Friday, 31 August 2012

Talk talk turds

I woke up this morning and was immediately thrown into the fiery hell of having to deal with Talk Talk, our Internet providers, who, of late, have stopped providing us with our Internet. 

The situation has been getting progressively worse; it used to be that we'd suddenly drop offline half way through our favourite show on iplayer, but the day before we went to Italy, the broadband stopped working altogether and it hasn't yet come back to us. 

At ten o'clock this morning, therefore, I found myself talking to call centres, first in Manilla, then in Mumbai, slowly losing the will to live, primarily because every time someone went off to "check" something and promised to call me back, they'd do no such thing. An hour later, I'd call back to discover whoever I was talking to before hadn't made any notes about my call, and we'd be forced to start everything again. One bloke had me on all fours taking a screwdriver to my rooter!

I'm afraid I hate foreign call centres, not because I'm racist, but because those who work in them have very little concept of what it means to be British, which, when you're stressed, can tip you over the edge. They speak, on the whole, fairly  good English, but there are few shared values and little (much-needed) understanding of the geography, humour or basic set up of our nation. One chap today, for example, kept telling me (because the Talk Talk people couldn't come in person to fix the problem for a week) that I could try "getting a local technician to come to the house." "What kind of technician?" I asked, "an Internet technician" he said, "where will I find one of them?" I asked. Silence. Then more crappy guitar music on a two-minute loop, whilst he put me on hold to find out... 

When the conversation went into its third cycle I demanded to speak to someone in the UK - a request which, bizarrely, was granted. The relief was extraordinary. Finally I was talking to a person who could list the various shops where I could buy replacement parts, and tell me the prices I ought to expect to pay for them. It shouldn't have made a difference, but it did. He even sympathised when I complained about the music. " I don't mind muzak" I said, "but when the muzak loops after two minutes, and goes back to the start again, it's like descending into hell in a never-ending lift... The only thing which is worse than muzak, is muzak which doesn't have the decency to end!" He laughed and understood and the anger drifted away...

If anyone high up in a multi-national company finds themselves reading this blog, I make one plea; however expensive it proves to be, please bring the service industry back to the UK. 

350 years ago, Pepys heard on the grapevine that Sir William Penn was returning to London from Ireland. This was bad news for two reasons; firstly, Pepys didn't care much for Penn, and secondly, because his adversary was away, Pepys had started squatting in Penn's house - with piles of his possessions - whilst his own house was being renovated. 

All of this meant that Pepys had to find himself alternative lodgings, which he did, on Tower Hill. His maid, Jane, was sent to Penn's house to "sleep with" Pepys' belongings, and no doubt explain to Penn, when he arrived, what on earth had happened to his house whilst he was away. 

Still, the good news was that Pepys did his end of month accounts and found himself to be worth 686 pounds. His new oaths were working; he was making, and saving money, and was well on the way to making his first thousand - a figure you can probably times by at least 100 in modern parlance - all kept in silver pieces in a metal chest! These were the days before banks, remember...

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Leaving Italy

We're on a plane heading north along the Italian Adriatic coast. Periodically, one of the Ryan Air air crew members attempts to sell us something in an incomprehensible accent. I wish they'd just shut up so the passangers can enter a trance to block out the hell of the experience. At the moment they're walking down the aisles trying up flog us scrunched-up copies of The Sun newspaper, which have plainly been read (and paid for) already by the passengers who were on this plane before us. Earlier on we were invited to buy lottery tickets, the proceeds of which "could" help children's charities. 

We're currently experiencing rather bad turbulence over The Dolomites and my palms are sweating.  

It felt incredibly sad to leave Italy. We spent the day on the beach once again, floating, swimming, eating and knitting, said our goodbyes to all our new friends and, of course, Julie, and  that was that. Holiday over. 

As we left the beach, a glorious dusky-pink sunset glowed in the Western sky, whilst the moon, rising in the south, cast a glorious silvery reflection on the surface of the sea. It was, we're told, the last day of the high Italian summer. The weather is due to break before the end of tomorrow. 

Every morning we took ourselves to a little pasticceria in Pineto to buy pastries for a breakfast on the beach. One of the young women who works in the shop took a real shine to me... She, like many Italians (we discover) really likes the English accent, and called me Teddy Ben. We explained we were leaving today, and she came out from behind the counter to give us big hugs. For the third time this week, all of the pastries were for free!

The Italians genuinely seem to be the most generous-natured people in the world. Sure, they get hot-headed when driving, and take ridiculous siestas, and the country almost entirely shuts up shop in August, but they fall over themselves to assist you if they can. Today, our friend Angelo, with the surreally low voice, insisted on helping me to blow up my fluorescent green lilo by frog-marching me to his car and handing me a foot pump. Sadly the blessed thing had a puncture, so it all got a little embarrassing! 

I learned something today: The heady Italian scent, which, on more than one occasion, has made me go all funny is actually a flower! It's a pretty little pinky-purple thing, which, like jasmine, starts to throw off a powerful aroma as the sun begins to set. The flower is called Bella Di Notte. Isn't that beautiful? I'd love to know its English name and whether it would grow in Highgate soil. We could grow some under our tree in the back yard to attract bees and butterflies.

On that note, I think it could be time for me to spend a fiver on a crappy cup of tea, and try to get my head thinking like an Englishman again. Without this mental gear shift, it's almost impossible to deal with the mayhem of London. 

I wonder if the city will be filled with people in wheelchairs? 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Shoes full of feet

Nathan and I celebrated our tenth anniversary today. Ten years! It hardly seems like yesterday that I came bounding down a flight of stairs, after a trip to the South of France, to find him in the bar of the theatre I was working in, waiting to be directed into a production of Taboo. I was his boss then... And still am! 

We celebrated the hugely significant anniversary by driving to Rome. Ah! Rome! The Eternal City. I was last here some 15 years ago, and it would appear to have lost none of its magic. 

We have had an incredible day. Julie frog-marched us around "her" Rome in the morning; Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Campo de Fiori. We drifted around in the blazing sun, stopping in coffee shops whenever we felt thirsty, eating pasta, and granitas made from fresh fruit juice. 

For the record, there are 136 steps in the Spanish steps, and the view from the church at the top is astounding. My favourite thing about Rome is its roof terraces. Usually high up on terracotta and ochre-coloured ramshackle buildings, they're often a blazing riot of flowers and dark green vines. Deeply inviting. 

We deposited Julie in a cafe, and I took Nathan on a trek around the oldest part of town. We climbed 124 steps to a remarkable cathedral perched on a hill above the Forum where the alter was surrounded by 30 enormous candelabras, and multi-coloured stained glass windows cast eerie rainbows of light onto the large stone floor tiles. 

From there we went to the English cemetery in Rome in search of Una Troughbridge's grave. Troughbridge was the lover of gay writer, Radclyffe Hall, who was buried in a crypt in Highgate cemetery next to her first lover, Mable Batten, in the 1940s. Una left a curious inscription on a plaque which says, "and if God choose I shall but love thee better after death." The quote, which is signed "Una", features in the second movement of the Requiem. Una spent the last years of her life in the Eternal City, but made it known to her family that she wanted to be buried in the Highgate tomb when the time came. Her wish, for very obvious reasons, was not granted, and she was buried 1000 miles away from the woman she loved so much. Very sad when you consider they were lovers for 20 years. 

