Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The trouble with tenting

One of the major problems with going camping is that the aural landscape which often accompanies the experience, rather than being the soft sighing of wind, or the relaxing tweeting of birds, is the ear-splitting din of tantrum after tantrum from small children. Sometimes it's like dominoes. One goes off, somewhere in the middle distance, and then there's a veritable dawn chorus of grizzling. I say dawn chorus because the experience invariably begins at sun up!  

The flip side of the early starts is that, by ten o'clock in the evening, the camp sites become deathly silent, and eerily dark. We walked Uncle Bill back to her cottage last night (her clan aren't camping this year) and returned home via a series of pitch black lanes as high winds turned the trees above us into creaking, moaning, chattery old women. The only light came from the silvery moon, and a mystical orange glow just above the horizon in the West, which I assume was the sun setting somewhere in the mid Atlantic.

It rained in the night. I kept waking up to hear spattering on the roof of our tent, but we were gloriously warm and dry inside Meriel's tent.

The weather improved and improved throughout the day, and once again, we found ourselves crossing over the estuary on the King Harry ferry in order to reach the Glendurgan Gardens, a National Trust-owned, 25-acre, semi-tropical pleasure garden, which rolls down a valley towards a tiny beach.

It was a brilliant place. The kids were in their element. There was a maze, a bamboo wood, trees to climb, streams to splash about in and a brilliant spinning rope. Every winding path brought a new adventure. It's well worth a visit.

Much to our great disappointment we're now wending our way back to London, over Bodmin Moor and now into Devon. In 5 hours, we'll be home and the dream will be over. 

Monday, 30 July 2012

Land's End

I woke up this morning feeling like I'd been run over by a steam roller. Sleeping on the ground in a tent is no laughing matter. It's also not great fun in high winds and rain. Today's rather beautiful weather, which actually sunburned my face, collapsed spectacularly at 3pm. 

We spent the morning on a beach, swimming in the dazzling deep blue water, our skin turning to sand paper because it was so insanely cold.
At 3pm, as the weather started to turn, Nathan, Meriel and I decided to fulfil one of my life ambitions by driving to Land's End. It's taken me almost 40 years to get to Cornwall, and surely no trip down here is complete without a visit to the southern and Western-most tip of our beloved isle.  
The journey there took us onto King Harry's ferry which relentlessly tos and fros every 20 minutes across an estuary, linking communities which would otherwise be hours apart. It seems to be dragged from one side to the other on giant iron chains and has probably remained unchanged in decades. 
We drove through the most spectacular scenery; rolling dales, green, green pastures, tall hedges; here a disused tin mine, there a palm tree. It feels like Ireland here, or Britain in the 1960s.
Land's End itself is a horrifying mess geared towards the most unpleasant form of tourism with Victorian style lamp posts, and grotesque souvenir shops selling cider-flavoured rock, and tacky photographs of the awful modern sign which tells us the distance to New York and John O'Groats. The cliff faces and rock formations down there, however, are magical, even in a force 8 gale!
From Land's End we went to St Michael's Mount, or more specifically to Marazion, where we sat, eating chips on a harbour wall, staring at St Michael's Mount; a glorious monastery, sitting on top of a wood-lined hill, surrounded by sea just off the Cornish coast. The chips were served by the nicest people in the nicest chippie in the world. 
As we pulled up in Marazion, Meriel emerged from the back of the car wearing some kind of anti-migraine patch on her forehead. She'd been sleeping on the back seat and I genuinely thought she'd woken up with a sanitary towel somehow glued to her head by mistake. It took me some minutes to pluck up the courage to tell her what I thought had happened! 
We returned home to the campsite to play a game with pens and paper which involved writing names of famous people and putting them in a hat. Tanya's incredibly sparky 5-year old daughter immediately started to unfold the paper to see what was written on each sheet. "Oh no, no!" everyone shouted, "you can't look at the names before the game starts..." "It doesn't matter if I see them" said Lily, matter-of-factly, "I don't actually know how to read!" Quote of the week! 

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Cornish blue

I am sitting in front of an open fire in the middle of a field in Cornwall. It's almost pitch black, the deep blue sea is like a tall, flat-topped mountain to my right, the moon is a spotlight in a star-filled sky. The fire is glowing an intense orange and cracking like a thousand secretaries in a 1940s typing pool. The air is laced with the alluring scent of wood smoke. I'm surrounded by great friends. We've had a wonderful meal which tasted of charcoal, and Wils and Tomas have just performed Star Wars for us as a five act play. A distant clock strikes 11. The vague murmur of fellow campers going to bed.

Coming to Cornwall is a first time experience for me. Heaven knows why it's taken me this long to get down here. I guess it's not really en route to anywhere else. It is, however, absolutely stunning. 

We walked down to the little cove below our camp site earlier on and swam in the turquoise, crystal clear water which was cleaner than any I've seen in this country. It was colder, too, than anything I've dipped my toe in for some time. The coastal paths are lined with wild flowers; purples, yellows, vivid reds; sweeties on a snooker board. 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Clutch-foot cramp

I was back in Worthing today; and the journey down seemed to last an eternity. The entire M25 was at a standstill. There were rumours of Olympic activities all over the West of London; Box Hill, Richmond, Windsor... It seemed every road or motorway leading off the M25 was either closed or promising serious delays.  I got in quite a panic, worrying that I would suddenly find myself at a complete standstill, with nothing more to do than wave a silly flag as a load of cyclists rushed past. I crawled along the motorway, getting a cramp in my clutch leg, phoning Nathan periodically to scream with frustration whilst worrying that I was going to have to go into hibernation for the next two weeks to avoid anything this hideous happening to me again.

I stopped in a transport cafe just outside Brighton for lunch. I arrived just as they were closing, but the lovely cafe owner told me I could have anything on the menu and that she’d make it ‘specially for me. I had a veggie burger – without salad, ‘cus she’d run out of lettuce. We had a lovely chat, however, about roads and trucks and chips...

The Worthing session went very well; PK and I have found a good rhythm now, and the two numbers we were working on, the wildly contrasting Dies Irae and Offertory, kept our minds fresh. I get the feeling PK’s going to really enjoy working on those two movements. Maddy, of course, slotted into the mix, sounded utterly marvellous.

The journey home took half the time of the journey there, and I was rewarded, and sometimes hindered, by the most beautiful straw-coloured light, which was being generated by a blinding orange sun, just above the horizon. I went up the A24, past the magnificent Box Hill. The one benefit of all this rain, is that the countryside is still lime green and alive, and Box Hill was glowing like a pair of luminous socks in a 1980s club! I drove up through the detritus of the Olympic long-distance cycle race, which, surprise surprise, the British favourite managed to screw up. The rule of thumb with Olympics is that the big British hope will always fail – and the ones who no one expects to do well, will triumph.
I’m home now, and we’re going camping in Cornwall tomorrow, so there’s much to do.

Wasn’t the opening ceremony special? I quite like that it bemused the rest of the world!
Pepys waved his wife and her maid off on the coach to Buckden 350 years ago, and confessed to feeling very sad, but relieved that she no longer had to put up with the building site which their house had become. He ate his tea alone, and went and worked in the office alone, feeling rather sorry for himself: “to my chamber a little troubled and melancholy, to my lute late, and so to bed, Will lying there at my feet, and the wench in my house in Will’s bed.” Bless...

Friday, 27 July 2012

Maddy Prior

My life just gets better and better! As if it weren't enough to have Barbara Windsor and the adorable Tanita Tikaram sing my music, today came the chance to hear Maddy Prior interpret passages from the Requiem. 

Maddy's is a voice I've listened to from my early childhood. I remember dancing to All Around My Hat in our living room at the age of five, and being a little bit frightened of Black Jack Davy. I drove through the mists of Northamptonshire as a teenager listening to Long Lankin, and up the steepest hills on the Yorkshire Moors accompanied by Gaudete. 

I wrote the music especially for her and she sang it to absolute perfection; that rasp in her voice, the way she seems to commit to the music with every fibre of her being. She is a great interpreter above anything else, shaping and draping the music she sings around and on top of the words. She is as good a singer now as she ever was. Possibly even better. I am a lucky, lucky man.

