Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Abercrombie

I did a number of errands in town this afternoon, one of which involved a trip to Jermyn Street Theatre. I didn't quite get there as I bumped into the person I wanted to see at at Piccadilly Circus. In an attempt to avoid the crowds on my way home, I found myself in the part of town west of Regent’s Street, where all the fancy clothing shops are found. I wandered aimlessly, peering into well-lit boutiquey windows, alternately wishing I had enough money to buy nice clothes before thinking "dear God, if I DID have money, I'd go nowhere near that place!"

I found myself walking past Abercrombie and Fitch; a cultural phenomenon I've been aware of for some time, but not yet explored. Something about the thrusting music they were playing dragged me inside but I knew from the moment I stepped into the foyer that I’d made an enormous mistake. The same terrible impulse that makes me stare at road crashes and facial deformities pulled me into the actual shop...

"Hey there. Come in. How’s it going?" said the grotesquely chirpy trio of models who are simply paid to welcome people in a kind of "we’re having an amazing party and the coke's on us" kind of way. I should have told them I was having a nervous breakdown when they asked how it was going, just to check whether they were programmed to listen to a response...

The shop is, of course, shiny and immaculate and it smells of an expensive aftershave that I recognised from the street outside. All the clothes are spot lit. Pouting models stand limply in every corner with seemingly nothing to do but sway their bony hips in time to the music. It reminded me a little of the old ladies they used to stick in every corner of art galleries and museums in communist Russia, except these Babooshka dolls weren't fat and gipping, they were malnourished, pale and covered in foundation (particularly the boys.)

There was nothing for me; not a single item I could ever have imagined wearing; the campy, chirpy models knew it, and yet every time I entered another room, in my desperate attempt to escape, another voice would ask "how you doing?" in that hideous “we’re buzzing like bees” kind of tone. Frankly, if I had wanted anything in the shop, these go-go girls would have sent me running for cover. The entire experience was soulless and grotesque and I realised, probably for the first time in my life, that I was too old to shop in a shop. I peered into one of the many mirrors lining the walls, and saw how my hair was thinning. I walked away with my tail very firmly planted between my legs and the words "have a great night" echoing in my careworn brain.
Pepys went to the theatre 350 years ago and saw Argalus and Parthenia, a new play by Henry Glapthorne. He was impressed, but added that it had been “wronged” by his “over great expectations, as all things else are.” I know the feeling, although I knew Abercrombie and Fitch was going to be shit!

Monday, 30 January 2012

The requi-o-meter

I was amused this morning by the behaviour of one of those slightly nutty people who often seem to gravitate towards crowded tubes. Every time the train stopped, in those few seconds of silence you get before it pulls out of the station again, an angry voice would pipe up, ranting about bankers and our "right-wing" government. The strong smell of ammonia accompanied his journey through the carriage and he handed Metro newspapers to everyone who would take one. Each paper had been carefully ripped in half."It's a Tory paper," he yelled, "Happy new year!"

Tube carnage! Ripped Metros

I spent the day in Clapham at Sonica studios recording backing tracks for the Hattersley songs. It all went past in something of a blur. I hadn't slept a great deal, I didn't eat very much, and I drank too many cups of tea, which, coupled with regular surges of adrenaline made me very jittery.

To save money, I played the piano; a decision I instantly regretted because I wasn't able to sit back and hear the music objectively. I also think that people weren't as tough on me as they might have been because they assumed that, as the composer, the music I was playing was meant to sound the way it did; slightly out of time...

By the afternoon, things had calmed down considerably and I was able to sit back and enjoy the session with the string quartet. Everyone played beautifully and I think the music I've written is good, although for some reason, I left with very little sense of the bigger picture.

I think the musicians very much enjoyed themselves, which is always a good sign. Adrian the violinist was highly complimentary. I guess, after playing my music for the best part of 20 years, he's in a good place to be able to judge one work against another. He made me laugh a lot with talk of the "Till 9th" referring to my tendency to add a lot of 9th notes to the chords I write - usually unresolved, just hanging there like tiny sad clouds...

The studio owner is a massive ABBA fan and owns a few gadgets from the old Polar studios in Stockholm. He got very excited to hear that my favourite song was "Summer Night City," which is also his favourite ABBA song. A man with impeccable taste.

Good news: we had our first investment in the Requiem today, so we're now £1000 towards our target of £25,000. A long way to go, of course, but an amazing start. It is therefore time to unveil the Requi-o-meter! Drum roll, please...

More more drums...

And more...

Thank you...

Ta dah! (And if you know of any wealthy lovers of death, music, me, graveyards, or Barbara Windsor, please ask them to get in touch for one of my lovely investment packs!)

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Ikea

We spent most of today with our friends Ian and Jem. They’re the couple who made London their home because draconian homophobic laws in their own countries (the USA and Australia respectively) made it impossible for them to live together legally anywhere else. There are many things that frustrate me about this country, but we lead the English-speaking world when it comes to basic human rights. Thank God Ian’s mother is British...
They were buying furniture for their lovely new flat in Friern Barnet, so we took them to an Ikea, somewhere East of London on the North Circular. It’s very important, when heading to an Ikea on a Sunday, to do lots of deep breathing exercises before you leave the house. The experience can be a bit like being thrown into a sheep dip. You get herded through the building into ever-decreasing spaces. Periodically a flock of lambs trips you over and a grumpy shepherd prods you in the back because you’re not moving quickly enough. There were an astonishing number of lambs running, unchaperoned, around the building. Two particularly fluffy ones were having a terrible fight with two soft toys, which was quite amusing until it turned into a major turf war and hair started flying...

I don’t really like Ikea. You have to pay quite good money to find anything decent in there, and there’s a hell of a lot of cheap crap knocking about; lamps made out of strands of paper, uncomfortable-looking sofas hanging off dangerous metal frames, storage solutions which fall apart as soon as you put something inside. Everything in the place has been stuck down with glue, or screwed into the floor to stop potential thieves. The whole place smells of Swedish meatballs and the staff members don’t seem to give a damn about anyone.
350 years ago, and Pepys went with Elizabeth to the painter’s studio to have her portrait altered – for about the 400th time. They stayed there until late, and Pepys was pleased with the results (as he usually was until he showed the work to a more discerning eye.) He decided that the painter, Mr Savill, was an honest man but “silly” to the point of distraction when it came to the concept of shadows... which begs the question, why commission a painter based on his previous work, if you think he’s not very good? Maybe he was cheap...

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Sore throat!

It’s odd. I was only thinking yesterday how well I’ve been of late. The whooping cough is now just a bitter memory and the daily runs and healthy eating regime have been doing wonders for my energy levels. Nathan keeps getting colds and stomach bugs but I’ve been charging through, until late last night that is, when that all-too-familiar tickly sensation started to prickle in the back of my throat. At 6am, I woke up thinking someone had slit my throat in the night. I have seldom experienced a sore throat so ridiculously painful. I was forced to get out of bed and rifle through the little drawer of pills and potions in the kitchen to see if I could find something that might ease the pain. I was fairly horrified to discover that we’ve started keeping bird food in the same drawer, but in my rush to find something chemical, I let it pass. I settled on something green, foul-smelling and spray-like and went back to bed, waking up at 11am, disgusted at myself for lying-in so late.

I’ve worked all day. Yes, I know... even on a Saturday, but the latest draft of our spoken-word only Hattersley film came through from Paul in Worthing, and it was vital that I spent some quality time scoring it for strings in time for Monday. I’ve only just finished, but I’m very excited. I’ve pin-pointed some of the natural pitches and rhythms of the recorded spoken words and transcribed them musically. Yes, yes, very Steve Reich, I’m aware of this, but the effect is really interesting – and fairly avant garde, which is, let’s face it, new territory for me.  I always wanted to use the Hattersley films to take a massive leap into the unknown, and so far, so good...