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the cemetery, it had closed for the day. We spoke to the volunteer locking up, who said somebody else had asked about the grave, but they weren't sure where it was. I felt bitterly disappointed that, for the sake of arriving half an hour earlier, I'd denied myself the opportunity of looking for it myself, but I at least made the effort, and the thought was there.

From the cemetery we went up to the Colosseum, by which stage the heat was really beginning to take its toll, and I was feeling both heavy-footed and light-headed. 

We had supper in a restaurant near the Pantheon with two new friends; a theatre director called Anna and a wonderful singer called Evelina, who specialises in Sephardic Jewish songs. She was born in Libya, and hounded out of the country during the Arab-Israeli war in the mid-1960s. We've met some fascinating Italians on this trip and made some wonderful friends. 

They asked us about the wind storms we'd had at the beach a few days before, which they'd heard about in Rome. What we hadn't realised, in a form of  naïveté that only Brits could do, was that the storm was actually generating tornadoes and that the area we were in is part of the tornado belt in Italy. 

I'd made lots of films of the storm on my mobile phone which I showed to the group... And sure enough, there in the dark clouds hanging above the beach on one of the clips, was the small, but very distinct, and utterly chilling beginnings of a funnel! We were very nearly twistered out of that place!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Doing craft

I am now wearing a necklace which I’ve made out of shells I found buried in the sand on Itaca Beach. I guess these are the sorts of activities you do when you finally start to relax. It took a couple of hours to thread them, painstakingly, one by one, onto a piece of yarn; time, which, under any other circumstance would be spent panicking that I wasn’t doing something more constructive.

Italy smells rather wonderful. This is something I’ve only just started to realise. There’s an incredibly sensual cologne or perfume that people wear here which makes me go a bit cross-eyed and sleepy; particularly when it’s combined with the aroma of coffee and cigar smoke and the glorious musical cadences of people nattering in Italian. My dream-like state has been further activated by the arrival of the man, who I now know to be called Angelo, with the lowest voice in the world.

We went for supper last night with our new friends, a trio of film makers from Rome. One edits, one directs and one is a screen writer, so they have most aspects of the “behind the camera” process covered! They summer in a rambling house on the hillside above a seaside town along the coast. The house was built by Franca (the screenwriter’s) grandfather in the 1920s. It’s basically three floors of Italian bohemian decadence with roof terraces galore looking out to the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The house was commandeered by the Nazis in the Second World War, and rumour has it that a German officer is buried underneath a tree in the front garden.

We were joined for the evening by a whole gang of Italian gay people - actors, architects, osteopaths, art dealers - and we had a number of slightly worrying conversations about quite how difficult it is to be gay in the country where the pope lives. Homosexuality here tends to happen behind closed doors. The clubs and bars are all in locations where people can slip in without being seen. Of course the unfortunate consequence of pretending gay people don’t exist is that many married men end up cheating on their wives with other men, people get black-mailed, people live unhappy lives and only the Pope feels truly happy. One of the couples we met last night had got married in Spain; but their union was worthless in the eyes of Italian law. One assumes that the Italians have signed up to various European declarations of human rights, and it will be interesting to see what happens when politics - out of necessity - is forced to start kicking these blatant breaches of human rights - in the name of religion - to touch.

We sat on the terrace behind the house and ate pasta and cheeses at a long trestle table, before retiring to an art-lined sitting room to sing songs around an out-of-tune piano. I don’t know if it’s just the Italians we’ve been meeting, but everyone here appears to love to sing. Perhaps they now have the same impression of the Brits, as Julie, Nathan and I will regularly burst into three part harmony. The great game of today was to lie on lilos on the still choppy sea, and sing rounds as the tide dragged us slowly back to the shore. As we hit the line of breaking waves, the singing and the lilos would disappear into foam, and we’d dissolve into hysterics at the sight of at least one of us being thrown off the lilo and into the whisked-up watery abyss.

Washing machine

Back at the beach, the wind is still high, and the waves are crashing relentlessly onto the beach. The sun is shining very strongly, and I feel as though I’ve been sand-blasted and then double-baked! High waves can be great fun, and we spent an hour body surfing, and allowing ourselves to be buffeted about like kittens in a washing machine. The beach is almost empty. For many Italians the summer ended yesterday. The middle classes have all gone back to Rome to start work again. It is, after all, only three months now until Christmas.
Those Italians who are still “summering”, like our new friends who we’re going to dinner with tonight, wouldn’t be seen dead swimming in choppy water, or sunning themselves on a windy beach like this. Consequently, the only people mad enough to be running into the waves were the English. I caught some of the staff here staring at us in disbelief; “it may be rough” I said, “but this sea is still calmer than any I’ve seen in England.” And with that, I poured milk into my tea, causing even more hilarity.

We’ve just played the Pie Jesu from the Requiem to Roberto and Rafaella, who run the beach cafe where we’ve been spending all our time. I wrote the movement on a little lime green keyboard on this very beach almost exactly a year ago, so it felt appropriate for them to hear it. They seemed to love it. There were cries of “Mama Mia” (genuinely... I didn’t think people actually said that over here) before I was proclaimed a genius. More friends were immediately called over to hear it again.  None of them, of course, understood the English lyrics, and weren’t aware that everything that was being sung had come from inscriptions written on gravestones, so their response was to the music itself. I may be too shy and embarrassed to even attempt to speak Italian, but with music I have a universal language... and I guess that’s a very special thing.

Sunday, 26 August 2012


I’m in Atri again, sitting on a bench staring out across an alluvial plain, which rolls romantically down to the sea. The sun is setting. A beautiful wind is rustling the horse chestnut trees in front of me – who’d have thought they had conkers in Italy. Everything is bathed in a deep treacly light. This is one of the finest views I know. You can see for miles from up here across a series of olive green ridges. Little white houses with red roofs cling to the hillsides, and as the sun sets, a dusty mist descends. They’re letting off fireworks in a village somewhere in the mountains. At this time of year, every town and village has its own “sagra”, a festival which brings everyone out onto the streets to dance, listen to music, and share the local pasta delicacies.

I don’t feel very well. I’ve eaten too much rich food and the exhaustion of the last few months must be finally taking its toll.

It’s been a day of weather extremes. This morning felt like the hottest day we’ve had here so far. We went to the beach, and floated around on lilos, flicking cold water onto our stomachs just to try and keep ourselves cool.

There was a suspicious dark patch in the Northern sky which Nathan noticed first. A few minutes later all hell broke loose. A panicked tannoy announcement told us to “close your umbrellas,” and suddenly everyone was running around, the beach staff were knocking deckchairs to the ground and the life guards were raising red flags and blowing whistles to get people out of the water. It was like a scene from Jaws. And then the winds came, which turned the beach into the site of an intense sand storm. Everyone ran for cover. An entire beach of people found themselves sheltering in a tiny bar area as deckchairs and towels started tumbling around and a storm surge immersed the front row of parasols in angry sea water. The waves, which have never been more than little watery hiccups on this holiday, were now crashing onto the shore like exploding cans of Coca-cola. One thing I’ll say for Italy: It knows how to stage a storm.

