Saturday, 30 June 2012

Balanescu String Quartet

It’s Nathan’s birthday, but we only managed breakfast together before zooming off in separate directions. I bought him some wool. He’s all about the wool at the moment, having recently become a very talented sock designer. Who’d have thought!?

Today, I sat in the wonderful West Heath Studio in West Hampstead listening to the Balanescu String Quartet playing their sequences in The London Requiem. There are no real words to describe how exciting it is to hear a legendary quartet interpret your music. The Balanescu specialise in taking music to a different level. Twee is not a word you’d ever be able to use to describe their playing. They are ferociously talented players, but they come alive when you ask them to shake things up a bit; add an extra bit of colour, an extra dimension.

I am thrilled to announce that they will be playing at the live premier of the work in Abney Park cemetery on September 29th.

I am also thrilled to show you all this photograph of the guys, which I took after the session. I think it’s the absolute antithesis of a string quartet publicity shot. It somehow feels incredibly appropriate.

Tomorrow the vocal sessions begin and very soon we’ll have a proper piece of music. I’m officially excited.

350 years ago, Pepys arrived at the office to find a maid cleaning. “God forgive me!” he wrote “what a mind I had to her, but did not meddle with her.” Thankfully...

He spent the afternoon, very randomly, boring holes into the wall, so that he could see from his closet (in the house next door where he lived) into the great office, one assumes to spy on people from the comfort of his own house... but a very bizarre thing to do in my view.

He spent the afternoon in the company of Lady Carteret, gossiping, showing her boats in Deptford, and then his house in Seething Lane (where I was only yesterday) where Pepys “took great pride to lead her through the Court by the hand, she being very fine, and her page carrying up her train.”

Friday, 29 June 2012

The stairway to heaven

My day started at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in the East End. We have been shooting sequences for the ten films which are being made about The London Requiem. Each movement of the work has its own film, all of which will be displayed on The Space (

Our first interview was with a charming old lady called Doreen, who talked to us a little about Victorian gravestone symbolism, which is a genuinely fascinating subject matter. Death in Victorian times was something of an industry, which I'm convinced is largely due to the fact that Victorians could control almost anything; steam, water, electricity and diseases, but they couldn't stop people from dying. Perhaps as a result, the mystery of death fascinated them. It became grand and ritualised. As people grew wealthier and more class-obsessed, so they showed off with ostentatious tomb stones, mausoleums and monuments. Hidden symbols gave clues to the occupation of the grave's occupant, how he'd died, where he'd lived, whether his wife had gone first and even his secret religious leanings. There was a symbol for everything.

After bidding a fond farewell to Doreen, we interviewed one of the maintenance officers at the Cemetery Park, who talked with fabulous enthusiasm about how important the space had become as a nature reserve.

From Tower Hamlets, we went to Bethnal Green to interview people about the Stairway to Heaven campaign, which aims to finally build a monument to the 180-odd people who died in the wartime stampede and crush at that station. One of the women we spoke to had lost a cousin and a grandmother in the tragedy. The details are horrific. Many of the most seriously disfigured bodies belonged to women, who had died in strange contortions in a vain attempt to protect the children who were crushed underneath them.

We stood and looked down the staircase where it happened; just 19 steps. It's almost inconceivable that so many people died there; but in a crush of this nature, which happened in the dark, as people fall, they stick their hands out, which means everyone becomes horribly intertwined. It's almost impossible therefore to pull people out, and the result is slow suffocation. The woman we spoke to said that her grandmother was heard to scream "they're treading on me, they're killing me" before she died. It took the family hours to identify her body in the morgue. In those last traumatic moments, her hair had turned from jet black to snow white. Almost inconceivable.

After lunch we returned to the cemetery and I did a series of pieces to camera about my requiem, perched on gravestones, basking in the sunshine, surrounded by wild flowers. Believe me, it doesn't get much better than that.

From Tower Hamlets to Westminster Bridge. Each of the films is being presented by a different member of the choir and today was the turn of Anthony, one of our tenors. We walked in tiny circles on the bridge, trying to avoid the hell of waving tourists, a low, bright sun, horrid high winds and pretty much every piece of rubbish the location wanted to chuck at us!

It's now 8.30pm, and this workaholic has returned to Highgate cemetery in the hope that it might yield a few decent bird noises, or something, which I might use as atmospheric sound for the recording.

I think I need to knock things on the head and go home for a nice bit of food and put my feet up however. I have a seemingly unending week. I must try to recharge the batteries!

Pepys did his accounts for the end of June on this date 350 years ago and discovered himself worth 650l, the largest amount he'd ever possessed. To celebrate, he took his wife to church, and gloried in her new "green petticoat of flowered satin with fine white and gimp lace of her own putting on."

He met up with Sir William Penn in the evening, who was being suspiciously nice. Pepys was unimpressed, and assumed the rogue was up to no good; "I shall never be deceived again by him again, but do hate him and his traitorous tricks with all my heart." 17th Century dissing was an art form!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Angel Studios

A very relieved man is writing this blog tonight; a man who has spent the day at Angel Studios recording strings for the London Requiem. It is difficult to imagine how the session could have gone any better. Angel Studios is not cheap, but arriving in a space which has already been set up for your session - so professionally that players don't even need to shuffle their chairs about - is worth its weight in gold. The studio engineers were beyond top notch; completely on the ball, and almost psychically attentive.

Sam conducted. I didn't have to get sweaty. I could sit back, relax and focus on the sound that was being brought to me by the extraordinary players. At one stage, during the Gradual and Tract, I became absolutely overcome with emotion. The strings finished their sequence and Sir Arnold's vocal kicked in. It sounded raw and filled with emotion; a voice in the wilderness. I suppose it was a mixture of pride and joy that I felt. The music I've written in this requiem is filled to the brim with little pieces of me; and hearing it coming alive for the first time was a heart-stopping moment. I explained to the strings that the melody they'd just played was dedicated to Jacqueline du Pre. I didn't tell them that I'd sat writing it at the foot of her grave. That felt a little too much, but I suspect, because they played it with such great tenderness, that they knew it had come from somewhere important to me.

I am beginning to think this recording could be something very special indeed. I just received this email from one of the string players:

It was an incredible day. I can honestly say I haven't enjoyed a session like that in quite some time.
I was moved too and am proud to have been part of it.

350 years ago, a genteel woman, claiming to be a relative of our hero, paid Pepys a visit, and asked to borrow 10s, which she promised to pay back that evening. Unsurprisingly she failed to return. More surprisingly, Pepys revealed that she'd played the very same trick on him on a previous occasion; "I shall trust her no more" he wrote. I wouldn't have given her a second chance!

Pepys spent the entire day in the office and went to bed, writing that his "mind is now in a wonderful condition of quiet," on account of all the work he'd been doing in the office of late. "business" he wrote, "is a delight to me."

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Westminster Shabby

In the style of my great hero, Pepys, I have walked today through all corners of London, starting bright and early at Westminster Abbey. I went there, essentially, to take a photograph of the plaque to Lewis Carroll in Poet's Corner, which features in the Requiem. Sadly, as I arrived, the first sign I saw informed me that photography was strictly banned and the place was riddled with offical-looking people, so that was £16 down the pan!

Nevertheless, I decided to stay and have a look around the place because I’d never visited Westminster Abbey before. I also used the experience to record a few blasts of atmospheric sound in the building. I became quite excited by the weird sibilant noises and echoey squeaks of groups of tourists trying to keep quiet.

It’s a funny sort of building. It reminded me of the John Soane museum. It’s like someone emptied a bag of enormous treasures into a building and someone just pushed them to the sides and stacked them up to the ceiling. It's like a hoarder's house; the various tombs, and smaller chapels make everything feel incredibly small and claustrophobic, add to that about a million tourists, and you've got yourself a problem. I didn’t like the place at all. It doesn’t have the majesty of St Paul’s.  It feels a bit pokey! I also HATED the tourists who were rushing through the space with me. None of them seemed at all bothered by the fact that they were in a place of worship and great historical importance. I'm not religious, but I do understand the need for silence in a place like that. I got a very strong sense that people were simply there because they felt it was a place to visit. The kids looked bored. None of the people in the space seemed at all interested in what they were looking at.