I did various bits of admin whilst I was writing, including taking a trip to my favourite printers up in Finchley. I call them my favourite printers because the woman there is really friendly. She could sell lowland brogues to Ghandi. Sadly, she wasn’t there today, and in her place was a sour-faced slag who didn’t seem at all interested in talking to me, or taking me through various price and paper options. The end of the road came when she told me it would cost £1 per sheet to print an A4 page in colour. As we walked into the shop Nathan had asked why we weren’t printing the documents at home and I'd said it was because they might look a little nicer if done properly, but for £1 a sheet, I think I’d rather hand paint them with gold leaf. As I left the shop, I could hear Nathan telling the woman off for being surly. “It’s not good customer service” he said. “Thanks for your feedback” she replied, her sallow lips glistening with passive aggression, “I’ll bear it in mind.” I bet you will, darling... when you’re out of a freakin’ job, ‘cus all of your customers have gone elsewhere. Narky cow. She smelt like pickled herring.
Pepys returned to his house from Westminster Hall 350 years ago, to find his wife playing cards with a gaggle of women including the daughter of Sir William Penn (sister, therefore, of the father of America). Pepys decided to treat the ladies to a barrel of oysters and a nice bit of chicken, which he had specially prepared. Sadly, Penn’s daughter decided, just as food was being served, that she didn’t want to stay. Maybe she didn't like chicken. Maybe she was simply a spoilt, ungrateful little cow. Whatever the case, Pepys’ nose was very firmly put out of joint, and he walked her home fuming...

Friday, 27 January 2012

Brick Lane

I spent today in the East End near Brick Lane. It was a very beautiful sunny day and everyone seemed to be out on the streets. As I queued for beigels at lunchtime, it struck me what a peculiar and fabulous blend of different cultures hang out in that part of town; traditional white Eastenders, rubbing shoulders with yummy mummies pushing purple prams, Bengali lads with their diamond ear studs, media types with silly hairdos and the odd suited City Slicker venturing away from the shiny metal and bright lights of the square mile to slum it in a graffiti-covered caff. Travel much further in an Easterly direction and London becomes mono-cultural; impoverished ghettos populated by women hiding behind net-curtains and hijabs, and men with straggly beards looking shifty. Further still, and you're in the 1984 shimmering world of Canary Wharf, where there's no such thing as silence or privacy, and the only faces with colour are sitting behind the tills in the fancy Waitrose.

I was disappointed to discover that my favourite street, Sclater Street, once famous for its 200 foot-long wall of intricate graffiti, had been tidied up. The 200 foot-long wall was still there, but bizarrely, it had been painted grey. I was surprised that this act of albino carnage hadn’t proved to be an instant red rag to the graffiti fraternity’s bull, but there was nothing there but grey paint – not even a lonely tag from a 15 year-old boy with no discernable artistic ability.

Penny and I spent the day working at the BBC’s offices at Rich Mix. It’s a lonely place; a bit of a waste of BBC money. No one really works there anymore. There was a very suspicious smell hanging about as well, a sort of sweet, cheesy, poo-like aroma which I decided was the stench of dead mouse in the air-conditioning unit. It was all-pervading, so neither of us could work out where it actually came from. We wondered about, sniffing various dustbins, and I suspect it’s a smell which is only going to get worse.

350 years ago, and somewhere near Tower Hill, Pepys found a trio of sledges which were waiting to carry a number of Charles I’s regicides to the gallows and back again “with ropes about their necks.” They weren’t actually due to be hanged. These men had only been loosely involved in Charles’ death. They weren’t present at the execution and hadn’t signed the death warrant, but their involvement was enough for them to be ritually humiliated in this way. One assumes the baying crowd would pelt them with rotten fruit on their journey there and back. A pointless spectacle if you ask me...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The list shortens

It’s been a day of admin; mostly getting things ready for Monday’s recording session for the Hattersley songs. We’re recording string quartet, bass, guitar and piano. I’ve been putting final touches to the score and printing out parts on a lovely heavy buff-coloured paper, which makes everything look quite classy; a trick I learnt from Fiona.
 
I have a list of things to do which is steadily getting shorter, although today it felt like I was adding as much to bottom as I was striking from the top. The thought started to make my tummy feel a bit funny.  Like I was walking on an endless treadmill. I paid my tax; everything I owed for last year, and by decree, half of this year’s, based on last year's figures, which is irritating and pathetic, especially as it well-and-truly wiped me out. I now have less than a thousand pounds to my name, which is less than at any point since I worked as a barman at the Royal Court Theatre. Who says art pays?!

I’m juggling all manner of tasks. I have to learn the piano parts that I’ve blithely agreed to play to bring studio costs down on Monday. I have to make scores of copies of DVDs and CDs for potential investors for the recording of the Requiem. I have to find potential investors for the recording of the Requiem. I have to find the contact details for these potential investors and I have absolutely no idea where to start! The majority of my work has been in telly, which always funds itself. Some of the theatre luvvies I know have black books filled to the brim with the numbers of little old ladies with more money than sense. They guard their books with their lives, because once you find a wealthy patron, it’s foolish to let them go - and even more foolish to share them with someone equally deserving. I’ve never needed (or wanted) to go to the events where these patron types hang out, having never been one for schmoozing and having always kidded myself that my music does the talking.

I must keep telling myself that I’m not looking for handouts, however. This is a genuine opportunity to invest in something which could well make a whole heap of money. We’ve already got a couple of well-known people making cameo appearances on the recording, and I’m in talks with a number of other fascinating singers...

So if anyone reading this knows wealthy people who might like to invest a grand in the classical release of the decade, I would be more than happy to send them a pack which tells them everything they need to know.

Sunday 26th January 1662 found Pepys in a contemplative mood. He says it so much better than I ever could:

It having been a very fine clear frosty day- God send us more of them - for the warm weather all this winter makes us fear a sick summer. But thanks be to God, since my leaving drinking of wine, I do find myself much better and do mind my business better, and do spend less money, and less time lost in idle company.

Incidentally, can anyone tell me what happened to the winter this year? I can’t remember a single cold day...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Wet windy Woking... Or Worthing

Sometimes being on a crowded tube becomes an almost existential experience. It is so wildly unpleasant that the only way to blot out the pain is to imagine you're somewhere or someone else. And this is how it was as I struggled from Victoria to Highgate in the middle of the rush hour tonight. The tube was so hot that I felt almost certain I was going to pass out. London's infrastructure simply isn't good enough.

I know, let's stage the Olympics...

Here's a question. How old does someone have to be to not be offended if you offer them your seat on a tube? There was a woman today, who I felt was  very much on the cusp. I resolutely refused to stand up for her simply because she was a woman - that's misogynistic, patronising bullshit - but I always stand for an elderly person. Problem was, she could have been as young as 50 and my standing up for her might have tipped her over the edge in a sort of "do I really look old and frail?" kind of way. I realise the first time someone stands for me is the day the rest of the world decides I'm no longer a sexual being!

Today found me traveling to a wet and windy Worthing to work with producer, PK, on the Hattersley songs. It was a wonderful experience ; a great meeting of minds. It transpires we're both huge Samuel Beckett fans and I get the sense that he really understands the nature of what we're trying to achieve.

He also seems to care about the performers. It is vital for me that everyone working on the project truly respects the people who have trusted us with their memories. They're not simply contributors, they're artists, and both Paul up in Manchester and PK understand this only too well.

I so regularly find myself horrified by documentaries on the television, when it's clear those speaking on camera have been royally stitched-up or choice-edited by a set of producers riding rough-shod over feelings simply for a blast of good telly. I've moaned and bitched about reality TV, but am afraid it all comes down to second-rate commissioning editors who know nothing about the potential of genuine risk-taking and everything about the words "conflict" and "jeopardy" and how to manufacture them in a tired old format.

Two questions. 1) Why is this D list celebrity pretending to give a crap about Cornwall? She's never been here before and she plainly isn't listening to anything she's being told. 2) Why does she only have 2 days to travel across the county on a merry-go-round?

Are these examples too obtuse? Or am I making my point?

Pepys' day started 350 years ago with a walk in the Navy compound's garden. He met up with a gardener and discussed various things that might make the place look more "handsome."

Lunch happened at Trinity House in Deptford, and Pepys spoke to a man whose land (which he'd been awarded by the King) was due to be used (at the behest of the King) for some kind of man-made harbour. He wasn't a happy bunny.

The food was very good, but Pepys gorged himself on "a little too much beef which made me sick, and so after dinner we went to the office, and there in a garden I went in the dark and vomited, whereby I did much ease my stomach." The garden wasn't going to look any more handsome if all the borders were bedecked in boke!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Microfiche

I've got what Nathan calls "homework tummy". I'm off to Worthing or Woking or somewhere beginning with W tomorrow to work with Paul Kendall, who's producing the musical tracks for Hattersley. Before I arrive, I need to format all sorts of midi files to give to him, but have been so busy over the last few days that this has not yet happened.  The problem is that I don't know how long the process will take, so I could potentially be up all night. 

At the moment I'm trying hard to compartmentalise my existence. I'm juggling a number of projects and the only way I feel I can give them all an appropriate amount of attention is to dedicate whole days to them. Yesterday was the turn of the Requiem, today I worked on the Fleet Singers commission, tomorrow and Thursday are earmarked for Hattersley, Friday's all about the Requiem again, and so on... 