Nathan and I have decided to order a pizza and sit down in front of the Olympic opening ceremony. I've whinged enough about the games, but if you can't beat them, you might as well enjoy the pizza! 
On my way back from Oxford, I listened to the radio, and scores of foreign journalists were talking about their perceptions of the UK. I was horrified to hear the following words;

"Rain, rude people, behind the times, racists." Mortifying.  

I wonder if these games will do anything to change anyone's perceptions. I genuinely hope so. 
So far... So moving! 

350 years ago, Pepys took his wife to Westminster to take leave of her father before she went to the country for four months to escape the building works in her house. Because Pepys never visited his inlaws, he instead went to walk around St James' Park, which he declared got lovelier and lovelier. He met a friend and the two men sat under a tree in the corner of the park singing.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The darkest Pie Jesu

I’ve just returned from the East End where the London Requiem was officially launched at 6pm. The event took place at Rich Mix, and started with various speeches, before the first two films we’ve made for the Space project were played. They came across incredibly well, and readers of this blog can see the first one online @ www.thespace.org. If we’re not on the front page, just search for The London Requiem. After the second film, Ian sang the Pie Jesu to a backing track that PK had masterfully put together. It was a tall order for Ian; the second film in the series is so astonishingly emotional, that he was in pieces as he walked up to the stage, and had to take a few moments to compose himself. He sang brilliantly, however – full of raw emotion - and the audience responded accordingly. I thought, as I watched, what an incredibly dark Pie Jesu it is. This movement is traditionally the sickly sweet one sung by a chorister, but mine is like a James Bond theme! I wanted it to be about the gruelling circles of life... I've tried to make it the symphonic equivalent of a Beckett play!

Julie took to the stage after Ian, and sang In Paradisum, again, wonderfully. It was very interesting to see the movements being performed in front of an audience. The English gravestone quotes genuinely seem to come alive; they jump out of the Latin text like salmon migrating up stream!

Everyone present stuck around afterwards, which is always a good sign. Lots of people came up to me, including the head of classical music at the BBC, who complimented me on my presenting skills, which was a nice – if not a slightly left-field – thing to hear.

There were lots of friendly faces in the audience; quite a number of the choir, some of the requiem’s backers, my brother and his posse, and Philippa, glowing like a bright star in her radiantly pregnant body!

After the do, a group of us went to Spitalfields and ate at the Gourmet Burger Company. Ruth from the choir has just got engaged and Jem has just passed his British Citizen’s test, so it was skinny fries and celebration all ‘round.

350 years ago, and Pepys was all aflutter with gossip from Charles II’s court, which was moving to Whitehall from Hampton Court Palace for the winter. As usual, he was most concerned with the business of Lady Castlemayne, lover of the King, whose husband had recently upped sticks and installed himself in a monastery in France! The new Queen of England, Catherine de Breganza, was obviously highly suspicious of the whole business and had started to strike Castlemayne off the list for official functions and parties. Oh what a tangled web we weave...

Highgate loons under the moon

One assumes that the Olympics are responsible for Kentish Town suddenly beginning to resemble a garden centre with curious potted fake aspidistra and astro turf everywhere. I sort of wish we didn't need an excuse to take pride in our streets and train stations, but when the decorations go through camp and out into space, one can only applaud. 

I was in the East End again today, and the place is spotless; all the rubbish estates have been covered in brightly-coloured 2012-branded bunting, and the flags of all the nations line churches and pubs. There are almost as many flags as there are policemen!  It does feel a little like our brothers in the east are expecting to have a 2 week party; and good luck to them. 

We were editing the second film for The Space project today. The first goes online tomorrow morning, so if anyone reading this has five minutes to make themselves a nice cup of tea, put their feet up, and find out about the best contemporary requiem since the last best contemporary requiem, go to www.thespace.org and search for The London Requiem. Within one minute of hitting whatever you need to hit to activate the film, you'll see me wiping away a little tear. Tune in next week, and you'll see me crying like a little baby! It's very emotional!

I was back at Highgate cemetery at midnight last night, re-recording one of the audio blogs which will also be going onto The Space. Organisers have told me I'm not allowed to call it an audio blog because blogs are, apparently, interactive. Umm... Hit the red button now if you want to find out more about The Pepys Motet... Oh no, that's right, you can't! 

Anyway, it was all a bit peculiar on the street outside the cemetery last night. It's usually completely deserted but for the odd bicyclist and a few lonely cars, but, as the clock struck twelve, it seemed to fill with an assortment of bizarre people and strange sights. 

As I recorded my blog, I caught sight of an urban fox fighting a cat, whilst, in the trees above, either magpies or squirrels were making so much noise I wondered if they were cheering the fighters on!

Three people walked past, and all three stopped to chat. Two were carrying transistor radios which were playing music, one was holding sound equipment which he proceeded to use to record me recording my audio-blog before suggesting that the two of us ought to have a drink together. He was barmy, but utterly charming. There's something about nocturnal people which I really identify with. There is nothing more wonderful than staying awake until dawn on a hot summer's night. Go to the West Heath at 5am and you'll see naked dog walkers and joggers. I love living in the eccentric part of town! 

350 years ago, and Pepys had a mightily uncomfortable chat with the man he hated most in the world, Sir William Batten, who'd heard that Pepys had been royally slagging him off. He wasn't wrong. It strikes me that Batten dealt with the matter in a gentlemanly manner, and, after much discourse, told Pepys that he hoped the fact that their wives hated each other, didn't mean they had to hate each other as well. Pepys seemed pleased enough with the encounter, but I can guarantee the bitching wouldn't take long to resurface! 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Those blessed 2012 lanes

I drove into town this evening to pick Nathan up from work, but found myself utterly foiled by these ridiculous Olympic lanes. I got half-way down Woburn Place to discover that the lane I was in had inexplicably become a 2012 lane, and the only other lane was specifically for buses. The lanes, apparently, become active tomorrow, and no doubt there'll be plenty of fines dished out to motorists who inadvertently get stuck in that no win situation. #patheticmoneymakingscheme

It gets even worse however, because at a certain point, whilst panicking about the lanes, you get stuck in a one-way-street, where all the normal exits have been blocked off and one's only option is to cross the Thames, via the Holborn underpass, which weirdly, now goes in the opposite direction! 

If I get a fine for chucking a U-ey instead of crossing the river, I will happily go to prison for not paying it. Such serious changes in road layout should be much more clearly marked. #patheticmoneymakingscheme

On our way out of the City centre, we got stuck at a set of traffic lights on a side street, which, after five minutes, still hadn't changed. A great big camera on the lights was pointing down at the cars below, which, no doubt, at a certain point, would give up waiting, assume the lights were broken, and edge out into the street. Flash flash. #patheticmoneymakingscheme

We then got stranded at a check-point on Russell Square (yes, an actual 1950s communist-style check point), unable to turn right onto Woburn Place and unable to go straight ahead. The bemused Bengali man with a little clip board didn't know how we were going to get out of the situation, so we blindsided him with logic, and steam-rolled him into waving us through. 

Just found out that the people given the honour of carrying the torch for the much-hyped relay only get to keep the torch afterwards if they pay for it! Can someone please tell me what is wrong with this country at the moment?

Thursday 24th July, 1662, and Pepys spent the day prepping his household staff for their journey to the country with Elizabeth. Pepys had moved into a room in his neighbour, Sir William's house, and everything was very much up in the air. He doesn't mention whether it was raining to boot, but he does write that Lord Sandwich had been found safe and well, driven by gales and storms in the English channel, back to France.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The magic tree

I’ve been on Hampstead Heath all day, soaking up the wonderful sunshine with Nathan, Raily, and her two kids; Jeannie and my Godson Wils. My face feels tight and sun-kissed and I feel alive.

The day was genuinely magical. We explored the pergola over on the West Heath, and then stumbled our way through a series of dappled lime-green copses to the giant tree with the hole in it. It doesn’t sound impressive, but it’s stunning. For some reason its enormous trunk is entirely hollow and five or six people can climb inside and sit very comfortably. Despite this, the tree continues to grow. It’s a freak of nature, or something a great deal more mystical.

Worrying that I wouldn’t be able to find it, and not wanting the children to be disappointed, I told Wils that we might not see it because it moves around magically. This obviously caught the lad’s imagination, because, by the time we got there, he’d decided that we might be okay because the tree would probably only chose to move about at night when no one was around.

