the year!
Autumn is very definitely here and I don’t have a hat. The only hat I have is a bowler hat, which I’d feel silly wearing in the street. I need a big, brown cloth cap like the one I bought in America, which I managed to leave on a bus, or the one I bought in Warsaw, which I left in a church, or the one Nathan stole from a loo in the West Village, which I may have to locate and steel myself.
350 years ago, and Pepys was very much the man about town, gallivanting from one fancy dwelling to another, sorting out provisions for his patron, Lord Sandwich, and gifts for him to present to Queen Catherine in Portugal.
In the evening he met up with a representative of the troublesome woman who owed 10l to his Uncle’s estate. Pepys very much hoped for an out-of-court settlement, “for I would not by any means go to law with a woman of so devilish a tongue as she has.” You do have to be careful who you take to court...
Pepys spent the night in a separate bed from his wife. It was cold, and I’m sure Elizabeth would have been very warm, but he was still suffering from the bruise on his testicle, which he’d started to describe as a tumour. He’d been given the oddest-sounding ointment to rub on it, which he described as “a poultice of a good handful of bran with half a pint of vinegar and a pint of water boiled till it be thick, and then a spoonful of honey put to it and so spread in a cloth and laid to it.” Sometimes when I read these kind of things I wince. Pepys, like all the Stuarts, never washed himself, and yet he was smearing honey and vinegar onto his testicles. All I can say is poor Eliabeth...

As the winter nights were drawing in, Pepys decided it was time to  start wearing his waistcoat in bed, declaring that he didn’t intend to take it off again until the Spring. Bleughh...  Poor Elizabeth!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Autumn winds blowing outside the window

We’ve been sitting in the house working all day. It’s 10pm and neither of us has stopped, except to eat at the kitchen table twice. I didn’t go to the cafe and now have a rather shocking case of cabin fever. We’re going to have to go for a walk, I suspect, or my legs may well up dancing in my sleep.
Because we haven’t been anywhere today, I don’t have anything to say. I’ve had a number of emails this week about my Requiem which seems to be piquing people’s interest without my actually having to big it up in any way. People find the concept of the piece fascinating. I just hope they’ll be as interested in the music itself.

That said, every time I hear it, I feel proud, even though it’s nothing but silly computerised noises at the moment. It’s tragic, but I sneak a listen every so often and allow myself to be taken into an imaginary world where I’m hearing the piece played by a full string orchestra on a recording made by Decca! It occurs to me that the juxtaposition between the traditional Latin text and the English additions (in the shape of the gravestone quotes) works quite well. Let’s face it, most people don’t really bother to listen to a text when they first hear a piece of music - particularly if it's in a foreign laguage. In most cases Latin words are destined to simply become musical mush. Your average Joe gets over-tired if he's forced to concentrate for too long, and after a while the music simply begins to wash over him. The odd word pops out, and this shapes his understanding for another minute or so. As such, I’m convinced that most people think the “dies” in “dies irae” means “dire” or “death” rather than simply “day.” All this, I feel, could work in my composition’s favour, as audiences might be more likely to tune in to the few passages that are sung in English, which are, of course, the heart of the work, and the bit that I feel people should be listening to more intently.

I continue to imagine who the people are whose graves appear in the work. What did they look like? Would I have liked them? Did they choose the quotes that appear on their head stones? Who was Yasi, buried in Brookwood Cemetery? I know he was 39 when she died. The only other thing I know about him is that her gravestone reads “...and we laughed, and laughed and laughed.” And isn’t that how we’d all want to be remembered?

350 years ago, Pepys was invited to a “venison pasty” which turned out to be a disappointing pasty of salted pork. I say disappointing but Pepys merely states the facts. A venison pasty was obviously a very special thing, however... As one seemed to be able to attend one, like one might attend a hog roast nowadays.

Pepys spent the afternoon in a Cook shop (a sort of cafe) with Captain Lambert. They talked about Portugal. It was where Catherine de Breganza, English Queen in waiting, was from, and as such had become a hot topic of conversation within wealthy society circles. The place was regarded as something of a back water, where they even refused to put glass in their windows (probably because the weather was considerably better...) The Portuguese King was apparently an incredibly rude, uncouth and lazy man. His daughter – the future Queen of England, was considered by many to be equally hideous! Oh dear...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

And the first birds start to sing

We’ve been in slow motion all day - moving at half speed in a sort of Sunday afternoon haze of tiredness. Nathan was quite drunk last night – and it must have been close to 4am when we finally turned in. The dawn chorus had already started. I forget what it’s like to live the life of a West End performer. Everything shifts by about 3 hours. Breakfast becomes lunch, lunch becomes tea, and bedtime, in early summer, is at dawn!