Today I sat in the Colindale Newspaper library all day. It's a fabulous building filled with grand reading rooms and intriguing darkened annexes where people dive into the archives of every known newspaper on giant wooden poles or microfiche. 

The Fleet Singers project, in true British style is all about the weather, or more appropriately, it continually returns to the subject of the weather. Alongside the very personal memories that the choir have provided, I'll be setting newspaper stories to music which focus on six key weather events that have affected Londoners in the 60 years since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. Pea-soupers, big freezes, hurricanes, deluges, massive heat-waves and an almost total eclipse. 

I've been through countless local and national newspapers and my eyes are spinning from the constant sideways action of the clunky, whizzing, whirring microfiche machine, skimming from page to page.

It's astonishing, not just to read how these almost legendary events were reported at the time, but also to get a sense of the  other news stories that were doing the rounds. Celebrities I'd forgotten about. World events that I never knew about. One light-hearted story from 1963 attempted to show readers how to do a new dance craze which was a bit like a cross between the twist and something Bob Fosse might have enjoyed. 

Above all else, it was amazing to see how little the editorial style of many of the publications had changed over the years... Except the Evening Standard, which used to be dry as toast; filled with emotionless, un-embroidered facts and half-sentences which almost resembled bullet points.

Pepys was always a bit of a fly-by-night. 350 years ago, he went to pick up his portraits from Mr Savill, commenting on how thrilled he was with the way they both looked. He took them proudly to show to Lady Sandwich, who liked his, but claimed to be "offended" by the image of his wife. Pepys suddenly changed his mind, decided she was right, and vowed to have the picture altered for the umpteenth time. Poor Mr Savill. I suppose at least Pepys had already paid him for his time. That's what decent people do after all.

I'd be interested to know what it was about the picture which offended Lady Jemima. We know of the existence of a portrait of Elizabeth Pepys which history tells us was slashed into pieces by a prudish, and very religious, Victorian housemaid, who found the painting in a loft and was scandalised by the sheer amount of  skin  and plunging neckline on display. Perhaps this shocking image was once even more sensuous. 

On the way home, Pepys went to Pope's Head Alley and bought a set square and a pair of scissors. Decoupage anyone? 

Monday, 23 January 2012

T-mobile hell

If I thought Orange was an incompetent, money-grabbing arsehole of a company, my feelings for T-mobile are simply unrepeatable. 

Here's the background. The best part of three years ago, I signed up for a deal with PC World which gave me a computer/ Internet dongle package for £41 a month over a 24 month contract. I had assumed when the 24 month period was over that the contract would simply end, but I was mistaken. In May last year I realised with horror that I'd already paid two instalments more than I needed to, and when I contacted the T-Mobile gorgons, was told that it had always been my responsibility to inform them that I was out of contract, and worse still, that I couldn't terminate said contract without giving them two months' notice. I should say that none of this was pointed out to me when I was sold the package by PC World, but there seemed to be nothing I could do but accept the deal and officially offer my two months' notice...

Around Christmas, and with trips up North approaching, I decided it was maybe time to invest in a pay-as -you-go Internet dongle and against my better judgements, signed up with T-mobile who seemed to be offering the best deal. 

Unfortunately, new privacy laws have  caused Microsoft to block various ports (or something) on PCs, which means it's now impossible to send emails from my computer when using the dongle, which is about its only use. I spoke to a nice man in technical support at T-Mobile and was informed that nothing could be done to remedy the situation. 

We chatted for a while, and the man, who was brilliantly candid,  suggested I might think about ending my contract with T-Mobile as a protest. "But I don't have a contract," I said "I'm on pay as you go..." "No you're not" said the lovely man, "you pay £41 a month..." "But I stopped my contract in the summer." "Well you're still paying it!" Horror! Six months of charges for no product...

The man was fairly horrified on my behalf, particularly when it became apparent that it even said in my notes that I'd requested the contract to stop. He said he couldn't deal with any form of repayment, but said he'd put me through to customer services who would, he was convinced, be able to sort things out.

A little bit of music followed; a middle-class sounding choir singing Adele songs, which got so irritating I wanted to throw my computer out of the window.

An Indian woman's voice came on the line and my heart sank. I make no apologies for this response. I believe the one thing that multinational companies need to do, is bring all call centres back to their native countries so that customers can deal with people who share a basic set of values and have a similar level of understanding to kick things off. We may not be able to control the flow of nasty plastic cheap products from China, but calls centres in India make lives miserable...

"What is your mobile number?" the distant voice said.

"I don't have one," I said, "I'm calling about one of your dongles."

"What is your mobile number?"

"If you look at your notes you'll see we're meant to be discussing compensation."

"I cannot hear you. Are you there?"

"Please can you put me back in touch with the man I was just speaking to?"

"I cannot hear you. What is your mobile number?"

"I'm calling about a dongle"

"What colour is your dongle?"

And so it went for another five minutes as my blood slowly began to boil. Periodically she'd hear what I was saying and inform me that she didn't have the authority to put me through to anyone else. The phone call reminded me of a Turkish jury member giving votes at the Eurovision Song Contest circa 1981. 

I put Penny on, who was sitting next to me, and she was similarly stumped. I eventually gave the woman my number and she said she'd call me back. An hour later, I was still waiting for her call...

2 hours later, I was listening to Adele again, waiting in a queue for someone from customer services to answer. I waited ten minutes and hung up. I called again, waited another ten minutes and then a chirpy Welsh lady called Vicky answered my prayers and dealt with me compassionately. She tutted and sighed when I explained what I'd gone through and said all the right things at all the right moments. We had a little chat about the weather in Cardiff and she sorted everything out very speedily. Thank God for Vicky. Naughty T- Mobile. How long would it have taken them to realise I was paying for a product that had long since been disconnected? Why on earth did they sell me a second plan when I was still under contract with them for an identical product? Steaming turds...

My day went into free-fall when, after returning from a jog, I received a text message from brother Tim telling me he'd had a minor stroke on the train to work. After a day in hospital he seems to be okay, but I'm obviously worried sick.

Pepys went to see his Uncle Fenner 350 years ago. He'd been avoiding him for some time on account of his new wife, a midwife, who Pepys, in a line of pure vitriolic genius, described as a "pitiful, old, ugly, ill-bred woman in a hat." Her relations, described as "sorry mean people" took Pepys to the local pub, "a narrow dog-hole" where they endured a "sorry poor dinner." Brilliant! 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mum's gone to Iceland


We went into Soho last night with Nathan’s friends, Thorinna and Karl; an Icelandic couple who performed in the Rocky Horror Show with Nathan many years ago. They’ve been living back in the motherland of late (Iceland, not the planet of Transsexual) so this was the first time Nathan had seen them for many years.  I immediately understood why he spoke so fondly of them. They’re a delightful pair and we had a wonderful meal in an Italian Restaurant on Old Compton Street where the four pizzas we ordered arrived on an unfeasibly long platter.



We spent much of the evening quizzing them about Iceland. It’s a place which has always intrigued me, but I was hugely surprised to learn that the country is almost the size of the UK, but only has 350,000 inhabitants. I think this means they rather punch above their weights on the international stage. Bjork, Sigur Ros... and they’ve done a darn sight better than us in Eurovision since they entered...

I was particularly thrilled to hear about Icelandic Christmas traditions, where there are actually 13 different Santa Claus figures, who separately visit children in the 13 days running up to Christmas. Children leave a shoe by the window, and every morning another little gift appears within. American culture has somewhat railroaded the tradition, so each of the figures is now portrayed in a red and white Santa suit, but they have very specific identities, and names, which are governed by their characteristics. One of them is very little, so his name is Shorty. Then there’s Door Slammer, Ladle Licker... Each is only active for one specific day in December. I think it’s terribly sad that they’ve lost their visual identities. One day I think the world might simply be known as Americania...

I’m back in the centre of London, sitting on Old Compton Street, waiting to go to a cabaret which Nathan is singing in. I’m trying to focus on this blog, but an angry crack-head called Kez has sat down next to me, and won’t stop talking. At the moment, he’s whinging about gay parenting, and a long stream of hideous homophobic abuse is gushing from his mouth. There’s no point in trying to argue, or even rising to the bait, because he’s out of his skull on something and I don’t want to be stabbed. My mistake, of course, was to engage with him when he started barking. I didn’t want to blank him because I was sure he’d already been blanked 100 times today. I was hoping he’d be thrilled that someone wasn’t looking through him, or turning their nose up, but realise I’ve simply became a man more likely to give him money. He keeps asking me for two pounds. I’ve been through my wallet and only found a ten pence piece and a palm full of coppers, which apparently is “insulting” to him. I suggested he took it to see if he could swap it for £2 with someone more gullible than me. Poor bloke, though. He’s young as well. How can life fall apart at such a tender age?