I walked from Westminster Abbey to the Thames, firstly to record the chimes of Big Ben, and then to record the sound of the Thames lapping at the beach on the South Bank. To me these are two of the true sounds of London.

From Waterloo, I went up to Kensall Green to stroll around the cemetery there, recording all the sounds I could hear; trains passing, helicopters juddering in the sky, and then sudden blasts of silence when all I could hear were the tweets of birds; blackbirds, robins, pigeons, magpies, and even parakeets. I became obsessed with the hundreds of little chimes hanging from the roses in one of the gardens of peace.

I went home via the dentist in Tufnell Park, where I was fitted for my new gum guard, which will hopefully stop me from grinding my teeth into oblivion.

The rest of the day has been spent doing admin... SO much of it, and I'm creaking under the pressure of it all. More musicians pulled out of tomorrow’s session, so I had to deal with getting information to their replacements. There were bad contracts to renegotiate, piles of manuscript to put into little folders, I had to text all the players for tomorrow's session to make sure they were okay, the first lot of texts I sent didn't reach some people and arrived 4 times in other phones. I'm in a panic about the fact that even my cousin doesn’t feel capable of helping me to sort out contracts to send out to the Requiem backers and performers.

350 years ago, Pepys’ diary entry went on forever. He didn’t say a great deal. Sometimes he used his diary to write down (in minutiae) things that he felt he might be quizzed on at a later point. He’d had a very long chat with Lord Sandwich, and pretty much wrote down every single word of the conversation.

He got home, to find his wife feeling a great deal better:

“Mr. Holliard had been with my wife to-day, and cured her of her pain in her ear by taking out a most prodigious quantity of hard wax that had hardened itself in the bottom of the ear, of which I am very glad.”

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


I woke up in York this morning, and once again it took me a few seconds to remember where (and indeed who) I was. It took about an hour for me to wake up properly. I sat at breakfast staring at the woman's perm on the table next door, for no other reason than because I couldn’t be bothered to move my eyes! She also looked like a labradoodle.

The sun was shining as I walked down Micklegate at 8.30am. It was a hugely pleasurable experience, which was over a little too soon. After about five minutes I'd reached my destination. You tend to forget, when you’re a Londoner, how quickly it’s possible to get from A to B when you’re not in the capital. And, frankly, how much more pleasurable it is to take a leisurely stroll, rather than cramming oneself into a crowded, stinking tube.

We kicked the day off by the side of the Ouse, looking at the boat we’re going to be singing on as part of the flotilla on July 7th. As we arrived, someone was spraying an industrial hose across the mooring and the steps down to the river. Two days ago, the whole area was under a meter of water. The woman who runs the company was at her wits’ end. They've had floods now at least once a month for the past three months. Even if it’s a beautiful sunny day, if the level of the Ouse is too high, the boats won’t go under the bridges, and have to stay moored. She’s laid off most of her casual staff. When we complain about the weather, we forget that it’s actually affecting some people's livelihoods.

From the boatyard, I went up Bootham to BBC Radio York, where I was interviewed for a sort of Desert Island Discs type show. I’d met the presenter, Russell, about two years before, when we were both panellists in the Symphony for Yorkshire auditions. He seemed very well-prepared, and was a very fine interviewer, listening to everything I said, and maintaining eye contact with me throughout. Heaven knows what I burbled on about. CND women, tourettes, electrocutions... We laughed a lot.

I returned to London on the midday train, and then hot-footed it to Islington and St Pancras cemetery to do some more sound recording. It was warm and peaceful there. It’s very much a working cemetery and I walked past a number of burials, and clusters of people who'd come to the graveyard simply to hang out with their loved ones. A family of Irish people had obviously bedded in for the day, sitting on deckchairs around their daughter/ sister’s grave, and as I left, I walked past an enormous group of teenagers, who were obviously there to see a school mate. I was surprised by how many people there were laughing, which I thought was rather lovely. Death doesn't need to be formal. There is no appropriate emotion. The experience reminded me of the grave of Yasi, at Brookwood, which reads “and we laughed and laughed and laughed,” and has gone right to the centre of the Requiem. I’m thrilled to report that I’m going to be meeting Yasi’s brother as part of this extraordinary requiem journey on The Space. It’s a wonderful thought.

350 years ago Pepys had a cold and his wife had earache. There’s not much else to say!

Water everywhere

For a moment, as I exited a tunnel on the train this morning, and found myself staring and blinking at a village nestling in a lime green valley, I had no idea where I was heading. A sure sign that I'm travelling too much at the moment. It turns out I was going to York, and within a few miles, it was obvious I was up north because of the dreadful floods by the sides of the railway tracks. This place has taken a proper hammering. York itself was even flooded; not terribly... but enough to know that something is wrong with the weather.

About 125 of us danced and sang and skipped through the streets of York tonight. The sun was low in the sky and lighting the tops of sandstone buildings. Hot air balloons drifted low above the city. We were rehearsing the Ebor Vox with possibly only about one sixth of the full of amount of singers who will converge on the streets of York in 2 weeks’ time. It’s going to be an astonishing spectacle – young men were even cheering in the streets today - and I'm so touched at the work that many of the choirs have put in to learning the music I’ve written. One particular group, who shall remain nameless, impressed me hugely. They stood to my right when we reached the York Eye and have the most infectious love for singing, which is an absolute joy to behold. I was really proud of so many of the people who joined us this evening; the woman who walked along with her hand in the air keeping count of the number of bars we’d sung, the wonderful characters from the male voice choir who camply serenaded the ladies from the steps of Clifford’s Tower, the young drummers who kept time for 2 hours without complaining. It’s going to be a wonderful occasion; join us on July 9th at about 6pm outside York Minster.

My hotel room up here is less joyous. The bathroom smells of mouldy flannels, and there’s blood spattered on the wall! The hotel Ibis charges £5 for 24 hours’ Internet, and £3.75, I discovered, for a cup of tea and a Mars bar, to a customer who is waiting for his room to be made up. I don’t really mind. The bed’s comfortable enough, and there’s tea and coffee making facilities... and a telly. I’m lucky enough to be next door to the ironing room, so, you know, small mercies and all that...

I'm struggling with the admin for my recording of the Requiem. At the moment I’m simply trying to create a contract for some of the performers and backers, which offers them a cut of the profits, should we make our money back. I sent it to the MU for their opinion and the solicitor tore it apart saying I’d need a proper solicitor and a lot of time to work something out. The advice from the MU is that I should pay the singers more up front, and not offer them a cut of the profits. Problem is, there is no more money up front, and I want people, my friends, to make money if the sales are good. The problem is, when you start paying musicians, the MU suddenly regards you as a contractor. I’m suddenly a record company in their eyes, not a composer, and therefore, their standpoint shifts towards supporting players rather than me. I fully understand why it's happening, but the unfortunate fact is that the big record companies, with their ridiculously complicated contracts and in-house lawyers, are not funding new classical music any more. More and more composers are having to self-fund and self-release albums without any understanding of the legalities involved, and in my view, the MU needs to step up and help composer entrepreneurs, because without us, very little interesting music will be released, and the classical recording world will collapse under the weight of Catherine Jenkins and Rolando Viazon singing the hits from Carmen.

It’s difficult to know what the next step should be. Nathan bore the brunt of my stress in the middle of the night last night when I started thrashing around and screaming in my sleep. I was dreaming about a rocket attack, and trying to push Nathan out of the way of an explosion. I subsequently woke up this morning with an aching jaw. I’d plainly ground my teeth throughout the night. It’s frightening. On Thursday I’m paying 20 string players to perform my music. What if I’m completely off the mark? What if they all start playing in the wrong clef? What if everyone sits there thinking I’m a complete nutter like Florence Foster Jenkins? Of course there’s the other part of me which goes “bring the session on, and watch those musicians weep at the sheer beauty of what you’ve written...” These are seriously the thoughts that bombard a composer when he lies in bed at night. Music is so bloody subjective!