Imagine my joy, therefore, when we climbed inside and instantly found a little handwritten note pushed into one of the crevices inside which simply read, “Dear Mr Tree, please come to visit me tonight.” My story was instantly validated, and Wils was pressing his face against the bark and urging the tree, in a stage whisper, to visit him in the night as well.  He then declared that it was the “best tree in the world.” He’s not far wrong.
Inside the magic tree

From the magic tree, we went for ice creams in Pond Square, which oddly became the biggest draw of the day. The children bounced around, balancing on the wrought iron fences there, and jumping from stone to stone. No adventure playground could have been so well-equipped. I adore children who can entertain themselves armed only with vivid imagination and the ability to listen.

Tonight’s been about writing one of the online audio blogs I’m going to be delivering for the London Requiem project on The Space. Because I’m absolutely nuts, I’m going to take myself off to Highgate cemetery at midnight to record it! The first recording I made has needed to be edited, partly because it was a little long, but also because I kicked things off by announcing that I wasn’t wearing any trousers! I thought listeners might be interested to know.

350 years ago, and word across London was that Lord Sandwich, Pepys’ patron, who’d gone to France to collect the Queen Mother, was lost at sea in one of the terrible summer storms which had been lashing London. Pepys refused to believe it was true, although he himself had suffered from the effects of the terrible weather. His house, still roofless, was soaked through. He spent the day packing up belongings to send to his father’s house in Brampton in Huntingdonshire where his wife and servants were heading to avoid the rain and the mulchy dust.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Pushy shop keepers

What a difference a bit of sunshine makes! It's like I've suddenly come to life. I went running at lunchtime. I've been singing in the street. I met Nathan for lunch and he described me as shiny-eyed.

July 22nd is the date when Cancer passes the buck to Leo, so I guess, on top of everything else, I'm now on home ground.

It's also rather lovely to have a weekend off for the first time in I've no idea how long. I've merely pottered - putting the London Requiem to the back of my mind - and focussed on silly things like buying pairs of trousers and wondering how speedily I can get myself fit again. I took myself down Oxford Street and wandered aimlessly into a few suit shops, in the vague hope something might jump out at me. What I wasn't expecting was the shop assistants to jump out at me instead;

"Hello, Sir, are you looking for suit?" (These people never use the definite article - and it was a silly question to ask someone who'd just walked into a suit shop.)

"I'm just browsing, thanks."

There was a pause whilst he hovered behind me like a copper spaniel waiting to be fed.

"You know the size you need?"

"Thank you, yes"

Another pause...

"42 chest?"
I ignored him
"100% pure wool, these suits..."
I stopped what I was doing, swung round and let rip...

"Please don't do this! Do you understand what you do to people when you hassle them like this? I'll ask if I need your help. I know where you are. You're right behind me, breathing down my neck..."
On too many occasions, I've found myself simply and politely exiting shops when the assistants become aggressively helpful, but this guy was so pushy that I felt the need to tell him why I was leaving in the hope that he might change his sales technique in the future. Surely this kind of behaviour only works in the bazaars of Morocco where people end up feeling so threatened they part with money simply to escape...

Unfortunately, every shop I subsequently visited told the same story. I'd walk in and a sales assistant would immediately pounce. The recession has either turned these people into beggars or a quiet sunny Sunday afternoon had made them all horribly bored.

I went up to Thaxted last night to spend time with the family; an early celebration of my father's birthday, which is on Wednesday. I am exactly 30 years and two weeks younger than him. There are a lot of Leos in my family...
350 years ago, Pepys had a terrible argument with his wife, because she’d lost her set of keys to their house. There was a panic, and a big search, which ended in success, so Pepys and Elizabeth were friends again.

The loneliest whale

There's a whale who, every year, swims along the entire length of the coast of America. His journey begins in the waters of Mexico, and then he swims north to Alaska and back again in a yearly cycle which will only end when he dies. 

Whales are social animals, and they use a series of sophisticated pitched moans and calls to communicate with one another. Each type of whale has its own frequency band within which all its communication takes place. 

The solitary whale in this story has a high pitched cry, which is beyond the frequency that other whales can hear or respond to. He is known as the 52 Hz Whale, because that's the key that he sings in. Scientists have tracked his lonely progress for 25 years. They hear him every year as he swims through the Pacific Ocean in California. Always alone. Other whales can't hear him. And yet, he continues to sing.

The theory is that he is either the last whale of his kind, or a hybrid whale. I think his plight is one of the saddest stories I've heard. Not just because social animals deserve friendship, but because he reminds me that there are many people in this world who spend their entire lives in solitude. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sebastian Foe

So, that oily toad, Seb Coe, was on the radio this morning being quizzed about the Olympics. He was talking about sponsorship deals. "We have to protect our sponsors," he kept saying, whilst being confronted by some of the astonishing facts that are arising about the games in that particular area. "So," said Evan Davies, "is it true that people entering the stadium, holding crisps that aren't made by Walkers, will be asked to pour their crisps into a Walkers bag?" "I'm not sure," spluttered Coe, "that might be a bit of a "straight EU bananas" rumour." Davies pushed him. "Would I be allowed to enter the stadium as a spectator wearing a T shirt saying Pepsi?" "No, you wouldn't" said Coe. "Could I go in wearing Nike trainers?" "I don't know" said Coe, like a tit, "possibly."

I'm beginning to wonder if the Olympic organisers think we're still in Beijing? Under any other circumstances we wouldn't put up with it. We go on and on about being grateful to live in a non-communist regime, and yet the minutiae of life is suddenly being manipulated and controlled by multi-national companies. I sincerely hope the British sense of humour will out here, and people will find amusing ways of sticking their fingers up at these nonsensical rules. I can't wait for Coe to get back into his draw. He was only ever useful as a pretty (and talented) 800 meter runner who looked like he'd come straight out of Chariots of Fire...

Another full day in Worthing. I drove. Two traffic jams. Only just got home, and am likely to keel over any moment...

July 1662 was a wash-out, and Pepys' house, which still had no roof, was soaked through. So much, in fact, that Elizabeth was immediately dispatched to the country with all the servants for two months, and Pepys was forced to find a room at Sir William Penn's house - whom he hated - and move all his belongings to the office. Whilst there he found an ancient flag, which he vowed to keep, although Elizabeth told him to leave it there a while longer to see if anyone would miss it first.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Olympic schmimpic

Plainly the Olympics are going to be somewhat catastrophic for the good folk of the East End.

I've been in Hackney, in the area around Victoria Park, all day, where residents have been told they're no longer allowed to park in streets, which were once free, without a special pass. Each household is only permitted a miserly ten passes per month for potential  visitors - and the regulations last for three months. Penny used three of her tokens  up in a single day. My friend Vic lives in the area, and is just about to have a baby. How will her relatives be able to come down from Liverpool to visit the new addition?  

I'm told that shops and pubs in the area are struggling because none of their customers can park. These are the very people who were conned into "investing" in the Olympics by doing up their shop fronts for the thousands of extra customers who the government promised would  be attracted to the area.  Sales are already down 25% compared to normal levels and the mayhem hasn't yet started. It's a mess. 

I've been putting final touches to the first of our films about The London Requiem for The Space today. It's a wonderful taster and Penny, who's essentially made the films, has done a brilliant job. I can't wait to share them all. The first film goes live next week on 26th July, so watch this space! Well, actually, watch The Space (www.thespace.org) 'cus that's where it'll be.

350 years ago, Samuel Pepys went for a trip on The Thames, and suddenly found himself getting a proper soaking from a freak rain storm. As he sheltered on the banks of the river, the King went past in his barge. Pepys jokg, "me thought it lessened my esteem of a king that he should not be able to command the rain." At least I hope he was joking! 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Freshly Hove

Hove train station is the only station I know which smells of perfume. Whether it's because they use a special form of disinfectant, or because the night guard wears an abnormal amount of aftershave, I'm not sure, but it certainly beats the stench of stale urine blended with cheap coffee. I stopped a cleaner and asked if he knew why the place smelt so fresh, and he seemed a bit non-plussed. Perhaps he's simply used to the smell. Fiona didn't seem to know what I was on about either, so maybe it's a smell which is unique to Southern trains. 

Today's been something of a head-f**k. There's no denying it; the London Requiem is a beast. Quite how PK is dealing with not smoking whilst pulling together the most astonishingly complicated sonic jigsaw, I've no idea. I feel very guilty. 