PS - I survived the incident with the crack head and went to Nathan’s cabaret. He was, as usual, epically brilliant. He has such an ease about him on stage, which becomes so apparent when performing alongside some of these drama school leavers, who pop their clogs singing big belty numbers and forget that every song has a story which needs to be told.

350 years ago Pepys headed west for large dollops of Parliamentary gossip care of the good folk of Whitehall. The tittle-tattle has lost its bite over the years, so there’s little point in recounting great swathes of it here. Some of it was focussed on Barbara Palmer, the King’s Mistress. She actually bore King Charles II a total of five children, all of whom Charles acknowledged and titled, two of whom had already been born by 1662. Many wondered what would become of her when the official queen, Catherine de Breganza, arrived from Portugal. They needn’t have worried; she was giving birth to Charles’ babies as late as 1672, which was hardly surprising as she was considered to be quite a catch. Wikipedia describes her as “tall, voluptuous, with masses of auburn hair, slanting, heavy-lidded blue-violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth.” Lush.
The central players at my god-daughter's birthday party yesterday...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Dog siren

I was told this morning that my Great Auntie Winnie had died in her sleep last night. I didn't know her particularly well, but found myself shedding a few tears because it signifies the end of an era. Winnie was the older sister of my Grandfather, Harry, and the only remaining member of that generation  of my family. 

She was a staggering 103 years old and will have had memories from the time of the First World War. She may even remember the Titanic going down. It was her mother who started the pork pie business which  shaped the fortunes of my family.

I'd love to say she'll be sadly missed, but I'm pretty sure when you die at that age, all of your close friends, and half of your children are probably long gone. If I ever get to her age, I'm just going to sit on a comfy chair, alternating aspirins with magic mushrooms. It's the only way! Rest in peace, Winnie.

I got back from Manchester last night to find an enormous box from Amazon waiting for me with a kindle inside. A kindle! It was a gift from Matt to say thank you for taking pictures back stage at Les Miserables. I was incredibly touched and a little angry because the photos were meant to be my way of thanking him for countless generous gestures in the past, so his thanking me means I'll have to find a way to thank him for thanking me. Ah, the cycle of friendship!  

I met a very old friend today at the top of Parliament Hill. Daniel and I were at university together and haven't seen each other in years. Literally years. 

It was curious to find out about Auntie Winnie's death today, because she happened to be a friend of Daniel's grandfather, also called Harry, who, by sheer coincidence was also in the same form at school as my  Grandpa. It's strange how life creates these cycles; wheels within wheels.  

There was a very strange man doing Tai Chi at the top of the hill. He was doing sound effects in the style of a child swishing a light sabre around. It was a fairly embarrassing thing to be doing in such a public space. His dog was waiting patiently and slightly forlornly with a frisbee in his mouth. His look said it all, "come on, Dad. Everyone's looking at you. Stop making the weird noises or throw the friggin' frisbee so I've got an excuse to run away..."

I don't think Daniel and I have changed a great deal  in the 19 years since we last met. I take great comfort from this thought. We're still passionate about life, still great optimists. Perhaps we're both a little calmer, a little greyer, blessed with a few more crows feet, a little less head hair, a little more on our bodies...

As we parted, an ambulance screamed past, making a horrible racket. I am a man who finds it very hard to hear any sound without mimicking it, so was greatly relieved to hear someone next to me doing a rather bad impression of the siren. I looked to see who it was, and was delighted to find a dog, head raised to the sky, howling like a wolf. Delightful.

I'm now heading to my god daughter's birthday party in an aircraft hangar filled with trapezes, silks and ropes, which promises to be mayhem. God knows how I'm going to get to Woolwich! 

350 years ago and Pepys spent the day working in the Navy office. There's not a great deal else to say. A fleet of boats was sailing to Portugal, one assumes to pick up Catherine de Breganza, daughter of the Portuguese King and future wife of Charles II. The wind had changed direction, which made Pepys worry the fleet would be pushed back in the direction of Ireland. He went to bed after studying the art of composition. 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Fresh hope in the fresh air

How about this for a piece of casual racism:
MAN IN HOTEL RECEPTION: (to Receptionist) Hello there. I’m afraid I need to change rooms, mine smells very strongly of curry.
RECEPTIONIST: Oh dear. The last guest must have been Asian.

MAN IN HOTEL RECEPTION: Yes. That’s what we thought.
...Astonishing.

I’m on the last train from Manchester to London. I think we’re due to arrive in Euston at midnight, which is a bit of an unpleasant thought. We’re stopping so often, it almost feels as though I’m sitting on a bus. I’m exhausted but upbeat.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve been dreading today for ages. Stupidly, I overheard my horoscope on the radio and learnt that, whilst the first part of my week would be plain sailing, the second half would find me struggling to make myself understood. I don’t know if it’s more worrying that I allowed myself to get in a tizz about a horoscope or that the single magpies I kept bumping into were also freaking me out. When I woke up this morning, the only thing I could see was one of the little critters bouncing up and down like a child on a trampoline on the wall of the multi-storey car park opposite.

My major worry was, of course, unveiling the songs I’d written to new our Hattersley family. It’s one of the worst things about being a composer; the moment when you have to show your babies to the world. There’s the terrible nagging fear that people won’t like them, won’t get them, won’t be able to sing them or worse than anything else, won’t say anything at all. The songs that I’ve written for this project are hugely personal; almost intrusive, and the biggest risk of all was that those taking part would simply think they were all a bit too much.

Fortunately none of these worries had any foundations. The responses to the songs were incredible. There were happy tears, nostalgic tears, peals of excited laughter and lots of reminiscing. One of the ladies from the community centre said that I’d summed up 37 years of her life in one song, which is one of the kindest things anyone’s ever said to me. I was almost pathetically thrilled. These are, after all, the people who let us into their lives and trusted Paul and me with their most precious memories. It’s a huge relief to know that we’ve not let them down. I have nothing but absolute respect for them all and think they’re so brave to join us on this extraordinary project.

Of course it did nothing but rain miserably all day. It usually rains in Manchester, and I’ve only known the sun to shine once in all my visits to Hattersley! I was hoping for snow. I’d actually like some snow when we film. Hattersley is famous for its snow - great tall twisting drifts of the stuff - and I’ve never filmed in snow. That said, I don’t want to kill our cameraman, smash any of the BBC’s expensive equipment, or break the of the legs of our participants on huge patches of black ice, so maybe I should pray for sun, or the perfect filming conditions: white cloud.

350 years ago, Pepys had four gallons of Malaga wine and a hogshead of Cadiz sherry delivered. Quite how long he expected it to last, I’ve no idea, but I’m sure he cracked open a bottle or two that evening when his Aunt and Uncle Wright appeared at his house to play cards – his new favourite game. Gleek.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Lost in Manchester

45 minutes ago, I was running like a loon around the streets of Manchester, hopelessly lost, terribly tired and desperately trying to find a landmark I recognised. Manchester is one of the last cities in the UK that I haven’t got to grips with. In the past I’ve always thought of it simply as a somewhat rainy place that tries a bit too hard to punch above its weight!
Every time I visit the city it seems a little bit more confident. A little bit shinier and more pleased with itself. It doesn’t quite have the charm of Leeds or Newcastle. It feels a little snooty I suppose. I think I probably need to spend more time here, but the project I’m currently working on, is taking me to an estate right on the edge of the city, peopled by proud Mancunians, but totally unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in Greater Manchester.

I love the Hattersley Estate. I love it passionately. I love the people I meet there. I doubt it would be possible to find a group of neighbours who care so much about one another. Everywhere we went today, little clusters of people were chatting; outside the credit union, inside the community centre, at the post office. They ask after each other. They offer help if they can. They turn up on a doorstep if they hear someone’s in trouble. Yet around them their estate seems to be struggling. The community centre is being closed down and replaced by a privately-run, multi-purpose space on the edge of the estate. The post office doesn’t have any merchandise. The only shop in the arcade is a Co-op. It’s very sad. It’s places like this that get kicked in the guts during a recession harder and more often than anywhere else.