350 years ago, and Pepys was constipated. There we go. Now don’t read on if you have a fragile constitution because Pepys went to lunch with Commissioner Pett and was horrified to find his fish coming to the table covered in “very many little worms creeping,” which he put down to the staleness of the pickle. Absolutely gipping in my view.
He spent the evening playing the violin. Pepys was genuinely meant to have been a pretty useful bass viol player, but the violin is a very different technique, which involves a contortion which can only be coaxed into supple, young bones or the player sounds like he’s sawing wood.  My friend Sharon learned the hard way that it's impossible for an adult to take up the violin. She did a recital of Blow the Wind Southerly at a party I was at. The E string slowly unwound, seemingly without her noticing. 2 people wet themselves, someone laughed so much they farted and then followed through, and I couldn't look at her for the rest of the evening. 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The joy of the unknown

I went to Highgate cemetery with my little recording device at midnight last night, and sat, sheltering from the rain, under the eves of the church which backs onto it. I managed to catch the clock chiming midnight, and also, rather curiously, a number of inexplicable "noises off," including a fairly audible ghostly sigh and the sound of murmuring just before the bells struck, which, for some reason was carried to me from heaven knows where, over the sound of the splashing, pattering rain. 

The entire experience made me somewhat uneasy. I was genuinely quite scared, and rather enjoyed the sensation. It struck me that life is genuinely made more exciting by those things we still can't quite explain. I strive to give my music an air of mysticism, and have always found myself drawn to legends, standing stones and strange atmospheres in buildings. I turned my back on organised religion, not just because I think it's deeply corrupt and damaging, but because what it's offered in 2000 years is pitiful compared to what organised science has offered us in 100. That said, I refuse to turn my back on the thought that everything can, will or even should be explained. 

Only last week, Nathan, the biggest cynic of them all, returned from a gig in Guildford saying he'd seen "what people would probably describe as a ghost." He was using the loo in a hotel room and saw someone walking through the room out of the corner of his eye. If a ghost is an unexplained presence, then a ghost he saw. 

I suppose one of the biggest mysteries of them all is music. Why is it that certain intervals work? What gives some people the power to play or sing a melody with such exquisite beauty that people gasp? What is it about a musical suspension which makes a grown man cry? Yes, of course science will attempt to answer these questions, but the answers will always be speculative. And that's how it should be. It's what makes us tick. It's what makes us know that we're alive. 

350 years ago Pepys was starting to reap the rewards of his new-found diligence in all things work-related. He was even beginning to feel more knowledgeable than his seniors. As the most junior figure in the office, and the only non-titled officer, he was also the man who people tended to pick on when they wanted an easy ride. A man called Edward Field, for example, had major beef with the Navy office and slapped a number of subpoenas specifically on Pepys' head, which our hero was forced to fight in and out of court, until a 1664 act of Parliament, specifically brought about  by the business, gave the Navy board the power of magistracy within the City of London. Take that Mr Field!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

What Olympic legacy?

There's a little cafe stand at the back entrance to Highgate tube. It's owned and run by a pair of Algerians, one of whom is called Samir. The two men take such extraordinary pride in their work. If you approach whilst they're on the phone to someone, they immediately hang up so that they can give their full attention to serving. They remember orders. They smile. They're obviously incredibly intelligent men, who speak beautiful English and French. They're open every morning, even on bank holidays, and when the tubes are closed for engineering works, they're there to pass on information. I feel very proud to give them my custom, and, if they are immigrants, I feel even more proud to welcome them to the UK.

I’ve just watched the news and they’re “and finallying” with images of the massive music festival in Hackney this weekend. Now, I don’t have a problem with anyone staging a large music festival, but I do have a problem when the Cultural Olympiad tries to big up the event as a much needed boost to a troubled area, which will have a long lasting legacy on the young people who live there.

Right, here we go...

1) The people who go to the festival will not just be Hackney residents. In fact, very few of them will be Hackney residents. They’ll be music fans from across the world. A Hackney resident is no more likely to visit a music festival on their own turf than they are a festival in Finsbury Park, or West London, or even Glastonbury.

2) There are music festivals every year in Victoria Park and London Fields. This just isn’t something new. It’s not even something that big.

3) Why would kids be any more likely to be inspired by a live concert than they would by watching singers on the telly? This isn’t an opportunity for young people to learn musical instruments or get a better education. It’s an opportunity for Leona Lewis to promote her new single and lord it over the people she once went to school with.

4) Hackney probably has the largest concentration of artists in the world living within its borders. The kids of Hackney have access to hundreds of activities; theatres, sports centres, dance schools, community projects. When you launch a community project in London, no one wants to do it, ‘cus they’re all too busy doing more exciting things!  A two mile walk from Hackney, and you’re in the West End. Some of the most expensive houses in London are in Hackney. It’s riddled with middle class people. If the cultural Olympiad decided to do a big music concert in Corby or Scunthorpe or Hattersley, then maybe they could argue that they were doing something that would encourage young people to think beyond their natural borders. The kids who have nothing, aren’t those who grow up in inner city estates, they’re those who grow up without any form of stimulus or anything which they can aspire to. I grew up in a town which was effectively a council estate in the countryside. The nearest cinema was five miles away. The nearest theatre was 16 miles away. I was lucky enough to live in a county with a first rate, council-run music system, and furthermore to have parents who encouraged me to dream and look beyond the perimeters of my own town, but about 90% of the kids I went to school with weren’t that lucky. They had no concept of the wider world - and if they had dreams, they were often cruelly stifled. There were kids in my A-level groups who’d never been to London. Our careers advice was this: “some of you might not be able to find the job you want in Rushden... some of you might need to travel as far as Wellingborough...” (4 miles down the road).

I appreciate that this is the London Olympics, and therefore that doing a concert in the Midlands might be hard to justify, but even within London there are areas which are a lot more troubled than Hackney. Just say it like it is. It’s a big music concert. People will enjoy it. Some will take drugs.  Its only legacy will be a few more sales for Jessie J, a couple of hangovers, 500 blurry YouTube films taken from within the audience, and a few shocking photographs for the virtual scrap book. Legacy complete.

I spent much of this afternoon walking around London, a pair of headphones plugged to my ears, recording the sounds of the city for my requiem. I want many sequences of the CD to be recorded against a backdrop of natural sounds, many of which will come from London cemeteries. The Holy Grail is the sound of a siren, which really shouldn’t be that hard to capture in London, but I’m so used to blocking out the sound, that it’s proving almost impossible to remember to switch the recorder on when I hear one! When you’re focussing on sound only, you do enter a very different world, and you hear things through a directional mic which can be really quite disconcerting; the low rumble of a helicopter which continues long after your naked ears have blocked out the sound, the eerie moan of the wind drifting through tall buildings, the deep hum of a passing lorry...

At midnight tonight, I am going to head to Hoop Lane, and stand outside the cemetery recording the sound of rain hitting the gravestones.

350 years ago, and workmen arrived in Pepys’ house to take down all his hangings because of the great amount of dust that was being kicked up during the process of his neighbour’s house being pulled down, and rebuilt with an extra floor. Pepys’ house would similarly be altered.

He spent most of the day “abroad” doing business in various taverns, attempting to avoid large quantities of alcohol, and opting instead for glasses of mum, which was a type of ale brewed with wheat.
Pepys spent the evening looking at ships, and soaking in detailed information about how they were built, which, at the end of the evening, he felt very proud to have learnt.


Yet again I find myself attempting to leave central London in the rush hour. The man next to me smells of creosote and the woman on the other side's perfume has something rather flavoursome about it. It's like being in the cafe of a garden centre.

I ventured into town to meet Nathan for lunch, whose allocated lunch break started at the ludicrously late time of 4.30pm. It's absolutely impossible for a hypoglycaemic individual like me to go that long without food, and I came close to decking a group of Spanish tourists who did nothing but shout at each other in pubophone voices during the seemingly endless tube journey in. I walked along Oxford Street cursing and muttering like a lunatic. The shops angered me, my trousers annoyed me, I even managed to feel irritated by a woman across the street whose legs were too fliddy to pedal her Boris bike. She wasn't in my way. She wasn't in anyone's way. Normally I'd have felt very sorry for her, and possibly even offered her a hand, but in my low-blood-sugar state I just felt terribly cross with her for being so profoundly mal-coordinated. The only thing which touched me was the homeless woman selling a magazine which her dog was proudly displaying in its mouth. I liked the image, and then hated it, worrying the dog was being forced to do something which it wasn't enjoying. I wondered how I would have felt being forced to sit with a magazine stuffed in my mouth for an afternoon. I once had a teacher who made me stand with my nose against a drawing pin. That wasn't much fun.