When it looked as though the weather wasn’t going to turn fine again anytime soon, the sun-seekers began to leave the beach; battling through whirlwinds of sand to reach their cars as the rain started to fall and the lightning flashed.


Roberto, the beach owner, who has very much taken us under his wing, ushered us into a room where a table was laid out for all his staff. The metal hatches were battened down and huge plates of delicious-looking pasta appeared as if by magic. There is some embarrassment associated with being vegetarian in Italy. The Italians tend to assume things like chicken and fish are not really meat. In fact, someone told me yesterday that she was “almost a vegetarian” because she “didn’t much like pork.” The pasta which came around today had a distinctly sea-foody vibe. It would have been rude to ask for anything else, so I opted to keep quiet and munch on a few pieces of bread. Of course, as soon as I was spotted, the all-too-familiar noises of horror began, and Roberto’s wonderful wife vanished into the kitchen and arrived armed with a Caprese salad, a plate of vegetarian ravioli and some kind of cheese and tomato flatbread toastie.


Of course, because this is Italy, the storm vanished almost as soon as it had started. The only sign of it ever being here is a glorious freshness in the air and the sight of a number of trees which had been blown across the road on the way back to Julie’s. I wish I didn’t feel so tired though. That would be nice.


Pepys got up extra early 350 years ago to supervise the workmen who were building an extension on this house. He was pleased to see how many of them there were; “many hands” he wrote, “make good riddance...” Pepys went with William Batten to Deptford to pay off some ships and returned to London on The Thames after dark, a lantern lighting their way. Very romantic.

Dust storm

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Atri nights

We're in the medieval hillside town of Atri. It's approaching midnight and the place is buzzing with young people including a phenomenal number of children. The young people here do what the old people do on a Saturday night; they sit outside cafes watching the world go by. It's all very sedate... Even card games are banned here!

We spent the day, yet again, sitting on the beach, eating fruit, drinking granita, playing card games and floating on lilos. 

Nathan got told off in a supermarket for not wearing a T-shirt this morning. The people here are incredibly friendly, but scratch the surface and you'll find a very strict set of Catholic morals, which often preclude overt displays of sexuality or behaviour perceived as such. 

There's a man who comes to the beach bar who has the lowest voice I've ever heard. It's the vocal equivalent of a bucket of chocolate burned slightly around the edges; rich, deep and a little crusty! He sat down with us this evening and almost sent me into a trance. He could make a fortune reading books at bedtime. He was amused by the fact that everyone was calling me Ben as it's not a name you tend to find in a place where every word ends in a vowel. When he found out that the name was short for Benjamin, he said the word to himself four or five times. I felt like I'd been given an Indian head massage! 

Friday, 24 August 2012


We're sitting in a beach bar in a town called Rosetta, which has very little to offer other than a sea front strip packed with gaudy hotels, tatty-looking palm trees and neon lights. We're essentially here for the best pizzeria in the district, which I remember from my last trip as a fine place to eat and hang out. We're watching groups of lads playing beach volley ball, which seems to be one of the preferred sports down here. 

We've been on the beach all day, milling about on lilos, eating caprese salads, reading, sleeping and relaxing. The sea water here is extremely salty. It has a viscosity and a buoyancy which reminds me a little of the Dead Sea. It's very easy to float in it, almost impossible to swim downwards and when the water gets in your eye, it stings like hell. 

At 4pm every day we've started a regime of drinking tea on the terrace with a small amount of "contraband" chocolate. The Italians are pretty useless at both chocolate and tea, and it's almost impossible to find anything decent in this department; apparently the heat makes the chocolate melt. We have a stash of the good stuff which we're keeping to ourselves! 

The other thing the Italians can't do is bread. Bread is universally dry and tasteless here. Too much moisture in bread, they say, would lead to mouldiness. Frankly, I'd rather eat mould than this crap! 

Thursday, 23 August 2012


Our inflatable bed deflated in the night, and Nathan and I woke up at 3am on the floor surrounded by bed sheets and hissing plastic! 

Julie's house is rustic in the extreme. We share the place with every insect imaginable. There are cicadas and beetles and woodlice, a wasps' nest over the front door, and a hornets' nest in a crack in the back wall. Julie co-owns the house with Carol, whose car has been parked outside for the last year. This morning, after going to check it was okay, we discovered a wasps' nest in the door; the rather sickening sight of a sort of papery honeycomb structure inside with hundreds of the little critters crawling about. Bleugh! 

We've spent the day on the beach; Julie, Nathan, the two knitting Yanks (Stephen and Marc) and me. Nathan has purchased a lilo and we spent hours playing in the sea. 

Periodically, a little bloke comes along the sea front pushing a trolly with a massive block of ice inside. He uses a special contraption to shave little bits of ice off, stuffs the shavings into a cup and pours syrup on top, creating a wonderful granita-style drink. At the moment my preferred flavour is cherry and my favourite thing in the world is to sit with a cup of it in the shallows whilst the waves lap over me. 

This evening we played ratfink; a game involving spoons, a pack of cards and a serious amount of violence! 

I am very slowly unwinding... 

350 years ago, Pepys went to the new Banqueting House in Whitehall to watch a pageant of boats drifting along the Thames in honour of the new Queen, Catherine de Breganza, who'd arrived in London for the first time. Pepys estimated that 10,000 boats were on the river, for he could see "no water," nor discern the king or queen!  Puts Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee to shame!

 Pepys was thrilled to see his pin up girl, Lady Castlemayne, watching the proceedings from the bank and "glutted" himself on watching her. He noted how her estranged husband was also present, but refused to pay her any attention, but for briefly raising his hat as they met. 

A big scaffolding block filled with people collapsed below them, and Castlemayne and her ladies rushed down to help the injured. Pepys was thrilled to witness this display of humanity!  

He walked home through streets crowded with people. The banks of the Thames had been jam-packed with revellers and there was an air of celebration. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012


I am sitting on Itaca beach staring out across the Adriatic which is the bluest of blue. The sand is white, like lunar dust, a light, cooling breeze is rustling the aqua marine fronds on the palmer above us. I fall asleep, wake up, read, go for a swim, fall asleep again... and so the cycle continues. It’s incredibly hot. I must try not to burn.

I’m here in Italy with Julie, Nathan and two American chaps who are both knitwear designers. I am the only non-knitter in the group, and a lot of bespoke clothing is being created around me. The sight of three men knitting is raising eyebrows with the locals; so much that I’ve seen people secretly filming us on iPhones. Earlier, one woman shouted over at Julie and asked if we were all on a craft course.

The journey here yesterday with Ryan Air was close to unbearable, reminding me somewhat of an experience I once had on a rail replacement bus between Northampton and Stevenage. Ryan Air staff are obviously underpaid because their conduct is absolutely awful; from the guys at the boarding gate barking instructions at passengers and making people who don’t speak good English cram their hand luggage into little metal boxes to prove they’re the prerequisite dimensions for the hold, through to the air hostesses looking haunted and bored and sick and tired of the treatment they get from passengers who are sick and tired of feeling like they’re being herded onto a cattle truck. Obviously there’s a vicious cycle in operation here, which only Ryan Air bosses can break.

