Monday, 30 April 2012

Overdressed

The sun shone all day for the first time in what seems an eternity. People were universally overdressed, sweating profusely into scarves and heavy winter coats on the tube this afternoon. They say it won't last, and I'm told there are already thunder storms rolling into Essex and heading our way.  Nathan and I have ended up going  to bed ridiculously late for the past three nights and getting up relatively early. The exhaustion is beginning to take its toll. I have a headache and a funny tummy. I made a start rewriting the requiem today. I'm plainly putting too much pressure on myself, but when you're writing for the Balanescu String Quartet, it's difficult not to feel a tad intimidated! My first album release has to be absolutely perfect, or at least as good as I can make it... Fiona finally handed back the keys for her London flat today and is officially no longer a Londoner, which feels more than a little strange. We toasted her departure with a cup of tea in the local greasy spoon and then waved her on her way to Brighton. This evening found me putting the Fleet Singers through their paces on the piece I've written for them. They seem to be responding well to the music and they're a terribly friendly bunch, which makes working with them a great treat.  350 years ago, Pepys relieved himself of his official Navy duties to woo and coo at his new lady friends. He took them to the mayor's office to show them the fine presents that were being assembled for the future Queen of England.  Pepys and the doctor took the women back to their lodgings where they played cards and drank until gone midnight. Pepys and the doctor shared a bed that night, gossiping about the women they'd been with, one of whom was "somewhat old and handsome, and painted and fine, and had a very handsome maid with her, which we take to be the marks of a bawd." How awful to be so ludicrously judged. 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Musical theatre brunch

We went to Carol's house today for a musical theatre-style brunch. Carmen, the pint-sized Yankie diva, made delicious American-style pancakes, which were served with bacon and eggs, and strawberries and grilled halloumi.  We watched Broadway shows on DVD, mostly the canon of Stephen Sondheim. Angela Lansbury in the 1979 production of Sweeney Todd was a particular force of nature. I've seldom seen a more extreme, yet remarkable performance.  Nathan started knitting a new pair of socks and I tried my hardest to relax, even though my mind kept flitting to the Arts Council application, trying to weigh up the need to implement two more sets of comments against my need to clear my mind to begin rewrites on the requiem first thing tomorrow.  The sun finally came out this evening, and our drive home from Catford was fairly intense with the wet roads reflecting the blinding sunlight like a giant mirror. We had pizzas for tea, which will be the last trashy food I'm going to eat for a while. Helen kept tapping my belly last night. She was right to; I'm a fat chocolate froozler!  350 years ago, and Pepys and his new doctor friend found a group of tasty young fillies to wine, dine and supply with sweet-meats late into the night. The ladies' lodgings was within the city walls, and one of them was permanently stationed next to a window to keep a watch out for the closure of the city gates. Pepys and the doctor didn't want to get trapped within the  walls all night. I actually find it quite bizarre that the gates were shut and locked in this manner. Perhaps there was a heightened state of security due to the Queen's imminent arrival. 

Covening with nature


Driving back from Thaxted tonight was a hugely unnerving experience. It’s rained really heavily all day, and the country lanes are flooded like I've never seen before. Huge walls of water were billowing up on both sides of the car as I drove through enormous puddles. Heavy rain lashed the windscreen. It was really very frightening, one of those nights when you half expect to do an emergency stop for a ghostly man riding a white horse who disappears before you’re fully aware of his presence. I’m very pleased to be back in Highgate.

We met a charming, nutty, glorious, remarkable New Yorker last night, and as true proud Londoners, ashamed of the rain, decided to give her the grand tour of our city. One of my favourite things in the world is taking a New Yorker around London for the first time. The two cities are like brothers, like no other pair of cities in the world, but you need an insider to unlock the doors which take you beyond the obvious.

After Nathan's show we bundled her into our car, drove across Tower Bridge and round Big Ben and then up through Camden to a misty, moisty, eerie Hampstead Heath, where we convened with nature until 2am. We visited mystical circles of trees, skipped through the damp grass, sang to the stars and stared down at the magical city lights from the top of Parliament Hill. It’s been a long time since I’ve allowed my inner hippy to escape, but it was a deeply enriching experience, which Cindy, our new American friend, seemed to relish as much as us.

I’ve spent the day with lovely Helen, my parents and a number of Thaxtedonians in front of a roaring open fire, eating cream teas and playing parlour games. It’s been the perfect antidote to a rainy, cold miserable April day and exceedingly merry we all were too!

This time last year, on the day of the Royal Wedding, we were in the middle of a heatwave. Now it feels like the great flood is just around the corner. Even the tarmac under the tunnels on the M25 looked like a river!

350 years ago, Pepys, still in Portsmouth, still waiting for the future Queen of England to touch down on English soil, had a lovely philosophical debate with his new surgeon friend. The conversation was obviously hugely enlightened and mutually enriching because it resulted in Pepys being invited to join the Royal Society, known in those days as the College of Virtuosos. Doctor Timothy Clarke even offered to teach Pepys anatomy, which caused more than a ripple of excitement!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Camden Hop becomes a stampede


I just got caught in a horrendous mess of tourists doing the Camden hop, which is the thing that all Northern Line people get horribly used to doing when rushing from the Charing Cross trains up the steps and down again to find the Bank ones. In my opinion, it’s best done when you have suitcase which can be used as a dangerous weapon to bat the airheads out of the way who simply want to bumble around the station with no particular mission in life. These are the same people who step off an underground train and immediately stop to work out where the station exit is. It’s one of the most dangerous things you can do in London. In London, you have to be swept along by the crowd, make quick decisions about where you want to go. It’s certainly almost criminal to walk in pairs and groups of three at a slower pace than hurrying commuters. As I rushed down the steps towards the Charing Cross branch today, I was instantly brought to a halt by a group of Japanese people who were blocking the stairwell whilst trying to work out if they were standing on the right platform. “Come on... quickly, quickly...” I said, like a school ma’am. I instantly felt ashamed at my impatience, but I had a theatre to reach.

Call me a Mommy-hater, but the word I find myself loathing more than any other at the moment (apart from "chillax") is “babyccino.” Cafe owners who use the term should be shot. It’s a tiny cup of hot foamy milk, people! If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few sprinkles of chocolate thrown in for good measure. I think we can only really call it a babyccino if we’re loading the drink up with shots of caffeine to make the kids climb the walls. Do we really need our children to grow up with another one of these ghastly middle-class urban portmanteaus? Children are not sophisticated; neither should they be. It’s a horrid word, a horrid concept, and it only exists is to fleece yummy mummies out of money they have to burn.

You can tell by the tone of this email that I’m having a somewhat frustrating day, which seems to have revolved entirely around my application to the blinkin’ Arts Council. Everyone is being incredibly helpful, and I am hugely grateful, I really am, but every time a new set of notes or suggestions come in as to how to improve my pitch, I have to spend an hour cutting sentences from the application to bring it back down to the maximum 2000 words. It’s hugely frustrating – and I can’t believe how long the process is taking. Every time I think I’m on the verge of submitting the blessed thing, a new set of notes tumbles in from somewhere else. It’s hoop after hoop after loop after loop whilst I’m simultaneously juggling an almost impossible set of availabilities in order to make sure the recordings happen with the right people in the right places and the right times... Deep breath!

I chatted to Penny on the phone earlier, and was obviously really tense. I wasn’t raising my voice or anything, but my throat now feels ragged.

I just went to see Nathan in a workshop performance of a musical about the Lost Boys from Peter Pan as grown-ups. It’s a lovely concept, and with more work there’s probably quite a nice little piece in there somewhere. Nathan was playing Hook, beautifully of course. I have no idea how old Hook is meant to be. Certainly, I would have thought, older than Nathan. Or now that we’re approaching 40, maybe not. It's such a terrifying thought. I dreamt last night that I was dying of a terminal disease. What a cheery thought. I remember feeling thoroughly miffed about the fact – and really very poorly. Writing a requiem is ever likely to bring out these thoughts, I guess!

350 years ago, and Pepys returned by coach from Southampton to a buzzing Portsmouth. More and more of London’s society figures were coming out of the woodwork, and the Queen’s anticipated lodgings had been decked out beautifully... There had been panic the day before when the palace very nearly burned down. Pepys was shown various gifts that were going to be presented to the Queen on behalf of the Navy including “a salt-sellar of silver, the walls christall, with four eagles and four greyhounds standing up at the top to bear up a dish; which indeed is one of the neatest pieces of plate that ever I saw, and the case is very pretty also.” I’m told that a salt-seller matching this description can be viewed at the Tower of London.