Today we slowly worked our way through the Kyrie, which is the second movement. The choir's vocals were spot on, but today's issues came in the shape of everything else. PK described the movement as a musical Pandora's box. He's right; it constantly changes tack and refuses to allow a listener to become complacent. 

I reckon I'm on the last train from Brighton back to London. We're stopping everywhere. Who'd've thought a place called Balcombe existed? I was hoping it might take me all the way to the Thameslink at Kentish Town, but sadly the nearest I can get to Highgate is King's Cross, no doubt after the tubes have stopped. 

As I stood trying to ascertain this fact on the platform, an old bloke walked straight into my suitcase and took a rather graceful tumble along the platform. It was a fairly horrifying sight; his glasses went flying and the poor man couldn't stand up again. He seemed more embarrassed than hurt, and because he was with a group of younger men, who were calling him Grandpa, after I'd helped to get him to his feet and dusted him off a bit, I ran for my train. It was one of those moments when I felt the need to apologise profusely, even though I'd been stationary with my suitcase in my hand for minutes before he walked into it. Being old must truly suck! 

On the way back from PK's, I stopped off in Hove to finally catch up with Fiona who arrived home from America today. The only eatery near the station, an entirely empty wine bar-cum-meatery called Foxy's, makes a virtue of not catering for vegetarians. There's even a veggie burger on the menu which, as a "joke" is made from 100% prime beef. Laugh? I nearly sued them! 

"That's the Foxy way," said the chirpy man behind the counter, with a friendly wink. I wanted to punch his lights out. To make matters worse he felt the need to continue to speak after I'd made it very clear I wouldn't be eating in his empty establishment. "We do like to cater for special requests, however," he said. "The other day we bought three extra parsnips because one fella telephoned in advance to say he really liked veg with his Sunday roasts. Three extra parsnips!" He seemed genuinely very proud. I stared at him not knowing what to say; "so if I telephoned in advance, would you cook me a veggie roast?" "Yes of course," he said, "but it wouldn't be strictly vegetarian..." He winked again. I smiled, feeling perplexed, amused and deeply nauseous in equal measures, and left the hell of Foxy's far behind me! Who would eat in a place called Foxy's anyway? Trashtastic! 

350 years ago, Pepys climbed to the top of his house to supervise the work being done on his extension. Unfortunately, the roof was still off, and it kept raining which meant the ceiling of the ground floor was getting trashed. The extension meant Pepys would gain a fancy dining room, however, which he'd decided to have wainscotted; panelled with wood as a sort of dado. His head for the rest of the day was "so filled with business" that he couldn't even concentrate on his maths lessons! 

A humble son

I’ve just spent a long day in Worthing, mixing the Introit from the London Requiem. Out of all the movements we recorded its proving the most tricky to get right. It was the first movement we recorded in the choir sessions, and we hadn't yet found our rhythm, so there are some awful moments where everyone is being rather slap-dash with their consonants, there are balance problems, and a few tuning issues in some of the internal parts. The irony, of course, is that it took longer to record than any other movement, and was a piece that many of the choir had sung before. Perhaps because of this, we let down our guard.  I probably need to take most of the blame, however, for not spotting the problems as they tumbled past.

Still, after spending ten hours of studio time polishing the vocals, we're in a much better shape than we were this morning, and both Paul and I have a matching sense of where we now need to travel with the movement; from now on it’s a process of thinning the music out, picking out the weeds to allow the flowers to bloom. My ears are tired right now. I suspect I may well wake up in the morning and suddenly think we’ve created a sonic masterpiece.

It’s nice to be in Hove again, however. The soft sea air agrees with me. I took a walk down to the sea front this evening and watched the waves crashing onto the pebble beach. The window is open in Fiona’s flat and I can still hear them relentlessly going about their business. Meanwhile, the seagulls chatter like excited children in a playground.

350 years ago, Pepys continued to work like a trooper. He worked so late, in fact, that he was still at it when the sun went down, and had to finish his business by candlelight, which even he considered to be a little over-the-top. Cromwell is a controversial figure, but his stint in power did serve to make Britain more of a meritocracy. Pepys knew that, if he worked hard, he could earn good money, and gain social standing – he already had a series of clerks who answered directly to him - and this was a powerful motivator for the humble son of a tailor.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The cawing of a seagull or the cackling of a crone

I had an appointment this morning at the Royal Free hospital. It appears I have a cyst of some description, but from the time I was due to see the doctor, to the moment I was finally given a little box of antibiotics to get rid of it, I endured a 3 1/2 hour odyssey. The biggest joke of all was waiting 55 minutes for my medication to appear at the  "in-patients pharmacy.". When I handed the prescription in, they seemed pretty sure that it would take 30 minutes to process, which seemed long enough, but 30 became 40, and then 50.  Meanwhile, Nathan was driving in little circles around North London in a pathetic attempt to avoid the extortionate cost of parking in Hampstead. 

In my view, it's about managing expectations. It wasn't that my antibiotics were a complicated order, it's just that the hospital was running a queue system, which means it would have been very easy to estimate an exact waiting time. If they'd been honest and initially told me it would take an hour to process my prescription, I'd've taken myself off for dinner whilst I waited. If they've now invented a brand new "NHS minute", which lasts twice as long as a normal one, then this is something we should all be made aware of on the patients' charter.

I'm told the antibiotics I'm on are best taken on an empty stomach; 2 hours after food, or an hour before. With four of the blighters to take in a day, and my hypoglycaemia rumbling away in the background. I'm not sure this is going to be possible!

I'm on a train, yet again, to the South East. I'm traveling down on this occasion to do another two days with producer Paul on the requiem recording. Over the weekend I heard a mix of all the different instruments on the Introit playing at once and realised more work needed to be done on thinning out the textures. Obviously I can't expect Piquet to make judgement calls about the quality of my orchestrations, or indeed, the quality of certain players performances, so I need to be there in person to go in with the scissors. I don't think I've ever needed to work so hard on a project. I sincerely hope it's worth all this effort. 

16th July, 1662, and London was buzzing with the news that Lady Castlemayne, favourite of the King, had split up with her long-suffering husband, and moved to Richmond to set up a little nest in which to entertain the King. Pepys always championed Castlemayne's cause, but was honest about his motives for so doing; "strange it is how for her beauty I am willing to construe all this  to the best and to pity her wherein it is to her hurt, though I know well enough she is a whore." Easy there! 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Magical Lanterns

I travelled from Brighton to Lewes last night, on the most crowded train in the World, and arrived at the station feeling like an old sponge. 

I was so incensed by the journey, that I immediately went to the station master's office to lodge a complaint: if that many people had to crowd onto one train, then they either need more trains, or more carriages, or they have to regulate the numbers getting on the trains in the first place. 

Mez picked me up from the station and drove me round the corner to the Priory Gardens, where her performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was about to take place. 

We sat "backstage", in a little pergola, in the middle of the ruined Priory, whilst the rain lashed down around us.  The wet-weather alternative for the evening was to perform the work underneath the branches of a tall oak tree. It sounded like an utterly insane idea,  but the tree provided a huge amount of shelter from the rain, and simultaneously offered a space that was both intimate and very good acoustically.

Members of the cast had been asked to bring torches and lanterns, and anything else that lit up that they could get their hands on. A group of us spent half an hour attaching torches and the most surreal assortment of light-yielding objects to the internal boughs of the tree.

It was guesswork, really, because until it got dark, we had no idea what kind of light they would create.

As it happened, the rain stopped, and the show was able to take place in its original setting among the ruins of the Priory. A very small audience came to watch: many had assumed that the show would be cancelled. Those of us who were there, were rewarded with a truly magical show. As the light began to fade, the lit tree, which was to the left of the stage area, began to glow. Seeing how wonderful it looked, Mez made the enlightened decision to run act five of the play under the tree anyway. It was like something from The Magic Faraway Tree. Something like a hundred bulbs and candles shimmered and glistened in the branches like twinkling stars. I have seldom seen a more enchanting sight, and felt remarkably privileged to be there. 

It was astonishing how the entire cast, and the audience, fitted so comfortably under the boughs of one single tree.

After the show, Mez and I went for a celebratory drink, followed by a celebratory pizza, and chatted late into the night. 