Today, Paul and I went on a mission to gather the sounds of Hattersley. We recorded all sorts of noises; the hollow gasps of wind rolling through the train station, people greeting each other fondly in the streets, buses passing by, birds singing, two women squawking in the Co-op...

We spent hours in the community centre drinking tea, meeting new faces, hearing intriguing stories and watching 50 pensioners doing a line-dancing class. We interviewed a young photographer called Charlie, one of our main contributors and a very decent bloke. The musical film we’re making about him will be based entirely on spoken word; an incredibly daring approach and something which I’ve never attempted before.

A lot of what we’re doing on this set of films is new ground for me. If the extraordinary residents of Hattersley have taught me nothing else, they’ve taught me to be brave. Today we sat in June’s front room. Her story is inspiring. She has overcome so much in life and has used her experience to help others.  She is utterly selfless. She exists for others. She takes children in whose mothers have died. She runs community groups. Whenever I make one of these films I meet another June and every time this happens, I feel utterly ashamed for the hours I waste grumbling about my lot.

If you’re religious, or understand the bible, you might be interested in reading the first half of Pepys diary entry on this date 350 years ago. It was a Sunday. Pepys went to church. There was a sermon and he engaged in its philosophy. I skim read. Religion is not something to interpret. He returned from church and walked with his wife to see their friend, Mrs Turner, who was still ill with an unknown sickness. The Pepyses then went to visit one Mrs Norbury to discuss land for sale in Pepys’ father’s village of Brampton in Huntingdonshire. It turned out that Mrs Norbury lived next door to Pepys’ Uncle Fenner, who fortunately was out. Pepys had been avoiding his Uncle ever since he married a midwife called Hester, who was apparently “old and ugly.” How embarrassing for her!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Serenade

Here’s a strange fact. There is no sign at York train station that indicates where platform 4 is. The rest of the platforms are very clearly marked with neat little signs; a black number on a white metal square, but it’s as though platform 4 doesn’t exit. It turns out that it’s actually an extension of platform 3, but I had to ask a station guard, who informed me that it started “somewhere near that bench.” I asked why it didn’t have a sign and was astonished by the answer:

“We need planning permission to put up a sign. We’ve applied to the council, but these things take time.”
So a train station needs to apply to the council to put up a sign which would potentially prevent travel chaos?! There are no words...

I didn’t sleep well last night. I was worried my alarm clock wouldn’t ring and kept waking myself up to look at the time. 5am, 6am, 7am...  and then I had a surreal dream; I’d forgotten to write a piece of music for a choir, and only realised the night before the concert. I used to have a similar dream which involved returning to school to retake my A-level exams and realising I’d not attended a single German lesson. It implies I have rather a lot on my plate; so much that my subconscious is getting involved to sift through information whilst the rest of my brain vegetates.
I had a fabulous day nevertheless. I’m utterly exhausted, but buzzing like a bee. There are very few people who can claim to have been serenaded by a choir standing on a boat drifting down a river, but at lunchtime today I was lucky enough to become a member of that particular prestigious club.

We’ve been in York all day launching EBOR VOX; a massive choral festival which celebrates the 800th anniversary of the City of York being given its charter. As a wannabe honourable Yorkshire man, I’ve been commissioned to write a huge anthem which will be premiered by 800 singers on a flotilla of 800 boats on the River Ouse. Our mission today was to see if it would be possible to hear a choir from the banks of the river if they stood on a boat. A York City cruiser was chartered, and we were joined by the wonderful Can Sing community choir, who gave up their lunch breaks to become guinea pigs. Surprisingly, the Ouse acoustics are almost perfect for choral music.

The festival takes place in July, but was launched to the press at breakfast today. There were speeches and power point presentations from bleary-eyed council types, and I got a chance to catch up with quite a number of my pals from BBC Yorkshire, some of whom later came to film us by the side of the Ouse. I think we were on Look North tonight...

The second part of the festival will see the same 800 performers singing the anthem whilst processing through the winding medieval streets of York. It promises to be the most magical weekend and I can’t wait to get cracking on the commission.

Last night I discovered that Fiona and I had both been elected to join the Musicians’ Union Writers’ Committee, which is a real honour. I very much hope that I’ll be able to use the post to help other composers from descending into the hell that I found myself in last year. It strikes me that a composer needs to be bullshit savvy. It’s vital he or she has the tools to identify a woolly contract or a dishonourable, inexperienced, or frankly utterly barmy potential employer. Often the most important tool in one’s armoury is instinct. If it feels wrong, give it a wide berth, even if you’re desperate for the work. Stick to commissions which are backed by a known organisation. An amateur organisation could well rush into a commission without a real sense of what is required, or crucially, what’s acceptable.

And what of Samuel Pepys 350 years ago? Well, it was a pretty average day, really. He went book-shopping at St Paul’s Cathedral, before lunching with Lady Sandwich in a sort of impromptu celebration brought about by the news that Lord Sandwich wasn’t actually dead, as reported the previous day. Imagine being called Sandwich before sandwiches existed... Like being called Jesus. Or Hoover.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The theatre visitor

There’s a man who visits Nathan’s theatre rather regularly. He turns up a few hours before the show and sits in the foyer on his own. He’s apparently very friendly, but any of the theatre staff will tell you that he’s mentally ill. He’s very excited at the moment, because he’s got through to the live audience stage of Britain’s Got Talent.
I think we all know what’s going to happen. He’ll stand up on stage, embarrass himself horribly in front of an audience screaming for blood, and if he’s bad enough, he’ll become a moment of television gold.

Few people realise that the people who appear in front of the celebrity judges have already got through countless rounds of auditions with various producers and researchers. Talentless and deluded people will often kick-off when Simon Cowell disses them, because they’ve been repeatedly told they’re marvellous by programme makers rubbing their hands together at the thought of generating another little slice of road-crash telly. And it’s these shockingly bad auditions that make the programmes entertaining, so who can blame them?

The man who sits in the foyer of Nathan’s theatre has mental health problems. He’s not a deluded rich girl desperate for publicity, or a confident drama student with no concept of pitch, he is mentally ill...  Despite this, he’s been built up by countless producers who simply think of him as “good telly”, regardless of the devastating effect that 2000 audience members booing might have on his already fragile mental state.

...But it’s good telly, so who cares?

As a child, I was asked to present a school talent show and was booed off by an assembly hall filled with red-faced aggressive-looking children. One started booing so they all went. It’s a memory I still recall with utter horror. Even my friends were booing.

So, just remember, when you’re killing yourself laughing at a useless audition on one of these talent shows, that you may well be laughing at someone who’s been chewed up and spat out by TV producers with no sense of moral responsibility. If they were teachers or doctors, they’d lose their jobs immediately. End of story.

Three questions to lighten the mood...

1)      Why did my alarm clock go off at 5.50am this morning instead of 8am?

2)      Why does Old Street Station always smell of bacon?

3)      Why do the loos in King’s Cross Station cost 30p, when they’re not fit to be used by anything but wild dogs?

350 years ago, Pepys went to Westminster Hall, which was the 17th Century’s answer to the internet. If you were looking for news – or rumours – on any subject whatsoever, you went to the Hall and simply walked up and down. The hall was buzzing with the news that Pepys’ patron, and cousin, Lord Sandwich, was dead. Pepys was devastated, but made it his business to prove that the news was nothing but a rumour, and sure enough his hunch proved correct. Thrilled to bits, he immediately went to visit Lady Sandwich to tell her all was well. He went via the Piazza (Covent Garden, that is) where he saw a house on fire “and all the streets full of people to quench it.” Diary-worthy, of course, but absolutely nothing compared to what he would find himself witnessing in 1666.

Monday, 16 January 2012

A shiny blue roller

I’ve not eaten recently enough and am going weirdly hypoglycaemic. I’m looking at the computer screen, and all the words are going slightly blurry. I have a desire to write rude words. It's all a bit surreal because my downstairs neighbours are rowing whilst the woman next door belts out show tunes. I can't really tell the difference. There’s a list about as long as the Piccadilly Line of things I still need to do before I can relax this evening. I’m off to York tomorrow, and then to Manchester, and I have a million things to sort and pack and conceptualise and throw away.
 
I have a new mobile phone. I'm not at all excited about it. New phones are often more hassle than they're worth. The man from Orange finally arrived at about 11am to take the old one away. He was only 18 days late, so there was no point in being angry. Fiona and I rushed into Crouch End to sort out a replacement and ended up in Crap-phone Warehouse because they’d inexplicably run out of phones at the Orange Store. That's like Greg's running out of pasties..,
We had poached eggs for lunch and then swept back up the hill to continue ticking things off from our  “we’re going away” lists. Fi leaves for the US on Wednesday. I suspect it’s going to be rather cold oop north, but haven’t yet reached the clothing section of my list, so can’t give the matter anymore thought.

