Thursday, 31 May 2012

Fact!


It feels like the day before Christmas. There are a million things I want to do before I go on holiday tomorrow, and I’m running out of time!

I drove across to Hackney this afternoon to see Penny and to work our way through another couple of scripts for the Requiem films. On my journey, I experienced a number of things which annoyed or intrigued me. And what’s the point of a blog if you can’t list them?

1)      I was listening to Heart FM on my journey, and I was unlucky enough to catch an ad break. A radio advert for Hampton Court Palace came on, which advertised that Henry VIII “and his wife” would greet you in the gardens. Which wife? Do they revolve?

2)      Why do so many adverts start nowadays with someone saying the word “fact” really aggressively? “Fact. 99% of household germs are found in toothbrushes.” “Fact. Every day we age another day.”

3)      Why do these ghastly people with branded macs and clip boards still insist on stopping people in the street in an attempt to convince them to donate money to Shelter? Who are the people who actually give money as a result of being stopped? This afternoon on Mare Street, just along from a woman who seemed to be lying prostrate in the middle of the road, a girl from Shelter was rushing up to people and being all flirtatious, you know, like everyone who caught her eye was the person she’d waited her life to say hello to. People were literally running for cover. It’s a rancid form of prostitution, and it’s everything I hate most about unemployed actors. Surely, any normal, decent person wouldn’t be able to do the job for more than two days. No one wants to do a job which actually does nothing but make people feel sad or angry.

4)      Why are those yellow incident signs which they put by the side of the road following an accident or murder always hopelessly out of date? Today I passed three, which appealed for witnesses to events which had happened in early April. Surely, it would be more appropriate for police to put the signs up the following day, or in time for the week anniversary of the event so that people are more able to remember what they were doing?

5)      What does the shop of the corner of Dalston High Road and Ball’s Pond Road called Lady Glitter actually sell? Vajazzels?

Pepys wrote a fairly lengthy diary entry on the 31st May 1662, which summed up everything that was going on in his life at the time. The weather had been fine for a long period of time, he was well, but for occasion bursts of wind, which “tormented” him “extremely.” He’d given up wine and theatre. The King was well, and getting on so well with the future Queen that Pepys’ pin up, the King’s lover, Lady Castlemayne, was certain to have her “nose put out of joynt.” He celebrated by retiring to his chamber to have his head combed by his maid, Sarah...

“Which I found so foul with powdering and other troubles, that I am resolved to try how I can keep my head dry without powder; and I did also in a suddaine fit cut off all my beard, which I had been a great while bringing up, only that I may with my pumice-stone do my whole face, as I now do my chin, and to save time, which I find a very easy way and gentile. So she also washed my feet in a bath of herbs, and so to bed...”

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Space-hopper face


As I went to bed last night I started to shake uncontrollably. My teeth were chattering like woodpeckers on crack. I found the whole thing incredibly amusing for some reason and kept waking up in the night with a pillow so wet I might as well have been sleeping in a paddling pool. I’m still functioning, however, and managed a full day’s work, today despite feeling like I’ve been hit in the face by a space hopper.

The cafe was very quiet this morning and, as usual, I found myself tuning into little bits of conversation. A woman came to the counter. “What can I get you?” asked Rob, who owns the cafe. “A new body” said the woman, wryly. Rob laughed, “I can’t sort you out with one of those, but I can give you something which is fairly healthy.” “I have cancer.” She said the sentence angrily with no trace of irony. The words reverberated around the room. Rob plainly didn’t know what to say. “I’m very sorry to hear that” he murmured. What else can you say? The woman immediately apologised and I suddenly felt incredibly sorry for her. It was obviously one of these days when everything was collapsing around her like a house of cards and she just snapped. And why shouldn't she be able to say that she's suffering? It's sad that those striken by a disease so horrible are somehow expected to spare all our blushes by keeping their feelings to themselves. Afterall, when Rob asked how I was when I walked into the cafe, I told him I had a bad cold... I didn't feel the need to apologise for sharing that information.

I went from the cafe to the dentist for a check-up and a session with the hygienist. I now have the smoothest, cleanest teeth in London. Hygienists are cruel creatures though, aren’t they? They always make me feel so unclean. Every time I go in, she scrapes a piece of sharp metal around my gums, draws blood, and then tells me I’m bleeding because I don’t floss often enough. She also has this unpleasant ritual where she wipes the plaque that she’s scraping off my teeth onto a little piece of tissue paper which she leaves on my chest. It’s like a sort of punishment, which I believe is meant to make me want to see her more regularly. What she forgets is that, at £50, she’s quite a luxury. Today I was also fitted for a new gum guard, which I’ll need to wear in bed from now on. I have apparently ground my teeth down a fair amount since she last saw me, which doesn't surprise me. The teeth grinding also explains the pains in my shoulders which I now routinely wake up with. Fascinating and scary. What is even more fascinating and scary is that the procedure of having a gum guard moulded and fitted is a third of the price if you do it privately rather than on the NHS. She offered me both. I opted for the cheaper option. I asked her if anyone went for the NHS route and she said I’d be surprised. I think she was lying.

It’s the 31st May tomorrow. I’m going to work myself into the ground, because I don’t like the thought of it being June!

350 years ago, Pepys went with his wife and servants by water to Gravesend in Kent. They had intended to have a peek at one of the Navy ships in the Hope, but came across Shepley, one of Lord Sandwich’s servants, in a hoy (a boat) bringing a cargo of gifts to Lady Sandwich including a “little Turk and a Negroe” which were intended as pages for Sandwich’s children, and a whole load of curious animals and birds. Pepys thought they were all very attractive, but suddenly started panicking that he’d catch something from one of the animals, so took the first boat he could find back home. He was probably being quite wise. It was, of course, boats from the continet which brought the plague to England less than three years later.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Pleasure Gardens


Oh Christ. Here we go. I think I’m coming down with whatever Nathan had during the last few days. When you’ve seen someone badly suffering from an illness, the thought of coming down with it yourself is tantamount to sitting on the edge of a cliff in a force ten hurricane. Inevitable. Terrifying. What must it have been to begin to experience the symptoms of plague in the 17th Century, knowing that there was nothing you could do but wait to die...

I tried to go jogging earlier on, but every time I started to run, I instantly got a stitch, which refused to go. I wondered at one stage if I was having a heart attack. Now when I breathe in, my lungs hurt. My neck is starting to feel achy. I’m going to Germany on Friday and I want to be well so that I can enjoy the experience. Let’s hope whatever comes is short lived and manifests itself in a less painful way than it did with Nathan. I think I've got a fairly robust constitution, although let's not forget that Nathan gave me whooping cough, which didn't seem to effect him at all.

Penny came over this evening, and we sat in the front room scripting the first of the films we’re going to make about the Requiem. I always prefer it when we’re together face to face, because we tend to inspire one another. We were both up in the night worrying. I sent her an email at 3am, and she responded at 5! Her daughter has been ill as well, with similar symptoms to Nathan, so there’s obviously something going round.

They appear to have arrested the parents of the six children who died in the house fire in Derby, a few weeks ago, which begs the question; why would two people want to kill ALL of their children? It makes no sense to me. The other thing that makes no sense, and forgive me being slightly insensitive here – why would you call one of your children Jade and another Jaydon?

At some point I’ll introduce you all to my sister Benjemima.

I am more than a little worried about my friend Tammy. When news broke this morning about the earthquakes in Italy, Nathan reminded me that she lives quite close to the area affected. I wrote her a joking email, assuming we'd have heard if the city of Modena where she lives had been badly hit and received the following reply, which I know she won't mind my quoting on this:

To be honest so far modena itself has only suffered slight damage as it is built on reclaimed marshland and so the water acts like a sponge and absorbs the shocks, but nearby surrounding towns have been v badly damaged. Churches and homes destroyed and thousands are sleeping in tents/in the open. We are at home, although lots of people in Modena have escaped for the night. We thought about going, but decided to stay. School was evacuated and all schools are closed tomorrow. We have a number of survival bags that are already in the car. Since the last quake just over a week ago we have had a ton of shocks and it is totally freaking me out

May 29th, 1662, yielded a charming diary entry from Pepys. It was the King’s birthday (“solemnly” observed we’re told) and also the day when Catherine de Breganza, the future Queen of England, arrived at Hampton Court Palace. A few bonfires were lit in the street, as was the custom to celebrate great events, but the general feeling was that Londoners were all a bit over it. Breganza had been threatening to arrive in London for at least a month and she still hadn't... quite.