Today the sun shone, although every time it disappeared behind a cloud, a chill returned to the air. It was Jago Selby's first birthday party, and Uncle Bill and Rupert laid on quite a spread in a park in the middle of Lewes. Raily and Ian were there, and I was finally able to give my Godson Will the Playmobil figures I had bought for him in Germany. When Will's sister Jeannie grabbed one of them (fair enough), and shouted "I want THAT one," Will turned to her, and said very calmly, "Jeannie, they're not yours, their ours." Something tells me that Ian and Raily have brought their kids up very well. 

Baby Jago is a charming child, with a lovely temperament, who barely grizzled for the entire day. We went back to Uncle Bill's for a pasta meal, and it was a great delight to spend time with her, Rupert and the lovely Isobel, who is now every bit the young lady. 

It is with a smile on my face that I greet the week to come…

350 years ago, on July 15th, 1662, Pepys worked from four in the morning, until late in the night. The first part of the day, as usual, was spent in the Navy office, and the afternoon was spent on the Thames with one Mr Cooper, talking about ships. Pepys' wife, Elizabeth, had been out all day, and by all accounts, had had a lovely time. Unfortunately, the jollity was brought to a swift close by the weather. Unlike 2012, it obviously didn't rain very much in July  in the 1660s, as Pepys had chosen that month for some serious home improvements, which included having the roof ripped off, to add an extra floor to his house. Not a great time to the rains to arrive, and Pepys was royally "vexed".

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Hell in a steamy carriage

The London Underground is maybe the worst place in the world to be on a rainy weekend day. The entire network becomes a giant sauna and everyone who ventures down the creaking escalators ends up covered in a thin layer of everyone else's sweat. They say it's so humid down there that scorpions happily exist in the tunnels. A deeply unnerving thought. 

The weekend is also when the engineering works get done. Confused people get diverted onto bizarre lines, and find themselves trying to change trains in unknown stations where LU staff, attempting to solve congestion crises, bark instructions whilst herding people out of pointless exits, which force them into the rain. 

Worst of all, however, are the tourists, who don't know the rules of travel in the capital. They shuffle along, carrying over-sized umbrellas and ridiculous maps. They suddenly grind to a halt in seas of moving people. They talk loudly. They queue jump. They take photos. They stare.

The major stations are currently filled with terrifying policemen holding comically large machine guns, a deterrent, one assumes for terrorists who want to have a crack at destroying the Olympic . Philippa mentioned them yesterday, and I saw them for myself at Victoria today. Meanwhile, temporary barriers divert the crowds into increasingly claustrophobic spaces. There is something hell-like about London at the moment, be in no doubt about the fact. How on earth will it feel when another million people descend in two weeks' time?  

I've just visited a rain and wind-swept Worthing, where we've been comping the music we recorded last Thursday. Producer Paul has given up smoking and hasn't touched a fag for three days, which is highly impressive. On the way to his house, I noticed what a bizarre selection of shops seem to line the street between West Worthing station and his house. There's a coin shop, an establishment which specialises in landline telephones, a dance studio, and a shop which only sells vintage toys... And guitars! 

I'm now wending my way to Lewes on a train more packed than any tube I've ever encountered. The lady next to me is eating cheese and onion crisps. The woman pressed against my shoulder is spouting racist remarks about how "the people on this carriage wouldn't stand up for a pregnant woman in their own country. They pretend they don't understand, but they do." I think I shall be watching Meriel's open air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream tonight. I can't think for a moment that we'll be able to watch it in all this rain, but like a true Brit, and ever the optimist, I've brought a pair of water proof trousers and a kagool. 

350 years ago, and Pepys was up by 4am practising his "arithmetique", and at his desk at the office next door within an hour. He probably wanted to be out of the house before workmen removed all the tiles from his roof as the first stage of adding an extra floor to his home. 

A group of people arrived, quite by chance, at his house in the afternoon including his cousin, Thomas (a doctor with a fine pedigree who Pepys considered to be simple) and Pierce, the surgeon, who had successfully removed Pepys' bladder stone three years before. Pepys fed them a boiled haunch of venison and everyone was very merry, we're told. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Friday 13th

The relentless rain is now grinding me down. I've been driving around North London for the last two hours trying to run errands without being able to see the road in front of me. Pedestrians have been darting out between parked cars in all directions; I came within an inch of running someone over in Camden Town. It’s foolish when it’s dusk and raining to take risks as a pedestrian. Cars were skidding all over the place. My windscreen was permanently misted over. I couldn’t open the side window to bring air into the car because every time I did, the rain poured in like something from a horror movie. Friday 13th was definitely with us.

Highgate Station is displaying the flags of all the nations, one assumes for the Olympics. There's a mini-forest of them attached to the barbed wire on the fence next to the back entrance. For some reason, one of the flags belongs to the EU, which wasn’t one of the competing Olympic teams when I last checked! The LU staff member who obviously put them there was extraordinarily proud of her work and came rushing over when she saw me taking a photo of them; “do you like my flags?” she asked. “Of course,” I said “who wouldn’t?” And I genuinely felt really proud of her for caring enough to put them there.

I was in the East End during the day today. My first port of call was the London Museum, where we interviewed an historian for one of the Requiem films on The Space. At one point he started talking about body snatchers in 19th Century London and I started getting very excited.

I had a brief opportunity to look around the museum after the interview and was hugely impressed. It's a boutique establishment; there's not much of it, but it packs an interesting punch with some very well thought through interactive exhibitions which I had to be torn away from.

From Barbican we drove to Shoreditch to look at the news letter that a group of people have been making about the London Requiem. It’s very lovely to think that so many people are getting so enthusiastic about the project. It genuinely seems to have captured people’s imaginations.

The highlight of my day was undoubtedly catching up with Philippa for a quick cuppa. It's plainly been way too long since we last saw one another as she's now enormously pregnant. I started the process of lobbying her to call the unborn child something fabulously Victorian like Edie or Beatrix. I, of course, shall call her Gary. It's a noble name.

Sunday 13th July, 1662, and Pepys wasn’t feeling very well, so spent most of the day in his bedroom packing up his belongings for the following day when workmen were due to arrive to rip the top floor of his house away, and replace it with two further floors.

The wondrous Tikaram

Clapham's a horrible place in the rain, isn't it? I spent at least ten minutes wondering down the high street looking for a cafe to sit in which wasn't some kind of American chain. I stumbled upon a place called Marios, and ordered beans on toast. You'd think  I'd told the woman behind the counter that she smelt of wee. She looked at me like a woman chewing lemons. I watched her for some time as I waited for the food to arrive to see if the merest glimmer of a smile might cross her face. The memory, perhaps, of stamping on a puppy. Nothing. She did, however, have very cool hair; silver in colour and wrapped around her head in a giant plait. 

Meanwhile the gentleman sitting opposite me made a noise like a Geiger counter as he ate, which I found slightly off-putting. 

Londoners have started to notice the tell tale signs that the Olympics have arrived. There are ominously painted lanes for "Olympic traffic" everywhere and signs all over the tube which say things like "Horse Guard's Parade" at Piccadilly and "Hyde Park" at Tottenham Court Road. One assumes that, to avoid congestion, dim tourists are going to be told to alight at seriously bizarre stations to spread the burden of the Olympic crisis across the tube network.
It's clear to me that London is going to grind to a massive halt for two weeks and the rest of the world are going to laugh hysterically. At the moment we're just one terrorist attack or flash flood short of compete melt down.

Now. What I haven't yet pointed out in this blog is that I'm drunk. I'm drunk because I've been out drinking with Tanita Tikaram who has just recorded a vocal on The London Requiem. It was a childhood dream come true to have her sing my music. I'll confess, I was an uber-fan. I have five of her albums and to hear her rich, dark, chocolatey voice doing its thing was spine-tinglingly exciting and so utterly appropriate for the music I'd given her. As an extra Brucie bonus, both Tanita and her partner are wonderful people. I genuinely felt like I'd known them for years. So tonight I made two friends as well as working with my childhood hero. Joy upon joy upon more joy. 

I should also say that seven members of the Rebel Chorus joined us in the studio to do some over-dubs on the Offertory movement, which they utterly nailed as well. It's gone from being a slightly troubled movement to the best movement of the lot! Yay!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

40 days of rain

I sat on the seafront at Hove this morning under a deep blue sky, eating a plate of beans on toast. The Lawns Cafe is Fiona's local spoon and I got talking to its owner, predictably about the weather. 