Take, for example, the new extortionate luggage charges of £70 for a 20kg bag. To avoid these stealth charges, everyone takes the biggest piece of hand luggage they can find instead, which means the hold is empty and there’s no room in the overhead lockers for all the luggage which has been brought on board. Air stewardesses were actually piling up the bags they couldn’t find a place for on empty seats, which makes me wonder what would happen on a capacity flight.

Yes, we’re all aware that flying with Ryan Air is cheap, and to an extent that we have to put up with the no frills experience... Cheap doesn’t mean staff members should be rude, however, or look permanently stressed and put upon. I seriously worry if these people would know what to do in a crisis. If they’re not trained to be polite to customers, and told to break health and safety guidelines by sticking random pieces of luggage all over the plane’s fuselage, would they know how to get us all out safely if there was an accident? Is Ryan Air making cutbacks which actually compromise its passengers’ safety?
We were invited to a very special occasion tonight by the couple who run the beach which we’ve been sitting on all day. They’re good friends of Julie’s, and by proxy, we were invited to one of those wonderful Italian meals where everyone sits at a long table eating themselves to death. 20 of us sat down for food; all Italian but our little group. We had pasta dishes, every kind of fruit imaginable, cheeses, fancy cakes... and the wine, limoncello and champagne flowed all night. We sang Yiddish folk songs, Italian folk songs, English folk songs, Abba songs, songs from the shows, light opera... The waves continued to crash onto the beach behind us, the stars were brighter than I’ve ever seen. It was absolutely magical.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


We're sitting in Stansted Airport, surrounded by screaming children, women with skin the colour of teak, Scottish business men and Essex lads on tour knocking back cans of beer. I've never arrived so early at an airport in my life. When you travel with just hand luggage everything moves so much more speedily. 

Nathan is knitting next to me. It's quite astonishing how much attention a tattoo'd man knitting will generate. People literally stop in their tracks and stare. 

Last night I ventured into Queen's Wood to record another set of composer's notes for the Requiem. I decided to sit in the area where our beloved pet rats Maud and Pollux are buried. The London Requiem is dedicated to the dead of the capital, and don't see why this shouldn't include rodents! 

Upon entering the woods, I immediately realised I'd made a terrible mistake. The place was terrifying. Weird birds were making weird noises, and the undergrowth was a riot of cracks and rustles. At one point, a fox, or something darted past me, making a noise which sounded like a car crash in my headphones. I finished recording the blog and ran back to the car, my heart pounding in my ears. 

I sat in the car for a while trying to catch my breath, and watched in horror as a group of 12 or so lads emerged from the same area of the wood carrying torches and shouting. Heaven knows what they were up to, or what would have happened if they'd have come upon me, speaking like a loon into a small recording device. 

I listened back to what I'd recorded and realised with horror that the tape had run out almost as soon as I'd started speaking. I had nothing to show for my brave expedition and there was no way I was going back into those woods again! 

I went back this morning but was blighted by the screeches of planes flying above. I don't know if the wind was blowing in a particular direction, but they seemed far louder, lower and more regular than planes normally sound in these parts. I gave up, and went into Muswell Hill in search of a pair of shorts and some deck shoes and failed miserably on both counts! It's been a frustrating few hours; compounded even further by the Internet in our house breaking down! 

350 years ago, Pepys ate a venison pasty for the second time in as many days. The deer hunting season had obviously begun. Pepys was invited to The Mitre on Fenchurch Street by his Uncle Wight, and was thrilled to be joined by a very beautiful young lady, who drove him almost to distraction. It was, apparently, only her hands which were unattractive; they weren't white enough, apparently...

Monday, 20 August 2012

Short but sweet

A short blog tonight. I've been editing films all day and am exhausted. I've still got an audio blog to record and then bags to pack for our holiday to Italy which starts tomorrow. 

I have a tiny little cabin bag. We're going hand luggage only because Ryan Air are money grabbing bastards who would make you sell your Grannie if they thought she'd be useful for slave labour. 

Right. That's enough from me. The more I think about how much I have to achieve before I go away, the more I panic! 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Em the Baptist

If yesterday wasn't the hottest day of the year so far, today certainly has been. Before heading off to Italy, for a much-needed break, I still have a thousand and one things I need to achieve. Every day, I deal with a few more. And so far, everything has gone fairly smoothly. Two days finessing Requiem mixes: tick! Approve and collect artwork for album cover: tick! Attend wedding: tick! And so the list goes on. 

At the moment, I'm crawling through the streets of South London, on my way to Bermondsey, where I'm going to pick up the photographic reproductions of the aforementioned artwork. Before bed, I have an audio blog to record and six very important emails to send. It's exhausting, but we're slowly getting there. 

Today, we went to my godson's - and his sister's - joint christening. It hadn't occurred to me that my responsibilities as a Godfather would involve speaking a load of religious mumbo-jumbo, and at times the experience made me feel a little uncomfortable. I stayed silent for much of the service, but smiled lots at the vicar, and sang the hymns nice and loudly, so I hope no one was offended. It's funny; when the baptised child is young, the church dictates that his parents and godparents are expected to do the talking on his behalf. I point blank refuse to acknowledge that a seven-year-old child can have sinned, and therefore refused to speak on Will's behalf, to say that he had, would, or even could. 

Nevertheless, the service was beautiful, in the astonishing surroundings of Oxford's Trinity College Chapel. Raily and Ian had put together a lovely running order, which included Uncle Bill singing one of my songs from Alice Through the Looking Glass and Nathan singing When a Knight Won His Spurs. Both sang exquisitely, but none of us had any time to rehearse, but as I sat down at the piano to accompany Uncle Bill, I felt so unprepared that the keys started rolling in front of my eyes. I entirely forgot what I was doing! Hopefully no one noticed. 

Hats off to young Will, who read an excerpt from David and Goliath with gusto. The service also included a Buddhist reading from Meriel, which made this old atheist feel a lot more relaxed. I often feel I should walk into Christian places of worship wearing a skull cap to avoid insulting anyone (except, perhaps, my Jewish friends!) We sat in the grounds of the college, eating a buffet, and drinking wine as the sun blasted down on us. 

The wind is up tonight and stepping outside is like walking into a fan-assisted oven! 

August 19th, 1662, and the gossip du jour concerned a duel between two noblemen, which had left one dead and the other mortally wounded. No one knew what triggered the duel and members of parliament were said to be more than a little concerned. Pepys was glad. He felt laws needed to be brought in which would restrict the practice of duelling. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The hottest day

I woke up on the hottest day of the year almost sad that I couldn't spend the day soaking up the sun. The sea at the end of Fiona's road was deep blue and inviting, so I threw caution to the wind and took myself for a vegetarian cooked breakfast on the beach. You could tell that the good people of Hove were preparing for a scorcher. There was an air of relaxed barminess, and the seafront businesses were plainly preparing for an influx of tourists. 