Pepys took his wife, his serving boy and his maid to Vauxhall to visit the pleasure gardens there. The women gathered pinks at the Old Spring Gardens, but the new gardens, which Pepys hadn’t visited before, were hugely superior.
"And here we also walked, and the boy crept through the hedge and gathered abundance of roses, and, after a long walk... we had cakes and powdered beef [salt beef] and ale, and so home again by water with much pleasure.”

Monday, 28 May 2012

When the sun shines...


Is it the heat which is constantly circulating the smells of my childhood around my nostrils at the moment? As I wondered around North London today, I was bombarded by familiar, but long forgotten scents; 1970s sweet shops, creosote, verdant undergrowth nestling by the side of tarmac pavements, talcum powder, plastercine, hyacinths, meatballs. Maybe I’m just entering another period of nostalgia...

When I was younger, I used to say that the light of early summer days reminded me of Ancient Egypt, which probably reenforced the notion that I was quite an eccentric child. I can only think that we learned about Egypt at junior school for the first time in a summer term and that my brain rewired itself to associate the white light of sandy monuments with what I could see in the playground outside. Hot weather often stirs ancient memories for me. I associate the sun with happiness. And birthdays.

The sun also brings out people's arms, and in Hoxton, where I've been all afternoon, you suddenly see an awful lot of tattoos. Maybe I'm just more aware of body art since Nathan had his arm covered in signs and ancient symbols, but tattoos genuinely seem to be everywhere right now. Walking from Arnold Circus to Old Street tube, I counted 20. I'm always fairly surprised to see them on teenagers. I don't often find myself wondering what someone's mother would think, but when I see a near child with a tattoo, I genuinely pity his parents. Then again, the parents of most teenagers are probably not far off my own generation. A mate of mine from school has a 21 year old! Well, she’s not a mate. She’s a friend on Facebook... and we all know that’s a very different thing!

I’ve just got back from a hugely sweaty rehearsal with the Fleet Singers, where we managed to run an entire movement from Songs AboutThe Weather. If only we had four rehearsals left instead of two, I think we could pull something quite extraordinary out of the bag. There are some wonderful and very attentive singers in that lot. A couple of them never took their eyes off me. It genuinely is a pleasure to stand in front of them and wave my arms about, even on one of the muggiest days of the year so far! I left the rehearsal needing to be popped into a tumble drier but feeling very upbeat.  

350 years ago, Pepys spent the day doing bits of business in all corners of the City of London. There was a visit to Mr Wooton, the shoemaker, where he had his morning draught, and then lunch with his father who was in town. Pepys continually refers to his father in this era as a "poor man" whom he felt needed as much cheering up as possible. He never mentions what the problem was, however. One assumes it was simply old age – and Pepys was recognising the symptoms in his father for the first time.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

How can you hate Eurovision?


The Eurovision Party last night was one of the best ever. We got back to Highgate from Hampshire with just enough time to stick a load of roast potatoes in the oven and print off a load of score cards.

I was extremely touched to return to find Fiona had made a table’s worth of salads. She’d bought cheeses, wine, Crabbies for Nathan and laid everything out beautifully. She even managed to feed and water the rat!

We must have had about 25 people in the house; mostly women, with a smattering of gay men and one straight bloke; good old James Fortune, who came with his radiantly pregnant girlfriend, Vic. She doesn’t know the gender of her child, but if it’s not a boy, I’ll be very surprised.

I’m always amused when my straight male friends routinely refuse to turn up to Eurovision parties because they “hate Eurovision.” There’s a room full of gorgeous, glamorous women, what isn’t there to like? You don’t have to watch the telly, do you?!

Actually, what I loved about the company last night was that everyone who came seemed somehow at peace with themselves. Everyone got along. No one hogged the limelight. No one was crying in a corner. No one looked bored or felt too cool for school. The slow march towards 40 is riddled with questions which don’t have ideal answers and so many of my friends right now are in degrees of turmoil; some are desperate for children, others are desperate for the world to love the children they’ve spent an eternity trying to create, many more are simply wondering if they’ll ever learn to love themselves. Conversation can become stilted and repetitive. Dramas can erupt. Someone takes offense because someone who’s not in their specific situation is reminding them that they have choices in life and that bad things sometimes happen because you open the door to them. But last night was fun because everyone arrived wanting to have fun, and eat good food, and sing stupid songs, and engage in healthy banter and silly dancing and tonnes and tonnes of laughter late into the night...

The highlight was definitely Sweden winning... and I think, if you go back to my blog entry from March 22nd, you’ll see that I predicted the top three. Sweden, Russia, Serbia. Graham Norton kept questioning why Serbia was doing so well. He should have read my blog.

Nathan went down with a migraine at the end of the evening, which lasted through the night with bouts of vomiting and all the way through today. The poor chap has spent most of the day lying in a darkened room.

Tuesday May 27th, 1662, and Pepys’ father was in town. He told Pepys about the alterations they were having done to the family pile in Brampton and Pepys seemed very pleased. He worked in his office all afternoon, and spent the evening holed up in his chamber playing music all alone. Chamber music, one assumes...

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The race home

We're in Hampshire. It's 5.30pm. Our Eurovision party begins in exactly one hour and thirty minutes' time. I reckon there's about a 50 per cent chance of our getting there in time. 87 miles to London and counting...

Marinella's wedding was wonderful. She was blessed with almost perfect weather for a garden wedding. I've just passed a giant thermometer which tells me the temperature is 29 degrees. It's 5.30pm, and it's still bakingly hot.

We travelled down to the New Forest late last night and stayed at the crappiest Travelodge known to man; mosquitos everywhere, mildew on the bathroom ceiling, stains on the bed. The room was mega hot. It reminded me of a hotel room in Leningrad I stayed in in 1989! 

We had breakfast in a Little Chef and then went to the wedding hotel to hang out with Marinella whilst she was having her hair and make up done by a harem of Brazilian and German women.

5.42pm, and we're 76.6 miles from home. We're making good time...

My wedding duty was to walk Marinella down the "aisle" in the absence of her father who was too poorly to travel from Brazil. Nathan's task was to stand at the front and sing an unaccompanied folk song as we walked towards the celebrant.  Marinella and I waited nervously in a room with patio doors onto the garden until the clock struck 2pm and the doors to the garden were flung open for us to make our grand appearance.  Just we took a step forward, the wedding organiser rushed over to say the singer had gone AWOL and no one knew where he was. "Is he not out there ready to sing?" I asked. Apparently not. 

I couldn't imagine what could have happened and switched on my phone to try and find out where Nathan had gone.  In the meantime a waiter, who said he knew what Nathan looked like, went to check the loos, and I went running out to the car park, to see if he was there.  Eventually my phone switched on and I was able to call him. "Where the hell are you?" I shouted... Nathan was sitting in the garden, exactly where he'd been told to sit, waiting patiently for his cue to start. Massive storm in a tiny tea cup! Poor Marinella! Poor Nathan!

5.52pm - 64.4 miles to go. Chances of getting there on time are rising, but the M25 and North Circular could well destroy us, if sun-worshipping day-trippers clog the blinking roads.

Nathan sang beautifully, and the bit at the end also went quite well when I had to accompany him singing "I Only Have Eyes for You", which is a curious song to play on the piano if you're not a natural jazzer! 

The wedding breakfast was nice enough, although we were embarrassed to have to leave after the main course, which, for the vegetarians was a filo pastry basket filled with roasted vegetables, topped with an absolute mountain of rocket. Why do people insist on placing these mountains of bitter lettuce on the top of all vegetarian food? It's always dry. It's never dressed. And more crucially, more than a mouthful is minging!

6.03pm - 50.4 miles to go. My phone's GPS anticipates the journey will take an hour. It's a close- run thing. Fiona is now at home prepping a salad. Things are in hand.  Nathan is driving at 100 mph.  This reminds me of one of the lines in A1: The Road Musical... "Oh my God, if we crash at this speed will we die or just be seriously maimed?!"

6.12pm, and we've just entered Surrey. 36.7 miles.

6.21pm. People have started calling us to say they're coming. We're going to be crammed in to our front room like sardines!  27.6 miles. 