I went to the gym. I thought if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in any reflective surfaces for the next ten years. As I drove down the hill from Highgate, the sky looked like the well-polished bonnet of a dark blue Roller. The horizon, in contrast, was glowing like a Manhattan Sunrise cocktail, or the fringe of a tie-died skirt in a summer meadow and there was a massive fuchsia X scrawled across the sky; an example of this recent business with the vapour trails going all 1980s as the sun sets in the freezing air.
I looked at myself in the mirror at the gym and saw a hamster staring back. Must shave...
There’s too much to do – and no time to do it, so I must head off.

350 years ago, Pepys walked from his house to Cheapside, and saw on his way, the funeral cortege of Frederick Cornwallis, the late Steward of the King’s Horse, whatever that means. Pepys couldn’t have thought the man was “all that”, because he described him as a “bold, profane-talking man.” Sounds a bit like me. Whatever happened to not talking ill of the dead? Pepys went to see Mr Savill, the painter and coughed up 6l for the two portraits he’d commissioned, and 36s for two matching frames. Lovely.

He had dinner with Sir William Batten and a few rather  grand navy men who talked about an African country called Gambo (possibly Gambia), which was “so unhealthy, yet the people of the place live very long, so as the present king there is 150 years old, which they count by rains: because every year it rains continually for four months.” This 150 year old king apparently also had 100 wives, which he would offer out to any explorers passing through. Very generous. I'm sure the wives were thrilled.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Clouds of dust

I sat on my bed this morning, transfixed by clouds of dust swirling in the air around me, glinting like specks of gold in the sunlight streaming through my window. We must spend our lives walking through giant storms of dust, breathing in rather large particles of skin, hair and tiny primitive creatures. The thought made me wince, but the sight was mesmerising. I could hear a wood pigeon humming and cooing outside, and for some seconds found myself transported back to a forgotten moment from my childhood. The sun went behind a cloud and the image disappeared before I could quite identify where it had come from...
Fiona and I walked to Kenwood House to meet Chloe and Orla; old Northamptonians and fellow string players (...well violists). They became our companions for the afternoon. The views from the heath today were stunning. The skyline of central London was semi-silhouetted and shrouded in grey mist. The Shard of Glass rising like a giant teepee. In the foreground, in the bright winter sunshine, the grass gleamed with frost, and the trees glowed a curious russet colour.

We were expecting to have lunch in the cafe at Kenwood, but it was over-flowing with revolting middle class families eating wholemeal scones, precocious children called Tarquin wrapped up in scarves and a chorus of yapping dogs (wearing tartan doggie coats).

We ambled instead to Highgate Village and piled into The Gatehouse pub - which does a ridiculously cheap and very tasty vegetarian roast dinner - before heading down the hill for a lovely walk in Highgate Woods as the temperatures plummeted towards zero again. Chloe’s daughter played for hours in the adventure playground, which is a lovely little spot.

Poor Chloe and James. They lost their baby two weeks ago are trying desperately hard not to allow their daughter to see too much of the sadness which must be absolutely crippling them. Life seems very unfair sometimes. Some people seem to have everything.

As the sun set, Fiona and I went to Brent Cross Shopping Centre; a terrible place, which seems to be made from nothing but concrete and plastic and peopled by Asians and Jews dressed up to the nines. We wanted to buy a DVD, but sadly the last record shop closed down in the mall a few months ago, which seems a most bizarre thing. I realise that everyone buys their music online these days, but the thought that a time would ever come when there would be no more record shops in the world would have hit my 10 year-old ELO-obsessed-self like an iron bar!

December 15th, 1662 found Pepys attending another composing lesson with John Birchensha, which ended with a lovely breakfast. They ate a collar of brawn, which is a ghastly thought. (The thought of a collar of anything gives me the heeby-geebies and simply forces me to imagine my own collar being sawed into.) After the two men had gorged themselves, they remembered, with horror, that Parliament had ordered everyone to fast that day “to pray for more seasonable weather; it having hitherto been summer weather, that it is, both as to warmth and every other thing, just as if it were the middle of May or June, which do threaten a plague (as all men think) to follow, for so it was almost the last winter; and the whole year after hath been a very sickly time to this day.” That there was ever a time when the Parliament could order everyone to fast is strange enough, but surely the 1660s were famous for being the start of the mini ice-age? Where were the famous fairs on the iced-over Thames? Maybe that was the 1680s?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Shit bits

I'm in a coma at Julie's, sitting on a very comfortable sofa whilst staring at the telly after eating a plate of pasta and a Malteesers Bunny.

I've been to all sorts of hideous corners of London today; Homerton, Hackney and then the hell of New Cross. 

I switched my phone on this morning to discover that I had a meeting with Penny way out East in an hour's time. I grabbed my computer, bundled myself onto the first bus I could find and staggered my way across North London. It's very hard to go from West to East in North London and it was about an hour and a half before I found myself at the utterly minging Homerton station, which is situated within a sea of concrete.

I met Penny on the edge of Victoria Park, which looked extraordinary, bedecked in a carpet of almost blinding shiny morning dew. 

After our meeting, I found myself in Hackney Central, trying to get to Julie's; a journey which took me to all manner of disgusting places. I got off a train at New Cross and walked around in circles trying to find the way to Catford. At one point I got on a bus to Peckham, which I suddenly realised was the wrong direction. Ten minutes later I was back where I'd started, sighing audibly.

It took me the best part of two hours to get from Hackney to Catford. All this time I was talking to utter imbeciles from Orange who kept cutting me off  and subjecting me to the absolute hell of their automated system... "press one if you give a shit, press two if you don't have a life..." I'm still not sure they understand I need a phone without a smashed screen! 

350 years ago, Pepys had his first lesson in composition with John Birchensha. He doesn't say if it went well or not. He was too busy admiring his new picture album which was delivered in the afternoon. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Unlucky for some...

Friday 13th is unlucky for some, but it’s been a beautiful crisp wintry day across London; powder blue skies and a vibrant orange sun, which has now set. The temperatures have literally plummeted; even the rats are cold. I’ve had to put the heating on early. I’m not usually a big fan of central heating. I think it makes people cough rather strangely and sweat in unfortunate places.  
I had meetings all morning about the requiem. We re-examined the budget and came to the conclusion that we need about £5000 more than initially thought. It’s the bloomin’ musicians. I can skimp on recording studios, I can skimp on album art-work, but I can’t hire rubbish musicians, or do anything that the MU wouldn’t appreciate. I’ve come home with about a million things that I need to do over the next few days. There are applications, preparations and conversations that need to happen and I can’t seem to work out which order to do them all in. My head is filled with all sorts of bizarre snippets of information, which I’m trying to pull together – but it’s stressful.

I went for a long run to clear my mind, and found myself jogging across the top end of the heath just as the sun was at its brightest. Sometimes I think there’s no place on earth as beautiful as Hampstead Heath – whatever the season. I returned home with frost-bitten hands, but no hot water for a bath.

A strange meteorological phenomenon seems to be happening at the moment, involving aeroplane vapour trails. If you look into the sky at about 4.30pm, they appear as great big pink streaks against a cornflower blue sky... As Fiona said earlier, it’s “like some kind of lurid 80s graffiti”. It's very strange. I love the sky.

Pepys spent the morning, 350 years ago, with the composer John Birchensha, author of “Plaine Rules and Directions for Composing Musick in Parts,” which I’m sure was a very jolly read. Pepys resolved to have composing lessons with him and vowed to begin the following day. He hosted a dinner party and was embarrassed by the very early arrival of brothers Peter and Michael Honeywood, who he was forced to entertain with sparkling wit and oysters until the food was ready. Pepys wrote that he “appeared” merry, but that the food was rubbish, and the Honeywoods were desperately dull, or, in his words, “pitiful sorry gentlemen.” One of them earned his place at the table, however, by demonstrating an experiment with “chymicall glasses, which break all to dust by breaking off a little small end.” Pepys was mystified. I’m told these tear-shaped glasses, which literally shattered to a pile of sand when broken, were one of Charles II’s favourite practical jokes. I’d like to try one. They sound fascinating! In the evening Pepys learned to play a game called “gleeke,” which I thought was the name for the geeky fans of the TV show Glee.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Danny Boy

I heard the news this morning that a headless body has been found in the garden of a psychiatric hospital. According to police, the death is  "not being treated as suspicious." Why on earth not?' Do they think the head simply fell off?