"First bit of sun I've seen in three weeks," I said. He agreed. "Is it affecting your business?" He sighed. "Normally on a day like this, they'd be queuing all the way down to the sea front. You've been one of our first customers." I felt a twinge of sadness, not just for him, but for the pleasure boat businesses in York, the people whose houses have been destroyed by flash floods in Hebdon Bridge, and all the Brits who've had their summer cruelly torn away.  First a recession and then tourism industry gets decimated. 

Almost on cue, the sun vanished behind an ominous bubbling grey cloud and a group of people walked past with anoraks buttoned up to their necks. The sea front in Hove went from July to January in seconds. 

Sure enough, by the time I reached PK's house in Worthing, it had started to rain. A trickle became a torrent, and before long we were in the middle of a crazy storm, which we took great delight in recording for the requiem. If climate change means this is the shape of summers to come, I will have to find alternative accommodation! 

The rest of today, much like yesterday, was spent sifting through various takes from various performers on various movements of the London Requiem. The highlight of the day was almost certainly discovering what an astonishing job the Rebel Chorus had made of singing the Dies Irae. It's not the easiest piece of music in the world, but they sang it to perfection. I think we reached a sort of zen moment in the studio, around the time we recorded that movement, when the choir started to gain a sixth sense and began to breathe as one. Exciting biting, as my Dad would say... 

I'm heading back to London now. It's my friend Jim's birthday, and we're celebrating theatre style at Joe Allen's. A child got on the train with his mother at Gatwick Airport and started to talk so loudly that I was forced to move carriage. I'm incredibly hungry and frankly it was him or me! 

Tomorrow is another exciting recording studio day, so stay tuned...

Yet again Pepys was up by 4am 350 years ago, practising his multiplication tables. He was nothing if not thorough. The rest of his day was spent in Woolwich, looking at the Navy stores and generally toadying around his new favourite man in power, Mr William Coventry. History would have it that Coventry was a deeply corrupt gentleman, but Pepys thought the sun shone out of his proverbial. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Pinch me

I'm back in Hove, slowly wending my way to Fiona's house. I'm in a bit of a dream world. Dusk is approaching. The clouds hanging over the sea are lead grey, yet just above the horizon, a peach and orange sliver of sky reminds me that, somewhere else in the world, the summer sun is warming someone's toes. A boat out to sea casts a spotlight on the water...

I've already left my suitcase in Sainsbury's; a sure indication that my mind is elsewhere.

I realised that I was operating on empty when I couldn't make the train doors open at Worthing station at shit o'clock this morning. I ended up running through the carriage with my suitcase looking for a guard, before finally finding a door that would open, and tumbling out of the train into a heap on the platform. My leg still hurts.

We arrived home from York in the wee smalls and the alarm going off five hours later was like being ferociously licked by a dog with halitosis.

Still, it was more than worth being in Worthing today to hear The London Requiem recording very slowly taking shape.

One of our tasks was editing Barbara Windsor's solo in the Kyrie. I kept having to pinch myself to check I wasn't in a dream, but every time I listened again, she was still singing... Word for word how I imagined it would sound. No. Better.

Five minutes later I found myself talking on the phone to Maddy Prior, who we're still hoping is also going to sing on the recording. Maddy, for those reading who don't know their folk royalty, was the lead singer of Steeleye Span, who basically provided the soundtrack (alongside Abba) to both my early childhood and my sixth form years. Maddy Prior and Barbara Windsor singing on the Kyrie would send me into a state of near apoplexy!

So, it's back to Fiona's flat at a snail's pace, blocking everyone's way as I walk along the street, pulling my suitcase in one hand, holding a stir fry for one in the other. Meanwhile, Nathan is somewhere in London, attempting to find the Highgate knitting circle. I'm told they meet in a pub. I hope he makes lots of new friends and gets very drunk.

This photograph seems to have made its way into the Yorkshire press today. The other chap in the picture is Stephen, who organised the entire event. He sent me a note today, with an alternate caption for the photo: "the people of York turn out to celebrate D-list celebrity couple's civil partnership." It's an awful picture - but incredible to think every single person behind us in the shot sang my composition. #evenmoreproud

350 years ago, and Pepys, yet again, was up at 4am practising his arithmetic. When his wife woke up, he called her, and their servant, Sarah to the same room, and forced them to resolve their growing differences. Pepys knew the value of a good servant - and a good wife - and didn't want to lose either!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Poets, princes, press, processions and pride.

Well that was a day! I've had a work premiered by 600 singers, climbed to the top of York Minster for a TV interview and met a Prince! It's not often you get a chance to do any one of those things, let alone all three. 

The day started bright and early at the mysteriously named Eye of York, the final destination of the Ebor Vox composition, where scores of people wearing long shorts and tool belts were rigging stacks of speakers and finding ingenious ways of displaying pieces of art which all said York 800. 

Edward and Sascha swung by, and with Nathan, we climbed up to the top of Clifford's Tower. It was the first time I'd been up there since I was a student and I'd forgotten quite how good the views are. You can see all the way to the moors and across the city towards the two chocolate factories. You can also see how big triangular darts of countryside stretch almost all the way into the city centre in two or three places. It's a wonderfully green place. 

I went from Clifford's Tower to the Guildhall where I took my Mum to a fancy reception in honour of York 800, attended by Prince Andrew, Duke of York. It was a fairly surreal experience, not entirely helped by my phone ringing incredibly loudly just as the Duke started to deliver his speech, which itself was fairly odd because he delivered it holding a great big kitchen knife and went on to chop a pork pie in half to rapturous applause. 

From the Guildhall, I went to the Minster, where I met the legendary Harry Gration, presenter of BBC's Look North, who decided it would be fun to do an interview on the minster roof, before literally sprinting up the 300 steps without even breaking into a sweat. I've just googled him. He's 62 years old! What a legend! I was very touched that he remembered the Symphony for Yorkshire well enough to sing a sequence from the work mid-way through the interview! 

We came down from the minster roof and walked into a sea of people milling around, waiting for the start of the Ebor Vox experience. The crowd included Rachel, a dear friend from university, who'd brought her family. It was so lovely to see her again. 

The smooth-running of our piece was hampered rather spectacularly by the local catholic church, who decided to ring their bells just as we were about to begin. Under any other circumstance, it would have added to the atmosphere, but unfortunately, Ebor Vox was due to start with the sound of the minster's carillon, which was utterly inaudible against the churning bells. It took twenty minutes to find someone to get the ringers to take a little pause, and the piece started dangerously late as a result; dangerous, because we were due to be broadcast live on Look North. 

The carillon played and one by one members of the choir appeared from the audience, humming along to the music. A marching band of drummers kicked in and then the parade began; through the streets of York, choirs joining in at various points along the route, each new choir bringing another counter-melody to the  chant. First 100 singers, then 200, then 300, then four. 

By the time we'd reached Clifford's Tower, there were probably 500 of us, and three times that amount waking along beside us. 

At 6.52pm, we started the anthem, This York. The extraordinary Shepherd's brass band struck up, and then the amassed choirs began to sing. 500 people not taking their eyes off me, in front of them, groups of Morris dancers, and street dancers, and a group of dancers in wheel chairs, 20 foot high papier mâché puppets, and then, finally 150 school children, whose very arrival, half way through the composition, brought a round of applause. 

I conducted. We created a little piece of magic. Actually, I think we created a rather large piece of magic. 

I have been proud a great deal this summer. This has been a good year and it's felt like my life has suddenly come into colour, but today was special. I was in York, my favourite city, surrounded by friends and family. Old friends, new friends. The weather held. Everyone did their bit. Once again, I feel blessed.  350 years ago, Pepys got up at 4am to practice his multiplication tables, before retiring to his chamber with his wife to carve more holes in the wall behind his desk chair to spy on the navy office next door. 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Tennis schmennis

A quiet day in York today. We're watching the tennis and I'm trying to pretend that I don't care if Andy Murray wins or not. I do. I want him to win desperately. I hate the feeling of watching British sportsmen fail. Sadly, it's an all too familiar experience. I don't think we've had a sure bet since Torvill and Dean! I can't put my finger on the reason why, but I reckon something happened when sportsmen started getting paid too much money and being treated like superstars. The British mentality, right across the board, has shifted in recent years towards the general belief that we're all owed a living in return for very little effort. This leads to a desperate level of mediocrity, which is utterly dangerous in a nation which traditionally supports the underdog. The difference is mentality. Speak to any American and you'll instantly realise they're not embarrassed to say how successful they are. Even the most talented Brit is expected to say he or she is rubbish for fear of being called arrogant or diva-like, and therefore, when the shit hits the fan, we crumble, because the more we say it, the more we believe it. Still, Murray has done incredibly well to achieve what he's achieved.