350 years ago, Pepys spent the morning going through Sandwich's accounts and found him to be some 7000l in debt, but with an astonishing amount owed to him, so everyone one seemed quite happy. Pepys went to Trinity House in the afternoon and found himself eating his dinner next to someone who talked continually about the wickedness of English nuns, who were apparently routinely ejected from convents and rehoused due to their insatiable lust... Wow!

Pepys returned to London to see a rubbish performance of Marlowe's Dr Faustus, which became terribly frustrating as he'd vowed it was the last play he'd treat himself to until Michaelmas at the end of September. 

6.31pm and the traffic is bunching up. We're down to 50 m p h with 24.8 miles to go. Only three miles in 10 minutes! Still, we're now on the M40...

6.42pm - 11.1 miles to go, but we're going slowly and have not yet hit the north circular! 

6.49pm - north circular traffic jam. Horrid. Typical. Stationary. Misery!  I'm gonna post this blog now. We're through the traffic jam and I predict we'll be home by 7.15pm. Hurrah!

2.27pm - Sunday - Eurovision Party was wonderful!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Farthingale

I've spent way too much time today rushing to get things done. I had so many things to do at one point that I was forced to do everything on a revolve. I became a giant Lazy Susan, focussing my attention on one issue for ten minutes at a time. Wipe a surface, format a score, send an email, clean the cooker, format another score, send another email, wash the kitchen floor, make a phone call... And so it went on until about 5pm when I took myself for a run around Highgate Woods. The run over, I returned home and found myself having to pack two suits, three pairs of shoes, four bags, five Jaffa cakes and a piano into my car!

Foolishly I agreed to come to the theatre tonight, forgetting that I also have to travel to Hampshire as soon Nathan's finished with the Naked Boys. Marinella is getting married in the New Forest and it's my task to walk her down the aisle.  Half way down Highgate Hill, I realised there was no petrol in the car, and, believe it or not, there was also  no petrol in the only petrol station between Highgate and the Bridewell Theatre!

I arrived in the theatre and was immediately informed that there'd been flood in the building, which I found rather difficult to comprehend given that we're in a heatwave. I also discovered that The Bridewell is the only theatre in the world where you can't pay with a card. The box office woman actually looked under a pile of  papers to see if she could find a card reader! Surely you either have one - and more crucially know how to use it - or you don't?  I was at the end of a very long queue. I refuse to believe I was the first person in the world to ask if they could pay by card! 

I went in search of a cash point with three minutes to spare before curtain up. I ran towards the nearest main road and was fortunate to spy a bank on the opposite side of the road. There was a small queue. Two hatchet-faced middle-aged people at the front seemed to be having a crisis. She was aware of the queue, he was pointedly ignoring it, almost aggressively, like if anyone had told him to get a wriggle on he'd have punched their lights out, before having some kind of stress- related aneurism. His face was scarlet. His blood vessels waved at passers by. Card after card was coming out of the couples' collective wallet. I got so bored waiting that I started to film the proceedings on my iPhone. I passed the camera along the queue, and then filmed some pretty buildings behind me. The film lasts three and a half minutes.  People in the queue started openly discussing what was going on, "I reckon it's the most elaborate fraud in the world" said one, "I think we're looking at almost definite divorce," said another. Sometimes I love the Brits for their humour! 

...And other times I find myself deeply insulted. The "reviewsical" I've just been watching was all about love, and, as you'd expect from an American show, there was the obligatory gay character song. It was a very touching moment, performed really rather well by the actor sitting at a breakfast table singing a love song to his life partner whose face was covered by a giant newspaper.  It was genuinely hard to tell if the silent partner was male or female. At the end of the song, the newspaper came down revealing a bloke... And the audience literally erupted into peels of 1970s-style laughter. I felt so offended. The actors played the truth of the moment and yet the audience laughed hysterically because it was two men who were sharing their breakfast.  Can you imagine how offensive it would have been if the newspaper had come down to reveal a woman in a sari and everyone in the audience had laughed at that?

It was an am-dram production, so it wasn't a theatre-going crowd, but sometimes I'm reminded that for all the leaps and bounds we're making in the quest for equality, we're not quite there yet. It takes rather a lot for me to be offended by theatre! 

350 years ago, and Pepys woke up, and shaved with a pumice stone; a little trick he'd learnt during his recent visit to Portsmouth, which he described as "easy, speedy and cleanly." I might try it myself!  In the afternoon, Pepys and his mate Captain Ferrers went to Charing Cross to peer at some Portuguese ladies, who had come to London in advance of Queen Catherine de Breganza's grand arrival. Pepys wasn't impressed; "they are not handsome and their farthingales a strange dress. I see they have already learnt to kiss and look freely up and down already and do believe they will soon forget the recluse practice of their own country." Yes, and their entry for Eurovision this year was shite!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Western cemetery


I got up super early today to tick off more points on an ever-growing list of things to do. My relatively relaxing day yesterday had quite a knock-on effect. Whilst sorting out hundreds of things for the Requiem, I was also sending bits of music up to York, dishing out invites for the Fleet Singer's concert on June 16th, and trying to prepare the house for our annual Eurovision Party on Saturday. Preparations involved a lengthy trip to Muswell Hill, the highlight of which was a visit to the 99p shop where we were able to buy every piece of cleaning equipment known to man, every weird sugary snack ever invented, and a whole heap of stuff we had no idea we couldn’t live without. We spent about £35, which is going some in a shop where nothing costs more than 99p. Our sitting room smells slightly of pet rat, so we're blitzing it. Nathan has added bicarbonate of soda to the carpet shampoo. Odd, I think. Anyway, the room now smells of wet pet rat.

By the evening I’d even managed to rustle up two lasagnes; one without peppers for Fiona. I felt like Nigella Lawson. I am plainly  domestic goddess! It's a shame I don't flex these particular muscles more often.

In the evening we went to Highgate cemetery. John Caird (director of Les Mis) had invited us to a lovely little do which celebrated the renovation of a gorgeous little chapel on the West side of the cemetery - the curious spooky part which you can only visit on special occasions. We sipped wine in a charming courtyard whilst the Highgate choral society sang to us. It was terribly genteel and I started to wonder if we’d not made a mistake by opting to premier the London Requiem in the wily, windy, rustic setting of Abney Park cemetery, when we could have staged it in the relative normality of that little courtyard.
After the choral concert, an oboe quartet performed within the chapel itself; a truly wonderful acoustic, and a marvellous ensemble of players.  

We were then taken on a mini-tour of the Western side of the cemetery. I was so thrilled to be able to share it with Nathan; the enigmatic Egyptian avenue, the curious circle of Lebanon, the sun setting behind the deep green trees and casting long shadows across the marble monuments. I hadn’t realised there was an un-consecrated area in this part of cemetery for dissenters; religious non-conformists, suicides and atheists. That’s probably the reason why Highgate is so special. It caters for everyone; all religions, all cultures. Radcliffe Hall is buried here with her lesbian lover. In the middle of the area of dissenters was Michael Faraday, who had apparently been offered a grave at Westminster Abbey but turned it down in favour of being buried with his wife. If only Charles Dickens and Henry Wood had been as romantic. Their wives are buried at Highgate, but both opted to be buried in more glamorous locations!

We walked back home through Waterlow Park, which had turned all dusty and hazy after a couple of days of ridiculous hot weather.

350 years ago Pepys was sucking in all the information he could about Catherine de Breganza. London was buzzing with stories of her journey from Portugal to England, and all accounts suggested that Lord Sandwich had won her trust in a way that no one else had managed to. She’d awarded him with a bag of gold, thought to be worth 1400l in sterling. She'd apparently been a recluse for much of the journey by sea...
and all the voyage never come upon the deck, nor put her head out of her cabin; but did love my Lord’s musique, and would send for it down to the state-room, and she sit in her cabin within hearing of it.”
Lord Sandwich’s star had never shone so brightly!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Dulcimers


The sun is a circular peach in a milk-white sky. The air is perfumed with the rich aroma of May blossom and cow parsley. The birds are about to begin their dusk chorus. Summer is here and I feel alive.

I've come to the Heath for an evening constitutional. It's a wonderful time to clear one's head. This week I’ve been attempting to realign my life-work balance. I've been going to the gym, dieting and trying to find a little bit more time to enjoy the life I've created for myself.