Unfortunately this hot day seems to have coincided with a nasty attack of hay fever. I'm sort of wondering if it's not also a case of unfamiliar pollens in the air in the beautiful rural retreat where we're working. Whatever the case, my nose is running and I'm sneezing like a trouper! I've been sitting for most of the day with a pair of tissues stuffed into my nostrils. There's watery snot pouring out! As the day goes on, and the studio we're in gets hotter and hotter, I begin to wonder if we're actually melting! 

I arrived at the studios to hear Pie Jesu coming out of the upstairs window, which sounds magical. We're now working on the most insane movement of the lot; the Libera Me. When I started to write the requiem, Nathan made me promise that there would be at least one movement where I wasn't afraid to "go big." (This, from the man who says, like John Lewis, I've "never knowingly under-scored...")  He got his wish, because the Libera Me is just enormous. Heaven knows what was going through my head when I wrote it. It sounds like I opened a box of musical instruments and rolled them all simultaneously across the floor. It's six minutes of perpetual semi-quaver, hell-burning, finger-busting, vocal-chord stripping, "breathe-and-you miss-it" mayhem.  Until we've mixed it, I don't even know if it's going to work! At the moment PK is simply wading through the treacly madness. It could be extraordinary. One thing's for certain. It's completely out of control! The choir's vocals in the first 20 bars are right on the edge of a) decency b) sanity and c) being in tune! 

The day ended in Bermondsey where I dropped off Janie's artwork to a photographer in the most amazing art deco complex called Alaska House, which genuinely feels like somewhere in Florida! It's midnight. I'm sitting outside. I just want to go home.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A work of art

Up at 7 yet again, and straight to Janie Rainger's house in Hove, where we ate croissants whilst looking through the beautiful images she's done for the album cover of the Requiem. Wonderful, detailed, strong eye-catching drawings with surprises in every corner. I feel genuinely thrilled to have been able to commission an artist of such high quality. I love spending time with Janie as well. She gets the project; in fact, she's a graveyard freak, and we always cascade into such interesting conversations when we're together. 

I drove along the coast and then through a string of winding country lanes up towards Crawley, where Alan Wilder (from Depeche Mode) has a country estate with a recording studio which we're using to do final mixes on the requiem. 

I pulled into the estate, and got out of the car to hear In Paradisum drifting through an upstairs window. I followed the sound to find PK sitting between two enormous speakers, talking to himself excitedly and gesticulating wildly at the computer screen in front of him. It was a delight to see someone so engrossed in my music. The attention to detail which that man puts into his work is almost remarkable. He will take a single four bar phrase, loop it, and work on it for minutes - hours if needs be - until he feels it sounds as good as it can. 

I've been sitting in an arm chair all day, with a soft summer's breeze cooling my shoulders, the smell of freshly cut grass and hay filling my lungs. 

The light is fading which means I'll shortly be heading back to Hove to put my feet up before the process begins again tomorrow. 

 350 years ago, and Pepys' diary entry was all about the act of uniformity, which meant, I think, that Presbyterian preachers had to give up their ministries. It was a muggy, rainy Sunday, and Pepys, like many others, crowded into sweaty churches across London to hear a series of farewell sermons. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012


Up once again, at 7:30 in the morning, for a date with the lady who found my wallet in Regents Park yesterday. I went to the corner shop, to buy some Ferrero Rocher as a means of saying thank you. As I emerged from the shop, I could see Nathan, further up the hill, in the middle of an altercation with some kind of estate agent. The estate agent had pulled up next to Nathan's car, and there seemed to be a lot of shouting going on. Because we were heading to my friends Jo's wedding, I was carrying my suit and the chocolates in one hand, and wheeling a small suitcase in the other. Fearing that Nathan was about to get punched, I started to run up the hill, and just as I opened my mouth to start shouting, my legs gave way, and I found myself somersaulting down the street. I did a face plant on the pavement. I suspect the incident was fairly shocking, as I immediately burst into uncontrollable tears, which became tears of laughter.

When I reached Nathan, I was in a worse state than he was. For the record, Nathan would like it pointed out that he wasn't in a state at all. Come to think of it, neither was I: I think I just had something in my eye...

We reached Camden, and I telephoned the lovely wallet lady to say I was standing outside her house. A top-floor window opened, and she threw the wallet down to me. I left the Ferrero Rocher on her doorstep.

From Camden, we travelled around the Congestion Charge Zone, to Clapham in the south, where we recorded the last piece of audio for the London Requiem recording. It felt like quite an auspicious occasion: quite moving in many ways. I have been recording material for the Requiem for two months now, and it's been haunting me for more than two years. We were recording the alto solo in the last movement, the In Paradisum, and I had asked Katina Kangaris to do the honours. Katina and I were at university together - she played Mary Magdalene when I directed Jesus Christ Superstar. Some years later, she recorded Shone With the Sun, the song I wrote with playwright, Sir Arnold Wesker. We entered it for the Eurovision Song Contest, but Jonathan King, who was in charge of selecting entries in those days, deemed it too classical.

It therefore feels very appropriate, that 15 years on, Katina would be singing on my classical requiem. She sang beautifully, hauntingly, like the moon reflecting on the black sea. 

There were tears, for the second time today. 

We drove south, along the A3, to Gosport, for Jo's wedding. The reception was by the side of the marina, and standing on the wharf, looking out to sea, we stood for sometime, listening to the tinkling of a thousand bells on a thousand masts. It was a lovely do: a buffet and fairy cakes, followed by country dancing. It was held in an old victualling yard, where they baked bread and ships biscuits for sailors. I feel pretty sure Pepys would have visited this place, or somewhere nearby, on one of his many Navy business trips to Portsmouth. A wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends, and meet some of their new arrivals. 

We're currently heading back to London, where I shall deposit Nathan, before driving back down to Hove.  

 On this day in 1662, Pepys spent much of his time examining the work the builders were doing on his home improvements. Although the roof was now on, he felt that completion would be some way off, but when he returned home at the end of the day, was surprised to find that his workmen were working busily. For lunch, he had, we're told, a pigg.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Today started way too early with a taxi journey to the BBC's Western House just up from Oxford Circus. I was launching the 100 Faces project in a series of interviews with various radio stations across the North. 

My day was made all the brighter by the man at Western House who installed me in one of those strange hessian-covered studios where you sit on your own in front of a mic, waiting for the various radio stations to get in touch. He was possibly the smiliest bloke in the world, which makes so much difference at 8am! I kept peering out of my window to check if the smile was permanent. It was! He smiled even when no one was looking at him. As I left the studio, I told the woman on reception what a difference to my day he'd made. She snarled menacingly!

From Oxford Circus, I travelled to Camden for an early morning hair cut from a pair of delightfully chatty Aussie ladies, before heading up to Regent's Park via a spot of breakfast on Parkway. 

In Regent's Park I recorded the sixth instalment of my "composer's notes" series, whilst sitting under a swaying chestnut tree which was rustling in the breeze like a thousand cheerleaders shaking pom-poms. 

It started to rain, and whilst attempting to get out of Regent's Park, I managed to get stuck in the "inner circle", a curious road in the middle of the park, which, it seems, is almost impossible to escape! 