I've given up on the tennis and am taking a preprandial constitutional. 14 of us are about to sit down for dinner. Nathan's Mum and Ron are here, alongside my brother and Sascha, Ron's sister, and two of Celia's friends. I also think I'm going to get a chance to meet one of my Dad's school friends, whom I tracked down online a couple of years ago. We've booked a restaurant on Walmgate. 

Yesterday night we drove up to Pickering in the early evening sunshine and then on up to the wonderfully named Rosedale Chimney, one of the highest points on the Yorkshire moors, and one of the most beautiful views in the world. 

We stood at the summit of the hill, looking down across a patchwork of fields, dry stone walls and dark green woods. The sky was every conceivable colour, and when the sun broke through the clouds, little patches of the vista would light up magically. It reminded me of Mrs Tiggywinkle. 

Pepys spent most of this day 350 years ago with his patron, Lord Sandwich, who had been bigging him up to various fancy London society types. Pepys was understandably thrilled, and went to bed in broad daylight, no doubt to maximise the number of office hours he could work the following day. He was a proper workaholic! 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Glorious York

So there I was this morning, struggling into Highgate station at 7.20am with incredibly heavy bags, in a rush to catch the 8am train from King's Cross, feeling tired and grumpy.

I touched my oyster card on the reader and was annoyed to find it needed topping up. To avoid shuffling across the ticket hall with all my bags, I tucked them to one side and darted over to the ticket machines less than ten meters away. 

The train station was empty but for the man who sells sweets and things dealing with four enormous piles of newspaper and another chap updating his oyster. 

Predictably, just as I'd started the process of topping up, a bored LU staff member appeared to tell me that my "unattended" suitcase was a trip hazard and that it was my responsibility to keep it with me at all times. "But it's tucked right up against the wall." I said. "It's still a trip hazard." "It would be more of a trip hazard if I had it with me at the ticket machines... And besides, this place is empty." "If someone trips on it," he said, "it's me they'd blame, not you." "Plainly that isn't the case" I replied. Forgetting in my anger to make some kind of pun about suitcases.

By the time I'd huffed and puffed and stomped over to retrieve the offensive suitcase - pretending to be slightly disabled to make the nasty LU man feel guilty - my Oyster purchase had been cancelled and I had to begin the process of topping up again. 

To add insult to injury, as I went down the escalator, listening to my tube train roaring out of the platform, the station staff alternated their two prerecorded customer announcements reminding us that "unattended luggage is dangerous and may be taken away and destroyed." The announcements were played on a loop - probably 20 times. Ridiculously unneccessary - and rather incendiary.

I arrived in King's Cross with minutes to spare, and there was a second panic as I realised I didn't have my ticket collection details with me. I had to wake up Nathan back at home to access my emails. 

My relationship with Nathan is increasingly like an episode of the 1980s game show, Treasure Hunt. He's Kenneth in the studio. I'm Anneka Rice, rushing about in a day-glow jumpsuit trying to achieve the impossible with a smile on my face. When the shit hits the fan and I find myself running off in the wrong direction, I call him up, and he puts me back on track by solving a complicated clue. I'm trying to work out whether I can extend the metaphor to make Fiona Wincey Willis!

The first part of Ebor Vox has been cancelled. We were due to be performing my composition as part of a flotilla of 400 boats drifting along the River Ouse. Sadly the water level is so high that the boats won't fit under the bridges, and the currents are so strong that it would be like a cavalcade on speed. I had images of the choir's boat losing its moorings and smashing against the bridge with singers in posh frocks being catapulted into the water and carried off to the Humber Estuary. I guess as long as they keep singing, it'll be like the Diamond Jubilee all over again! 

I arrived in York at 10 and immediately went into preparations for an alternative performance of the composition in York Minster gardens rather than from a boat on the Ouse. The weather was fabulous, and the sun has shone all day. York, however, remains badly flooded.

We did a little ad hoc performance of the piece, flash mob style, with singers appearing from within the audience. I conducted with pride. There are sequences in the song about the Minster "standing proud and tall," and there we were in its shadow, underneath a cornflower blue sky. It was a wonderfully relaxing and inspiring moment. 

After the performance the choirs disappeared around York to do miniature flash mob performances in cafes and parks, museums and markets. There was a real buzz in the air all day. We even managed to gate crash the Church of England synod at York University, perhaps slightly controversially with an all female choir! It was nice to pay a fleeting visit to the campus and watch the enormous carp floating around the lake next to Vanbrugh Paradise. It was less nice to be handed a flier by a gentleman from the society for the protection of unborn children. I don't know whether I was more appalled by the concept of the society or the fact that a MAN was handing out fliers for it. 

We're going to drive out to Pickering tonight to see the moors whilst there's still some sunshine. 

Pepys took Elizabeth by boat to Westminster on 7th July 1662 so that she could visit her parents. Unsurprisingly he didn't accompany her to their house, but waited in Westminster hall instead. I say unsurprisingly, because, I think, in the whole 9 1/2 years of diary, there is but one reference to Pepys visiting his in laws. He obviously thought they were French and below him! 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Ryan Air stealth

My hatred of Ryan Air continues. We booked flights to Italy today for a holiday at the end of August and were appalled to discover some of the stealthy ways in which they top up their money. Booking a flight with them is a mine-field; every page involves small print. If you don’t want to pay any extras, like £75 for a 20kg bag, you have to look very hard to discover the way to say no. They offer travel insurance but tell you if you “want to take the risk” of not having it, you have to click in the drop down box. The drop down box, however, only occurs with the next question, which is about nationality, and half way down the list of countries is a little box which says “don’t need insurance” – it’s not even under D, or I. It's sandwiched between two really random countries. The absolute clincher, however, was discovering that Ryan Air have their own currency converter which takes the prices they charge from Euros into pounds. We’re told we can pay in Euros (and allow our banks to make the conversion) but that Ryan Air has a “fixed rate”, which won’t go up and down like normal currency conversion rates. “If you opt to pay in euros” they warn, sagely, “you could well end up with a worse deal.” The difference in price is staggering. We saved about £30 by not opting for Ryan Air’s “set rate” which will, of course, always be higher than the actual exchange rate, and will rise if the actual exchange rate rises. They are charlatans, but they don’t need to be. Why not just be honest? Why not just charge a little more for flights and know you’re not ripping people off who aren’t bright enough to read between the lines?

I had a massage today and I feel really light-headed as a result. I don’t have pains in my shoulders for the first time in weeks, however, which is really exciting. This has been my first day off in ages. I spent the morning catching up on admin. I had pages of emails, and all sorts of forms to send off to the Musicians’ Union. I also paid the choir for their work on the recording and watched my bank account going from very healthy, to slightly worrying! I hate online banking. I’m slightly numero dyslexic, so regularly managed to input numbers incorrectly, which caused the screen to go bright red. The internet kept going down as well in our flat, so it was a fairly grim, but necessary experience.  I did it whilst listening to myself doing York’s version of Desert Island Discs. Remind me to crack more jokes the next time someone asks me about my career. I thought I sounded horribly boring.

I talk about getting electrocuted, having a form of tourettes and finding people falling over incredibly funny. I also use the phrase; “she sounds like a China-woman” which horrified Nathan beyond words. Obviously I meant a woman from China... but I was referring to Kate Bush singing Wuthering Heights (one of my choices), and feel I must have been drawn into the parlance of the day.

Pepys had a lovely lie-in with his wife on this date 350 years ago. It was a Sunday and he spent much of the morning doing his household accounts, feeling the need to make a note of the fact that “my kitchen, besides wine, fire, candle, sope, and many other things, comes to about 30s. A week, or a little over.” What he doesn’t mention is whether he considers this to be a big amount or not.


I woke up in Hove this morning, and ate a vegetarian breakfast outside the little cafe by the station whilst the seagulls squawked in the cornflower blue sky. Fiona has made a very good decision to move here. 