I sat in St Giles churchyard with Nathan at lunchtime enjoying the sunshine and doing very little else. June and July are going to be months from hell in terms of work load and I need to be fit and relaxed in time for the mayhem.

I employed a tenor for the choir today; a nice Aussie chap who is a post grad at the Royal College. There are many more people who’ve asked to be considered, but they've been so hideously slow in responding to my emails that I'm almost pleased today's tenor was good enough to join us, so they can begin to learn the importance of grasping an opportunity as soon as it arrives! I learned the hard way when I graduated from drama school and missed out on several key opportunities simply because I hated using the phone and didn’t call people back. As Nathan puts it, “you snooze, you lose.”

We went to see Jekyll and Hyde: the Musical at the Union Theatre last night. It's a fundamentally flawed work, but the production was beautifully and consistently directed by Luke Fredericks. It's rare, and probably not altogether healthy, to walk away from a production feeling that the director is a rising star but I was impressed by his level of invention. The set was very well designed as well.

It’s a Pepys double bill today. On Thursday 22nd May, 1662, Pepys went to the theatre to see a play called Love In A Maze, which he didn’t rate. Unsurprising by the title. I bet it was a bawdy comedy. Actually, I’ve just read up about it and it was indeed a comedy of manners famous at the time because the last act involved an actual on stage maze! (That part sounds quite impressive...) In the evening Pepys was brought some olives, some anchovies and some “muscatt” wine. He didn't know what the wine was, and was too ashamed to ask. We've all been there. It's the feeling I get when anyone mentions classical music to me!

Friday 23rd May, 1662, and Pepys and Elizabeth called in at the Wardrobe to see Lady Jemima Sandwich. Sometime after he arrived, he was brought the news that his patron, and favourite distant cousin, Lord Sandwich, who had been away for months bringing Catherine de Breganza over from Portugal, was in the building... This put Pepys into a "great suspense of joy." Sandwich looked very well and was very merry, having left the King Charles II with his new Queen at Portsmouth. Queen Catherine to be was apparently "most agreeable" and a very fine painter to boot.

Later on, Pepys went to the theatre to see Witt in a Constable, which he described as "so silly a play I never saw I think in my life." I’ll leave the rest of this entry to our hero, who went from the theatre to Covent Garden to see more Punch and Judy...

After it was done, my wife and I to the puppet play in Covent Garden, which I saw the other day, and indeed it is very pleasant. Here among the fidlers I first saw a dulcimere played on with sticks knocking of the strings, and is very pretty...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Lovely lady

I had the shock of my life today. I spent the afternoon recording a little demo of the passage Arnold Wesker is going to be singing in the Requiem recording. It's actually a setting of the words written on his mother's grave. I sent it off, and he immediately replied to say what a beautiful tune I'd written and that the words could equally be about his darling daughter, Tanya... Who died on May Day.  My blood immediately ran cold. I know Tanya. I knew her. She was due to come to our Eurovision party on Saturday. She was a reader of this blog and a great supporter of the requiem. She'd even tried to help us find funders.  It was all on her Facebook page. She'd died very suddenly at work. Some kind of embolism. She was a truly wonderful woman. Kind. Loyal. A great supporter of all things good. Arnold was right. The words written on his mother's gravestone could so equally apply to her.  "She lived passionately. Fought for right endlessly. Loved family and friends dearly."  In his last email of the day, Nold told me something I will always hold dear. "She so admired you, Ben." And I admired her. I'm so sad she's no longer with us and I promise to do my very best to gain even more of her admiration. Wherever she is.  Rest in peace, lovely lady. 

Monday, 21 May 2012

No Frida


I’m sitting in a Starbucks, where I’ve just been handed a free cheese and Marmite heated panino! It wasn’t meant to be free, of course, and if I hadn’t been potentially ripping off a multi-national company, I'd have instantly told the lady behind the counter that she’d made a mistake. To tell you the truth, I was so horrified by the choice of savoury snacks for vegetarians on the counter that they only have themselves to blame that I didn’t end up paying. Besides, I simultaneously got charged the best part of two pounds for a tea bag and some water, so I reckon they’re doing just fine.

Today I heard that Frida from ABBA has graciously declined our offer for her to sing in the requiem. That’ll teach me! I even said a little token prayer last night, you know, just in case anyone was interested. That was obviously my mistake; using up my annual prayer on something so utterly self-serving. That said, my Dad had a cousin, a devout born-again Christian, who used to pray for parking spaces, and he reckoned it worked a treat! Anyway, Frida’s presence on the recording was always going to be a long shot, so I gave myself about five minutes to mope around and feel valueless, and then dusted myself off again. We haven’t yet had a no from the other singer I’m desperate to have on the recording, so I'll direct my optimism elsewhere.

Fiona sent me a text today. Her mother, Barbara, is in hospital for a few days and is sharing a ward with a rather confused elderly lady called Mary who keeps shouting that there’s “somebody in my vagina!” Barbara is apparently being sent into regular fits of hysterics. I hope when I’m old and senile – ‘cus God knows the writing’s on the wall – my insanity will make a few people laugh! That’s all you can hope for, isn’t it, when you’ve been a life-long entertainer!?

Wednesday 21st May, 1662 was all about Pepys’ pin up, the King's mistress, Lady Castlemayne, who was said to be pregnant with the child of Charles II. In those days, pregnancy was often only detectable after someone had been weighed. Good job I’m not in the 17th Century. My uncontrollable weight gain of late would have had me in dungarees within seconds! Anyway, Lady C didn't seem to be taking the arrival of Queen Catherine de Breganza from Portugal particularly well. When everyone lit bonfires in front of their houses to celebrate Breganza's arrival in England, Lady Castlemayne's front garden was noticeably empty. She walked around London looking disconsolate and surly and Jo public no longer treated her with the respect she'd started to expect. That's the problem with being the mistress, Lady C. You think you're in control until the wife arrives, at which point you come back down to earth with a heavy bang!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Half way house

So, last night I had a little think about people who might be able to fill the missing tenor-shaped space in our choir. I thought about my career, and the various tenors I've worked with, and remembered a guy called Darren, who did extra chorus work at the Royal Opera House when I was working there about ten years ago. We actually went on a few dates and he'd seemed like a genuinely lovely bloke. I absentmindedly googled him last night, expecting to find that he was now some kind of major opera star, but instead discovered that he'd died of a heart attack at the end of 2009. One of his friends had put a tribute to him up on Facebook; a piece of music accompanying a set of photos...

I felt desperately sad. His death shocked me to the core. When I knew him, he was a live wire. He was always the one in the chorus who'd have a go at anything. He was in the prime of his life, handsome, and in very good shape. He learned to walk on stilts for the show. Now he's nothing but a memory. And montage of photographs from happier times.  The transient nature of life is sometimes so desperately cruel.

It was craft and cake today at Julie's house. The event was well attended by, amongst others, my very dear, old Northamptonian friend, Tash and Stephen West, a well-known knit-wear designer. We had a genuine celebrity in our midst! I have never seen anyone knit so speedily. By the time he left, he'd knitted about 3 feet of a very complicated scarf design. It must have been quite a thrill for him to be sitting in a room alongside two people knitting things from his latest book. Highlight of the day was definitely Julie's chocolate orange cake. Ridiculously good. 

This evening Nathan and I went to see Jem and Ian singing in a big band concert at the wonderful 100 Club on Oxford Street. The band in question was the London City Big Band, a group of students, mostly from Guildhall, who were absolutely brilliant.  We went to Balans on Old Compton Street after the gig, and sat in a crazy booth eating a Caprese salad. Jem and I begin our diets tomorrow. Genuinely. I don't care how busy I am. I want some more energy.

Pepys spent a sunny May day watching theatre, messing about on the Thames and walking through the fields to the famous Half Way House, a pub midway between the City of London and the village of Deptford.  His diary entry ended with the realisation that he'd never had it so good; 

This being a very pleasant life that we now lead, and have long done; the Lord be blessed, and make us thankful. But, though I am much against too much spending, yet I do think it best to enjoy some degree of pleasure now that we have health, money, and opportunity, rather than to leave pleasures to old age or poverty, when we cannot have them so properly

Saturday, 19 May 2012

You smashed it


So there I was all excited at the prospect of a nice relaxing tube journey north. I’d just had a lovely meal in town with Jim and Nathan and Saturday afternoons are always quiet on the underground. I'd got my computer with me to do some work. The platform at Tottenham Court Road station was empty, so where on earth did the hundreds of people come from who were crammed like sardines in the tube that pulled into the station? The combination of wall-to-wall people, the dreadful stickiness in the air and the woman’s perfume next to me, made me almost dizzy.