Almost tragically, I’ve been working all day. I guess it's not really the best way to to spend a Sunday, especially after a doctor's told you to relax, but I have an incredibly busy week ahead, and a great amount of arranging to do for my concert, so no rest for Benjy.

Fortunately we were rescued by Fiona in the early evening, and the three of us went for a long walk. Autumn has definitely arrived. There’s a chill in the air. In fact, the heating's just gone on for the first time. We went in search of a warming pudding, and set off for our walk with food cooking in the oven. I was horrified when Nathan announced we’d been gone for an hour. We ran back to the house, expecting to find the place on fire, but our oven is so rubbish, that, an hour and a half after we’d fed it a chips and veggie burgers, the damned things still weren’t fully cooked! It was another half hour before we could eat.
The whole situation became an absolute joke, when the pudding we’d bought on our walk – a lovely chocolate thing – burnt to a crisp within ten minutes of being put in the oven!

Pepys, like me, stayed in bed for most of the morning 350 years ago. Elizabeth spent the day interviewing maids. Their current one, Mary, had been on trial for a month, but had left to work in a “tradesman’s house where there was but one maid.” Pepys joined his wife in the latter stages of the interviews and they ended up choosing a girl called Nell, who arrived with her mother, and refused to be hired for less than half a year. Her amusing cheek got her the job!

How I treasure every minute

I’m getting rather bad at posting this blog before Midnight, which was always the plan. One day I’ll realise I’ve forgotten altogether, and Christmas will be ruined!

Today seems to have lasted forever. It started in my favourite cafe, where I worked until lunchtime. Fiona popped in, and we had lunch at hers before heading off to Hampstead Heath. If the doctor advises you to de-stress by going to the heath, to the heath you must go. It was a beautiful autumn day and we ate ice lollies as we wandered around. The light was astonishing, and the trees, which were just beginning to turn autumnal colours, were almost glowing. We climbed trees, took photographs, and ran around with thousands of dogs, many of which resembled their owners!

Just call me Brigitte Bardot

incredible light...

In the evening I went to see Naked Boys Singing. I haven’t seen it since it opened at the Charing Cross Theatre, and it’s in very good shape – which is largely due to Nathan, who is the show’s resident director. I went in, essentially to look after our friend Christopher’s agent, who is over from New York. He’s a lovely bloke, and I very much enjoyed talking to him, and spending time with the charming cast after the show.

We met Philip Sallon outside Heaven. It was wonderful to see him, but I wondered if he seemed a little distant. Maybe he was slightly confused by the hundreds of people who seemed to have decided to cram themselves into that area under the arches. It really is a Mecca for all sorts of weird and wonderful people. There was a man wearing a lime green suit which actually gave me a headache just to look at!

350 years ago, and Pepys’ testicle was still sore; slightly inflamed by all the walking he’d done on the previous day. How awful to have been ill in those days - illness so often meant death. Pepys went to St Paul’s churchyard to meet a woman who'd owed money to his uncle before he’d died. She wanted to meet him in the churchyard because she was too scared of repercussions if she revealed her address. All very cloak and dagger, but Pepys was keen to get the money back, so went along with the theatrics... worrying all the time about his testicle!


By the way, this is Brother Act... and they're extraordinary! I urge you all to see them when they next perform.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The urge to move on

As I was leaving for the cafe this morning, I found a letter addressed to me on the door mat. The letter was from Sir Arnold and Lady Wesker. I'd recently talked to him about the court case, and sent him the song Ubuntu to listen to. Ubuntu is, of course, the only song of the four songs I wrote that The Choir Invisible actually heard, and it was the one that was rather comically rejected on the grounds that it wasn't 'soul-gospel' enough. There were countless letters from choir members saying what an "strange" piece of music it was, without structure or repetition. For those who didn't get to hear it the first time, have a listen to it at www.benjamintill.com/Ubuntu.