A merchant ship arrived in the harbour in the evening, and it caused a veritable stampede; “Lord! what running there was to the seaside to hear what news, thinking it had come from the Queen.” This day and age, the Queen’s journey would have been tracked by helicopters and her arrival time would have been predicted to the nearest second. Back then, the journey from Portugal was lengthy and governed by the winds and the tides...

Thursday, 26 April 2012

I'd rather have a bowl of Coco-pops


I went to my first meeting of the Musician’s Union Writers’ Committee today. It was a very peculiar experience, which I enjoyed thoroughly. The thing about composers is that we're all generally nuts. We spend way too long in our own heads and not enough time making small talk. 

As we waited for the meeting to begin, and a surge of latecomers to arrive, we sat in respectful silence, listening to the ticking of the radiators, the tapping of a door which hadn’t been closed properly, the humming of a neon ceiling light, the traffic rattling past outside. It was all just a little bit strange.

The meeting was chaired by a lovely chap called Peter, assisted by Naomi who's on the permanent MU staff. We talked about lots of things and in such detail that we found ourselves running out of time.
I immediately took to the woman sitting opposite me. She reminded me of my friend Glyn. I subsequently discovered she’d been in the original cast of Hair, had sung backing vocals for “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and was the voice that sang “I’d rather have a bowl of Coco Pops!” Frankly, with that trilogy of bizarrely wonderful accolades on your CV, you’d have to consider yourself to have had a life well spent.

One of the points on the agenda was my court case last year, and we had a long chat about it in an attempt to work out if we, as writers, could learn anything from the experience. Everyone in the room seemed genuinely horrified by the story and I felt the waves of shock, anger, terror and sympathy coming at me in equal measure. We agreed that you need to tread very carefully with inexperienced commissioners, and that if your gut tells you you're dealing with a nut-job, it's best to walk away, however much you need the money. Above all, it’s worth getting legal advice on all contracts, which is a service the MU provides. At the end of the day, we all agreed it was simply bad luck; the wrong courtroom, the wrong choir mistress, the wrong judge, the wrong commission. I could go through a million lives and never encounter that combination again.

The meeting got a bit heated towards the end as the luddites clashed with techno-geeks. I was astonished to find that some composers still only use a pencil and manuscript paper when they write. I suppose it’s not really that long in the scheme of things since I made the switch to computers, but it feels like a different world; those long nights spent writing parts by hand, the terror of realising the number of bars didn't match the score, the liberal use of tip-ex and sellotape to cover up the ghastly mistakes, one scuff of a ruler and an entire page was ruined. Thank God for music writing software. Someone said he'd recently handed out a set of hand-written parts to a university orchestra and the students had never seen the like!

We understand that rather strange things have been happening on the Bakerloo Line today. I’ve heard all sorts of bizarre and contradictory announcements about strange objects blocking tunnels, possible crashes, and parts of tunnels collapsing. The pub we went to after the meeting was positively buzzing. I actually suspect that there’s been something of a news blackout because the level of disruption is high and the level of reporting is low...

350 years ago, Pepys went on a day trip to Southampton, where he witnessed a “little church-yard, where the graves are accustomed to be all sowed with sage.” This would appear to be a Welsh tradition, but if rosemary is for remembrance, what is sage?

Pepys was impressed by Southampton; “the towne is one most gallant street” he wrote, “and is walled round with stone. Many old walls of religious houses, and the key [quay, one assumes] well worth seeing.” He was given sturgeon for lunch, which was so rare in those days that Pepys claimed it was the first that had been caught in those parts for 20 years. The chef also brought out some caviar, which Pepys tried to order but was told it hadn’t been salted, "nor had the seeds of the roe been broken but were all in berries...” I just sicked up a bit in my mouth. Piles anyone?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

God save the what?


I was roused from my slumber this morning by the ghastly sound of my iPhone, like some kind of electronic cascading waterfall. I lay there for a few seconds assuming it was simply my alarm going off, but as I reached over to throw it at a wall, I realised there was a number flashing up on the screen... BBC York! Shit! I’d agreed at some point yesterday to do a telephone interview with them about our National Anthem on their breakfast radio show. I’d set myself a reminder, but plainly slept through it.

You have about three minutes from the time they call you, to the time you’re on air. Three minutes to wake yourself up, to remember your name, to drink a gallon of water to stop your mouth feeling like foam, and to work out what on earth you’re going to say, live on air, about a topic about which you know very little. And so I ran around with the phone glued to my ear, knowing in any second I’d be thrown into the lion’s den, and still not sure I knew my own name...

As it happened, horror of horrors, I was peeing when they threw me to the studio. There’s usually some kind of long intro and maybe a snippet of music related to the subject before they say “and I’m joined now by the composer of A Symphony for Yorkshire...” But this was a morning wee, and it was lasting forever, and I couldn’t make it stop. Simultaneously, the phone started beeping in my ear to inform me that the battery was low. I didn’t know if our landline even had reception in our bathroom...

So, as I started talking to the Nation, or at least to Yorkshire, I was still peeing. The sound of urine splashing into the pan was almost deafening. I was mortified.

The question they were asking was whether we should have an English national anthem. We tend to use God Save the Queen for both British and English occasions, when the Welsh have the beautiful Land of My Fathers and the Scots have the theme from Braveheart, or whatever it is they use when they’re getting all anti-union. The answer is, very clearly, yes, we should have an English national anthem, but surely, we already do? It’s called Jerusalem, which I happen to think is one of the greatest melodies ever written. I don’t care that the lyrics are dark. They’re by Blake, for God’s sake!

I’m not going to lie. I’m ashamed of God Save The Queen. It’s not about England – it’s about God and the Queen, which for a republican atheist is a bit like asking a patriotic Christian to sing “Jesus was a Fag. Bless the Devil.” More importantly, it’s a rubbish melody. A really rubbish melody. I said on air that I always refuse to stand up for it, more on musical grounds than because I’m an atheist, although apparently a series of texts immediately came in to the radio station saying; “send the bastard to the tower!” Happily, if that’s the biggest crime you can commit...

I actually think it’s the reason English people don’t sing as well as the Welsh. The Welsh National anthem is massively rangy. If you’re singing that every day in school, or every time you go to a rugby match, you’re being forced to stretch your vocal chords. If you’re Welsh, more often than not, you are hugely proud of the fact, and there’s no better way to demonstrate this, than by singing the National anthem... in tune. It even has a decent set of words all about soldiers and poets. If your National anthem is a dirge like ours, which barely covers a major sixth, no one needs to try very hard to sing it properly. No one wants to sing it properly. It doesn’t surge. It limps. I reckon it’s the reason why so few English people make the octave leap when they’re singing Happy Birthday to You! The American anthem covers an octave and a half, twice as many notes as ours... ditto with the French one.

The presenter asked if I’d like to write an English national anthem, and I spluttered a bit – which is what always happens when someone asks you a curve-ball question live on air. I suddenly forgot the difference between assuming and presuming – and then my cloudy head couldn’t remember how either of the verbs declined, so I simply said; “I think we’ve already got an alternative. Jerusalem...” Actually I should have said that only the people can chose a national anthem and it’s a process which happens over the course of time. I’m sure plenty of patriotic songs have been commissioned and written over the years. My Grannie’s cousin, Leonard Carrington, for example, wrote a song called “Ring Out the Bells for Jubilee” but that didn’t exactly catch on! Commissioning a composer to write a national anthem is pointless. The one thing I’ll say about the English is that if you tell us we’ll going to like something, we invariably won’t!

Pepys spent the day 350 years ago milling about in Portsmouth. No one seemed to have any idea when the future Queen of England was due to arrive in the city. Pepys bunked down with Dr Timothy Clarke once again. In those days, it was considered absolutely normal for two men to share a bed. In fact, it was quite a sociable thing to do, Pepys describing himself as “much pleased with his company.” This particular diary entry ends with a chilling line:
I was much troubled in my eyes, by reason of the healths I have this day been forced to drink.

Pepys blamed the alcohol, but something was wrong. Over the next few years, his eyesight would deteriorate to the extent that he was no longer able to write his diary. He genuinely thought he was going blind, and was incredibly distressed by the situation. I was lucky enough to see (and hold) Pepys’ diaries a couple of years ago, and was particularly upset to notice that the shorthand he wrote in got larger and larger and more and more messy as he reached the point at which he was forced to give up writing.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Shaky


I am exhausted. I’ve been working all day; sitting at the same computer, on a variety of chairs in my flat. I feel shaky and weird.