Penny and cameraman Rob rescued me, but not before I realised that my wallet had gone missing. There was no alternative but to curse wildly and get on with the task in hand. We kicked things off at Willesden Jewish cemetery with an interview with Philip Sallon and his sister, Ruth, about their father, whose gravestone inscription, "nothing but the truth" features in the requiem. 

Philip was his usual eccentric self and wore a Ghandi costume underneath a plastic rain mac; bits of bollock and buttock peeking out all over the place.

Ruth arrived on a flower-covered bicycle, carrying an English flag in one hand and an Ethiopian flag in the other. The image of her cycling through the graves is one which will live with me for some time.

The siblings bickered and argued, philosophised and fascinated. Their father, Ralph Sallon MBE was a well-known caricaturist, whose anti-Hitler drawings were actually dropped from planes into Germany during the war to lower the morale of its citizens. As a result he was placed on Hitler's official hit list! 

It was whilst we were doing the interview that I received a call from the MU. "We've just had a phone call from a lovely lady who says she found your wallet in a park!" Bless her. I shall be picking it up from Camden first thing tomorrow. 

From Willesden we travelled to Highgate cemetery where members of the Rebel Chorus sang sequences from the requiem in the mystical surroundings of the Egyptian Avenue. It was a particular thrill to have Uncle Bill and Jago with us all the way from Lewes... It was an incredibly special shoot. My favourite moment was undoubtedly when the choir stood at Radcliffe Hall's grave and spontaneously sang her inscription in the requiem. 

We sat for a while in Waterlow Park before heading off to King's Cross, where I sat on a swing and did a series of little interviews in the glorious orange evening sunlight... 

I am exhausted... Happy, but exhausted, and filled to the brim with a sense of just how kind and generous people can be. And the inscription from the requiem that the choir were singing this afternoon ?

Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. 


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Head space

I spent the day editing with Penny and my new friend (and astrological twin, Hazel.) It’s been a lot of fun, but I could feel the panic rising in my bones. I kept picking up my phone and staring at my diary for the coming week, wondering how on earth I’m going to fit everything in. I know for a fact that I'm going to forget to do something rather major very soon. Take tomorrow, for example: I’m up at 7am to do a press junket to launch the BBC North East and Cumbria project, and then off to Willsden, Highgate and King’s Cross for a day’s filming for The Space. There’s a morning in the studio on Thursday, followed by a wedding in Portsmouth, followed by two days of final mixing, followed by a baptism, another day of editing, and then, finally, I’m off to Italy...
Unless I find myself having to fly out later because something goes wrong... Everything is very finely balanced at the moment. I'm literally only able to take each day as it comes, but I find myself losing objectivity hand over fist. Producer Paul sent me a second version of the Agnus Dei today, which I felt, for the first time, was a slight step in the wrong direction. But my ears are knackered having edited with headphones all day today... What I need is space... which I’ll, of course, get in Italy... But by the time I return from Italy, will it be too late to have another pass at the polishing the Requiem recording? Poor Paul. He’s been hammering away at this blessed piece for 2 solid months. He must want to kill me! It’ll be worth it. I know it. This has the potential to be the most amazing recording. One last push... Then maybe some head space!
350 years ago, Pepys spent the day, eating venison pasties and talking about trees in the Forest of Dean.

Monday, 13 August 2012

In Paradisum

It’s been something of a non-day today, way too muggy, and with much of my time spent waiting for people to call me back about various Requiem-related things.  

The highlight, however, was definitely a trip into the east End to judge an art competition at Rich Mix. In conjunction with the London Requiem, Rich Mix are staging an exhibition of work inspired by the title “In Paradisum.” We were judging the submissions today. I don’t know why, but I was expecting a load of stuff by local school children and learning disability groups. I didn’t realise this was a proper call for proper art from young professionals. The standard was insanely high. I felt really embarrassed to be judging the art. After all, what do I know about technical drawing? I imagined all the times I’d sent my compositions into competitions, and thought what those judging sessions must have been like. Some art was discarded almost immediately because it didn’t fit the brief, but I felt so horrible handing the photocopies of these wonderful pieces back to the organisers knowing that there was potential heart ache coming the way of the unlucky artist.

Still, the 10 or 15 pieces we eventually chose are quite remarkable; hugely worth paying a visit to Rich Mix to see.

Pepys spent the day 350 years ago rushing around various suppliers to the Navy, trying to spot the various scams which were losing the navy money hand over fist. The biggest misdemeanour belonged to the official flag makers, who were using a fake contract to fleece the King out of 8 pence for every yard of fabric they touched. Pepys immediately vowed to change the suppliers and felt very pleased with himself for spotting the scam.

Sunday, 12 August 2012


We're watching the Olympics closing ceremony. Three questions. Why so much Emily Sande? Why so much out of tune singing? And why did the three songs that were performed at the beginning get repeated as the athletes walked into the stadium? 

They played the introduction to Running Up That Hill and my heart started beating so fast because I could tell the Kate Bush vocal was new and thought she might be there. She wasn't. A little part of me died. Thank God for the Spice Girls. And ELO and Eric Idle! 

We were meant to go to brother Edward's today, but the idea of tubing it back from the far East with 100,000 revellers spilling out of the Olympic closing ceremony was too horrific for words. 

Instead we went to Ikea with our friends Ian and Jem and bought ourselves a set of crockery. As I washed up one of the only two bowls in my house, I figured the time had come to invest in something new. 

My mosquito bites are still red raw. It's like having chicken pox. Wait... (takes a moment for the hypochondriac to emerge...)  Surely not?

350 years ago, Pepys spent the day working in his office. He certainly wasn't watching the Olympics closing ceremony but he did order himself a miniature wooden ship to stare at instead.


I'm still itching like crazy from the chronic munching I had from mosquitos on Hampstead Heath whilst recording my audio blog inside a tree! The things I do for art. 

Last night's filming ended in a typically eccentric style. Each of the choir members being filmed was given a word written on a piece of card which they held up in increasingly unusual and daring locations from tuk tuks to sex shop windows. The atmosphere on the streets of Soho was electric. Druggies, trannies, prozzies and Hare Krishnas all rubbing shoulders. 

The shoot ended in a phone box, which we'd filled with photographs of gravestones amongst the cards for dominatrixes. 

We've just got back from watching Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Our friend Sara was playing the mother... Beautifully. It was a true acting master class which I found deeply moving. She managed to make a character with few redeeming features into an incredibly complex figure who oozed pain and inner turmoil. 

350 years ago Pepys was thrilled to report that his house was now "quite tiled", which meant his carpets and drapes were now safe. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Funeral films

We're doing a film shoot today which is due to end at 1am, so heaven knows when I'm going to get the opportunity to post this blog! 

I'm currently in a funeral parlour in Camden, interviewing an undertaker about the industry of death, and how difficult it can be to deal with high emotion on a daily basis. He has a delightfully soporific voice which is massaging my synapses. He's obviously used to talking to people very calmly and sensitively. He should read bed time books for blind people! 

Earlier on, we filmed Nathan, who's presenting the sixth film, doing pieces to camera. We don't have a permit to film anywhere, so every time someone official walks past, we disappear into a side street, or begin to practice our excuses. 