The letter that I received from the Weskers said the following; 

"Dear Benj. Ubuntu is great. You were obviously landed with a judge who didn't like your lip! What a dreadful, dreadful saga. Take courage.

Ps. We may not be able to come to the concert, but I'd like to buy a couple of tickets. Please find enclosed a cheque for £500, which we can just afford because I have sold the Welsh cottage." 

My heart instantly melted, and I dissolved into floods of tears. For five minutes I was a little weeping ball at the bottom of the stairs. I wept for joy and I wept because I felt the pain finally beginning to disappear. I thought of all those dreadful letters that had been read out in court; letters that said what an unpleasant man I was, that claimed I'd only wanted to write music for their choir to have my "ego massaged." Finally  the misery that they'd caused was beginning to melt. 

Arnold has been there for me at every stage of my career, supporting me and offering wise words every time that things have gone wrong. He's not well off and this is a huge sum of money for him. I immediately phoned to say it was too much, but he simply kept saying that he wished it could be more.

I have never felt as loved as I have  since this court case. My work has never felt more validated. The lyrics for the offending songs are being rewritten, and I'm reclaiming them as a work that amateur choirs across the country can enjoy. I send thanks to every single one of you who's sent messages of good will over the last month. I hope as many of you as possible will get to London to see the premier of the work on November 27th so that I can thank you all in person.

I'm even hoping that the Choir Invisible will come and stand on the steps of the church singing to you all as you enter - very much as they did as I entered the courtroom on that dark day. It was a lovely gesture then and I think it would be a lovely gesture on the 27th.

350 years ago, Pepys ventured out of the house for the first time since his unfortunate bruise appeared. He went by water to Westminster and spent the afternoon drinking with the troublesome Captain Ferrers - repeatedly toasting the Duke of York, whose birthday it was. Not that Pepys ever needed an excuse for drinking copious amounts of alcohol!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Her voice was husky and it sounded quite exciting

I've just been watching Nathan in his Brother Act cabaret at The Pheasantry. It was remarkable. I was almost pathetically proud. They were slick, hysterically funny, and they sang beautifully. The act takes cabaret to a very different level and  I predict great, great things for them.

I have a feeling that things might be on the turn. I got a higher than normal PRS cheque through the post today. I'm not quite sure who's been performing my work, but I'm eternally grateful to them. Right now, every single penny counts! 

I went to the doctor today, spurred on by Philippa, who said these crazy spasm fits I'm having every time I cough sound like croup. I'd never heard of the condition, but a bit of research on wikipedia revealed it's something that babies get. Hmm. 

The doctor put my mind at ease. It's not croup, but it does have a name. Don't ask me what. Something Latin. She believes the cough might hang around for another few weeks, and attributes the spasms to my being ridiculously stressed. The cough fuels the stress. The stress fuels the cough and I've created my very own vicious circle! Hurrah for me! 

The advice is to try  to stay calm whenever the spasms happen, safe in the knowledge that normal breathing will recommence soon enough. She recommended long walks on the Heath and plenty of exercise. 

At the moment I'm stuck in a tunnel on the Northern Line because someone is "trespassing on the tracks." It's not quite how I imagined my evening ending, but everyone in the carriage is really cool. We're having a lot of fun! 

And what of Pepys? Well, 350 years ago, he spent the day chilling out in his house, still recovering from his embarrassing bruise. He treats us to a very detailed account of what he was wearing, which is charming enough to repeat in full;

"this day left off half skirts and put on a wastecoate, and my false taby wastecoate with gold lace." 

I bet he looked a picture. Like a beautiful trannie! 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

I'm hearing images...

I’m being haunted by a song which keeps playing on Radio 6. It’s not yet been released, but it seems to be played at all the right moments. Take today, for example, I’d just removed my headphones in the cafe, and was staring wistfully at a bicyclist on the street outside, and there it was, somehow louder than the previous track, and there I was, suddenly in a 5 minute trance. I’ve tracked it down on You Tube – and anyone who likes their music slightly alternative, yet delicately epic should have a listen. Put some headphones on and allow it to caress your soul!