I’ve spent the day reapplying to the Arts Council, based on a frighteningly detailed set of notes that someone from within the organisation very kindly sent to me. There is so much to do and at the back of my mind I’m wondering a) how I can be expected to think like a businessman and b) if I’ll end up back in the same place after jumping through a million new hoops. I have to confess, when faced with the idea of creating a “project delivery plan” and a detailed document outlining how I’m going to evaluate the success of my project, I just wanted to burst into tears. I have so many other things to think about, specifically, the hugely complicated jigsaw which I’m facing just to make sure that players and singers turn up on days when they’re free in venues which are suitable and affordable. On top of this, I have to do a major re-write of the music...

I’ve only eaten a bowl of soup all day. I’m hungry, and I’m worried about Nathan who had to go to A and E today with a sore ear generated by the syringing he had done on Sunday. It’s 11pm. I shouldn’t only now be stopping work. I want to do what normal people do, and have time to go to the gym, and tidy the house, and cook lovely meals, and watch The Voice on iplayer.

Thursday 24th April, 1662, and Pepys spent the day milling around Portsmouth, waiting for news of the Queen’s arrival. He was surrounded by “much London company” although not as many society figures as he’d expected.

Monday, 23 April 2012

A discerning flea

I woke up this morning with what can only be described as a cake over! I guess arriving back from Wales at 3am and getting up less than six hours later didn't help matters, but I spent the morning feeling rough as old boots. Eating rich food late at night is always a mistake with me, and I suspect I'll be feeling even worse tomorrow, having just taken Fiona out to dinner to mark her last night in London. I can feel the unsaturated fats charging through my veins.

We have just dropped Fiona off in King's Cross. She's off to play some gigs with a certain rock band and the tour bus was waiting just behind St Pancras Station to pick her up. She invited us on board to had a quick look inside. I have seldom seen such a fancy tour bus! In all honesty I've actually NEVER seen a tour bus, but I can't imagine they all have baths inside. I got terribly excited on Fiona's behalf, especially when I learned that the bus had actually been designed for Dolly Parton!

They're gentrifying that crazy wasteland behind St Pancras Station, around the canal where the clubs used to be in those darkened Victorian warehouses. I still have no idea what the area is going to become, but, randomly, by the side of the road they've built a giant birdcage with neon lights of hundreds of different colours instead of bars. It's such an odd thing to find by the side of a desolate road in what is essentially a building site covered in Japanese knot weed. We drove past wondering what it was and who put it there, but on the way back realised that there was a swing inside. A young woman was having a whale of a time, within the neon cage, swinging for England like a dear little stoned budgie on a perch. Sometimes I love the eccentricity of London.

350 years ago, and Pepys' journey continued south to Portsmouth via Petersfield and Havant, avoiding the ancient forest of Bere. They employed a man with local knowledge to guide them around the edge of said forest, but he plainly had no idea what he was doing and took them further and further out of their way.

They reached Portsmouth in the evening and Pepys shared a bed with one Doctor Timothy Clarke. The experience seems to have been mirth-filled, particularly in the morning when they discovered that the surgeon had been rather royally munched on by fleas. Oh how they laughed! The joke became that, because he was older and more sophisticated than Pepys, his refined blood had attracted the little critters. You obviously get a more discerning type of flea in Portsmouth!

Limping to Wales and back

We've been in Shropshire and deepest, darkest North Wales this evening. 

It took what seemed an eternity to get out of London. First, Nathan, who's been deaf as a post for the last week, was forced to pay a visit to the Soho walk-in clinic to have his ears syringed. I'm not sure "walk-in" best describes the service he received. I suppose he walked-in, but it was many hours before he was able  to walk out again. That said, it's fairly impressive that any surgery in this country could exist on a Sunday, and Nathan can now hear again, so I shouldn't complain.

After limping out of the clinic, we got stuck in London Marathon traffic. The situation was compounded roadworks. They always choose weekends to dig up every last stretch of road in the capital, whilst simultaneously taking every last tube train out of service. The roads were therefore gridlocked and it took us over an hour to get to the m40.

You drive out of London, and every spare dot matrix sign on the motorway urges drivers to "plan journeys carefully during the Olympics to avoid being late." Sadly, with a broken infrastructure, no amount of planning will ever be enough.

I worked in the car on the way up. Although I've now finished writing the Fleet Singers composition there's a mountain of work which needs to be done in terms of formatting the scores and all the parts. 

The journey was made rather magical by the schizophrenic nature of the weather, which gave us a little taste of pretty much everything it could muster up. The clouds billowed in whites, yellows, browns, greys and blacks whilst the watery sun lit up rape fields and early budding lime green trees to create a unique patchwork of primary colours which, randomly, was entirely devoid of any shade of red or orange. 

We crossed the border into Wales at about 7pm, and there was a fabulous pasta bolognese waiting for us. Nathan's sister caters so well for those of a vegetarian persuasion.  

It was fabulous to see the family en masse. Nathan's nephew, who is just 13, now towers above me, begging the question, what is in the water in that corner of North Wales that wasn't there when my short-arsed Welsh relatives were growing up? Nathan's sister Sam lives within spitting distance of the village my Nana was from.

I came away from Sam's house with a pink painted thumb nail. Is it just me, or is the smell of nail varnish not one of life's great temptations? Petrol, creosote, Tarmac, nail varnish, marker pens, glue. Tell me I'm wrong! 

We went home via Nathan's Mum and Ron's house and have left the house laden with piles of cake which we're determined to polish off on the way home.

A funny thing happened when Celia brought out the Dulux charts and asked which of the 100 or so colours she should paint the accent wall in her kitchen. Nathan and I simultaneously pointed at the very same shade of burgundy. I dunno, you spend ten years together, and the signs of morphing begin. My friend Ellie laughs exactly the same way as her husband Allan. I swear some couples start to look the same, to the extent that when they have children, it becomes impossible to tell which of the couple has provided the child with each of its features. By the time Nathan and I reach our 50th anniversary, I fully expect us to be indistinguishable. 

350 years ago, Pepys started his journey to Portsmouth, with a less-than fond goodbye from his wife, Elizabeth, who was seriously miffed not to be invited to join the official Navy party. 

They stopped for buttered eggs in Lambeth, which sounds like quite a pleasant 17th Century meal. Their coach got as far as Guildford, where they rested for the night in a guest house Pepys had stayed in during the previous year. They picked asparagus for their supper, which Pepys, unsurprisingly, described as the "best he'd ever tasted", apart from the asparagus he'd had in the same guest house the previous year. 

The talk in the coach to Guildford was saucy to say the least, so much that the first edition of Pepys' Diary to be published (in the 19th Century) censored a large passage of text, which was only reinstated towards the end of the 20th Century. 

I'm gonna quote it in full, cus it makes me laugh!

He, among [other] good Storys, telling us a story of the monkey that got hold of the young lady’s cunt as she went to stool to shit, and run from under her coats and got upon the table, which was ready laid for supper.

I love a good four-letter word!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The M23

I seem to spend most of my life travelling on the M23 between London and Brighton. There's a beautiful light in the sky, the sun is slowly setting and the clouds have turned a strange milky orange colour.

We've been to Lewes today, helping Meriel to move. Meriel's house cuts into the side of a hill, and there is amazing potential behind it to create a rather magical tiered garden. From the top of the hill, you can see from miles across Lewes, and I've been encouraging her all day today, to create a little terrace up there, where she can sit with a glass of wine of an evening. 

New beginnings are always both daunting and exciting, and Nathan and I both wish her all the very best for the next chapter of her life.

My task today, was to clean Meriel's oven, which had been in her garage for the last year. It's amazing how much damage a garage can do to an oven, but it's astonishing how quickly you can reverse that damage with a scouring pad and a few bottles of heavy-duty cleaning materials. Meriel tends to favour touchy-feely-greenie-squirting things which don't seem to touch the sides when it comes to removing ground-in grease. I went out and bought some hard-core Cillit Bang, and told her that I wouldn't be satisfied until I knew that at least 30,000 fish had been killed by the byproducts of my cleaning frenzy. I think it melted the oven on first squirt, but sometimes there's little point in being green! 

We were hoping that we might bump into Fiona whilst we were down in East Sussex, but randomly, she's back in London. 

April 21st, 1662, and London was buzzing with the news that the future Queen of England had arrived at Portsmouth. Bells were ringing in several of the churches, and Pepys was running around like a mad thing, trying to put final touches to his plans to go down to Portsmouth to greet her. He finally confessed to Elizabeth that he had wanted her to go to Brampton, so that he could get her out of the way in order to make the journey down to the south coast. Elizabeth was having none of it, and refused point-blank to go.

The Royal court was understandably all aflutter, and the King's various mistresses were all falling out with one another.

Something was in the air...

Friday, 20 April 2012

I'm loving it!