The weather didn't help my state of mind. It was both horribly muggy, from huge rain storms over night, and incredibly windy. The winds weren't refreshing, however. They simply made me feel like I was in a blast furnace. At one point they took the cup of tea I was holding clean out of my hands. Hot scalding water bounced in the air.

The bus workers are striking. I'm not sure what their point is, but one driver on the news actually said that bus drivers did the most important job in the world; "everyone copes when the tubes go down, and when the trains stop running" he said, "but when the buses stop running, that's it." Um. Thing is, I just took the tube into town. I didn't quite understand his point, and I reckon a medical scientist would give a bus driver quite a run for his money in terms of who has the most important job.

The “Ham and High” reviewed last Saturday’s concert, and said that grown men in the audience had been reduced to tears: “Superbly accompanied by a string quintet and Philip Godfrey’s piano... Dame Janet Suzman was a joy in her beautifully paced narration. This was a brilliant and unexpectedly beautiful evening” the reviewer wrote; “Benjamin Till’s piece... deserves a much wider audience.”  Hurrah!
22nd June, 1662 and there was still a great unease across Britain. Yes, Oliver Cromwell, the figurehead of puritanism was dead and largely discredited, but the puritans themselves, or "fanatiques" as Pepys called them, hadn't gone away. Their voices were growing louder by the minute. Henry Vane, regicide, who'd gone to the block bravely and with great dignity, gave the fanatiques a poster boy. The talk of London was whether or not he'd taken his place in heaven. Pepys didn't know what to think, but it troubled him.

Thursday, 21 June 2012


I reached Leicester Square tube today at pub turfing-out time. Worse still, my oyster card had run out of juice and I had to queue behind a load of "good-natured" piss heads, who'd all forgotten their pin numbers. The smell of cheap alcohol, cloying perfume, wet hair and sicky breath was overpowering.

Heading down to the platform was like dancing with death itself. One girl with 4 inch heels, with hair like straw and legs like a giraffe, was tragically too pissed to climb down the escalator unaided, and how her friends laughed as they lifted the slaggy cow down one step at a time. I was wishing for something awful to happen, really just so I could join in with the laughter.

I've just been to a Fresh Voices event at BAFTA. The organisation showcases the work of screen writers from ethnic and cultural minorities and stages some wonderful events. The screenplay being read this evening was a little out of my comfort zone in terms of its action-packed, straight-boy, geeky-chic, sci-fi vibe, but it was plainly a very good piece. I take my hat off to organisers for not playing it safe. The Fresh Voices events are always so well thought-through. Everyone gets fed, there's always a high calibre of experts talking on the panel, and tonight I got to rub shoulders with Floella Benjamin! She's the second living legend I've met this week.

The sun shone all day yesterday, which was a wonderful treat as we were filming sequences for the London Requiem films. We started our adventure in Hoop Lane before working our way down to Abney Park and then Postman's Park, where we were able to film some of the ridiculous plaques to Victorians who'd died in all sorts of ever-increasing "heroic" circumstances. The pantomime artist, for example, who went up in flames trying to extinguish a fire that was enveloping her companion, and my favourite, the plaque to a lad called Soloman Galloman who died saving his brother from the path of a vehicle on Commercial Street. The bottom of this particular plaque reads, "Mother I saved him but I couldn't save myself," and these lines have made their way into the requiem.

20th June 1662. The sun was shining but the wind was high. After a day of business, where our hero occupied a great deal of time worrying about money, in particular a decision to spend a few shillings on a pair of tweezers, Pepys took his wife and servants on a walk to the famous Half Way House. It seemed to be his preferred activity in the summer of '62.

A day later, Pepys got brutal with his serving boy. Many of the other staff had complaned that the lad was a thief and a liar. It's worth and Pepys decided to intervene. It's worth quoting the passage in full as I could never find the words to sum up such sadism!

I called him up and with my whip did whip him till I was not able to stir, and yet I could not make him confess any of the lies that they tax him with. At last, not willing to let him go away a conqueror, I took him in task again, and pulled off his frock to his shirt, and whipped him till he did confess that he did drink the whey, which he had denied, and pulled a pink, and above all did lay the candlestick upon the ground in his chamber, which he had denied this quarter of a year. I confess it is one of the greatest wonders that ever I met with that such a little boy as he could possibly be able to suffer half so much as he did to maintain a lie. I think I must be forced to put him away. So to bed, with my arm very weary.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Ravelry vs the USOC

Nathan has just shown me an email which was recently sent to the online craft and knitting forum, Ravelry, by the  US Olympic committee...

Every time the Olympics happens, Ravelry stages a "Ravelympics," which involves its members challenging each other to a series of knitting tasks, which all kick in as the opening ceremony of the actual olympics takes place. The projects are called things like the Afghan Marathon, the Hand-spun Heptathlon and the Sockput. All harmless fun, very much in the spirit of the Olympics, which we're told "transcends sport."

The US Olympics committee, however, who plainly (and purly) take themselves just a little bit too seriously, have written to Ravelry, suggesting that the Ravelympics, "denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games" and are "disrespectful to our country's finest athletes and fail to recognize (with a zee) or appreciate their hard work..."

You stupid, grotesquely pompous, bible-bashing, humourless turds! Get over yourself and focus on blowing patriotic smoke up your insecure athletes tight little arse-holes. If you want to take up a cause, how about fighting for the universal rights of your citizens?

Leave the knitters in peace to appreciate the true spirit of the Olympic games and don't bother coming to this country. With ridiculous views like that, you're not welcome. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Barbara Windsor and Victor Spinetti

I can hear the distant sound of a large group of people watching the England match. It's a very surreal noise. Periodically, an enormous masculine roar crashes like a wave in the breeze before every falls silent again. I'm very pleased I'm not in the middle of it!

I went to Barbara Windsor’s house today to rehearse her solos for the London Requiem recording. What an absolute legend that woman is – and genuinely one of the kindest, most interesting and intelligent women I’ve ever met. Her husband, Scott, is also a very wonderful man. I could have sat for hours listening to them both. Long before she did the Carry On films, Barbara was a regular on the West End stage and even a member of Joan Littlewood’s (in)famous Theatre Workshop. She was in the original Broadway cast of Oh! What a Lovely War. What an extraordinary career.
Her memories reminded me that the 1960s were the days when theatre really seemed to matter to people. Theatre was political. Theatre was a lifeline to many; a much-needed escape from the real world. A proper treat - but an affordable one. The audiences got fired up. They threw tomatoes at the actors if the play was a flop. We talked about Lionel Bart, and his musical Twang!, which is perhaps the most famous flop of them all. Barbara, who was in the show, remembers walking onto the stage and getting catcalls from the circle.  One of the lines she had to say was “I don’t know what I’m doing here”, and on one occasion someone shouted “neither do we, love!”

She talked about growing up in Stoke Newington, and her interest (bizarrely) in gravestone inscriptions. She’s even written a book about them! She spent long hours as a child exploring Abney Park cemetery, which is where the London Requiem is being premiered. I feel so privileged to have her singing in the piece.

Her very dear friend, Victor Spinetti died this morning. He was one of the last leading lights of that generation and I would have fully understood if Barbara had been too distressed to sing, but I think she saw the experience as a little tribute to him – just as Arnold had with his daughter. She was very taken with the words on one of the graves; “loved you yesterday, love you still, always have and always will.” I’m sure it’s one of those quotes which rather regularly finds its way onto gravestones, but it’s very touching all the same.
As has become the custom with this requiem recording, I photographed her at the end of the rehearsal for the CD inner sleeve, holding an object which reminded her of a loved one who had passed. She held a photograph which Victor had sent to her, and caressed it so lovingly and smiled so broadly that my heart almost broke. She plainly loved that man very dearly.

350 years ago, and Pepys was up by 5pm. In the 17th Century, people’s lives were still very much dictated by the hours of daylight. Theatres performed in the afternoon. Candlelight was expensive, and, as Pepys found out to his great cost, writing by candlelight was very bad for the eyes.