Today’s been about trying to transfer one of my earliest songs from manuscript paper onto the computer. The songs I wrote with Arnold Wesker for Letter to a Daughter are incredibly complicated and far more detailed than anything I’ve written recently. The song from the musical we hope to perform on November 27th is the busiest of the lot, and I’ve never imputed so many freakin’ semi-quavers into one score. When I close my eyes, I see dancing spiders.!
With miraculous ironic timing, Sir Arnold himself emailed at lunchtime, telling me that the woman who’d performed Letter to a Daughter in Korea (with songs written by a different composer) had decided she wanted to stage a performance of the piece over here. She’s apparently incredibly wealthy and this would be something of a vanity project for her. Apparently she’s not “grabbed” by my music and has asked ‘Nold what he thinks about her commissioning a different composer. He, in turn, asked me what I felt.  I told him that the thought of a big British production of the work without my music would make me feel a little sad, but if she was offering to take the piece to a wider audience, he should grasp the opportunity. Instinctively, I can’t imagine anything less appropriate than the lead role (which is implicitly Jewish) being played by a Korean, but I guess if she wants to do it, she should do it with the music she wants to sing. Besides, the music I wrote was probably as implicitly Jewish as Arnold’s text, so it's hardly surprising it doesn’t resonate with her. If I were really sneaky, I’d simultaneously stage my own production of the work! Arnold’s been telling me to direct it for years!

I’m currently in the process of finding a name for the choir that I’ve been setting up. A name is such an important thing, because it tells you in a second everything you need to know about an ensemble. I put out a plea on Facebook to see if anyone had any ideas. Ideally I’m looking for something a little bit eccentric, a little bit wistful, a little bit fun, and totally free of any puns, or any sense of a classical ensemble who are taking themselves too seriously. People, in response, have left some incredibly witty puns; totally unusable, but hysterically funny. My favourite has to be “Choral Sex” – although I was also partial to “Ad Nauseum.” As Ellie pointed out, many choirs have Latin names... Thanks for that! Any suggestions gratefully received.
Saturday 12th October, 1661, and Pepys spent much of the day in bed – although the swelling on his testicle had begun to get better. There was no other news... unless you count another round of machinations concerning Uncle Robert’s will, which was surely fast becoming the most bitterly contested will on record!   

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

I'm sure I had my dinner watching something on TV

We're watching Stephen Fry's programme about language on i-player, whilst chowing down on a lovely plate of pasta. I cooked it, everyone said it was delicious, and I felt pathetically proud!

Fiona and I have just been for another long walk. Nathan stayed at home to rehearse his monktastic cabaret with Jem and Ian in our bedroom!

We talked as we walked about Westminster Council's decision to start charging for parking on its streets in the evenings. At the moment it's possible to drive into central London and park on any single yellow line from 6.30pm for free, which has always been good news for Theatreland - particularly musicians, who are able to drive in for late night gigs, which finish after the tubes have stopped running.  I'm not sure the council have been able to come up with a plausible explanation for their decision, so we can only assume it's simply another stealth tax and wonder what they'll try to charge us for next...

Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions to the council - all of which have fallen, unsurprisingly, on deaf ears. Complain these days and someone simply shrugs their shoulders and blames the recession. Successive governments strove to lower child poverty, improve our health system and educate the masses, yet now I hear MPs almost taking delight in saying that, within the next five years, all the good work could well have been undone. Sometimes I wonder how MPs would behave if the stakes were considerably higher - not for us, but for them! Mind you, I often find myself wondering, when watching the X Factor, particularly when someone says "she literally sang for for her life" what would happen if the loser each week was routinely taken away and ritually slaughtered! Then they literally WOULD be singing for their lives! 

350 years ago, and Pepys spent the day in bed with a "cataplasm" to his "codd." The jury is out when it comes to what this actually means, but it's bound to refer to the bruise he had on his testicles. A cod piece, of course, was named after the part of the anatomy it protected. 

Whilst Pepys was in bed, a number of his extended family came for lunch, and by all accounts had a very jolly time without him! 

I'm reminded of the birthday party of my friend Moira, who was so ill, she couldn't get out of bed. At one stage we all filed into her darkened room bearing gifts. I still remember her sad, confused, slightly-green face, peering out from underneath the covers whilst, for some reason, we all sang Away In A Manger!

Monday, 10 October 2011

I let the music speak

We've just been to see The Phantom of the Opera. I feel a little like Pepys with all these visits to theatres of late, but when many of your friends are actors, life can become a constant round of theatrical experiences (and not just ones on the stage!) 