Philippa and I are in a dreadful car park, somewhere near Woolwich. We've just eaten at a drive through Macdonalds. It's the first time I've ever been to one, and it felt incredibly surreal, like we'd been transported to a mid-Western state in the mid 1970s. 

"It's in this Macdonalds drive through that you see some of the faces of British misery," says Philippa. And she's right. This place, sandwiched between a Staples and an Argos, is one of the saddest places I've ever visited! 

A man's just walked past with "I'm loving it" written on the back of his hi-viz jacket. "I wonder if he is?" mused Philippa...

We've just been to a circus cabaret at Moira and Alex' hanger. Lots of people gyrating, contorting, flexing and hanging off things at improbable angles by their ankles. Brilliant stuff!

This morning at the cafe I saw a very sad thing. A little lost lady appeared at the door and asked the cafe owner where she was and where she was going. He suggested she might like to go to Highgate Village, and she liked that idea. "Just turn left outside the front door" he said, "and keep walking up the hill." She thanked him profusely, and off she went. Two minutes later she was back. "I can't remember where I'm going," she said. We gave her the directions to Highgate Village again. Two minutes later she was back for a third time. Apparently it happens all the time. She's in a home around the corner and wears a little bracelet to tell people where to send her when she gets lost. It made me feel very sad indeed. Losing my mind, losing track of reality is my biggest fear of all. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

An old beaver

I was in the cafe by about 10am this morning writing and formatting music for the Fleet Singers. I’m getting tantalisingly close to finishing the commission now and I have to say, I can’t wait. It’s been a frighteningly large amount of work. I’ve actually booked myself in for a massage tomorrow afternoon to celebrate (I hope) finishing the piece. I’m going to work like a manic in the morning to make sure this happens.

I went to the screening of Matt’s latest film at The Hospital this evening. It’s one of those swanky private members clubs where all the rooms are themed and preposterously decorated. The film, which is called Small Apartments, was great. Very art-house, very thought-provoking, very moving in places, and Matt is extraordinary in the lead. Apparently there was some kind of issue with the sync on the projector, which I’m almost ashamed to admit I didn’t notice.

It was fabulous to see a load of the old gang there, obviously Matt, but also Alex and Nick and Jenny and Jo and Philip, who, slightly worryingly, was complaining about losing rather a lot of weight. He says he’s had lots of tests, all of which have come back negative. Weirdly enough, I thought he looked really well.

We stopped for chips afterwards at the Rock and Sole Place on Endell Street, which does the very best chips in London. They're great big fat things; fatter than chips you’ll see anywhere else in the world, and strangely enough, they're even vegan friendly. There’s a fact for you!

350 years ago, Pepys stood outside a draper’s shop in Aldgate to watch John Barkstead, John Okey and Miles Corbet being carted off to the Tyburn tree, where they were due to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The three men were official regicides of Charles I, and, according to Pepys, looked rather cheerful as they passed by. He went on to write that he heard they’d continued defending what they’d done to the King to the very last, which he thought strange for some reason.
In the evening Sir William Batten presented Pepys with a hat made of beaver fur, which Pepys was very pleased with. Comically, he chose to remember this particular story with the following words:
In the evening, did get a beaver, an old one, but a very good one.
The old beavers are always the best!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A walk in the park

I went running tonight for the first time in an age. I hauled my fat arse up the hill into the village and then nearly passed out, wondering if it was lack of fitness or lung cancer which was causing the terrible pain in my chest. I am determined to find an answer to the question of my lack of life/ work balance. No commission is good enough to turn me into an obese recluse. It’s time to get a handle on things...

I spent the rest of the day working my way through the Fleet Singers commission, which is now within a gnat’s whisker of being complete. Do gnats have whiskers? All that remains is a five-minute musical sequence about the 1999 eclipse.  Under normal circumstances, five minutes would feel like a considerable amount of material, but when you’ve already written more than 50 minutes of through-composed music, it becomes something of a walk in the park, or more specifically, a walk in a very dark park where the birds have temporarily stopped singing and the night has rushed in from the East at 100 miles per hour. I thought I might try and base the music on birdsong after my rather existential experience on Hampstead Heath last week when the dusk chorus faded to nothing as night fell.

The end of an era has arrived in our house and it feels very strange. Every morning, whilst I’m eating my Shreddies, I like to watch five minutes of breakfast television. We have a little television on the table in the kitchen. At lunchtime I tend to switch it on again, whilst I’m working, to keep me company and stop the deafening silence which engulfs me when I’m composing. I switched it on this morning but television, it seems, is no more; at least not the type of television that you can watch through an aerial. Yeah, yeah, I know they’ve been warning us about the digital switchover for years, but when nothing disappeared on April 4th, I sort of assumed the signal would simply get weaker and weaker, and, at some stage, be replaced by eternal snow storms which would, periodically, reveal the ghostly shadow of an alien being, and create a whole new genre of science fiction. Sadly, this is not the case. Switch the telly on in the kitchen, and it’s just a black screen. No sound. No spooky outline. Nothingness. Oblivion. And when I consider that my earliest childhood memory was watching ABBA performing Dancing Queen on Top of the Pops, today was, most definitely, what I would describe as the end of an era.

350 years ago, Pepys sent his servant boy, the deliciously named Wayneman Birch, down into the cellar to collect some beer. Don’t go down into the cellar, Wayneman! It’s a rouse! Your master is going to follow you with a cane and beat the crap out of you for being a lazy bastard! Poor Wayneman... His sister, Jane, recently back in service in the house, heard the commotion and rushed to the scene, begging Pepys to be lenient on the boy. Pepys relented, and afterwards tried to put a spin on it, declaring to his beloved Jane, who was distraught, that he only beat the boy out of love for him and the need to correct his faults for his own good. Apparently this seemed to do the trick. Jane was easily appeased.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Still on the up!

I’m composing faster than ever before. In fact, I’m actually composing slightly faster than I’m physically able to write at the moment, frustrated by the speed of my music writing software. For the first time in my life, I’m beginning to think the story of Mozart writing a bar of music as he bounced a ball around a snooker table is not that far-fetched; other than that I don’t believe they had snooker in 18th Century Austria. Today, I fully scored a 2 minute section of music in under an hour. Not quite Mozart, but a machine by my slow standards. I've always considered myself to be something of a plodder; my creativity has hitherto always been the product of incredibly hard work rather than natural talent. The rush of creativity and adrenaline has come because I’m aware that my deadline for the Fleet Singers composition is literally just around the corner. I don't want to overrun because May is all about the London Requiem.

At about 4pm, today, just as I reached a sort of unstoppable Zen-like state, Nathan decided that he needed to go into Islington to visit Loop, the wool shop. It was painfully obvious that I needed to go with him to clear my head and to stop the smell of burning brain matter that was beginning to seep from my ears.

We met Fiona, who’s in London for a few days, at the end of Camden Passage. It was raining horribly – and then the sun came out again. In fact, this entire month has had rather typical April weather for the first time in years. You used to be able to set your watch by April showers.

Nathan popped into a pub on the way to the wool shop to go to the loo, and came out laughing hysterically at some of the inventive graffiti which he’d found written on the walls there. Two of the comments were particularly amusing;

“Your Mum’s a dinner lady” and “Alex is a Jesuit.” Why use puerile four-letter words when you can insult someone so humorously?

350 years ago, Pepys went to visit Mr Hollier, the surgeon, to have some blood let. Fortunately, for those with a squeamish disposition, Mr Hollier was out. I don’t even want to think about blood-letting practises in 17th Century London. I can’t think it was the most sensible thing to do.

In the evening, news came that the Duke Of York had permitted the owners of the houses in the Navy Office quarter to raise their buildings by an extra floor. Pepys was still on his way up!

Monday, 16 April 2012

Why no community centres?

We watched Britain’s Got Talent last night and I was very sad to see a street dancing troupe from Stratford East who said they weren’t interested in the £500,000 prize money; all they wanted was a community centre. It’s happening across the country now. Groups of working class people are having the focus ripped out of their communities by governments and councils who see these places as nothing but bottomless pits which they’re forced to throw money into. Councils and governments don’t understand the point of community centres. Why would they? Middle class people don’t need community centres. They have lovely big houses where they can sit and do reading clubs. If they want exercise, they pay to go to an expensive gym. If they want culture, they go to the theatre. If they want R and R, there’s a lovely little pub in their middle class village, or a beautiful cafe in a warehouse conversion in their "up and coming" district, where they can sit at their lap tops with a hopelessly expensive cup of coffee, or a real ale, pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Working class communities are repeatedly being slapped across the face because their tendency, and in fact upbringing, is simply to “make do” and put up with what’s thrown at them without complaining. Now that Labour is no longer a left wing party, I begin to see very clearly why whole communities might turn to UKIP and the National Front. If no one else is listening...