London was going Portugal-crazy as a result of the arrival of the new queen. Various merchants, and dignities followed Catherine de Breganza over from her homeland, and London was awash with Portuguese trinkets and souvenirs. Pepys met a very attractive woman in a goldsmith’s who had been given a “gilded glassful” of Portuguese perfume by Don Duarte de Silva, a Portuguese merchant;  
“she poured some out into my hand, and, though good, yet pleased me the better coming from a pretty lady!"
Aye, aye...

Monday, 18 June 2012

Road sweepers and gardeners

I left the house at 8pm this evening and was pleased to see one of Highgate's regular road sweepers sitting on his favourite bench on Southwood Lane. He's often there at about this time, watching the world passing by, soaking up the last rays of sunshine. He always looks so at peace. Sometimes I almost feel jealous. I'd love to do a project where I got to talk to people sitting alone on benches; on the Heath, in markets, at the side of the road. It would be great to somehow tune into their thoughts. 

My Grannie was a great one for people-watching from benches. We'd often station her on a nice-looking one, and go off for a stroll somewhere. Invariably, we'd return to be told the life stories of the strangers who'd shared her space for a minute or so. "She wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but he was. They were definitely having an affair..."

I spent the morning in Hampstead Garden Suburb with Nathan, walking around the cemetery there, searching for some of the gravestones whose inscriptions feature in my Requiem which we're planning to film on Wednesday. It was very much needle in the haystack time. In the end I had to head for the cemetery office to ask them to search through their records. Fortunately, they are a hugely organised and very polite bunch, and one of the gardeners was able to take me straight to where I needed to be. 

Tonight was the last rehearsal of the Fleet Singers this term and I went along for cake and post-performance chatter. I arrived late and walked into the room to a stirring round of applause from the choir, which was unexpected and incredibly touching. I didn't know where to put myself. The evening got even more moving when, at the end of the night, they decided to sing a sequence from Songs About the Weather and took a vote on which bit they most wanted to sing. In the end it was a straight tie between an elegiac sequence about a coot's nest on Hampstead Heath, and a rousing chorus about Greenham Common, so the choir sang both... With great joy. My heart burst.

During the break, whilst I stuffed my face with delicious lemon drizzle cake, a group came up to me and asked if I had recovered from my car crash. I had no idea what they were talking about. "But you wrote about it in your blog," they said. I looked perplexed. And then it dawned on someone. "When he said he got in the car and crashed, he was writing metaphorically," she said  "he had an emotional, rather than a physical crash." I was so grateful to her for clearing things up as I was beginning to think I was losing my mind! Of course the misunderstanding caused much hilarity. 

350 years ago and Pepys wrote that the courage displayed by regicide, Sir Henry Vane, as he stood at the block waiting for his head to be chopped off, was being talked up around London as something of a miracle. 

Pepys went to the studios of two painters in the afternoon and was shown portraits of the King, the Duchess of York, Anne Hyde, and various other figures of the day. Of course he was most keen to see a portrait of his pin-up girl, the controversial Lady Castlemayne, lover of Charles II, who seemed to have little interest in standing aside to make way for the new Queen. Pepys was unlucky. The portraits of Lady C were considered so incendiary, that they'd been locked away! 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Danny Boy and Uncle Bill

I was incredibly proud of The Rebel Chorus in rehearsals today. We finished things off by running the entire requiem, without stopping, and  it sounded pretty good all things considered. It feels almost sad that the end of the requiem will signify the end of the chorus until I can get funding for another project. I genuinely think we have the capacity to be a truly great professional choir. The sound is versatile, vibrant, dramatic, fresh and really very exciting; probably the best ensemble I've ever worked with. 

Dan Carter joined us at the end of the rehearsal, and we went out for a plate of Japanese food in Spitalfields with Uncle Bill from the chorus. It was so lovely to see her. I've missed her enormously since she's been in Lewes and feel very fortunate that she's joined us for the requiem adventure.
Dan kept us amused with tales of his exploits on various cruise ships. I think he was slightly worried about revealing too much in front of a laydee, but Uncle Bill took it all in her stride, pointing out that when she's up in the night, breast-feeding her son, knee-deep in nappies, she'll have something entertaining to think about!

We walked her to Liverpool Street tube and drifted back to Brick Lane, where Dan introduced us to a lovely little cafe called Full Stop, which he said was the nearest thing he'd found this side of the pond to the places he used to frequent in Chicago. Whenever I'm with Dan, I feel hopelessly parochial!
We returned to the car to find another parking ticket. Not only is the area around Brick Lane impossible to drive around on a Sunday, it's also impossible to park in, and, if you're transporting heavy keyboards, it's vital to be able to park! 

350 years ago, and Pepys really wasn't doing anything of any great interest. Elizabeth Pepys wasn't well. She was often not well. She was probably known as a sickly child in her youth.
Pepys called in on his neighbour, Sir William Batten, and found a room full of people drinking wine. He was going through a bit of a puritanical period, abstaining from wine, theatre and anything remotely fun, so refused to join in with the countless toasts which no social occasion was complete without in those days.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Blooming lovely premier

June 16th. Bloomsday. They’re celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses across the world.

I'm returning to Highgate after the premier of Songs About The Weather by the Fleet Singers. I think you could describe the occasion as triumphant. Everything came together; the strings, the choir, Janet Suzman narrating. Little Welsh Natalie's sensational backdrops, which she'd made with kids at the local junior school. I felt very proud.

Of course, after pride comes the fall; or in this case, a twinge of sadness. I was meant to go to a party with Edward after the performance, but in the car on the way there, I suddenly crashed. I guess I’d existed on adrenaline for the entire day and the bubble just burst. Small talk with strangers when you're in that state is bad news. In fact, my doing small talk at the best of times is disastrous. Nathan says I have a habit of insulting people when I first meet them. I often feel cripplingly embarrassed and then tend to comment on something which I know is inappropriate, but it pops out all the same. What’s that lump on your chin? Why do you limp? What’s wrong with your hair?

It’s more than just an adrenaline crash, however. I’m also aware that much of my current blue is of my own making. I'd rather underplayed Songs About the Weather with friends and family and probably as a result, the only people I knew in the audience tonight were Nathan and my brother. This is the longest piece of music I've ever written. It's a big deal. It's an oratorio. It's longer than the Requiem. It's also very specifically for the Fleet Singers, so unless they opt to sing it again, tonight will be its first and last performance, so it’s a bit like giving birth, knowing your baby is immediately going to be taken away from you.

Anyway, I've decided to eat in front of the telly to cheer myself up. I may end up looking like a pumpkin, but right now I don’t care!

350 years ago, Pepys spent the day gallivanting around various villages on the Eastern fringes of London. He spent the afternoon in Greenwich, showing Lord Sandwich's many children the Royal yacht and various palaces and gardens.

Friday, 15 June 2012


Today London, in my view, officially became an unbearable place in which to live. It has rained all night and on and off all day. We're expecting some kind of deluge tomorrow and then again on Monday. I found myself crammed so tightly into a steaming hot tube at 5pm that I genuinely thought I was going to stop breathing. I couldn't type into my iPhone note-pad without scores of people looking over my shoulder because they were bored and didn't have the space to do anything else. Cattle would be prevented from being transported in these conditions.

I managed to twinge some kind of muscle in my back earlier on and have been in discomfort ever since, which hasn't exactly added to my enjoyment of the day. As I got off the tube, I leant down to pick up my little keyboard and the contortion was so painful I emitted a little yelp. What I didn't realise was that the little plastic backing to the battery case was still on the floor. A man prodded me and pointed downwards. I've never wished more for someone to pick something up on my behalf. Obviously my cry of pain hadn't quite been loud enough!

Still, I had a good rehearsal with Julie earlier on, going through her music for the requiem in her mother’s Barbican flat. Earlier still, I found myself sitting on chairs in a soggy Russell Square, watching Nathan singing a little gig in honour of the Small Charities week. He did a very good job, and coped manfully with a rubbish sound system, and the fact that the little awning on the stage area covered everyone’s face when they were performing. The first girl hadn’t realised, and seemed to be just a pair of singing thighs. What I found even more disconcerting was that there was nowhere obvious where I could put a bit of money into a box. Surely the point of a charity event is making money for charity?