I was, however, greatly cheered up by the guy who runs the shop on the corner of Southwood Lane. It's a very sweet little newsagent but it barely sells anything, and I don't go in there often because what it does sell costs three times the price of any other convenience store in the area. The guy who runs it is terribly friendly. His phone is never surgically attached to his ear and he waves at anyone he recognises as they walk past in the street. The thing that makes me smile, however, is that he always talks about the weather. Always. And never about anything else. It’s almost as though his book on etiquette for shop keepers - which successfully taught him that it’s rude to speak on the phone whilst serving, or peer at customers suspiciously as though every one of us were a potential shop-lifter - also taught him that the English love to talk about the weather, and he is absolutely charming in the way that he does it! Today's conversation went something like this; "it's 5.30pm, and it's still not rained. I think we've got away with it. I hope it will be the same tomorrow. It’s meant to rain tomorrow. Perhaps it won’t rain at all. We should be thankful that it’s muggy and not raining." and so he went on for at least another minutes.

I’ve just watched part of The Voice on television, and have been rather astonished by the vocabulary the judges have started to use, Tom Jones included. These are people from my industry, and yet they’re talking absolute nonsense. I don’t mean their opinions, they are neither here nor there, but it’s the words they’re choosing to express their opinions which seem bizarre. Phrases like “you smashed it” “you gotta bring it” and “you should have spun it” aren’t technical terms, they’re just words which sound funky. I find myself all too often criticising corporate types for talking in nonsensical clich├ęs like “growing our potential” and “blue sky thinking” but it’s happening in my world as well. Madness.

Titanic was on Channel 4 when I switched over. What it is about The Titanic which draws us all in? I found myself weeping uncontrollably at one moment, and it wasn’t at the quality of the ad-libbing! There’s something horrifying and utterly devastating about the disaster, which I don’t experience when I think about the Lusitania, for example, which was every bit as hideous. Why is that? And why is Gok Wan now doing cookery programmes?

350 years ago, Pepys went to the theatre with his wife, Sir William Penn and Penn’s daughter. They saw The Little Thief at the King’s House in Vere Street, before taking a stroll in Moorfields, where they also ate cheesecake and a gammon of bacon. Pepys returned home and immediately vomited up everything he’d eaten. The evening was spent on the roof of their house, singing and enjoying the moonshine. No moonshine in 2012, sadly. Just murk.

Is this really the coldest May in 100 years?

Friday, 18 May 2012

Dedicated to Little George


I got to the car today to find a little dead chick on bonnet. It had obviously fallen from a nest in the tree above and had made rather a mess, poor thing. I used a plastic fork to scrape it off, and buried it under a nearby bush.

This afternoon I taught a group of corporate types how to sing Shine by Take That in 3-part harmony. The whole event took place at the Emirates Stadium, which added equal doses of glamour and surrealism to the proceedings, particularly when I was royally told off by a building porter for driving too quickly in the underground car park. He pointed at a circular sign which read “5 mph” and said “can you see that?” “yes” I replied, “well why were you driving like a maniac?” “Probably because I’ve only just seen that sign” I said. I genuinely hadn’t seen any other signs, and as I drove out of the car park at the end of the day, I couldn’t find another one. If driving at 15 mph constitutes lunatic behaviour then I'm guilty as charged.

Apart from being made to feel like a school boy by a man in grey trousers and a fancy blazer carrying a walkie-talkie, I had a great deal of fun at the gig, and more importantly, I think the conference delegates enjoyed themselves as well. It’s amazing what you can teach to a group of people who genuinely want to learn something. Corporate gigs can be absolute hell, but this one was brilliant.

The company who hired me belongs to my friends Lisa and Mark, who so tragically lost a son in childbirth just over a year ago. Today was my opportunity to tell them both that I'd decided to dedicate The London Requiem to the little lad. I think still born children are too often forgotten. Perhaps because they never opened their eyes or breathed the same breath as us, some people think their deaths are more easy to deal with, which must be almost impossible for the parents. Little George died whilst I was writing the requiem, and his death had a deeply profound effect on me. I hope  that my dedicating the work to him means his name will live on and that my tiny gesture is of some consolation to Lisa and Mark who have been to hell and back. Lisa seemed genuinely thrilled and hugely touched.

I've just returned from Smithfields where Brother Edward treated me to a glorious Italian meal in a vegetarian restaurant. The irony of the restaurant being within a stone's throw of the world famous meat market has only just struck me, but it's some of the most amazing food I've ever eaten. The place is called Amico Bio, and what is it they say in West End reviews? Walk over hot coals to get there!

May 18th, 1662 was a Sunday, and Pepys went to the pew at Whitehall reserved specifically for the clerk of the Privy Seal... which was he. He heard a wonderful sermon delivered by a Coventrian followed by a “brave anthem” sung by composer Henry Cooke. All this took place in the presence of Charles II. It was apparently a treat to see him taking the sacrament on his knees.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Fish fingers


I’m cooking tea. I’ve designed a new mushroom burger, which is made out of mushrooms, breadcrumbs, port, potatoes and herbs. It’s well lush. Imagine the tastiest thing in the world, and times it by five. Nathan’s a very lucky man to have it two nights running!

I read with sadness about the death of Donna Summer today. She apparently had “a long battle with cancer.” I’m never quite sure what a “long battle” is. It’s one of the things that people say about cancer, like you’re going to do anything other than battle the dreadful disease as hard as you can. Whether or not you dig the whole disco vibe or understand the crazy “am I a Lezza or a God-fearing Christian?” thing, there’s no denying that the woman had some decent pipes on her and some serious gall for singing (or should that be feeling) “Love to Love You Baby.”Abigail’s Party would never have been as good without it!

My mushroom burgers have already gone wrong. I think I’ve added too much potato and they’ve become the consistency of melted plastercine, which it’s going to be impossible to fry. I tried to scoop the mixture out of the bowl but it immediately coated my entire hand like a dose of Glastonbury mud. I have now scraped the gloopy mess into a dear little porcelain dish and thrown it in the oven the dry out. Obviously the dish is going to crack with the heat, and the mud-like mixture is going to spill all over the floor of the oven, thereby destroying tea, activating my hypoglycaemia, causing a horrible stench and turning what was a lovely day into a disaster of Biblical proportions. That, or I can just stick a Linda McCartney burger on instead.

When I see fish fingers on the television I want to eat them. Is this strange? As a card carrying vegetarian, I find it slightly worrying. I know I’m more drawn to the little radioactive breadcrumbs on the outside than the fish itself, but I have a vague memory of eating fish fingers soaked in vinegar as a child, at the little poor girl’s house who lived in a prefab in a wood by Sandy television mast. I seem to remember quite enjoying them even though I didn’t think much to the little girl’s companionship, or her house, for that matter, which genuinely smelt of pig poo. I have, of course, entirely forgotten what fish tastes like in my adult years. I often eat bacon and chicken-flavoured things, so I don’t think the taste of meat would surprise me a great deal, but Nathan laughed recently when I asked if fish tasted like the sea. I guess I’ve started to imagine that fish fingers might taste like Haloumi cheese wrapped in hyperactivity-inducing orange grains, and I think this would be a somewhat enjoyable sensation.  

May 17th, 1662 was a Saturday and Pepys went to dinner at the Wardrobe with one Mrs Sanderson, whom he described as “mother-of-the-maids.” There’s very little to suggest what this title involved; one assumes she had a fairly distinguished role in Charles II’s court. In any case, she went with Pepys and Lady Jemima to Paternoster Row to buy the latter a petticoat to wear when the new Queen arrived in London.