My Hattersley films were released on You Tube today, and within 15 minutes, I was contacted by the person who is standing for UKIP in the Hattersley constituency. He requested more information about the problem at the Hattersley community centre and  asked if there was anything he could do to help. No word, of course, from the Labour MP, no word from the Lib Dem candidate or indeed the Tory.  So I told the UKIP man what the problem was in Hattersley. I told him that, three months before they moved into their new privately-owned community centre, they still didn’t know how much it was going to cost them to do classes there, and were beginning to find out that many of the groups they run at the old centre, like the bowlers, wouldn’t be welcome in the new one. I told him that the woman who had run the community centre for 17 years had been told she wasn't allowed to work at the new one because she wasn't "long term unemployed" and that the council had offered her 20 hours a week cleaning instead as a gesture of good will. I was impressed that he was listening. I then had to take stock, and found myself writing; “I loathe the politics of UKIP, but if you’re in the mood to do some good, instead of whipping up hatred and banging on about Europe in an offensively xenophobic way, then I say, go for it. Show you care!” And you know what? If he manages to sort the problem, he deserves to be elected, because the mainstream parties as sure as hell don’t care. And here's the biggest problem of all. There are a hell of a lot of working class people in this country, many of whom feel disenfranchised at the moment, and it only takes one right wing politician with all the answers to take advantage of this situation. Step forward please, Mr Hitler.
But politics aside, for those of you who are interested in my films, here's the link. Enjoy. I do hope you enjoy!

Pepys took physique 350 years ago, which apparently “wrought all the morning well.” I've no idea what that means, and I’m still not sure whether taking physique refers to taking medicine, or simply taking a “sicky” off work. Every time Pepys uses the term, my opinion changes on the subject.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Craft and cake coven

It was craft and cake today in Catford. Lots of knitting, lots of chatter, lots of beautiful cakes and scones and a fabulous feeling of camaraderie. Nathan is buzzing after too much tea and can't stop talking. He's talking about knitting socks, an area in which he's recently become an expert. He's even started designing his own patterns. Other members of the craft and cake coven think he may have missed a vocation in life!

The coven


There's little else to say. I've taken a full weekend off and it's rather wonderful. I can get cracking with work tomorrow feeling refreshed and upbeat. I may even set my alarm to go off an hour earlier than normal. I should try to do some exercise as well. I'm fat like Pootle the Flump.

350 years ago, and Pepys' Diary entry makes it clear that his decision to send his wife to Huntingdonshire was not about curing her ague with a dose of fresh country air, but about curing the ague of their servant girl, Sarah. It's unsurprising that Elizabeth was slightly reticent about going, and probably more than a little suspicious. Still, she was wisely using the fact that her husband was keen to get shot of her for a few weeks by insisting that he indulge her in a bit of retail therapy.

On this particular date in 1662, she took Pepys to look at "some new-fashion pettycoats of sarcenett, with a black broad lace printed round the bottom and before." Pepys added that that clothes were "very handsome" and that his wife "had a mind to buy one of them." He obviously put his foot down, because the deliciously detailed description ends with his stating that they decided not to buy one. A bit of a non-anecdote. Sarcenet, for fabric freaks, is, or was, I'm told, a fabric similar to suit-lining material. All a bit Anne Summers, then!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Let them have their say

I’m still struggling to understand the culture of drinking. I shared a tube carriage with a group of lads this morning who were discussing what they were going to do in London during the day. Their plans were very simple; "we'll get to Oxford Circus, find a boozer, and let the fun begin..." How about getting to Oxford Circus and looking for a nice coffee house where they can have a lovely cup of tea to wake themselves up and a little slice of something extra? Why do people need to have alcohol surging through their veins simply to facilitate enjoyment?

Alcohol, in my view, is far more dangerous than most class A drugs and yet it seems to be so acceptable to want to get so blotto that it becomes impossible to function. Many many more people die as a result of drinking too much alcohol than they do from drugs, yet you'd be arrested if you sat on a tube heading towards central London, saying "right, we're gonna go to Oxford Circus, find a dealer and get off our tits on Charlie!"

I think we need to grow up a bit on the subject; either by making drugs legal and regulated, so the government can tax the hell out of them, or by acknowledging that alcohol and tobacco are just as dangerous and ban them too! I don't ask for much from the world, but I do appreciate a little bit of consistency.

On a vaguely related point, I learned yesterday that a set of Christian posters have been banned by TfL because they advertise people who can "cure" someone of being gay. I feel slightly uncomfortable that the posters have been banned, because I believe very much in freedom of speech. If Transport for London can display enlightened posters saying, "I'm gay, get over it", then we have to allow the unenlightened Christians to have their say...

What they offer is, of course, utterly hideous, laughable, and probably should be made illegal, but “curing” was a practice which has always been rather underground; the terrain of seedy, disreputable born again Christian establishments. If there's a public face all of a sudden, then the people who practice "curing" have to stand up to be counted and have their practices opened up to scrutiny. How do you cure someone of being gay? In truth, I suspect, by using the same warped techniques that someone who abuses a child might use to make his victim think they wanted it all along. You take someone who's confused or vulnerable, you tell them that you can help, that you're their friend, and then you get them to do something terrible by threatening them with hell. Bring these bastards out in the open and make them "cure" people on telly. It's only then we'll see just how twisted they are and allow them to stab themselves in their own backs. I think many people would be surprised to discover how prevalent this kind of nonsense is. Until then, however, they have the right to freedom of speech, because what they're doing is sadly still legal.

I went to the RAF museum in Colindale today with Raily, Ian, little Jeany and my godson, Wil. It’s a great little museum and I don’t really like aeroplanes. It’s obviously suffering from lack of funding. Many of the exhibits are broken and I suppose it feels just a little bit unloved. It’s in a very curious part of town as well. As I walked from the tube station, I was aware of very sad energy in the streets. I don’t know how else to put it, but it was like the houses I was walking through had been built on ground which shouldn’t have been touched by development.

The kids were on great form. I love spending time with them because they take nothing for granted. Everything is enjoyable for them. They’re enthusiastic and never moan or ask for something more than once. Wil walked away from the museum shop with nothing but a notepad and a pencil, but was thrilled to have it.

Monday 14th April, 1662, and Pepys had a very long lie-in. He chatted to his wife, who had been under the weather for some time, and encouraged her to go to the family home in Huntingdonshire the following week to take some country air to cure her “ague.” She didn’t seem too keen on the idea, and Pepys worried that she might think there was some agenda in his wanting her to go. There was. He wanted to go to Portsmouth to greet the new queen, but quite why he didn’t want his wife joining him, I’ve no idea!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Farewell

This morning Nathan and I went to help Fiona load most of the rest of her London possessions into a white van. It wasn’t exactly a moment I’ve been looking forward to, and as she disappeared up the Archway Road, I got so upset that Nathan had to buy me a hot chocolate!

For the first time in my life I’m wondering how much future there is in London. It would, of course, be impossible for Nathan to move right now – if ever – but I’m painfully aware of the sheer number of my friends who are upping sticks and moving away. London is expensive, and it can have a very negative effect on the people who live here. We cram ourselves into tubes and buses and bars and concrete buildings. We have no interest in the well-being of anyone other than our very closest friends. We have no concept of the changing of seasons, or, in fact, anything outside the metropolis. I think people outside London have more time to care.

Anyway, we can’t move right now. We have an abnormally beautiful and inexpensive flat in a wonderful part of town, and, unlike most Londoners, we are surrounded by green spaces.

In an attempt to reclaim my rural roots, I took myself to the Heath this evening, and walked around as the sun set, and the April showers started to take hold. I was almost deafened by the sound of birds singing. I had no idea the dusk chorus was such a phenomenon at this time of year on the Heath. I spent many happy minutes losing myself in the sonic world which was being presented to me; trying to pick out the individual tweets. What I found particularly moving was the way that the sounds got quieter and quieter as the light faded and the birds fell asleep. By the time darkness had truly descended, there was nothing but the sound of silence, and the odd hoot from an owl. I got extremely wet, but I didn’t really care. I was enjoying the smell of rain too much.

I delivered the York composition today, which felt like a massive achievement, and quite an enormous weight off my mind. It took many hours to format all the scores so that choirs and individual singers in the city can download everything they need when they need it, but it’s done and I can now focus on other projects. I celebrated by sending a begging letter to someone I know up in the village. I promise to have no pride whatsoever until the London Requiem is fully funded. I will beg, borrow, flirt, scream, go naked and lie until I am holding a copy of the CD in front of me.