Pepys and his wife Elizabeth spent the day rowing 350 years ago; primarily because Pepys didn’t like what she’d chosen to wear for church. There was a great deal of flouncing about; a bit of foot stamping, and a few “high” words, but all became calm again by bedtime.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Still alive

This morning I got on the train at Hove, expecting, as usual, to find myself on the little trundling train which stops at just about every coastal town and suburb between Brighton and Portsmouth. 

I didn't realise until it was far too late, that I was on some kind of fast train. I stood in horror as the train picked up speed and shot, like a bullet, through West Worthing station, and the next station, and the one after that...

I had visions of ending up in Portsmouth, weeping on the platform like a little girl. Fortunately, just as I decided to relax and enjoy the countryside, the train began to slow down again for a curiously-named place called Angmering. 

The man sitting opposite could tell I was somewhat confused: "where are you heading?" he asked helpfully. I explained my situation and told him I assumed all trains stopped at West Worthing. "Never take anything for granted," he said, sagely. "I brought my wife a mobile phone. We got home and it wasn't in the box. Never take anything for granted..."

I thought for some time about how a situation could possibly arrive where someone would go home with an empty box instead of a mobile phone, but the advice itself wasn't bad! 

It turns out that Angmering Station is home to a charming little shop presided over by a proud woman, whose name is almost certainly Jean. It's really nothing but a hole in the wall, but all sorts of lovely sweets and treats, beautifully displayed, spill out onto the platform. Jean does breakfast baps and lovely sandwiches. I was rather pleased to have stumbled upon her. 

Piquet and I spent the entire day working on the Requiem sound files, stopping only for a brief lunch of delicious vegetable samosas and nan bread. We worked until our level of productivity slowed to a trickle and our ears were in tatters. We did, however, achieve everything we needed to achieve and the tracks are very slowly beginning to take shape.

It's back to the grindstone tomorrow with two rehearsals, one for the requiem, and one for the Fleet Singers. It seems very strange to me that one of my compositions is being premiered on Saturday night! The date has rather crept up on me. My mind has been so firmly planted on the Requiem in recent weeks, that all thoughts of York and Fleet, which were so present in my life at the start of the year, rather vanished. 

I'm now on a train back to London. It feels like years since I was last here and I've missed Nathan rather badly, no doubt partly because I hadn't seen a great deal of him in the run up to my trip and partly because the last few days seem to have lasted an eternity. 

Pepys went to Tower Hill exactly 350 years ago, to see Sir Henry Vane The Younger being beheaded for treason. Considered by Charles II to be too dangerous to be allowed to live, Vane was one of the previous King's regicides. So frightened was society at the prospect of more civil unrest that the official figures who presided over the executions of Cromwell's cronies would do anything in their power to stop condemned people from delivering impassioned or potentially incendiary speeches from the gallows or the block.

Vane's fate was no different. The City of London sheriff present at the execution repeatedly attempted to take Vane's papers away from him and when this failed, a signal was made for trumpets and drums to be played so loudly they drowned the poor man out. 

What is in little doubt is that Vane died bravely. Pepys writing that he appeared the "most resolved man that did ever die in those circumstances." Perhaps as a result, Pepys was disappointed not to have been  able to see the fatal axe blow. By that point, so many people had climbed onto the platform with Vane that he completely vanished from sight. Sounds like an absolute shambles. Perhaps he wasn't killed at all! Perhaps he's still alive. On the moon. Or in Vegas!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Of whom I'm so proud

I arrived in Hove Actually at about 9.30pm last night, after spending the afternoon with Piquet in his studio in Worthing, mapping tempi and selecting midi sounds for the requiem. It's a lengthy process, which has to be done very carefully indeed, as there's nothing you can do to change the tempo beyond this stage. Every last tiny change in metre and pace needs to be mapped - and that can be tiring work. 

Fiona met me from the station and we went back to her house, spending the night eating wonderful food whilst listening to tapes of our teenaged selves playing chamber music and speaking on BBC Radio Northampton.

We woke up this morning and walked along the sea front to Brighton, marvelling at the pace of life on the south coast. I instantly find myself feeling more relaxed when I'm here. 

This afternoon, Piquet and I went to see Sir Arnold Wesker, who has the dubious honour of being the first person to lay down a vocal on the requiem recording. Sir 'Nold is singing the words written on his mother's grave in East Ham;

"she lived passionately, fought for right endlessly, loved family and friends deeply."

The words could apply very equally to his daughter, (my friend) Tanya, who was torn away from us all on May Day this year.

Arnold was brave and sang with beauty and great dignity, worrying all the time that he sounded breathless and out of tune, not realising that the sound I was after was that of a real person. The natural emotion and honesty in his voice was worth more to me than a dozen of the world's finest opera singers. Arnold has played a hugely important role in my life for the last 20 years, so his inclusion in this requiem means more to me than he'll probably ever know. 

We talked about his mother, and then about Tanya. I'm not sure he's even started to get used to the idea that she's no longer with us. "It just feels like she's not visited us for a while," he said. 

Dusty, 'Nold's wife, had made some beautiful scones for after the recording, which we ate with some of her homemade raspberry jam. She is, without question, one of England's finest cooks!

As we left the house, I asked 'Nold to sign my score. Parkinson's has really started to effect his coordination, and his writing has become a little wobbly; so much, in fact, that I had to ask what the first couple of words said.  "To Ben" he read "of whom I'm so proud." I don't suppose it gets any better than that. 

Back to Worthing in the sunshine. Finally a day of sunshine. Piquet and I continued with our never-ending mission to sort the sound files; which will continue tomorrow as well. 

Pepys spent the day 350 years ago  doing business (which often simply meant sucking up to people) across London. It was plainly a very lovely early summer day, for he took his wife and boy servant on a lovely duskly walk to the halfway house; which marked the mid-way point in the fields between the City of London and the village of Bermondsey. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Kings Cross St Wankcras

It’s official. The staff at St Pancras and King’s Cross stations are horrible. I also think it’s now time for us to start viewing the two stations as entirely different entities; particularly if the ticket offices are no longer linked in any way. Which - I learned today - they're not. informs us all that trains to Brighton go from King’s Cross. They don’t. Trains to Brighton go from St Pancras International. It oughtn’t to be a big deal, but if you queue for ten minutes at King’s Cross to buy tickets to Brighton, you don’t neccessarily expect to be sent to Victoria Station (5 miles away) because the chap behind the counter doesn’t know that you can also get a train to Brighton from over the road.

I would hate to have been the bloke in the queue in front of me. Then man serving him was so profoundly rude, it almost took my breath away. The customer’s only mistake was assuming that the £109 he was being charged for a ticket was for two people rather than one, and who can blame him; that there’s anywhere in this country that costs £109 to travel to is outrageous enough. Train travel should, in my view, be much cheaper than petrol. At least two people should need to be sharing a car journey before it becomes a cheaper option than the train. If governments are serious about the environment and the economy, they should be subsidising train travel. It’s safer, greener and much more pleasant.

It felt like we queued forever at St Pancras International. Many of the people standing with us were from mainland Europe, and the standard of service actually made me feel ashamed to be British. One of the counters was specifically for European travel. It had its own fancy sign, but there was no one sitting behind the desk. A man stood waiting for a while, before calling over to the staff member sitting behind the next desk; “Am I standing in the right place?” he asked. The man behind the next door counter nodded. The customer spoke again “well do you know when the person who sits here is coming back?” “Perhaps he’s on lunch. I don't know” “Well, if he were on lunch, how long would he be on lunch for?” The man behind the next door counter shrugged. “Twenty minutes? To be honest, I’ve no idea, really...” The customer stood for a while, blinking in disbelief.

The name of this station is King’s Cross International, not Backwater McFloppy. We’re not in some little village in the Sierra Nevada where even the trains take a siesta.

Still, at least I’m now on my way to Worthing. In the end I had to pay £50 at York Station to get an earlier train to London, which probably wasn’t quite as expensive as it might have been. I told the ticket man that my partner was ill, which wasn’t tempting fate because he’d have assumed that my partner was a woman, and therefore imagined a fictitious person. It’s a warped reasoning for lying, but it works for me.