On his way home, Pepys called in to see his brother, the tailor, who was altering a black velvet cloak which Pepys had bought off his friend, the lawyer, Henry Moore. Pepys bought the garment for just over 8l, a full two pounds more than Moore had paid for it. Who’d have thought that black velvet coats appreciated in value? Just like Morgan cars, only black... and made of fabric.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Going cross-eyed


I’m slowly edging towards putting the final touches to this present draft of my Requiem. At the end of this stage, the chorus parts will have been set in stone, and sent out to all the singers. I’ll then do one more pass on the work, probably in about a month’s time when my ears are fresh. The purpose of this final draft will be to thin out and simplify some of the orchestrations before the studio sessions begin. I still feel the work is too big; too grand in places, which could well end up becoming slightly imprenetrable; like one long yawn, really, hugely satisfying to begin with, but then exhausting in the extreme.
I worked in the cafe, as usual, this morning. A middle-aged woman opposite me was being shown how to use Facebook by a friend who was probably of a similar age. It never ceases to amaze me how bewildering some people find the concept of technology. I’m a proper Luddite myself, but the questions this woman was asking were something else! Her friend, however, was being incredibly patient, and the scene became really quite touching. I consider myself to be very lucky to be part of a generation who were sucked into the information age whilst we were still young enough for it to seem exciting and important. As I get older, I find myself becoming more set in my ways, and more freaked out by anything I consider unneccessary. I don’t feel the need to have anything happen any faster, or with any better definition and I'm certainly not interested in learning a different set of "relevant" skills, so with every new gadget and piece of computer software, I find myself becoming increasingly resistant and cynical.
Mark my words, in 20 years time, I'll be sitting in a cafe, in something of a tizzy because the world has passed me by!

350 years ago, Pepys wrote a very short diary entry. He spent the day working in his office. There was little else to say... thankfully.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Red sky in the morning...


I've just spent the afternoon with Mick Harding from the wonderful Circus Envy, a band who played on A Symphony for Yorkshire. We walked all over central London from King's Cross, where I met his train, through Bloomsbury, around Soho, Piccadilly and Covent Garden. It was genuinely lovely to see him. He grew up in Northamptonshire, so his part-Yorkshire, part-Daventry tones started to pull my accent all over the place.

Our walk was accompanied by every type of weather known to man, lovely sunshine, brutal grey clouds, a strong breeze and then thunder and hail of such ferocity that there were flash floods on Old Compton Street. We sat drinking coffee under an awning, feeling dry and incredibly smug, but what on earth is happening to the weather?!

I dropped Nathan off at Kentish Town train station this morning, at the ungodly hour of 4.30am. He’s flown to Malaga to do a singing gig. The flight departed from Gatwick, which ought to be the most difficult London airport to get to from up here, but fortunately there’s a brilliant train service which runs from Luton to Brighton via a number of useful North London train stations, so his journey was likely to be relatively painless. We arrived at Kentish Town so early, however, that we had to access the station via its night entrance. It was delightful driving back to Highgate as the sun rose into a sky smeared with streaks of pinky red. The birds were doing a crazy dawn chorus, but the warning signs were there. “Red sky at night shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.”

I went back to bed, but was vaguely aware of the sounds of Paul and Fiona creeping down from the loft about half an hour later. Paul is heading back to the US today via Heathrow airport. A couple of hours later, Fiona and I met in the kitchen and stared disbelievingly out of the window at the heavy rain. “The weather looked so promising” she said “when I was waiting for the taxi with Paul. I went back to bed and then there was the sound of a monsoon on your roof.”

Stephen from Ebor Vox just phoned from one of the choir rehearsals in York. Apparently the “scratch” choir has started to make a very lovely noise, and he seemed flushed with excitement. It’s so odd to think that my music is being sung as I write, some 200 miles away from London.

350 years ago, bells across London were being rung, and bonfires were being lit “for the joy of the Queen’s arrival.” Catherine de Breganza, the Portuguese princess betrothed to Charles II, had arrived in Portsmouth on the previous evening. Pepys, however, in brutally frank terms described the joy as “not particularly thorough, an indifferent [joy] in the hearts of people, who are much discontented at the pride and luxury of the Court, and running in debt.” How little society changes in 350 years.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Going Nuts in May!

Right now I reckon I'm about one computer crash away from nervous collapse! I'm just about coping, just about breathing, but one minor catastrophe, and I'm going down like a dirty whore!  I'm plainly enduring fairly high levels of stress at the moment because I've managed to leave my favourite hat in one of the cafes I've been working in this afternoon. I loved that hat, but there's no way it's coming back to me. It's too cool. Someone will have nicked it. The next time I'll see it, it'll be hanging off the quiff of some rancid twink down Old Compton Street. I'll ask for it back, but it will cause a fight involving a handbag, fake tan and an eyelash curler! I'm off to another rehearsal tonight with the Fleet singers. I deliberately hung around in Soho after a meeting in an attempt to miss the rush hour, but forgot that rush hour in central London goes on later than it does in the regions.  Tottenham Court Road station was rammed, and to add insult to injury, my Oyster card decided not to work. It's one of the worst feelings in the world. The queue behind me tutted  in unison and angry commuters started to reverse into an ever-growing crowd of people in the ticket hall... and it was all my fault. I'd become one of the people I tut at!  Panicking, I hit my wallet hard on the reader three times, which did the trick. Sometimes you've just got to be firm with inanimate objects to show them who's boss! As I eventually passed through the barriers, an LU staff member came bounding over like Tigger. I thought he was going to tell me off for getting brutal with the card reader, but he actually just wanted to inform me that the Oyster card was probably not working because my Barclay card's chip (or something) was interfering with it. He suggested I try keeping the two cards as far apart in my wallet as possible, which I thought was very good advice. I don't know if  all credit cards cause these problems or if it's specifically just a Barclays phenomenon.  The man sitting next to me on the tube smelt of red wine and cheese, which is a curious and not altogether pleasant aroma outside of a 1970s kitchen! Incidentally, the dreadful piece of music I wrote about in yesterday's blog originates in Mike Leigh's Nuts In May. The original version was meant to be irritating, which makes its incarnation in the advert even more tragic!  14th May, 1662, and Pepys went to see Lady Sandwich at the Wardrobe who was in a fluster about Lady Castlemayne, the King's lover, who was probably the most powerful woman in the country at that time. Lady Sandwich was worried that the King's whore wouldn't give up the reins when Catherine de Breganza was officially crowned. Pepys was worried that she WOULD. He had a major crush on Castlemayne and wanted her to be endlessly happy, whatever that entailed! 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Elizabeth's painters


There’s a DFS advert on the telly at the moment which is driving me insane. Firstly, it’s for sofas, which has got to be one of the dullest things to advertise on telly, but the music which accompanies the advert is just beyond. It's out-of-tune, profoundly repetitive and its words send speers of vomit into the back of my throat. The woman singing it sounds like she's swallowed a mattress. It’s so awful that I've tracked it down. The song is called Tree Hugger and it's by Antsy Pants and Kimya Dawson. The title alone is bad enough but any band which calls itself Antsy Pants is surely on a hiding to nowhere. They say a problem shared is a problem solved, so I’d love someone else to share the mind-numbing pain. Here it is. Listen and weep.

I worked in a cafe in Soho today. Nathan was doing a Sunday shift at the theatre, so I decided to venture into town with him. Soho on a Sunday morning is a curiously peaceful place; refreshingly empty and half-closed. I found a corner of a Starbucks and worked until about 3pm, which felt a little token, but it was a Sunday.

I met Nathan for an incredibly late lunch at Di’s Diner on Wardour Street. The place is a bit of a Mecca for West End Wendies and, like many little cafes in the theatre district, the walls are covered in framed, signed, 1980s head-shots of long-forgotten celebrities. The ubiquitous Anita Dobson was obviously taking pride of place; beaming down at the world from the top of a fake Welsh dresser. I was pretty certain I'd find a signed head shot of Dorian from Birds of a Feather but Dobson's was the only face I recognised. There was a photograph of a black guy with a quiff which threatened to take him into orbit, an actress who looked familiar and might have been called Janet, a trio of "zany" cabaret performers pulling "funny" faces, a still from a film with a man dressed in Nazi uniform, and a young comic in a bobble hat. Ah! The brutal transience of Celebrity culture. One minute you’re posing for a photograph with Vaseline smeared across the lens to cover the crow’s feet and the next you’re on Dancing On Ice.  Do these celebrities carry their headshots with them when they go to cafes in the West End just in case?

Nathan’s just got back from work carrying yet another parking ticket; this one for parking on a single yellow line – on a Sunday. £65. He might as well not have gone to work. It's high time that the rules for parking on single yellow lines were cleared up, not simply on a council-by-council level, but nationally. I am sick and tired of stealth taxes on car drivers.