Later, we shall be out and about in Soho, which could prove to be mayhem on a Friday night. 

August 10th, 1662, was a Sunday, and Pepys went to visit the newly refurbished St Sepulchre's church, which he liked a great deal. One assumes the church was destined to burn down in the great fire just over 3 years later. Bet they wish they hadn't bothered! 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Dusk on the heath

I’m sitting on a whale-shaped fallen tree on Hampstead Heath, waiting my turn to climb inside the “tree with the hole” to record one of my audio blogs for the Requiem project. There are two dreadlocked white people sitting inside, having a rather intense conversation about life, which I’m loathed to interrupt. However, if they’re still sitting there by the time I’ve written this blog, I might have to ask if they’d mind my stepping in for a few minutes.

The heath is a funny old place on a smoky, dusty, mid summer’s night. The whole place becomes a giant speaker system, and you can hear people talking miles away, so still and soft is the air. It’s a very magical place.

A group of children has now moved into the tree. They’re Americans and they’re projecting! I’m quite impressed that their parents are encouraging them to be as quiet as possible. In this kind of acoustic you genuinely don’t need to do anything other than whisper! I also rather love the fact that there are little kids wondering around the heath at dusk. These are the long summer days which they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. Magical places like this tree are made even more special when the fading light starts to play tricks on the mind. There’s many a time I’ve come to the heath at this time, and seen all sorts of ghostly shapes and hues out of the corner of my eye.

Today’s been about admin and started at Highgate cemetery, where we’re filming next Wednesday. The lovely woman who showed me around brought my attention to a plaque in their newly refurbished chapel. The tablet was left in 1877 and is dedicated to a 36 year old man called George, “he was my friend, faithful and just to me...” and is signed “by his sorrowing friend, Albert”

It would be conjecture in the extreme for me to suggest that these were a pair of gay Victorian lovers, but the plaque serves to remind us that since the beginning of time, gay men and women have been rather shunned by the conventions of death. Even these, I’m sad to say, that it’s still slightly distasteful for two men to want to be buried together.

The American family are still here – and it’s getting really dark. The father is obsessively taking photographs of the inside of the tree – the flash light is blinding me - and Mom is spreading out a picnic. All very nice and everything (if not slightly eccentric at dusk) but as I wait, my computer batteries are running low, and hundreds of mosquitoes have started to buzz around my head. They don’t usually like me, but I reckon these ones are going to make an exception.

This afternoon I went into Crouch End, and then to Muswell Hill, preparing stuff for our shoot tomorrow. We’re trying to film sequences to accompany the Offertory, which is the most experimental of all the movements. PK has just sent me a series of mind-numbing mixes which both terrify and thrill me!

August 9th, 1662, and Pepys, yet again, was up at 4am, getting on with a day of business which took him East to Trinity House and then west as far as Whitehall.

Glassy rivers

It's my birthday! I've been in Hackney all day editing the fourth in our suite of films for the Space. Curiously it is also the editor, Hazel's birthday, so when I arrived, Penny handed us both a little Olympic souvenir gift. We ate egg sandwiches for lunch made from the most delicious home made bread. Penny's house always smells of freshly-baked bread. 

This evening I went to Thaxted with Nathan and Helen, and we sat for hours lapping up passages from my Mum's extraordinary diaries. Now I know what my Mum had for dinner the night I was born; an apricot trifle! 

We stopped off on the journey home in Grantchester Meadows and recorded my fourth set of composer's notes for The Space project by moonlight. The air smelt of aniseed and budlia. As I finished talking, a magical mist descended and hovered above the glass-like river. 

Earlier on I received some very sad news via my mother. My brother's best friend at school was a lad called Scott, who died today. He'd had cancer, but my brother, who went to visit him a month ago, seemed to think that things were looking fairly positive. Scott was talking about the future and seemed fairly upbeat. Life can be so intolerably cruel sometimes. I shall remember him fondly. 

August 8th, 1662 and Pepys went to Woolwich and then Greenwich to look at different types of hemp, one assumes seeing what sort would make the best rope. The diary entry goes on forever, Pepys reporting in every detail a rather pompous pseudo-philosophical  conversation he'd had with his superior William Coventry. Deeply yawnsome.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Olympic Junkie

I’m watching the Olympics like a true junkie at the moment. I’d intravenously inject newsfeeds if I could. Periodically I treat myself for working hard by having a quick look at the BBC website to see if we’ve won any more golds. I’m always the same with the Olympics. The first one I can remember was 1980. We were on holiday in Tenby and must have been lucky enough to have a television in our guesthouse room. With this in mind, it’s probably quite surprising that I was so profoundly against the Olympics being staged in London. In fairness, my beef was always that I felt money was being diverted from the arts in order to stage the event, and that ordinary Londoners were being screwed over in the process. I still believe this to be the case, but am simultaneously very pleased to belong to the hosting nation, and ferociously proud of the GB athletes who have done so well. The Olympics are genuinely proving to be an antidote to the pain of this year’s bad weather and the awful financial situation we’re all in, and for that, I’m hugely grateful. My hard-line position thaws with each day, and sometimes I even find myself wishing that I’d booked to see an event; how many of us wish we were in the main stadium on Super Saturday, for example?

What bores me, however, (as a veritable connoisseur of the BBC’s coverage) is these silly glamour-pusses who are dusted up and stuck in front of BBC cameras to work as the anchors for Olympic coverage. You know the ones; zero personality, lip-gloss like olive oil, perfect complexions generated by trowel-loads of make-up and, more crucially, no interest in sport. I’m not talking about the wonderful female presenters who genuinely do know their stuff. Sue Barker – great. Denise Lewis – great. Clare Balding – double great (God, I love that woman)... But for every one of those genuine sports women, there’s three of these blandly attractive female presenters. I watched a woman this morning describing one of the corners of the triathlon route as a “hair pin bend” and worrying that the blokes running ‘round it might slip over. The person who she was interviewing stared at her disbelievingly. They’ve started parachuting these women onto football shows as well, thereby creating an own goal for the BBC. They do it, of course, to prove that sport isn’t a male-dominated world, but by selecting personality-free dolly birds, they play into the hands of chauvinists, who will either objectivise the women or legitimately argue, “well if that’s the best you can do, women obviously don’t know a thing about sport.” News anchors are the same. There’s a revolving series of silly young women who seem to present BBC London news, all, we assume, hoping to be promoted to prime time entertainment slots as quickly as possible. When will the BBC stop sacking the women with wisdom and age on their side, simply because they’re not perceived as totty any more?

I’ve been in Durham all day. Another first! We’ve been making a film to launch my next project, 100 Faces. The question we’re asking people across the North East and Cumbria: Why was 2012 important for you? We “vox-popped” that very question to a number of Durham’s finest today. It’s astonishing how open and willing to chat people are in the North East. We had some wonderful answers; “2012 was the year I got back together with my wife after splitting up for 2 years” and perhaps my favourite, which came from a 10-year old lad; “2012 was the year I finally made double figures!”

I’m afraid it’s still a secret what I shall be doing with the answers to these question, but the launch will happen next Wednesday, so if you live in that region, keep your eyes and ears peeled...