Pepys went on a tour of churches 350 years ago, starting with St Paul’s and then heading to the Temple, where a young lad, who’d fallen asleep during the sermon, fell off an incredibly high chair and almost broke his neck.
The talk of the town was of the arrival of the future Queen of England, who was on her way from Portugal, and due to dock in Portsmouth within the week. People were intrigued by what would happen to the King’s principal lover, Lady Castlemayne, when the Queen arrived. She’d become incredibly influential within the court and was building up both enemies and very loyal fans. Pepys was in the latter camp. He adored the woman and thought she epitomised glamour and the new England.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Studio madness

Well, here I am at Sonica recording studios in deepest, darkest, scariest Clapham. It’s 10.30pm. I should have finished 5 hours ago, and yet we’re still at it; trying to piece together a demo of the two pieces of music I’ve written for Ebor Vox, which can also be used as a learning tool for the hundreds of performers who are hopefully going to sing it. The demo needs to be of a very high standard and because the first track splits into 9 separate choirs, and then six different “break out” groups, the process of recording and putting all of the individual lines together is like doing the world’s most terrible three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. I am twitching like an addict. I’ve had 8 cups of tea today on a completely empty stomach. We’ve missed lunch and our evening meal. All Nathan and I have had to eat today is a bowl of cornflakes and 10 chocolate half-covered biscuits. Paul, the studio engineer is a genuine God. I’ve never seen anyone working so hard. He is juggling something like 200 individual vocal tracks.

Four of us have recorded every sodding vocal line in the piece. Line after line... going slightly mad... Michelle, Abbie, Nathan and me. All were remarkable. It was Michelle’s first experience of recording in a studio and she did a sterling job. It’s such an unbelievably frightening experience to stand in a carpet-lined booth with only a pair of headphones linking you to the outside world. I was literally chucking bits of music at them. Here a snippet of Latin from the York Charter. Look at it. Sing it. Move on. This rhyming couplet was written by a 10 year-old girl from Bootham. Got it? Good. Sing it please... The big anthem, with lyrics by the lovely Gary was relatively easy to record, and it sounds fabulous. The music seems to leap off the page and I can’t wait to hear it performed by a mass choir. The complicated stuff is the music I’ve written for people to march through the streets of York singing. It’s highly repetitious, but at one stage it splits into 9 counter melodies... That’s a counter melody for every chocolate-covered digestive biscuit I’ve eaten today, and one for every grey hair that today has made me sprout. I’m now buzzing on tea, but fear an almighty crash is just around the corner. I have a slight head ache. I’m going slightly insane. Need food. Need pizza. Should I stop drinking tea? Thank God for Nathan who’s been with me all day.

Still, after a day like this, you leave the studio with a fabulous sense of achievement, knowing you’ve done a great day’s work. I remember the first time I had my music recorded in a studio. We were somewhere in Wimbledon, working on the musical I’d written with Arnold Wesker. In those days everything was recorded on tape. It was so exciting, but utterly draining. I’d sat up the entire night before the session writing the parts by hand. It was summer time, and I worked all night with the sitting room window open. Dawn broke, and I remember hearing the sounds of a hundred alarm clocks going off in various windows across the city. At the end of the long studio day, when we started to mix the piece, the studio engineer was forced to send me away because I was panicking and probably chewing my face off, high on caffeine and adrenaline. “Come back in an hour” he said. “If you don’t like what I’ve done, you can sit with me for the rest of the mix.” I came back an hour later, and burst into excited tears. That’s when we all went for a Spanish meal; Arnold, Julie Clare and various musicians who’d recorded with us including Fiona. On the way back to Tufnell Park, Fiona and I were so knackered that we ended up in an underground-workers-only cafe at Waterloo station. Neither of us have any idea how we got there and we’ve never been able to find it again.

350 years ago, Pepys and Sir William Batten had a terrible falling out in the office. Pepys described his colleague as “unreasonable” and the sparks began to fly. A sense of unease was growing between Pepys and Batten and by the time Pepys stopped writing his diary, he’d have called his adversary many things more than simply unreasonable.  

Datytime hell

Some days seem to last forever. I have seldom sat down at the start of a day and written a longer list of things I needed to achieve, and, as a result, have not stopped working from 9am this morning until gone 11pm. In a minute I'll head to the kitchen, find the list and go on a ticking frenzy to see how much I've achieved. I suspect there'll be something important that I've forgotten to do and my weary head won't be able to hit the pillow for another 2 hours. I’ve certainly forgotten to eat tea. Sometimes when I work this hard, I forget to look after myself. But for a brief sojourn to the shops to buy a loaf of bread, I haven’t seen daylight today.

When I woke up this morning I turned the telly on for no more than five minutes. It was a daytime television programme about saving animals; one of the increasing number of shoddy documentaries which attempt to keep viewers tuned-in by creating a fake sense of jeopardy and leaving mini cliff-hangers peppered throughout the show. In this particular programme a vet called Andrew had his arm inside the lady bottom of a pregnant cow in an attempt to encourage the calf inside to turn itself to a position where it could be born without some terrible explosion of beef. I thought the scenario was probably interesting enough, but the voice-over man wanted blood; “Andrew is running out of time to save the calf... join us later to find out if he’s successful...” But I don't want to wait for two minutes whilst we see what's going on with Beth and a stranded goose only to have this utterly facile insert interrupted by a reminder, in case our tiny brains have forgotten; “coming up, will Andrew manage to save the unborn calf?” I don't friggin' care anymore. The goose has made me forget my own name, I'm so bored. Five seconds with Beth and then the voice-over man proclaims; “earlier, Andrew arrived at Hope Farm and found an unborn calf in trouble.” Yes, I remember, because I'm not mentally subnormal! I simply want to know whether Andrew is going to be successful without all this X Factor-style prick-teasing. We are no less intelligent in this country than we were 20 years ago, so why do we need to be spoon-fed like this? Why is no one complaining? Must all documentaries be dumbed down in this manner? Why do we need to be told that Andrew only has five minutes to save the world? What if it takes six? Why do the hairy bikers only have 3 days to cross the English Channel in a bath tub? Will they run out of food? Is there only enough money in the documentary budget to pay them for three days?

Pepys serenaded the lark 350 years ago with lute music and was on the Thames by 6am, heading for Greenwich and Woolwich. It was a beautiful spring day and I'm sure the river, and the countryside in that part of the world, looked absolutely glorious. Pepys was pleased to spend time with one Captain Minnes, who spoke “in fine language” and definitely had a lot to say for himself. “Among other things, he... tell me that negros drowned look white and lose their blackness, which I never heard before.” Charming.

They took a walk in Greenwich Park, where Pepys was pleased to report that the King had planted trees and made some lovely steps leading up to the Palace there.

Pepys returned home via the Royal Exchange, stayed up late, walking on the leads of his house with his wife, before summonsing a barber for a quick trim. By the time he turned in, he was cream-crackered; “so to bed very weary, which I seldom am.” No, Samuel, you’re a machine. A machine, I tell you.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Devil's Dyke

I drove Fiona down to Hove today with a car load of her possessions destined for her new house. It’ll be the first time (apart from the periods she’s spent in the US) that we’ve lived more than a few miles apart for close to 20 years. I shall miss her horribly. That said, after today, I fully understand why she’s decided to move down south. We arrived in Hove just before lunch. The sun was shining. People were walking dogs and drifting around, sitting in cafes, looking thoroughly happy and seeming in no rush to get anywhere in particular. Cars were waiting politely at junctions. Everything in Brighton and Hove moves at a much slower pace, but the people are somehow very recognisable. They come across just like chilled-out Londoners! Most of them probably were Londoners once.

Anyway, Fiona’s new flat is absolutely beautiful; floor to ceiling windows, airy and light, with a wonderful atmosphere. Step out of the front door, turn left, and there’s the sea, all aquamarine and shiny. It’s a two-minute walk to the beach. No exaggeration. Within five minutes of walking out of her front door, we were sitting outside a beach cafe, waiting for a much-needed veggie breakfast.

I have decided that the moment Fiona leaves town for any reason, I’m going to be down in her flat like a shot. It feels like the perfect place to sit and write; windows wide open, a through-draft gently billowing the curtains. Perfect.

I spent all the spare moments I had talking to various people about our Arts Council application, trying to get to the bottom of why it had been turned down in the hope that we might be able to reapply, which is a process I may well have to begin tomorrow, alongside trying to find alternative sponsors. I’m confident we’ll get there. At a certain point, I may simply decide to take out a bank loan.