350 years ago, Elizabeth Pepys had the painters in, so Pepys made a beeline for the front door, and spent the day wondering around the City of London finding things to do, paying his bills at the bookshops in St Paul’s Churchyard before returning home to ensconce himself in a room the other side of the house, playing music, reading and drinking wine. How sympathetic.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The smell of rain on a cornfield

I'm in Totteridge and Whetstone; a peculiar place which feels unlike anywhere else in London. It smells rural; the sweet aroma of rain on a dusty cornfield, blended with the subtle whiff of marijuana! This truly is the place where London collides with the green belt.

The sun has been shining all day and has obviously encouraged the plants to grow, shed seeds, burst into flower and release all the smells and pollens that the rain has been cheerfully suppressing. I've actually become a little sniffly and itchy for the first time this year. Hay fever ahoy!

We've just had a charming dinner with our friends Jem and Ian. Wonderful company, lots of laughter and some fabulous food; the perfect pick-me-up following an exhausting day spent deep within the Dies Irae from my requiem. The combination of a 7/8 time signature and a shed load of quavers means I'm forced to comb through the music with almost forensic precision.

Pepys went to Hampton Court Palace for a day trip 350 years ago. He travelled there by boat with his wife and an unnamed group of ladies. They were lucky enough to be treated to a tour of the palace which included a sneaky peek at the chambers which had been set up for the Portuguese Queen-to-be. There were gifts from royals from across Europe; a looking-glass from the Queen Mother in France, a spectacular bed from someone in Holland and many brave paintings. Ever the nosy Parker, Pepys was in his element.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Fleet memories


I’ve been rehearsing with the Fleet Singers tonight. They’ve now got to the end of the piece of music I wrote for them albeit in very broad strokes, but at least they know the nature of the beastie. There’s quite a mountain to climb, but the gradient will be considerably lessened if everyone now goes away with their music and does the necessary homework for us to spend future rehearsals finessing sound rather than note-bashing.
They’re a fabulous bunch. The wonderful thing about this project is that it deals with the genuine memories of a group of people. Each member of the choir was asked to provide two memories from the past sixty years; the only stipulation was that they needed to come from two separate decades. It was remarkable to discover quite how diverse the group is. They come together in a Hampstead Methodist church every Monday night,  and on the surface of things, ought to be fairly similar, but the lives which delivered them to this particular place and time couldn’t have been more different. There are people from Trinidad, Jamaica and South Africa. One woman camped for some time at Greenham Common, another kept a crow as a pet. They've all had experiences which have triggered the most fascinating conversations. 
I think my generation has an incredible amount to learn from those who fought for human rights in the mid 20th Century, and quite a lot to feel grateful for. I spoke to a chap today who’d been on the original Aldermaston March. He used to protect left wing politicians when they spoke at rallies and demonstrations in North London. Speaking to him made me realise how full of optimism those times must have been.

I think it’s probably a result of a combination of stress and a sedentary lifestyle, but I have a very tender left arm; a sort of neuralgia-like sensation. At the moment Nathan has something similar on the left hand side of his face. It’s strange that we’re simultaneously experiencing the same sinister pains (both meanings of the word).

May 11th, 1662 was a Sunday, and the usual preacher at St Olave’s Church was out of town, so Pepys and the congregation were forced to suffer a “dull, flat Presbiterian.” There was stewed beef for lunch with pickled sturgeon sent in a barrel by the unfortunately named Captain Cock. In the afternoon, Pepys went to St James’ Park, where he saw the King, officially no longer in mourning - though God knows I can’t remember who’d died - who was wearing a suit laced with gold and silver, which sounds very fancy, but the general consensus was that it was a touch old-fashioned. Pepys stayed the night at his friend, Captain Ferrers’ house, but the bed was too soft, and it was so muggy that he didn’t sleep at all.
It stopped raining last night.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

When will the rain stop?


Cas the rat still seems a little lost as he scampers around the living room. He's spent rather a lot of time hiding away today, although he was never the most gregarious creature. I wish he could talk. My instinct is to pick him up and give him lots of attention, but I’m not sure that’s something he’d appreciate. He must be lonely. He must be.

The requiem re-writes continue at a snail’s pace. I realise I’m now putting an abnormal amount of pressure on myself to make it as good as it can be and as a result have started to question my abilities, really for the first time in my life. I guess when I write music for a film, I’m aware that there’s a visual aspect which can divert the audience, and because of this, I suspect I’m much more capable of being objective. With the requiem, I’m very much on the inside, swimming around within the harmonies, seemingly unable to take enough of a step back to decide whether I’ve written something marvellous or something which is hopelessly over-scored; a vaguely depressing, incredibly static mush. I have never had a great success as a composer and at the back of my mind I keep wondering whether this is because I've never written something which COULD be hugely successful, or simply because I'm just not very good! This constant self-doubting is very rare for me but since the court case, it's occupied a small but very definite place in my mind. I reckon I ought to sue someone! Take the cow back to court!

I suspect I’m not going to have a great deal to say for myself for the next few days because I'm utterly engulfed by the process of writing on one hand, and trying to book string players on the other. I suspect anything I write in this blog will be highly compromised by the fact that my days are concertinaing into one rather endless  and incredibly dull routine at the moment. I get up, I go to the cafe, I write, I come home, I cook lunch, I write, I blink, three hours have passed, I move to the sitting room and switch the television on for company, I write with headphones plugged into my ears, whilst a parade of daytime quizzes flashes past. At 8pm, Nathan calls to tell me he’s on his way back from work. I realise the day is over, I stop writing and turn my attention to the blog and thoughts about what we might eat for our tea and what we might watch on the telly tonight. It gets dark. It rains. It’s a hugely sedentary existence, but part of me doesn’t care. I just need to make sure the requiem is good. I look forward to little things; the next cup of tea, a little walk to the kitchen... It’s a peculiar existence.

How did it get to be May? How did I get to be 37? When will it stop raining, please? The humidity is making me ill.

350 years ago, Londoners were still keenly anticipating the arrival of their new Queen. The King’s mistress, Lady Castlemayne continued to lord it around town, outrageously spending the night in the King’s chambers at Hampton Court. No one seemed to know what effect her flagrant behaviour might have on the forthcoming nuptials. I guess the prevailing sense was that she ought to make herself scarce so that the King could focus on the delecate political task of uniting England and Portugal through sex.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Punch and Judy


I’m a bit stuck and a bit frustrated. It’s taking me a profound amount of time to re-write the Kyrie movement from my Requiem. It's like pulling teeth. The changes I’m making are so subtle, that I defy anyone to really notice them, but sometimes that’s the nature of rewrites. More often than not I’m simply trying to make the music more enjoyable for the performers, whilst going through the harmonies with a finetooth comb to make sure nothing clashes sonically. But, after nine hours work, if I played it back to Nathan, I don't think he'd spot the differences.

I’m simultaneously trying to book string players for the recording. I’ve never known so many of my regulars to be doing other things, which is really sad, because when you do an important session like this, it’s vital to be able to look out at a set of friendly faces. If you’re booking unknown players, you don’t have a sense of their abilities, their working methods, or their temperaments. It’s pot luck - and I hate leaving things to chance.

I continue to see Pol out of the corner of my eye running about in the sitting room. The sightings are always accompanied by a little pang of sadness. Cas seems lonely and subdued. I’m trying to give him as much attention as I can, and as many treats, but he has no idea what’s going on. He just knows the thing that used to groom him and cuddle up next to him has disappeared for some reason. Perhaps he's waiting for him to come back. He likes paper, so I’m going to scatter some choice pieces across the living room floor tonight to give him a bit of a boost!

Friday 9th May, 1662, and Pepys went to visit the artist Emanuel de Cretz to look at some of his copies of paintings by (amongst others) Raphael and Michelangelo. Pepys came away with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which he sent home with Will Hewer. In a mood for fine art,  hethen went to a pub in Covent Garden where a fine picture was hanging and on sale for 20s. Pepys offered 14s, knowing it was worth a great deal more, but the offer wasn’t accepted, and he confessed to being pleased because he’d vowed not to waste huge sums of money.