On the way back from Durham, I achieved another mini-first by visiting the curiously named Durham suburb of Pity Me, which features on the soundtrack to my A1 film. “Why is there a town called Pity Me?” The lorry driver asks. I’m still none the wiser. When I asked one of the residents the question, she looked a bit confused and said “I think the name goes back to the 16th Century.” Wikipedia offers up a number of theories, one of which suggests the name might have been coined in the 19th Century as “a whimsical name bestowed on a place considered desolate, exposed or difficult to cultivate...” Surely there are maps from earlier than the 19th Century which would show if this were a valid theory?

August 7th, 1662, and Pepys was, once again up at 4am and in the office, working hard, by 5. He continued to find great pleasure in the work he was doing, and felt greatly proud of himself for abstaining from wine, plays and adultery!

Monday, 6 August 2012

A little visit

I’m in Cumbria of all places, speeding across the gloriously beautiful Pennines to Newcastle on one of the prettiest train journeys I’ve ever taken. I keep hoping to see a bit of Hadrian’s Wall. One of my greatest ambitions in life is to see one of the relatively intact sections of this mystical monument. We tried to find it as children, but didn’t know where to look.

My next project for the BBC involves working right the way across the top of England... True North, if you like; basically everything between Scotland and Yorkshire and Lancashire. It’s one of those British regions without a name, and I suspect people in Newcastle would question how much they had in common with Cumbrians, Northumbrians, or Teesiders. It’ll be really interesting to see what emerges.

What became immediately apparent in my meeting last week was that I didn’t actually know anything about Cumbria. I must have passed through it several times on my way up to Glasgow, and remember once stopping off for lunch in, I think, Penrith, but I’ve never visited the Lake District, and when people started mentioning places like Barrow-In-Furness, I couldn’t even bring an image of a place to my mind.

Cumbria for me is that slightly terrifying place where Windscale Nuclear Power Station was. I think the nuclear reactors got into trouble at some point in my childhood and I thought the world was coming to an end.

The Lovely Nell from BBC Cumbria offered to give me a special tour of the county and I couldn’t wait to get up there. I am a great fan of exploring new corners of Britain, and the opportunity to be shown around by a local should never be passed up.

The tour started in Carlisle, which I found surprisingly attractive, even in the pouring rain. The area around the Cathedral is particularly pleasant, and I was very taken with a little row of Victorian shops opposite the BBC building there including a hoover shop, which I’m told has the friendliest staff you’re ever likely to find.

From Carlisle we travelled East to Wigton, a market town which seems to have been engulfed by a giant plastics factory, and from Wigton we went to the curiously-named, hugely-isolated seaside village of Silloth, where we ate chips on the beach, and wandered around an arcade with enormous shatter-proof windows which looked out onto the angry brown Irish sea. “Is the sea round here always brown?” I asked. Apparently it is.

Silloth feels like a rather sad little place. It’s absolutely charming. A wide cobbled street and a series of tree-lined parks separate seafront houses from the sea itself. I don’t know if the tide was in, but there didn’t seem to be any sign of a beach. A pathetic little funfair shivered in front of a factory. Two children were spinning endlessly on a waltzer, the fairground attendant no doubt thrilled to have a couple of quid’s worth of custom. A married couple ate chips from the back of the only car parked in the funfair’s car park. When we returned half an hour later, the place was entirely empty. The strange fairground whooshes, bell-tings and heavy-bass chart music continued, as did the enticing and inane flashing lights, but there was absolutely no one there to play. A little piece of me died.

The Cumbrians seem very friendly, if not a little reticent. There’s definitely a guardedness that isn’t present on the East coast. Across the Solway Firth we could see the mountains of Scotland shrouded in mist, hiding secrets which we’ll never be able to access.

We drove south along the coastal road, past mile after mile of empty beach, past little houses with their hatches battened down, chips shops with pink neon signs dancing in the grey sky and windswept sand dunes bedecked in purple and yellow flowers.

Before long we were entering Whitehaven, diving through a Victorian house-lined ravine into the town centre with its smashed church windows, and deserted houses sliding down hillsides. This is where Derek Bird went on his shooting spree and the town genuinely feels like it’s sinking underneath the weight of the pain. Tainted by death, it feels, like a recently bereaved widow.

Sad as these coastline towns may have seemed, there is something filmic and intriguing about the area. It draws you in and fills your head with questions.

350 years ago, and Pepys diary was full of intrigue. Sir William Batten was losing his grip; and potentially his position at the Navy office. Lord Sandwich's spoilt son had taken to fighting duels, and losing them with no honour (usually by running away). Pepys worked late into the night, and was paid a little visit; "writing in my study a mouse ran over my table, which I shut up fast under my shelfs upon my table till tomorrow"

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Cambridge joy

We’ve been in Cambridge all day, celebrating my birthday in an unofficial sort of way. We arrived in a rain storm, and the forecast was fairly dire for the rest of the day, so we sat under a tree, in a miserable heap, trying to eat a picnic whilst the rain lashed down around us. I guess it was a fairly miserable moment for us all. The tree kept us relatively dry, and there were tiny slithers of blue in the sky, but periodically an enormous drip of water would land on my head and a sense of sadness would engulf me once again. All hopes of punting out into the countryside around Grantchester vanished. The idea of being stranded on a punt which was slowly filling with water made me shudder.

We decided instead to wait for the rain to clear and hope for enough of a window in the weather for a quick punt along “The Backs.”Oddly, just as I was about to throw in the towel and suggest we just went to the pub, the sun popped out, and suddenly there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

My companions for the day were Ian, Jem, Nathan, Sam and James from the choir, Brother Edward and Sam’s Matt. It was a very gay day, and as a result, we all felt incredibly relieved to be joined by the feminine energy of James’ friend Gill, and, of course my brilliant parents.

We hired two punts and, whilst drifting along The Backs, Brother Edward (a Cambridge graduate) offered us all fake information about the colleges we were passing “this college was built by students from an Ikea flat pack in the mid 1990s,” he said, and as we passed a 1960s block of flats, he told us we were passing a "fine example of Norman architecture." Heaven knows what the American tourists must have made of it all.
We kept expecting the rain, but it never came, so after returning the punts, we went to Jesus Green, and sat on a bench playing a most ridiculous game involving cards and spoons. I don’t often laugh so much that I can’t breathe, but there was something really wonderful about the company, and something very amusing about the game.

We took silly photographs outside King’s College, as the clouds turned from white to black and an eerie wind started to whistle through the Cambridge lanes.
The rain came in bucket loads, just before we reached the train station on the journey home, but as we charged though the countryside towards London, the evening sun started dancing across the fields and glinting in our faces through the train window. More photographs. More laughter. Pains in my arms from the punting... but all worth it. A wonderful day.

Just how cool is it that the Royal Mail are painting their post boxes gold near to the homes of the Olympic athletes who have won their events?
August 5th, 1662, and Pepys finally made it back home from his boat journey from Rochester at 3am. His long suffering, deeply faithful servant, Jane, waited up for him, and he slept until 9am, relieved that tiling had finally started on his newly extended house. Very soon it would be able to start raining again without Pepys going into apoplexy.