The dog sitting opposite me on the train is wearing a pink bow in its hair, a little pink heart around its neck, and is sitting on its own special dog blanket with little black paws all over it. “Mummy” has just brushed its hair with a human hair brush. It’s one of those dogs which can’t stop shaking and it was taken out of a special bag in order to be placed, like a tiny shaking queen, on its own seat. Its owners plainly think it’s sweet. It’s not. It’s weird. I’d love to see what would happen if it were left to its own devices in the wild.

A family of Scandinavians are sitting behind me on the train. I know this because they keep saying “et, vor, tre”, which is how an ABBA song begins. They also have white hair. I’d quite like to know how they’d survive in the wild as well. If they keep shouting “et, vor, tre” they’re not going to survive very long in this train carriage!

Here’s a question; why are Nordic people blond and hairless, when Mediterraneans are dark and hairy?  Surely, to survive in arctic conditions, it’s better to be hairy, and vice versa?  Also, doesn’t the sun lighten your hair?

June 12th was considered to be the longest day of the year in Pepys’ time – in fact all the way through 'til 1752 when the matter was re-appraised. Pepys spent the day in the office, by all accounts witnessing a series of increasingly bitter rows between various senior figures in the Navy team. He ate his evening meal at the Dolphin, and was thrilled to have abstained from all alcohol throughout the experience. He returned home and sent his staff to bed whilst it was still light outside, but they were awoken by a note coming from Pepys’ brother, Thomas, bringing the news that their cousin Joyce’s second husband was in town, and intended to come and see them in the morning.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Now I know what 250 singers look like!

My feet ache. My arms ache. Curiously, the tops of my knees ache. I feel like the man in this picture, who I discovered in a chip shop in York.

He's having a lovely little snooze, having just done a face plant in a plate of chips! There's something a little undignified about falling asleep in chips.

I've just been to the first large-scale rehearsal for Ebor Vox. 250 singers and a brass band converged at the York Railway Museum, which was deemed one of the only spaces in the city large enough to house so many performers. Apparently there's still a hope that the final number of singers will top 800; to celebrate 800 years since York signed its charter of independence.

It's quite a thrill to hear so many people performing a piece of music that you've written; something which has previously only bounced around in your head. I remembered writing the first bars of music, humming along to a crude chord sequence in my bedroom, before heading to the gym and promptly forgetting everything I'd written. Three months later, 250 people have been humming the piece in their own bedrooms.

Some sequences sounded absolutely wonderful; a proper wall of sound, led by the unparalleled Shepherd's Brass Band, who also played on A Symphony For Yorkshire.

I'm not sure I was as inspiring as I could have been today. I've reached a level of exhaustion which I can't even begin to explain. I'm having to fight to remind myself to be cheery and full of energy. A charming little  bloke saw me walking up Micklegate just after the rehearsal and stopped his car to specifically tell me how much fun he'd had singing my music. I thanked him, of course, but I'm not sure I appeared as grateful as I actually was. Writers and creative souls are nothing without an occasional word of encouragement.

Fiona put it rather succinctly a few days ago; "people like us" she said "set up camp and drop little things off the edge of cliffs." She was quoting hyper-ballad by Bjork, but the analogy really struck me. I often feel that's all I do; throw little nuggets into the ether in the hope that someone out there will catch them and nurture them.

Every day now is a scrawl of diary entries. A gust of wind and the house of cards tumbles.

Take tomorrow, for example. I was expecting my return train from York to be at noon, but when I checked my ticket, for some ungodly reason, it's actually been booked for 9pm. I am due to start creating sound maps in PK's studio in Worthing at 4pm. There's no way the ticket will be able to be exchanged on the day for anything other than a ludicrously expensive piece of paper, but what else can I do? Turn up a day late to see PK, and the knock-on effect takes me into July!

I just ate an entire pizza and now I feel sick.

I have exciting news on the requiem front in terms of an artist who's agreed to perform on the recording who will be a very familiar name to people of my generation. I don't want to jinx it until she's signed on the dotted line, but I am so so excited!

350 years ago, and the conundrum of the disappearance of Pepys' father was solved. He'd returned to the country to tend to his wife, Pepys' mother, who he'd been told was gravely ill. He wrote a letter to tell Pepys that she wasn't actually as bad as he'd expected w,hich made Pepys angry with his sister (who'd sent the letter) for creating a scare. It didn't take much for Pepys to get angry with his sister. Let's not forget that Pepys' sister had lived with him for some of the previous year... as his servant!

Sunday, 10 June 2012


I can’t write much today. It's late, and I should be in bed. The rain is pattering on the roof, my feet are wet, I smell like an old man, but I’m ecstatically happy. The Rebel Chorus, the choir who will be singing The London Requiem are, in a single phrase, shit hot. We had our first rehearsal this afternoon, and there was a moment that I actually cried! Yeah, yeah – I know, I cry all the time, but not usually in a first rehearsal. First rehearsals are normally way too stressful to be moving. The girls in the choir were singing the big melody in the Gradual and Tract, in glorious four-part harmony, and I was feeling proud and excited and moved – and then hot-eyed. I genuinely think there’s perfection to be had in that there group, and I can’t wait to see where the journey takes us.

We’ve already started to bond very well as a group. Many of the performers know at least one other person there, which always helps. Some are partners, some live together, some studied together, some are best friends, some are new friends. There was lots of laughter, and Sam, the conductor, was epically brilliant. I just put my feet up, really, and plonked a few duff notes on the piano from time to time – occasionally chipping in with the odd anecdote about where I'd found various graves.

We did our photo shoot for the album art-work with my favourite photographer, Gabrielle Motola. Everyone looked superb, having come equipped with a little token to hold that reminded them of a loved one who’d died. Some of the stories that emerged were both heart-warming and deeply upsetting. I felt proud that everyone felt they could share.
Gaby and the choir girls...

In the morning we filmed sequences at Abney Park cemetery, and the sun shone constantly. Rebecca from the choir was doing pieces to camera, presenting a little package about the fifth movement of the work, her glorious corn-coloured hair glowing in the sunlight. We were lucky enough to be able to film some sequences within the ruined chapel in the middle of the park, which is deeply atmospheric.

Yesterday I did two things for the first time in at least ten years:

1)      I sharpened pencils with a proper pencil sharpener. I don’t use pencils any more – and when I do, I usually sharpen them with a knife – or my teeth!

2)      I used a tape machine! First I couldn’t get the tape inside the player (I felt like an old lady trying to use a mouse) and then I couldn’t work out why nothing was playing. I’d forgotten that tapes have two sides.

How quickly technology becomes redundant.

350 years ago, Pepys went shopping for books. He decided to buy a book called The King’s Works, a sort of spiritual autobiography purported to have been written by Charles I shortly before he was beheaded, but changed his mind, resolving to save the money instead.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Unfair hopes

A glimmer of sun and a flash of blue sky raised hopes across London this evening. Weather forecasts suggest these hopes will be utterly dashed tomorrow, just in time for our second day of filming on the Requiem. 

I'm bored of the weather and bored of the cost of public transport in this city, which has haemorrhaged £9 from my oyster card in a single day. I'd double check this figure with an LU member of staff, but they've stopped peopling the ticket office at Highgate Station!

I'm in Catford, taking a much-needed break from the mayhem of recent days. It's craft and cake and I sat preparing a score for our first requiem rehearsal tomorrow whilst people knitted socks and hats around me. I really must learn a craft. Julie thinks I'd make a wonderful knitter, but I don't have the patience, the mathematical brain or the eye for detail. 

Catford is incredibly alien to me. It's a strangely  edgy sort of place, filled with  intimidating and unfamiliar types of people. There's a disproportionately high number of fat women here, for example, who seem to drag themselves around the streets like their legs are made of lead. There are a very high number of men in these parts who skulk about exuding attitude and glancing at everything and everyone with deep suspicion. Groups of lads in hoodies roller-skate down the centre of busy roads with no regard for motorists, or, it would seem, their own safety. Passing car stereos blare out too loudly. There are weird barriers everywhere, stopping people from crossing roads at the most convenient places. Curious kafenias emit ever-more curious smells. Grubby-looking shops sell weaves, false nails, and odd-looking fruit. The place emits a whiff of lawlessness and reminds me very much of parts of Brooklyn. It excites and horrifies in equal measures, but I certainly don't get a sense of a local community who would come rushing to a stranger's aid if he were to find himself in trouble! 