In an aside, Pepys then went on to write that, still in Covent Garden, he went to see “an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants.” It was a passing comment, and he obviously didn’t realise it, but this quote has gone down in history as the first ever recorded reference to Punchinello, which became the much loved Punch and Judy.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Poor Pol


We returned from Worthing rather late last night and lost track of time in front of the telly watching Britain’s Got Talent and Glee. Just before bed we realised that we’d been neglecting the rats, Castor and Pollux, so decided to take them out of their cage so that they could run around the living room during the night.

Unfortunately, Pol was looking rather sorry for himself. He’s not been well lately, and for the past three weeks has been  getting rather thin, whilst slowly losing the use of his back legs. This is one of the danger signs with rats. They are prone to vestibular disease, which causes them to lose their balance and then the ability to use their tongues which means, unaided, they eventually starve to death.

Pol had gone all floppy, and when we tried to feed him a little treat, he tried desperately to eat it, but had lost the ability to chew. We wrapped him up warm, opened his mouth and gave him a few spoonfuls of sugary Ribena, and left him for the night.

He was a great deal worse this morning. The poor little fella could barely open his eyes, and seemed listless, unbalanced and very sorry for himself. He couldn’t eat anything and merely curled himself up in a corner of the cage, lying on his back, unable to turn himself over.

We took him to the vet in Canonbury and the news wasn’t good. The problem with rats is that very few vets truly understand them. Ours could only make wild guesses as to what the problem was but he didn’t seem to think there was much chance that Pol would get any better without invasive investigations which ran the risk of killing him anyway. In our heart of hearts we knew he was right, because the little creature had been showing all the signs of some sort of terminal illness.

So we made the decision to have him put down.

My God...

I’m struggling to find the words to say how awful it was. I know he’s only a little rat, but he’s lived with us for two years and been through all sorts of emotional problems in that time. About six months ago, however, when we finally began to understand him, and worked out how to handle him, he mellowed into a delightful, loving little pet.

I've never witnessed euthanasia before and it was deeply traumatic. I kept wanting to scream out and tell the vet to stop. “Let him come home with us – let him die naturally – this isn’t our decision to make.” The vet was hugely sympathetic. I think he was genuinely moved to see two grown men weeping like children over a tiny rat. He struggled to administer the injection and there were several false alarms, and poor Pol started screaming and lashing out. He bit Nathan – and put up such an astonishing fight, which just made everything feel so much worse. The injection plainly really hurt him and I'm not sure he was ready to die.

After the injection, it took about ten minutes before his heart stopped beating. We cuddled him as the breathing got shallower and shallower. A few twitches, a sigh and it was all over. We carried him away in his little box.

We buried him in Queen’s Wood, just underneath a tree, close to where we buried Maud, our last rat.

Heaven knows what Castor will do without Pollux. I hope he doesn’t just fade away.
Lovely Pol, 27th June 2010-8th May 2012

350 years ago, news came to London that the future Queen of England’s flotilla was making its way steadily along the south coast of England, having been spotted off the coast of Cornwall three days ago. Queen Catherine's journey from Portugal had been hellish by all accounts. There were terrible storms, which very nearly ripped the boats apart, and Queen Catherine had terrible bouts of sea sickness. Contemporary accounts suggest she remained dignified throughout, much assisted by Lord Sandwich, who brought musicians to her cabin every night to keep her spirits up.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Worthing

We've been in Worthing all day ensconced in producer PK's little attic studio whilst recording a demo of the last movement of the Requiem. It's been a relaxed, laughter-filled day and I'm confident that after PK has waved his magical wand, we're going to have a lovely little recording to send off to you know who. Well you would know who if I didn't think that by announcing the name we'd instantly jinx any prospect of working with the world's most iconic living singer!

Fiona jumped on the coastal train at Hove Actually, armed with her Klotz violin and husband, Paul. She appeared in the attic, tuned up, dragged her bow across the E string and instantly brought my music to life. In that important moment the Requiem ceased to be a concept and I became a happy man.

Julie sang the lead vocal with simplicity and deep emption, and Nathan, Michelle and I created an ad-hoc choir, which will hopefully add a lovely dimension to the demo. I love Michelle. Just one of her wistful smiles would power a hundred lightbulbs!

It rained all day, but the sun suddenly appeared as we recorded Julie's vocals; her flame-red hair suddenly became a burning fire.

On the way home we stopped at Worthing's famous pebble beach, essentially so that I could smell the sea air and jump up and down a bit in the sunshine. Nathan and I had a race across the shingle and down to the water's edge. It was a strange sensation, peculiarly exhausting and weirdly destabilising. I ended up in a little heap at Julie's feet. It took me the best part of the journey home to feel well again!

All days should be like this; un-pressurised, fun-packed, creative, surrounded by good people, and filled with promise and hope. It reminded me of the days in the mid 90s that Julie, Arnold Wesker and I travelled up and down the country looking for backers for our production of Letter To a Daughter. Anything seemed possible then, as it does now. I feel more alive and optimistic today than I have in many years.


350 years ago Pepys spent the day gallivanting around town listening to tittle-tattle and watching the glorious ladies on display in their coaches in Hyde Park.

News finally came about the future Queen of England who was still on her epic journey from Portugal. Her flotilla of ships had been spotted, however, somewhere near the Isles of Scilly. Surely it would only be a matter of days before she made her much anticipated grand entrance in Portsmouth? But would anyone have bothered to wait around that long to greet her?  Surely anyone who was anyone was wheeling around in a coach in Hyde Park?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The terrible crush


Today Penny and I went to the open day at Tower Hamlets Victorian cemetery. It’s quite astonishing how many forgotten green spaces there are nestling in unexpected corners of London. The cemetery covers an enormous area which is almost completely overgrown. Scores of wild flowers poke up between the broken graves.

A variety of little stalls had been set up between the trees. Children were having their faces painted, people were selling plants and demonstrating various traditional crafts like fence-making and stone-carving. A group of old women dressed like Victorians were sitting behind a little tombola stall, another group was selling delicious cakes. The event wasn’t hugely well-attended, in fact it made me feel a little sad. When people go to a great deal of effort to create something special, I think they deserve for it to be successful, although perhaps the organisers were happy with the turn out.

We’d gone there to meet representatives from the Bethnal Green Memorial Trust who are tirelessly attempting to raise funds to create a monument to the people who died at Bethnal Green tube station on March 3rd 1943. It’s a tragic, little-known story, which was completely covered-up during the Second World War, because it was deemed to be so potentially demoralising for Londoners. In short, a false air-raid siren sounded, which rather unfortunately coincided with a decision by the military to test missiles in Victoria Park. People heard the bangs, panic ensued, there was a stampede, a woman tripped on a staircase, and within a few seconds 173 people had been crushed to dead, many of them children.

We were taken to a quiet and particularly overgrown corner of the cemetery to see some of the graves of the dead, all of which were tiny, obviously because the majority of people who'd died in the disaster were so poor. The graves were sinking into the undergrowth and the smell of wild garlic was almost overwhelming. I stared at them, trying to comprehend what had happened, whilst attempting to work out what some of the faded inscriptions said. I could only make out a couple of words on one of them; “death comes in unexpected forms at unexpected hours.” For a few seconds the sound of birds singing in the trees above me was deafening.

We were lucky enough to interview one of the survivors of the incident who was overcome with emotion. He’d lost his father and grandparents in the crush and today was the first time he’d seen their graves. His father had been buried in the same coffin as one of their neighbours’ babies; one assumes because they couldn’t afford or didn’t want their child to be buried alone. He cried a great deal as he talked to us; trying to remember details, recalling going back to school on the Monday after the event to find half the seats in his classroom empty. His mother, who was badly injured, never spoke about the incident. I suspect this was one of the reasons why it still felt so raw for him. I don't think he'd ever been given a chance to grieve.  He cleared away some of the undergrowth from around his father's grave and with great dignity placed a little pot plant at its foot, which he'd bought for a pound at one of the stalls. Heartbreaking.

As we returned to our car, which was parked underneath a gloomy-looking railway arch, we found a lone red rose growing out of the ground; no bush – almost as though someone had picked it and tried to replant it. I didn’t know roses could grow without bushes and on stalks directly out of the ground, but it was as beautiful and magical and sad and lonely as the cemetery which surrounded it.

350 years ago, Pepys had a chair delivered to his roof terrace, which he took great delight in sitting on whilst staring out across the city. It was obviously a lovely day, because he returned to the terrace with his wife in the evening, saying how difficult it was to “settle to business after so much leisure and pleasure.”