Today was the turn of my lovely friend, Carmen, who was playing Carlotta, the operatic diva, in the musical. It feels rather odd to confess that I've never been to see Phantom before. Many of those huge shows from the 1980s passed me by during the dark years when I felt the need to claim that musical theatre was a lower art form!

I loved the show. It's so atmospheric and it was such a treat to see it. Carmen was extraordinary. It's such an extreme role, which requires an actress to honk like a goose before singing right up to top Es, which is the stuff of dream sequences. Any higher and only dogs would be able to hear her! I was immensely proud.

I was less proud of the orchestra, however, who sounded tired. They were all playing on auto-pilot and had obviously been "phoning in" their performances for way too many years. Apparently about 9 of them had been playing in the pit since the show started 25 years ago, which is just weird. Many of the string players sounded like they were playing instruments made out of knicker elastic. If I were Cameron Mackintosh, I'd go in there and sack the lot of them; bring in some younger players with a bit more life and better intonation! Old school musicians are not necessarily good musicians. Besides, why on earth would a decent musician WANT to play the same show for 25 years?

350 years ago, and Pepys, like me, went to the theatre... This time with Elizabeth, to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. They saw a play called The Traitor, which they enjoyed immensely. The King was also in the audience. It's interesting to note how accessible royalty must have seemed in those days. London was so much smaller...

Pepys returned home with Elizabeth, with the intention of getting jiggy, but an unfortunate a bruise on one of his testicles (no, I'm not making this up) prevented him from getting in the mood, as it were, so it was Horlicks all round. Okay, so I made that up. He probably had some kind of caudle before asking one of the maids to comb his hair!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Just like Cinderella

09.10.11. 

We've just been to see Bugle Boy at the Garrick Theatre. It was a one-night only showcase performance of a sort of review, which tells the life story of Glen Miller. Its USP is that it features a full big band, who were extraordinary. 

The eponymous hero was being played by our friend Ian, and he was perfect in the role. The script needs a bit of work to make it sound a little less like (as Nathan put it) "someone reading the Glen Miller Wikipedia page," but it's obviously a show which, marketed correctly, ought to put bums on seats, and it was such a treat to hear the music being played so fabulously.

Earlier on we went for a walk with Fiona, who told us a few shocking stories about Leona Lewis, winner-of-the-X-Factor-turned-mega-monster. It's such a shame to hear she's started behaving like a tragic mini-diva. She always seemed rather down to earth. I suspect she realises her career is taking a nose dive and has started kicking off; "does no one know who I think I am?" I also suspect that over-night stardom without any form of hard-grind creates kids with egos the size of the auditoria they're suddenly performing in, and massively inflated senses of their own importance. Still, she'll have a lifetime of obscurity in which to learn humility, so that's alright! That kind of behaviour wins countless enemies, who will eventually find a choice moment to deliver the fatal blow! 

Wednesday October 9th, 1661, and Pepys took his theorbo to be mended.  I'm told a theorbo was/is a type of lute with a "double peg box", which implies it came/comes with a fair number of strings.

Pepys spent the afternoon in the company of two beautiful women. He wined them, dined them, took them to the theatre and made sure they got home safely. What a gent, though God knows his  motives can't have been entirely honourable! 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Let it be a joke

I’ve been working all day, and am rewarding myself with an evening of rubbish telly. I’ve just started watching the X factor, and am already screaming at the screen. My favourite act, the alluringly feminine Johnnie, is being mentored by Louis Walsh, and has, as a rather predictable result, been covered in tin foil and surrounded by camp male disco dancers. This is a man with a stunning voice, who has the absolute potential to sing the most moving torch songs with absolute stillness. He’s not just another novelty act, and to dress him up like some kind of 1980s club scene reject, and make him jump about like a freak, is a massive mistake. It was like the worst karaoke in the cheapest bar on Old Compton Street and Johnnie is so much better than that. It’s time to put Louis out to pasture. All the other mentors have chosen material which really bucks the X Factor trend and makes their acts look current and natural. Go Micha!