On the way home, I took a wrong turning, and we ended up at the Devil’s Dyke; a glorious heath land at the top of the Sussex chalk downs with stunning views of little windmills, and hedged-lined lanes, and heather-covered hills dipping down to Worthing and the sea beyond. You could see for miles, although, as we pulled into a little car park to appreciate the view, we were somewhat confused by the number of lone men who seemed to be in their cars, casually reading, or glancing furtively at one another. None of them were admiring the view outside the car park! Fiona joked. “Do you think they’re waiting for their wives to come back from lovely cycle rides?” “No,” I replied. “I think their wives are waiting for them to come back from work...” There’s a fine line between dogging and cruising, and I think some of them might have thought Fiona and I were the afternoon’s entertainment!

350 years ago, Pepys went with the two Sir Williams to Westminster to do some business before heading to the wardrobe with his bessie mate du jour, Lord Sandwich’s “man of business”, Henry Moore. News came from Portugal. Catherine de Breganza, the English Queen-in-waiting, was hoping to begin her journey to London within the week.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Good technique

My only concession to the bank holiday today  was allowing Funny Girl to be on in the background whilst I waded through half a tonne of admin this morning. The film seemed to go on forever, and very little was happening every time I looked up from my computer. It’s a film which definitely loses its way some time after the song, People, but the tunes are fabulous! By the way, do all Streisand movies have a sequence in them where she gets to stand on a boat chugging around Liberty Island? I swear I saw the same scene in Yentl.

I suppose my other concession to it being a bank holiday was taking myself off to Philippa’s house for a few hours in the late afternoon. In my honour, Deia and Dylan had made some scones, and we sat around the table eating delicious cream teas with fresh strawberries. One of the things I love most about Philippa’s house is that there’s always someone else there. Today it was a chap called Josh who I’ve not seen in years. People pop in, share a bit of communal food, do their own thing for a while, play with Deia, chat with the Dylan and Philippa, drink a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and then drift off again. It reminds me very much of the commune in Bedfordshire we used to frequent as children, which was run by a lady called Liza. There was always something going on there as well; kiln-building parties, cider vinegar drinking competitions, CND meetings...

My goddaughter continues to delight and amuse. The highlight of the day was discovering what her toy giraffe was called. “Guess,” she said. “Um... Lanky?” I replied.  “No," said Deia. “Gemma?” “No” “Gary?” “No.” Philippa called across the kitchen, “you’ll never guess...” “Okay,” I said, “I give in, what’s your giraffe called?” “Technique” said Deia. Technique?!! In fairness, this is a child with a rabbit called Jumping Song, but Technique surely has to be amongst the strangest names for a cuddly toy I’ve ever encountered, and I had a stuffed sheep called Sexy when I was a child!

350 years ago, Pepys was told all about a famine in France, which the history books don’t seem to be able to corroborate. The rest of the day was spent in the Navy office discussing victualling with two Sir Williams and a Sir George.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Seeing my own grave

Easter Day is ending with Pot Noodles in front of the telly. It doesn't get much better than this!

We've been in the Midlands all day, mostly in Sunny Nunny, the ancestral home of my father's father's father's father and beyond. Nuneaton doesn't seem to be doing very well during the recession. Maybe the fact that it was Easter Sunday made everything seem a little emptier and sadder than it would normally have appeared, but the road where my Nana lived, which always came across as very well loved was looking somewhat shabby. Many of the front gardens, which were once filled with beautiful flowers had been concreted over and turned into dumping grounds for rust-bucket cars and, in one instance, a shipping cargo container. It was a little sad to see.

We went to the cemetery to tend my grandparents' graves and spent some time washing it to make it look presentable again. We then went on a search for my Uncle Ben Till's grave, which six of us took half an hour to find. Oddly, just as we were about to throw in the towel, I decided that the universe might like to get involved with the hunt. I closed my eyes, and decided to allow myself to be guided. A minute or so later I got a very odd feeling in my stomach and looked down to find I was standing right over the very grave we'd been searching for. It was an incredibly surreal moment. I called the rest of the family over, and we set about washing the stone.

Nathan, understandably, got quite emotional looking at a gravestone with Ben Till written on it. I tried to consol him with the thought that my grave would say Benjamin and not Ben, but the whole experience was feeling a little unsettling from my own perspective.



We went to see my Grandparents' former house, the place where my Dad grew up, and stood on the street trying to peer in, whilst floods of memories bounced around in our heads. My Dad recalled the time he witnessed the Barwell meteorite hitting the earth. For the record, it was a foggy afternoon, there was a sudden smell of sulphur and the sky turned a sort of greeny-yellow colour. At the time, I think it was the largest meteorite in living history to hit England. It was wonderful to hear the vivid memories which every corner and every new vista triggered and I could have walked for miles and miles simply listening to his stories.



In the afternoon Brother Edward, Sascha, Nathan and I went to Stratford Upon Avon. It's an extremely attractive little place, which I know a great deal less than the other Warwickshire towns. We walked along the river and back up through the town before saying our goodbyes and heading south.

We picked Fiona up from Northampton on our way home. She'd spent the day with her family there and it was lovely to pop in for a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a good natter with my substitute parents who were on particularly good form.

Pepys entertained two of his cousins at lunch time 350 years ago. He despised their "impertinent" husbands, the brothers Anthony and William Joyce, but obviously felt the need to impress them, for he wined and dined them with barrels of oysters and roasted veal.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Glad to put the day to bed

I've felt rather gloomy all day. One or two issues with old friends have been playing heavy on my mind, and I woke up to find a letter from the Arts Council informing me that my application for funding for help with the recording of the requiem had been rejected. I think we only have ourselves to blame; we didn't make it clear quite how reliant we were on the grant for the live performance aspect of our Space project, so whereas we've been lucky enough to have been awarded Arts Council funding to make ten wonderful films about the requiem and even been given extra funding to stream its premier live on the web, we don't yet have the cash to pay performers, which should have been our biggest priority. As ever in this country there are a shocking lack of organisations and individuals who help to fund performers. There are plenty who will help to build theatres and beautiful concert halls, but when the Arts Council can't help, who pays for the actors and the musicians who perform within?

So, I go back to the drawing board in search of the £6,000 which is now all that separates us from making this wonderful project. It seems such an unbelievably small amount, but then, when I start to imagine what £6,000 would mean to me on a personal level, it feels like there’s an enormous mountain to climb.

It was my old friend Ted's birthday today, and a group of his mates went ten pin bowling. It reminded me so much of my teenage years when kids from the music school would often go to the bowling alley next to Toys R Us near the Northampton gas works. Going there always felt like a really grown-up thing to do. The lanes must have been near the Carlsberg factory, as I always associate the experience with the smell of hops.

It was overcast today, and everything’s felt rather shrouded in nostalgia; very much like the end of an era. I felt this particularly strongly at the bowling alley.  Perhaps the feelings were triggered by those memories from Northampton in the early 90s. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t seen some of the people there for some years, but at one stage, it almost felt like I was watching a montage sequence in a film, acutely aware of the passing of time, and that the important choices we’d all been forced to make in our lives were beginning to show on our faces. I felt a little distant, very separate; like I was standing in another world with a big smile on my face, waving at the others whilst mouthing the words "see you when we come back round again!" And oddly that felt rather comforting, because though we can’t stop the world from turning, the little notches on the little cogs we’re standing on will always realign eventually. If someone touches your life once, they’ll touch it again. What we can never predict is when.

Pepys was a grumpy old sod on this date 350 years ago. Pretty much everything was annoying him; various people at Westminster Hall, various politicians and religious figures, bits of gossip the fact that he’d drunk too much alcohol, no doubt his wife... I’m sure he was pretty pleased to put the day to bed!!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Docile ratties

I’ve always hated bank holidays. More than anything else I don’t really understand them. I don’t see why my local deli and my favourite cafe are both closed. Surely people have an inclination to shop more on bank holidays? Surely they’re more likely to want to go to a cafe? I mostly hate bank holidays because they make me feel that I should somehow try to enjoy a day off. But in my line of work, a bank holiday is a day just like any other. Nathan is acting in his theatre and I still have pots of work to do which won't magically disappear just because I decided to take a day off. Besides, I enjoy working. My work is a hobby. Some people knit, others go to the theatre, I sit on my own and compose whilst drinking copious cups of tea. On paper I'm a workaholic but I assure you that it doesn't feel like that.

Throughout my life, music has meant everything to me; its been my social life, my way of relaxing, the thing that spurred me on to do well at school, the thing that made me want to go to school. Music is the most important gift you can give to a child so sing to yours as often as you can. That's where it all begins and it'll keep them off the streets. I promise! My parents went away for a holiday when I was in my upper sixth, and my mate Edward came to stay with me. Whereas most red-blooded teenagers would have been partying through the night with cheap booze and rave music, Ted and I decided the most daring thing we could think to do (apart from searching for crop circles) was to call Fiona at 11pm and say; “we’re coming to Northampton in the car to get you... Bring your violin!” And we played chamber music until 5am in my front room, eating chocolate chip cookies and drinking cups of tea! Apparently my mother called from Germany one night to try and catch us out, but all she could hear in the background was Winter from the Four Seasons!