I have covered astonishingly large distances today. I ran five kilometres in the early afternoon and then walked for mile after mile in central London. We were in Carnaby Street, and then we were in Covent Garden and before we knew it, we'd snaked our way down to the south bank and returned to Soho via St Paul's Cathedral. That's got to be a good ten miles, surely?

My companions for this epic walk were Nathan, my dear mate Dan and his American friend, Charlie. Charlie is a girl.



Dan and I have known each other since we worked on Boy George's Taboo a full ten years ago. I actually gave him his first West End job and we've been firm friends ever since.

Like Fiona, he has a serious wanderlust, and spent the last two years exploring Australia and the Far East whilst living life to the max. He's not emerged unscathed from the experience and proudly showed us some astonishing scars on his thigh, which were caused by a bollock-clenching accident involving a quad bike and a barbed-wire fence.

As we walked and talked and talked and walked, I realised how much I'd missed him and that my world would be considerably less fun without him popping up from time to time to make me laugh like a drain. I laughed so much at one point that I induced a little whoop!

350 years ago, and Pepys was also ramping up the London miles, heading from the City to Whitehall, where he called in on a very sick Jane Turner and her equally sick (yet precocious) daughter, Theophile, before returning to his house on Seething Lane. Elizabeth Pepys was arguing with the servants again. Poor little Nell. There were but three references to her in Pepys' diaries in the six months she worked in the household. 15th December 1661; "a simple slut," January 12th, 1662 "a lazy slut." And we never learn her surname. She shall henceforth be known simply as "Nell Slut."

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

If you wanna come in...

We're in a pub somewhere on the Essex Road. I have no idea how we're going to get home, I only  know that Julie is sitting opposite me chatting to Fiona. They're talking about mortgages and vaginas.

We've just done a favour for a mutual friend. He wanted an ad hoc soul choir for a track on his new album. I was happy to oblige, 'cus God knows enough people have helped me out in the past! 

We had a blast trying to sound like a group of black Americans at a party; "if you wanna get in, then you gotta get down..." It's going round and round in my head. 

I spent the morning finishing off the Hattersley songs before heading into town to meet a man about a Requiem. 

Quite how I managed to get here from the centre of town, I've no idea.

January 11th, 1662, and Pepys learnt all about the customs associated with the court of Genoa and wrote the most tediously detailed account about it! 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Suicide Bridge

Philippa came to the cafe this morning and we were joined there by Fiona, which made my day. I like it when they're both in the same place; it's a very rare occurance...

I don’t really have a great deal else to say about today. I went for a bracing run up onto the Heath, back down over Suicide Bridge and home via Stanhope Road. Whenever I pass Suicide Bridge I wonder when the last jumper jumped. It’s a macabre thought, but I've never really seen much evidence of the suicides which have given it its unofficial name. I once saw a little pile of sand on the road underneath, which I assumed was evidence of a clean-up operation, but I genuinely thought people were meant to jump all the time. I mention this only because, when I lived in Tufnell Park, I used to drive along the Archway Road, underneath the bridge, and wonder how anyone could live on a road so utterly marred by its association with death. When I moved here, I thought I'd see ambulances pulling up all the time. Perhaps the fences they’ve built at the top of the bridge have deterred jumpers. A friend of mine at drama school was nonchalantly walking up the road when a naked man landed at her feet. He’d thrown himself off the bridge. As you'd expect, it scarred her for life.

I’d like to say how profoundly irritating I’m finding my internet connection and want to take this opportunity to remind Talk Talk that we’re not living in the 1990s. We fall offline on an almost hourly basis, which is irritating at the best of times, but when we’re watching catch-up telly, it becomes the stuff of nightmares. If you lose your internet connection whilst watching something on itv.com, it plays you another three adverts before you’re allowed to return to the place where you were. Hell on a stick.
Pepys and his wife went to Elizabeth Hunt’s house to “gossip” and hand over a cup and a spoon to her newborn child, Elizabeth Pepys' godson. They returned home by coach, and Pepys read books until late, which irritated his wife, because, one assumes, the servants had to stay up late with him.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The West Lothian question

I’ve just got back from visiting the Fleet Singers in Belsize Park. They've commissioned me to write some music to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. All the singers have been asked to write down a memory in no more than 200 words. The memories can be about anything. The only stipulation is that they are dated (roughly) and come from within the present Queen’s reign. Some astonishing passages have already been sent. A number of them deal with major events like 7/7, Diana’s death and the Great Storm of 1989, whilst others are deeply personal and terribly moving. It is fascinating to see the different lives that 30 people have had. The only thing that many of them have in common is that they all turn up to a Methodist church in Gospel Oak once a month to sing together. Music is such an extraordinary thing. It unites.

Aside from a quick visit to the gym, today has been about the Hattersley project. I am now fine-tuning the orchestrations; cutting and cutting and cutting, because the songs are terribly fragile and would be utterly engulfed by my normal style of sweeping string music. Trying to write rather hollow, empty material is a great challenge, and I am very much enjoying the process. It strikes me how important it is for a composer to set himself new challenges with every piece he or she writes.

The newspapers are filled today with one question; “should Scotland become independent?” The Scots are looking forward to a referendum. I have rather strong views on the subject. Having experienced rather breathtaking racism from representatives of BBC Scotland, I feel a severance would probably serve to make us much better allies; it would also mean a disproportionate amount of the BBC licence fee would no longer be spent on lovely Scottish programming! I am, however, not altogether sure the decision should be purely one that the Scots get to make. How about the English get a referendum to decide whether or not to kick the Scots out of the union? Why can't we sack them? If you had an employee working for you who was undermining the company ethos, you'd tell them to get in line, or fire them. If you're in a relationship with someone you suspect no longer loves you, you often dump them before they can dump you! Why is it that all English people are expected to toe the line and call themselves British, when the Scots are expected to do no such thing? I love Scotland. I love Scottish people and I am deeply proud to consider Scotland to be part of my nation – but I’m frankly rather bored of hearing that this feeling is not reciprocated - and if it is, I'd like a Scot to make a bit of noise on the subject!

January 9th, 1662 was an office day for Pepys. There was much to be done. Christmas was over and the Duke of York wanted answers to various questions, and Pepys was still trying to get to the bottom of the rumours flying around regarding his clerk, Will Hewer.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Le Voyage Dans la Lune

We're sitting in a very charming Brighton pub called The Mesmirist. There's a giant still from the film Le Voyage Dans La Lune on the wall; a miserable-looking Man in the Moon, with a rocket sticking out of his eye. It's such a stirring image. I can't stop staring at it.

We decided last night, after burying our little mouse, that it would be fun to have a day trip. Brighton felt like a good choice, as Fiona is mooting the idea of escaping London permanently and moving down here. I don't blame her. It's very easy to run out of reasons to live in London. It's expensive, frenetic and unforgiving and Brighton, even on a fairly ordinary day in January, puts on a wonderful show of laid-back-ness.

We hung out in Kemptown, which is the area to the East of the pier, and sat in a lovely cafe with Meriel, who came to join us as soon as she knew we were down here. Her dog, Berry, curled up on Nathan's lap and created the perfect Sunday afternoon tableau of lazy contentment.


We had a beautiful walk along the seafront, as the sun slowly dropped from under a cloud. Somewhere between 3 and 4 o'clock, we were treated to ten minutes of glorious, treacly sunshine. And then it was gone, and a misty, pinky light engulfed the sea front again.


350 years ago, Pepys went to Westminster Hall, where he heard some rather troubling rumours about his clerk, Will Hewer, whose uncle was apparently a rogue. In those days, being a bad egg was considered to be somewhat hereditary. Sir William Penn, chief gossip-monger, advised Pepys to get rid of the lad, despite "loving him greatly". Agenda anyone?

It certainly troubled Pepys...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

R.I.P.