The cafe this morning was buzzing. It’s so lovely to spend time in a place so close to my house, because it’s started to give me a real sense of my own community. Talk today was of the local man with Tourette’s who wonders up and down the Archway Road delivering lengthy rants at shocked passers-by. His language is apparently beyond all comprehension. I can’t wait to meet him! His favourite haunt, rather horrendously, is the second-hand children’s bookshop on the corner of Southwood Lane. His appearance apparently sends staff members and customers running for their lives. Mothers with children in pushchairs have been seen legging it down the hill with books flying in all directions.

I went to the gym. It was an unpleasant, but necessary evil, and I guess I feel a little better for going. It’s given me carte blanche to stuff my face with food this evening. Captain Caveman here I come!

350 years ago, Pepys ate Colchester oysters with Sir William Batten for lunch, and stayed the afternoon chatting with him. He took Martha Batten, Sir William’s daughter (and Pepys’ Valentine) to the theatre “for a frolique”. What fun! They didn’t stay for very long, didn’t enjoy the play, and everything cost Pepys a small fortune but he didn’t mind. I don't think that was the point of the excercise. I’m not sure what happened to Pepys’ resolution never to go to the theatre unless his wife was present. I guess these resolutions are only made to be broken!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Was it a dream, a lie?

Today seems to have passed in something of a blur. I got back to Highgate incredibly late last night, and was up relatively early, so I’m a bit woozy.

I went first thing to meet a potential tenor for our choir at Goldsmith’s University. He was a very interesting chap, and had a great voice – soulful with more than a whiff of jazz - but I’m not sure he’s right for the choir. He’s definitely a potential soloist for something in the future, but his sight-singing was very slow and the jazz intonation made me wonder if he’d be able to sing with the precision and vocal dexterity that this choir needs. It was horrible having to email him to say “not yet”, but I genuinely meant "not yet" and think that he’s got a big future ahead of him if he keeps to a consistent path.

I came back via central London, where I had my hair macheted from my head by a lovely girl from Australia who didn't know how to stop talking. I then worked in a cafe near Old Compton Street until about 4pm, when I met Louise, who's the editor of most of my films. She's a lovely lass, but one of those people I always feel the need to wind up. In the past I’ve told her all sorts of bullshit about the projects we're working on. She hasn't yet cottoned on to the curious fact that I can't tell a lie more than twice. If I'm talking and you think I'm spinning a yarn, all you have to do is ask if I'm lying. If I AM lying I'll lie again - but then always cave in if asked a third time. I feel too much guilt otherwise! When I'm working with Louise, my favourite game is to see what I can get her to believe. When we start looking through the rushes, I'll often make up a little story about the person being filmed. “That little girl is actually a 15-year old boy” (she believed that one.) “Just after we’d done that take, the old guy with the white fluffy hair walked too close to a naked flame, and his hair went up in smoke.” (She believed that one as well.) Editing with her is so much fun. She even allows me to put a made-up name in every single one of the credits. Metro: The Musical apparently had a performer called Alice Tyrd. Priceless!

We met Nathan and ate in a cafe called Diana’s round the back of Covent Garden. It used to be a favoured eating hole with West End turns, but it’s got a bit pricey, and the staff are weird. I asked for a full vegetarian breakfast, and was horrified at how little I was given; just a few fried mushrooms, some baked beans, a tomato and a piece of toast. I had food envy all meal, and kept pinching Nathan’s chips.

I came back home and have been working, really, ever since.

Monday October 7th, 1661, and Pepys was once again in a pickle about his uncle’s will. There was all sorts of business involving Huntingdon-based courts, and various letters, but frankly I don’t think anyone reading this blog would be remotely interested in the details. He went to visit his doctor, but found him ill in bed. That must be like finding your hairdresser sporting a rubbish barnet! Doctors aren't meant to get ill - and if they do, they're meant to be able to cure themselves!

I leave you with a response to yesterday's blog from my friend Ellie; "further to your blog... There was the case of the drummer who got so depressed he threw himself behind a train!"

Any more drumming jokes are very welcome... And viola jokes whilst you're at it! You can't beat a good viola joke!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

All I do is eat and sleep and sing

We're on the M6 somewhere near Knutsford. We've just stopped at one of those crazy 1960s service stations with the covered walkways over the motorway. I stood for a moment, watching the cars hurtling underneath me. They looked like fireworks. 

My lips feel very dry. We've done nothing but eat rubbish food all day.