My rats have eaten 'flu medicine! They seem to be okay. We’ve recently had a pate of letting them out of their cage to run around the sitting room. They’ve created a little nest behind the sofa. We’ve given them a towel back there to snuggle in, but their real penchant is for paper. They will find paper anywhere, and go to great lengths to drag it behind the sofa. Sometimes the paper they find is three times the size of them, but they struggle to get it back there all the same. Periodically I’ll pull the sofa forward and find lost invoices, receipts, poems, pieces of manuscript, Jaffa cake boxes, passports, all in neat little piles, carefully dragged there by the two little chaps and often ripped into tiny pieces. Anyway, imagine my horror this afternoon when I pulled the sofa away to find a whole blister pack of Beecham’s Cold and ‘Flu tablets, with only a few little shards of yellow plastic where the tablets had once been. I ran over to see if Cas and Pol seemed particularly docile, but they were fine. The trouble with rats is that they don't have the facility to vomit up anything untoward, which is why poison works so well when you’re trying to get rid of them. Not that I advocate getting rid of rats...
April 6th, 1662 was a Sunday, and Pepys went to church in Whitehall Palace, where a “Canon from Christ Church” delivered a sermon (in the King’s presence) about adultery. Charles II wasn’t yet married to Catherine de Breganza, but he certainly didn’t seem to mind a bit of how’s-your-father with various actresses and orange sellers across the city, and no amount of sermons would ever stop him from doing that. After church, Pepys went for a stroll in St James’ Park, and then took a boat to the city where he walked around Grey’s Inn fields, his first visit there that year. He was impressed by the standard and quality of the totty he saw.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Red, white and green

It’s incredibly cold. I’ve just had to turn the heating on. Usually, I’d simply put a jumper on, but I can’t find one! I’m absolutely wiped out. I didn’t sleep well last night. I drank a cup of tea just before bed, which wasn’t particularly sensible. I drifted off to sleep, and then woke up with a start and then it was telly-a-ho for much of the night!

Last night a small group of York-based singers gathered in a recording studio to make a demo of all the individual parts for the anthem I’ve written. It all went very smoothly, but predictably, we ran out of time. It also struck me that everything was a tone too high. The brass band had a rehearsal on the piece last night, and oddly, they too feel it’s a tone too high, so the decision has been made to drop the key. Unfortunately this means we have to start all over again with the recording, which I might have to do in London as it’s very expensive to keep training me up to York, particularly at short notice. Still, it’s worth it, as I think the excellent soprano who joined us yesterday was slightly perturbed by the concept of singing a top B flat! Writing a top B flat was not very community-spirited of me! It’s a luxury to hear some of the very people singing the music who will be performing it in July, and it’s spurred me on to re-write a few of the corners they seemed to struggle with.

The Queen was in York this morning, in fact, she was due to arrive in the train station the very time that my train was due to leave. Micklegate was absolutely heaving with people; all waiting patiently with their little union flags. Use them whilst you can, I say. When Scotland leaves the union, we’ll have to have a serious redesign. A Blue Peter competition, maybe.  I favour replacing blue with green to represent Wales. A red, white and blue flag is so 19th Century!


I sat in the train station waiting for my train with a cup of tea. The two girls on the table behind me were students at the university. I was fairly astonished by their conversation, which had, understandably turned to the Queen and the concept of royalty. “I quite like that we have a monarch” said one, “there aren’t many countries in the world with a monarchy are there?” There was a pause. “I can’t think of any” she said. “Spain. Spain has a king.” “I don’t think so,” (The other one finally piped up.) “Are we the only country with a Queen? France doesn’t have a queen, does it?” There was another pause, and then from nowhere... “India” one of them said, “India’s the sort of country that would have a Queen.” And then, the ultimate line dripped out of one of their mouths; “people are really jealous of the Queen, aren’t they? The Americans and the Australians all wish they had one.” I feel obliged to point out that these girls were UNIVERSITY students, not two six year-old girls in a special needs class! Sometimes I worry that the intelligence levels of students has almost dropped through the floor... Or maybe I was that dense when I was a student. Maybe I’ve just accumulated a lot of knowledge since leaving? I remember Fiona having to explain the concept of Karma to me when I was in the Upper Sixth. I felt even then that it was something I should have known...

Here's a question. I've just been on google analytics to look at my website stats, and I seem to have a large fan base in Leicester. Why? I've never worked in Leicester... I've only ever been to cout in Leciester!
350 years ago, Pepys did a spin in the garden to gossip with the influential Sir George Carteret about Sir William Batten, who Pepys was beginning to loathe and resent. In the afternoon, a workman turned up to discuss the idea of adding more floors to the houses within the Navy Office complex. Pepys almost permanently had builders in. This really was the age of home improvements.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

My first piece of art

It's apparently been snowing all over the north of England today. People on the Yorkshire Moors have been trapped in cars, and thousands are without electricity. I'm in York, but there's no sign of anything untoward. It's cold, though. Stupidly cold. I nearly had to buy a scarf. The Queen arrives here tomorrow for some kind of official visit. I'm worried I'll never escape! 

I bought a painting today. I went into a little Greek barber shop to have my hair cut in a bit of York that I don't know very well. There were, rather unusually I thought, paintings for sale on the wall. There were a series of acrylic images of an apocalyptic blood-orange sky, with a little house sitting on the top of a perilous-looking cliff top silhouetted in the foreground. Each of the pictures was similar but different, and each of the houses had a little sign outside which simply read "for sale." I kept staring at the images. They really spoke to me. They tell a tale of hope  against hope, I guess. Sometimes I feel like I'm sitting on the top of a mountain in front of a burning sky, trying to flog my wares. I still do it. Against my better judgement and against all the odds. 

The painting cost £80. I'm sure the artist barely covered his costs. 

On the way up to York, I found myself in a train with an immensely charming guard.  His name badge said Stephen Sheard, and I'm naming him because I want people to seek him out if they see him on an East Coast Mainline train. He is an absolute credit to his employers; full of compassion, very chatty and hugely witty. As we pulled into Doncaster, he said over the train tannoy, "unfortunately my mother-in-law lives in this part of the world, so there will be dark clouds and a considerable amount of rain as you leave the train. Make sure you don't slip on the platform!" Old school, but funny.

Five seconds later, he arrived with a pair of fun packs for two of the kids in the carriage.  It doesn't take much, but it can make a massive difference to someone's day. 

350 years ago, Pepys went by barge to Deptford to "pay off" various ships. His diary entry ends with a somewhat chilling comment:

"I was much troubled to-day to see a dead man lie floating upon the waters, and had done (they say) these four days, and nobody takes him up to bury him, which is very barbarous."

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Panic in their hearts. Anger in their souls.

I've had a shockingly frustrating day. Isn’t it so often the case, that when you’re back is up against the wall, everything manages to go brilliantly wrong! My music software keeps crashing and getting little glitches which make writing music almost impossible. It’s genuinely one problem after another. Sadly, the customer service department for Finale Allegro is in the US, and opens at 8.30am CST, which means I'm utterly helpless until after lunch. The positive aspect, of course, is that I’m dealing with American customer service, which is universally ridiculously good. They’re polite, incredibly knowledgeable and terribly eager to help, but I've spent what feels like the whole day on the phone to them. Generally speaking they ask me to send the problem file over to them, and then they go away to try and work out what’s gone wrong. This leaves me twitching and twiddling my thumbs and getting myself into a panic, which intensifies and makes my stomach churn, which starts to give me a pain in my side, which makes me even more nervous, and so it goes on...

I suppose all I can do is what I can do, but I can see all the music I need to complete by the end of the month stretching out in front of me like some kind of weird manuscript-coated roller coaster shooting deep into the clouds. One bar at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time. In two weeks time, I’ll look back on today and wonder what the fuss was all about.

I’m going to York tomorrow to record rehearsal sound files for the Ebor Vox project. The last time I recorded sound files was almost exactly two years ago. They were called vocal files in those days, apparently. It could well have been Good Friday. I was holed up in a farm house in Leicestershire with two women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, one who was so stressed that all the blood vessels had burst in her eyes. I had a stomach virus. Nathan ended up singing soprano, and alto, whilst the two women looked on, panic in their hearts, anger in their souls.
April 3rd, 1662, generated the shortest ever diary entry from our hero.

At home and at the office all day. At night. To bed.
(Rather than...?)