I got my 1662 dates muddled up yesterday, so 350 years - and one day ago - Pepys went to Lord Sandwich's house, where a talking parrot caused a great deal of mirth. It was only Lady Sandwich, who, for some reason, didn't like the creature. We never learn why.

Home, and Pepys found himself troubled by the behaviour of his clerk, Will Hewer, who had started to get ideas above his station...

"Home, and observe my man Will to walk with his cloak flung over his shoulder, like a Ruffian, which, whether it was that he might not be seen to walk along with the footboy, I know not, but I was vexed at it; and coming home, and after prayers, I did ask him where he learned that immodest garb, and he answered me that it was not immodest, or some such slight answer, at which I did give him two boxes on the ears, which I never did before, and so was after a little troubled at it."

Hewer plainly forgave Pepys, for the two men went on to become trusted confidents and a life-long friends. Hewer became an incredibly wealthy man, the Judge Advocate General no less, and, in later life, when Pepys' health was failing, he invited his former employer to live with him in his Clapham mansion. I think Pepys may well even have died there. 

Swings and roundabouts

I woke up this morning unable to find any clothes to wear. I knew I was going to be spending long periods of time in a damp cemetery, and realised I don’t have a single pair of shoes without holes in them. I auditioned shoe after shoe from the wardrobe, and each one had some kind of rip or major flaw. I thought for a moment about wearing an odd pair, simply to stay dry. I wear odd socks every day, so why shouldn’t I wear odd shoes?

...I didn’t. I found a black pair, which were only a bit scuffed and had a worn-down heel one side which made me walk like I was in a pair of callipers. They were dry.

We reached Abney Park cemetery, however, to find that the high winds had caused the place to be closed down by the council and apparently when the council make a decision to close the cemetery it takes 24 hours to open it up again. Filming was promptly cancelled.

Fortunately, the lovely John, who runs the park, allowed us in to do a recce of the place, which involved a veritable smorgasbord of experts from soundmen, to cameramen, to odd-job men, milling around the ruined chapel in the centre of the cemetery, pointing, measuring, pretending to be chairs and drawing crude diagrams on the backs of envelopes. It was nice to be surrounded by a group of people who had such strong views on the way things should be done; it means they care, and want the project to work.

The sun came out, briefly, but the high winds continued, and John told us to listen out for the sound of creaking, which in those parts is often followed by the mayhem of a falling tree. Apparently they’ve lost two poplars in the park this year already.

Whilst walking between the graves, I was simultaneously hearing from a variety of tenors who were interested in replacing our Australian departee. Soundman John and I kept disappearing behind trees to listen to renditions of everything from Mozart arias to The Prayer from Les Mis.

I went from Abney Park into town. One of the tenors had invited me to the sitz probe of his latest opera production. I scooped up Ellie en route, who was meant to be filming with us, and we listened to some really very fine music. I forget what a thrill it is to listen to a good quality chamber orchestra doing their thing. The soprano had a very fine voice indeed, as did our tenor. I immediately handed him the score and said I’d see him at the first rehearsal on Sunday. I got on the tube feeling greatly relieved.

On the way home, Barbara Windsor phoned. It was so surreal to hear her voice! She’s performing on the Requiem recording, and was booking herself in for a little rehearsal. I can’t tell you how honoured and excited I feel to have her on board. The day, at this stage was getting better and better. I went to the local shop and bought a lovely loaf of bread to have for my tea...

Home, and I opened my emails to discover the horrifying news that we’d been turned down once again for Arts Council funding. After taking a full week to do eight re-writes of the application, with the very kind assistance of members of Arts Council staff, we were still turned down. Worse than this, instead of hearing via official letter, I received an email from one of the staff members which basically just said; “gosh you must be gutted not to have been successful...” It hit me very hard, and I cried like a baby for about 30 minutes solid.

It was also rather a long time before I could get in touch with anyone to talk things through. Nathan’s phone was out of battery. Penny wasn’t answering and all the Arts Council folk had left work for the weekend. An hour or so later, I’d managed to talk to Fiona and Penny, who were both reassuring. Obviously, we’re going to see what we can do to move a few pots of money around, but it’s looking like the money I would have been paid to deliver material for The Space, will now have to be diverted into the recording of the Requiem (which forms the basis of the material we feature on The Space), so I’m effectively working for three months with no pay! Put another way, the composer of a work, which is being funded by the Arts Council, is self-funding the musicians who are playing it. Put like that it sounds about as dreadful as it is...

Thing is, this is not the Arts Council’s fault, or indeed their responsibility. It’s a vast organisation, and it’s sometimes difficult to join up all the dots. They’ve had their budgets slashed. It was never a done deal that we’d receive funding. They’ve always been so profoundly generous to me in the past, and their members of staff have always been helpful at all times. It’s really our own fault, for thinking it would be easy to fund live musicians, and because of this, the buck needs to stop with the man who stands to gain the most from having his work featured on The Space. And that’ll be me. Besides, how much would most people pay to have a group of wonderful musicians interpret their magnum opus? In this world you have to invest to see returns.

I feel a lot better about things tonight, following a rehearsal with the Fleet Singers, who I just adore. They’ve still got a big mountain to climb before next Saturday’s performance, and really only they can climb it as individuals, but they’re such a wonderful bunch. It’s so inspiring to look out at a group of people singing your music with big smiles on their faces. I hope they’re gaining as much from the experience as I am.

And, as a parting comment, I should point out that Arts Council England is very generously sponsoring their performance... Life is about swings and roundabouts... 

350 years ago, Pepys and his clerk, Hater, spent the day indexing (or "making an alphabet" as Pepys called it) of all his contracts. Pepys became quite well-known for his obsessive lists, and this was no exception. In the afternoon, he went drinking with Ralph Greatorex, the great mathematician and instrument maker of the day, who suggested someone to help Pepys learn how to measure timber. Quite why he wanted to measure timber is anyone's guess.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


So apparently we’re now waiting for some kind of gale to ravage the south coast. We’re doing our first day of filming for the London Requiem tomorrow, in Abney Park cemetery, and word on the town is that if the gales happen, the cemetery will be closed down because of a risk of falling trees! Can I remind Mother Nature that this is June. June! I should be picking strawberries and sunbathing in Highgate Wood but instead I'm on a text super highway to Fiona in Brighton, who will very soon be having a one-woman hurricane party.

My other news is that the most recent addition to our choir emailed today – that’ll be two days before the first rehearsal – to say that he could no longer be part of the choir. His Great Aunt has died in Australia and he needs to go home at the end of the month to sort out her estate. Surely Great Aunts are the relatives that tend to die when you need an excuse and you don’t want to tempt fate by saying it’s your Grannie or your Mum, or am I just being unkind? I was never comfortable going with death as an excuse, but God knows, my Grannie was in and out of hospital like MRSA when I used to sign on.
I think what's genuinely bugged me is that most professional musicians would find a dep if they had to pull out of a project at the last minute. I can't really blame him. He's at music college at the moment which is a bubble at the best of times, but I genuinely think the etiquette of dealing with job opportunities is something which music colleges should really try to instil in their students. There are fewer and fewer jobs floating around in the Arts at the moment, and if you get yourself a reputation for being a flake, or demanding, or grand, there's always someone who will take great delight in dancing on your grave.  

I guess we all need to remember that we're playing a game. What I always try and explain to musical theatre students is that they should be writing to living composers all the time. We're all human, and we like to know that people are enjoying what we do. If you write to a composer saying how much you'd like to sing one of his or her songs - particularly if he or she is at the start of his or her career - you instantly go up the pecking order when his or her first West End show is staged! It's a simple formula really. Get yourself known for being a hard worker. Always do a good job... and remember, if it weren't for the writers, you'd have nothing to sing!

Quite how I'm going to audition and replace a tenor at such short notice when I have a 12 hour shoot tomorrow followed by a rehearsal for the Fleet Singers, I've no idea. We’ll get there... one hurdle at a time. Next week there'll be another set of problems and this evening's problems will be but a distant memory.

350 years ago, and Pepys’ father went AWOL. No one knew whether he’d gone back to Huntingdonshire, possibly to attend to Pepys’ mother, who’d been ill, or whether he’d gone West to pay homage to the new Queen. Fascinating that someone could simply disappear in those days.