It's been a long old day up in Glasgow, and driving through the Lake District in gale force winds and sheeting rain was not exactly a bundle of laughs.

We have, however, had a brilliant time. We were playing drums at a conference; a sort of team-building, post-lunch interlude aimed to keep the delegates focussed and entertained. We played for fifteen minutes, but spent 3 hours setting up percussion instruments; one on every chair for each of the 1400 people crammed into the auditorium.

Mark, who lead the session, was, as ever, superb. He's genuinely one of the most charismatic men I know. I very much hope the delegates enjoyed the show. As a non-drummer, I felt as though I was flying by the seat of my pants, but  everything seemed to go well. Perhaps I'll become a drummer... No wait, I'm a musician. Q. What do you call a bloke who hangs out with musicians? A. A drummer! Boom boom chink! Q. How do you know if a drummer's at your door? A. The knocking gets faster!

As we packed away the drums and shakers and sundry wooden ethnic-looking instruments, I sang an hour-long non-stop medley of music from the 1970s. It's important to keep the troops entertained. One of the ushers in the venue, stood and watched me with a great big, humourless, special-needs look plastered across her face. After a while she asked if I liked singing.  An oddly redundant question, I feel. 

Now, is it me, or are the Scots a tiny bit dour? I know it's a cliche and that most of them are not exactly fond of the English, but it would have been quicker to chisle a smile into some of the people I encountered in the city today. Maybe it was the relentless rain...

At breakfast this morning, I found myself surrounded by Russians, who, I'm afraid, also looked like they'd been sucking lemons. All the woman had bright red hair and entirely circular faces. They looked like suicidal pin cushions.

October 6th, 1661 was a Sunday, and Pepys went to church - twice. October marked the official start of the winter season, so many of the church's more wealthy parishioners had returned from country estate that they'd lived in over the summer. Pepys was in his element. There was a very pretty "black" woman - dark haired, rather than dark skinned, and a lady in a flowery satin suit, which he liked very much! 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

I called you last night from Glasgow

It's funny where you find yourself on a wet October evening. I'm in Glasgow in an hotel. I've no idea where I am in relation to the rest of the city. There's a river just outside and lots of cranes and things. It feels very industrial in a not very pleasant way. It's all quite grim and dark up here. We got to the Lake District and the heavens opened, and I've not seen the sun since.

Driving up was an adventure. I've come to Scotland to help our friends Lisa and Mark with a drumming workshop, and was picked up by a suspicious-looking white van at Luton airport. We travelled at a good speed all the way up, despite being buffeted almost constantly by high winds which threatened to blow us off the motorway. 

My travel companions were Simon and Catherine. New friends. Great fun. There's something about a road trip which bonds people very quickly, and no subject was left undiscussed. 

I'm annoyed to report that my cold seems to have reappeared. My glands are up again. I had a frightening episode in the night when I started to cough and then couldn't breath. I was gasping for air, almost choking. Everything felt constricted. In the cold light of day I realise I was have some kind of spasm and from now on, need to remember to stay as calm as possible if the same thing happens again. As Lisa said earlier, "it happens to children. The worst case scenario is that you'll pass out, and at that stage your body will take over and start breathing normally again."

Her words were wise, but it was a frightening experience, so much that  I woke Nathan up afterwards to talk things through. He was wonderfully calming, and we had a cuddle until I drifted off to sleep again. 

350 years ago, Pepys spent the afternoon hanging a model of a ship from the ceiling of his chamber. He was very pleased with his work and went to The Dolphin for a celebratory drink with Sir William Batten. They ate bloat herrings for their tea, which I'm told were a form of smoked herrings.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

When the summer's over and the dark clouds hide the sun

I’m rather glad that today is over. I’ve been with my parents in Cambridge. My father was having some tests done at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and had been told he wouldn’t be able to drive home afterwards. He seemed hugely grateful that I was helping out, but frankly, it's the least I could do for a man who's supported me relentlessly for 40 years!