I’m very sad to have to report that Cyril the mouse died in the night last night. It was a peaceful death. He made himself a little nest from an old red sock and some loo paper, and simply fell asleep. His funeral will take place in the little patch of woodland adjacent to Highgate tube this evening. His family have not yet been informed. Nathan and I would like to say how sorry we are about his death and hope that we made his last few hours as comfortable as possible.
The wonderful Bob Holness has also died. The game show, Blockbusters was such a seminal part of my childhood. “Can I have an R.I.P. please, Bob?” (Fiona Brice, 06.01.12)

Tuesday 7th January 1662, and Pepys had a long lie-in, before walking, across the fields, with Sir William Penn to the village of Stepney, where they had a “very merry” dinner at one Mrs Chappell’s house. All of Sir William’s children were present, and later in the day, the whole crew trudged back to the City to play cards at Penn’s house. It’s almost incomprehensible to think that there were ever fields between the Square Mile and Stepney, although I’d cheerfully support the notion of turning much of what is presently between the two locations back to beautiful countryside.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The little mouse

I was sitting in the cafe this morning, headphones plugged into my ears, listening to a particularly tricky bar of string music, when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny animal making its way across the floor. The creature was the sweetest mouse I’ve ever seen; no bigger than a large acorn, with the cutest little dumbo ears. He was wandering around, not at all frightened by the enormity of the world, staring like a new born child at a chair leg in front of him. I called out to the cafe owner, who was understandably a little concerned by the sight. “There are traps everywhere” he said, “where the hell do they come from?” “That’s not a normal mouse” I said, thinking it might even be a shrew. The cafe owner was about to stamp on it; “please don’t!” I shouted, “let me take him to Highgate Woods...” Fortunately, another customer was in favour of the Greenpeace solution, so we trapped the little critter in a pint glass. It wasn’t a difficult task – he was too friendly and inquisitive to run anywhere – and seemed to sit, perfectly happily on a piece of cardboard within his glass prison as everyone took photographs.
 
We carefully transferred him into a paper bag, and I took him home to Nathan, who I thought would be the best companion when it came to liberating the animal. In our time, we’ve looked after a number of sick animals. We cared for a dying pigeon in our kitchen and once saved a little frog from a guaranteed messy death on the Archway Road by taking it to a pond on Hampstead Heath. Neither of us can bear to see animals suffering and we’ll both go to great lengths to protect a creature who can’t protect itself.

When Nathan saw the mouse, he instantly fell in love. We looked online and decided that it must be some kind of field mouse, a very young one, and one that was growing increasingly frightened. It wasn’t eating or drinking, it was probably looking for its Mum, and if we’d turned it out in the woods, it plainly wouldn’t have lasted five seconds. So we stuck him in a little cage with lots of sawdust and soft bedding, in the hope that we could feed him up a bit and get him stronger before releasing him.

It’s a bit of a mess, really. I don’t think he’s going to last. He’s still not eating, and by the early evening had got so cold that he’d stopped moving and we thought he was dead. A little stint on Nathan’s hand warmed him up a bit, and he got a little chirpier, but part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have been better simply to allow the cafe owner to stamp on him, or for him to die in one of the traps, or of some terrible poison. Sitting in a cage is certainly no life for him, particularly if he’s so young that he’s not yet been weaned from him mother. He seems to be simply withering away.

Twelfth night – and the decorations have gone away for another year and everything feels a bit grey and miserable again.
Twelfth night in the 17th Century was a much more important occasion. Pepys took his lute to Mr Savill the painter’s, and watched as the man made a proper hash-up of painting it. In the afternoon he went to see Sir William Pen, who was celebrating his eighteenth wedding anniversary with eighteen mince pies. Pepys returned home to find his young clerk, Will Hewer, in bed. The servants reported that he’d vomited before retiring, and was complaining of a bad head. Pepys immediately summonsed the lad, and royally told him off for being drunk, although Hewer protested that he’d been ill before drinking “a quart of sack” at The Dolphin. Hmm.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Howling gales

Wind rattled our bedroom windows throughout the night. There was a proper gale battering London. For a while I insisted on the windows remaining open. The hollow moan of a gale is always so haunting and beautiful, especially when one is warm and tucked up in bed. The curtains were billowing like a sheet on a washing line. But all good things come to an end. An enormous gust of wind frightened the life out of me just as I was drifting off to sleep, so I decided it was best all round if the window was closed again, much to Nathan's great relief.
I battled my way through the driving rain this morning to get to the cafe. On my way I noticed about four discarded umbrellas, broken and shivering miserably in various gutters and dustbins.

I worked opposite two young Mums, both of whom, I quickly deduced, were actresses. I soon realised that the definition of self-obsession is an out of work actress with a baby on her lap. The two women talked almost exclusively about motherhood; competing with one another about methods of child-rearing. They pulled all the right faces, but weren’t listening to each other, unless there was some kind of compliment floating about. There was a particularly unpleasant moment when both women started to wonder if their babies were actually the most beautiful babies on the planet. At one point they started comparing them to great actresses. The one that looked like road kill apparently resembled Elizabeth Taylor, and the one that looked like a pile of insulation foam had the eyes of Angelina Jolie, or so her mother believed. Periodically they’d break off the baby talk to discuss work, and the plays that they were auditioning for, but this conversation would immediately return to babies; “if you get the role, you’ll have to start expressing milk...” They both laughed like hyenas. I wasn’t sure what was so hysterical about expressing milk. Perhaps they were laughing at the concept of getting a job. One of them had a face like a laminated gala melon. The other looked like pork in a wig. They’d break off periodically to see if anyone in the room was admiring their baby.

I went to the gym this afternoon and overheard a rather amusing conversation in the changing room:

BLOKE ONE: (to mate) You’ve got fat. You’re fat.
BLOKE TWO: I know. It all came on over Christmas.
BLOKE ONE: (prodding his mate’s spare tyre) What? All that? What did you eat? Your mother-in-law?

BLOKE TWO: Ha ha! Funny. You saw me before Christmas. I had a six pack.
BLOKE ONE: No mate. You had a Lurpak!

350 years ago and Elizabeth Pepys wasn’t well, so her husband went alone to church. He returned to the house for lunch and started to eat a piece of fine roast beef, but didn’t want to eat it on his own. His brother, Tom, called in, to say that he’d been to visit the parents of a girl that there was talk of his marrying. Said parents could only afford a dowry of 200l per year, which Pepys felt was a paltry sum –and one that should be passed over in the hope of finding something better. He was a fine one to talk; Elizabeth came with no dowry at all. In the evening he went back to church, and was horrified to hear a psalm, with a perfectly good tune, being sung to the tune of another psalm. He described the experience as ridiculous; probably how I felt on Christmas Eve when I was expected to sing “updated” lyrics to O Come All Ye Faithful. I sang the original very loudly indeed!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Jody who?

Here’s a thing... If you find yourself feeling a little listless of an evening; if your creative juices are in need of a bit of a shake-up, take yourself for a long run in a storm! I’ve just returned from a circuit of Highgate village in lashing rain and thrashing wind. Far from being unpleasant, the experience was exhilarating. I was accompanied by dramatic music on my iPod and for much of the time I felt like an actor in an epic film. It was incredible. It didn’t matter that I was getting soaking wet; the elements were blasting the tension out of my bones!

I walked into Muswell Hill with Fiona this afternoon. We were both feeling a little gloomy after hearing the news that a good friend of our’s has lost a baby in the eighth month of its pregnancy. It’s almost impossible to know what to say to her. She must be utterly devastated. Fiona went with the baby's father to Islington Town Hall to simultaneously register the birth and the death. It just seems so unbelievably unfair; a horrifying way to start a year which should have been filled with absolute joy.
I’m glad to see that they’ve finally put some of the hideous creatures behind bars who killed Stephen Lawrence. The newspapers are filled with the aggressive, twisted faces of the two lads, and we’ve already started blithely describing them as monsters; whipped up, once again, by the media. But here's my issue; the killing of Stephen Lawrence wasn't unusual. Hate crimes happen. People regularly murder transpeople because they’re transpeople. A young Asian bride is murdered by her family because she's taken the wrong lover. We don’t waste pages and pages of column inches demonising these killers. Half the time the police simply wash their hands of the crime, or behave so shambolically that vital evidence gets sullied or lost. Yes, the killers of Stephen Lawrence should be behind bars - they're odious little toads -  but we need to get a handle on hate crime, particularly when it's legitimised by religion. Stephen Lawrence has become a buzzword. It's safe to say we hate his killers, because we know it's bad to be a racist, but hands up if you know who Jody Dobrowski is? Or Kellie Telesford? Does anyone remember the faces of their killers smeared across the tabloid press?

350 years ago, Pepys spent the morning hanging the new pictures by William Faithhorne he’d brought the previous day, and fitting a pair of pewter sconces to the bottom of his new staircase. He went to Westminster by water and met a man called Mr Chetwind, one of the clerks with whom he regularly went drinking. Chetwind had a dog, who became the centre of a scandal when another man appeared and claimed the beast was actually his. The dispute was settled when the dog was placed equidistantly between the two men, and ran to Chetwind when called. I seem to remember something similar happening to Bouncer the dog in Neighbours! Mrs Mangle won.