We sat in a waiting room, which was filled to the brim with very frightened-looking men, all of whom were trying to be terribly brave for the people who'd brought them in. There's nothing sadder, in my experience, than a bloke trying to be dignified against all the odds. Some of them were in a proper mess. One didn’t seem to be able to lift his head. Another, a deeply frail old guy, had dressed up in his best suit, but was obviously finding the whole experience a little bit too much to deal with. His wife, who was also wearing her Sunday best, was fussing around and doing what she could against the odds, but everything was looking very bleak and she looked scared. My mother whispered in my ear; “I wonder what these people would have been like on their wedding days.” We spoke for a while about the promises they must have made to each other, "till death us do part." And there they were, 50 years later, bodies turning to dust, still facing problems together, still trying to protect one another, still refusing to give up against all the odds. It was so upsetting.

My Dad, however, emerged from the tests looking surprisingly chipper, and I’m confident everything's going to be just fine.

We drove back to Thaxted and watched Pointless.

350 years ago, London was buzzing with rumours that the French Ambassador was claiming the English had not only supported the Spanish during their recent spat with him, but actually taken up arms against his Embassy. He was stamping his little Gallic feet and had apparently called upon King Charles to apologise. He was even threatening to go back to France, which Pepys seemed very glad to hear!

Pepys met up with Captain Ferrers and they went to the King’s theatre. They arrived late, and only stayed for a short time, because they'd seen the play before and it seemed even worse the second time around.

He returned home to find his wife shouting at the servants who'd apparently been complaining that they weren’t being fed enough meat, a fact which had been made worse by their being given Suffolk cheese instead; a favourite of the Navy, which was renowned for being cheap, rather ghastly, and as hard as concrete! Sam had obviously got himself a whole load on the cheap and didn’t fancy eating it himself.

Monday, 3 October 2011

She said I began to sing long before I could talk...

I did a morning of work in the cafe and in the mid afternoon went for a long walk with Fiona. We decided it was going to be the last day of sunshine so ambled through the woods into Muswell Hill and then down the steep hill into Crouch End, where we met Vicky Matthews and her lovely son in a pub, where a pint of lemonade cost a ridiculous £3.80! Nicky's son is brilliantly porky. A fine figure of a nine-month-old with a freakish interest in books for one so young! He'll be reciting poems before he can talk! What was it Agnetha said? "Mother says I was a dancer before I could walk..."

We walked home along the disused railway line and watched the sky as it darkened from an odd lemon colour through peach into a bizarre shade of tangerine. They say a strange sunset often signifies a big change in the weather, so perhaps tomorrow will bring rain. 

350 years, ago Pepys went to the Tower of London to meet a man who was due to lend him 50 quid. They went to the pub and drank themselves silly. In the evening Pepys called in on Sir William Batten and his wife, who'd both been to see the pretty rubbish play that Pepys had watched the previous day. Elizabeth Batten enjoyed it hugely, and Pepys mocked her thoroughly... Obviously behind her back. He could be a proper little bitch when he wanted! 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

I never loved you more than on those happy autumn days

We've been at my parents' house in Thaxted all day. It was a last minute decision. When you wake up on October the second and discover it's the hottest day of the year, you have to get out and about.

I knew brother Edward and Sascha were heading up, so it felt like the perfect opportunity for an ad hoc family gathering.

The sun was so hot, but it was a strange, dusty, almost dead heat. Like the heat you'd expect to find in a desert. Dry as toast, rather Mediterranean and certainly very unlike anything I've experienced in this country. It's hotter here than it is in Rome, Athens and LA. We're practically the hottest place in the world!


We walked around the fields and everything felt wrong. Beautiful but wrong. The sun was low in the sky, so the shadows were as long as I've seen. Nathan had his top off and yet we were kicking our way through autumn leaves. The bushes were laden with sloes and juniper berries, and many of the trees were turning brown. But it felt like Spain. Hot. Utterly magical. It must have triggered the Leo The Lion fire energy inside me because I felt truly alive. We came back home and shared the first apple from one of my parents' trees; a fabulously crunchy variety with a proper kick to it. I bloomin' love the autumn!


350 years ago Pepys went to visit his cousin Peg Kite. Great name. She was the daughter of Pepys' Auntie Julian (another fabulous name) and Pepys hated her. In fact he went as far as to describe her as a slut. Steady on!

There was a trip in the afternoon to the King's Theatre to see a play called Victoria Corombona, which Pepys hated. His enjoyment of the piece was hindered greatly by really rubbish seats. 6 days ago at the Union Theatre, I knew exactly how he felt!