I got very excited by the prospect of cheating Network Southeast out of the ludicrous amount of money it would have cost me to travel back to London before 9.30am. A train pulled into Hove at 9.20am, so I jumped on board and spent the journey to London planning ways to wriggle out of paying an extra £20 if I was stopped by a guard. It was quite exciting.

The day's been spent at Sonica studios in Clapham recording the lovely Rachel Fryer playing piano on the requiem. It occurred to me that I've written some almost impossible piano music in the piece, which gave Rachie an astonishing work-out. Fortunately she coped admirably. We even managed a proper sit down lunch with the boys from Sonica. I had a Greek salad, and very nice it was! 

At the end of the day, after dropping in a violin solo with the deeply talented Anna de Bruin, and making my cameo appearance on the recording playing the melodica - or campaphone as I've taken to calling it - I darted across London to the Pheasantry to hear dear Carmen from the choir doing a little cabaret set. When I say little, I mean enormous. She was blasting out top Cs left, right and centre, whilst standing 3 feet away from the microphone. I was incredibly proud. 

I was also more than a little touched to hear the compere for the evening, Jamie Anderson, singing a song from my musical, Blast. He sang it with great panache and it seemed to go down very well with the audience, which was surprising, really, as it's probably the most offensive and outrageous song I've ever written!  

Speaking of offensive, I did another Benism this evening. A Benism happens when I meet someone for the first time and instantly say something which makes everyone's toes curl with embarrassment. On this occasion, I'd just been introduced to one of Carmen's friends, a charming Scottish and  vital lad called Evan. I asked if he was a performer, and he said "kind of," before revealing that he'd performed for some time before "life got in the way." "What happened?" I said, before deciding to make a joke, "did you get cancer?" "Yes" he replied, "as a matter of fact I did." 

What are the chances?!

350 years ago Pepys held a dinner party for Sir William Penn (whom he secretly hated "with all his heart") and sundry other fancy people including Sir William's son, the founder of Pennsylvania. They ate all sorts including an umble pie (the first ever mentioned in literature), which was made from the entrails of a deer -  and lent its name to the phrase "humble pie". It was said the people who ate umble pie tended to be of low rank; hence humble.  

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


I'm in Hove, in Fiona's flat, except Fiona's in Madrid. 

I've been with producer Paul all day in Worthing, slowly working our way through the requiem recordings, choosing the best takes, and lining them all up next to one another. Sometimes we select the best bits of two takes and splice them together. It's a fun process, not without its ups and downs. Sometimes you realise what you thought was good enough really isn't, and then the process becomes about trying to work out how best to cover up the mistakes; a bit of reverb goes a long way, but at least one sequence will need to be re- recorded. You live and learn. Recording anything, no matter how experienced you are, is always a massive learning curve. 

Here's an astonishing thing... Did you know that Ryan Air now charges £75 to take a 20kg bag on a plane? Is that, or is that not, in the words of Gem, "truly outrageous, truly, truly, truly outrageous."

Mr Pepys had his first ever mathematics lesson on this date 350 years ago, and started to learn multiplication tables for the first time. It may seem almost incredible that a man of Pepys' level of intellect had been through Cambridge and never learn maths, but it was a new science in those times, one which Pepys would champion in later life. 


I'm in Hove, in Fiona's flat, except Fiona's in Madrid. 

I've been with producer Paul all day in Worthing, slowly working our way through the requiem recordings, choosing the best takes, and lining them all up next to one another. Sometimes we select the best bits of two takes and splice them together. It's a fun process, not without its ups and downs. Sometimes you realise what you thought was good enough really isn't, and then the process becomes about trying to work out how best to cover up the mistakes; a bit of reverb goes a long way, but at least one sequence will need to be re- recorded. You live and learn. Recording anything, no matter how experienced you are, is always a massive learning curve. 

Here's an astonishing thing... Did you know that Ryan Air now charges £75 to take a 20kg bag on a plane? Is that, or is that not, in the words of Gem, "truly outrageous, truly, truly, truly outrageous."

Mr Pepys had his first ever mathematics lesson on this date 350 years ago, and started to learn multiplication tables for the first time. It may seem almost incredible that a man of Pepys' level of intellect had been through Cambridge and never learn maths, but it was a new science in those times, one which Pepys would champion in later life. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Thank you, Yasi

Today has been one of the most exhausting, exhilarating, stress-filled, caffeine-fuelled, chocolate-sponsored days of my life. My brain is a mush. I am utterly wiped-out. I am too confused to be anything other than in a permanent state of being close to tears! I think I'm thrilled. I could well even be elated. 

We've been in the studio all day, finishing off the vocals on The London Requiem. The day started at 10am with a very special encounter. I finally got to meet the relatives of Yasi, the woman whose grave inspired the requiem. Such a simple inscription; "and we laughed and laughed and laughed." I remember the moment we found it. I was with Nathan and Marinella. We'd just had a picnic under a giant oak tree in Brookwood cemetery. It was a gloriously hot day.

Yasi's best friend, her father, her brother and her brother's partner came to the studio to tell me all about the woman I spent so long imagining. It was a life-stopping moment. Highly emotional. She genuinely sounds like an extraordinary person and I feel privileged to have met her gang, and had them give their blessing to the work. 

Barbara Windsor was next up, singing like only Barbara Windsor can. She was nervous to start with; "you get to my age" she said, "and you don't expect to be invited to do something you've never done before."  A few takes later, and suddenly it was there: the voice from the Carry Ons, the voice which sang "Sparrows Can't Fly." Singing my music! My heart exploded with pride. 

The afternoon into the evening was long and exacting. We had to aim for a level of perfection which has previously eluded me, and I think on more than one occasion we hit pure gold. I was so intensely proud of my people; the Rebel Chorus, Sam, PK... everyone giving it everything. Believing in the project. 

Matt Lucas arrived at 7pm to sing his solos, and took them to a place I was not expecting; a very fragile, emotional, intimate space, which was so utterly and profoundly right for the piece, it took my breath away. 

We over-ran. Of course we did: by 45 minutes. I hope no one minded too much. Actually, had we not started a little late, we'd have kept pretty much to time. 

I'm less confused now than I was when I started writing this blog entry, and have decided the two emotions I'm actually feeling are relief and pride. I feel lucky. I feel blessed. I feel 100 meters tall. Can every day be like today, please? Forever? 

Monday, 2 July 2012

Ebor Jorvik Yerk Yorke Yark York York!

I can’t tell if the water dripping off my head, and running down my trouser leg is sweat or rain. I am in the majestic train station at York waiting for the 9.16pm to London King’s Cross. There’s something rather romantic about making the journey from York to London. I guess it goes back to the old coaching days. Pepys often talked about Yorke’s Wagons; in fact, it was the arrival of a Yorke’s stagecoach in London at the tail-end of the plague which indicated to him that life was getting back to normal again.

I’m buzzing. We’ve just done the dress rehearsal for Ebor Vox. About 400 people must have walked through the streets of York starting at York Minster and ending at Clifford’s Tower, singing my music as they wound through the streets. There are very few words to express how emotional that can be for a composer.

I reached York at 3pm, and immediately went into a series of interviews. For some reason the charming bloke from Derry who spoke to me first brought out a sort of wicked sixth former in me. I think he reminded me of my mate Pete from university, and subsequently everything he said made me want to talk in a Northern Irish accent! I misbehaved terribly. He laughed, so I assume he wasn’t offended and I hope I said enough sensible stuff for him to cut something useful together.  

I then called in on my old friend, John La Carillon, 150 steps up one of the towers of York Minster. What a cool place to meet someone for a natter! I could have sat there all day. John is a convivial and most fascinating man, whose claim to fame is having played at the funeral of one of the Krays. He also played the carillon (a set of tuned church bells) on A Symphony for Yorkshire, and the piano a year later when we resurrected the third movement of the work at an awards ceremony. No composition about York would be complete without the Minster Carillon, or, in fact, John playing the Minster carillon; and that’s why I’m thrilled that Ebor Vox is starting this way.

There is a section in my composition called the “breakout,” when 8 or so choirs get to sing little show- off sections, which all interweave. When we attempted the sequence last Monday it came to a crashing halt, and I began to wonder if I’d written something unattainable in the time we had, and the peculiar acoustic at the York Eye. I could tell a lot of hard work had gone into learning the music, but it just seemed one step too far.

An extra half hour rehearsal was therefore called today in the Catholic church round from the Minster so that we could decide if it was a section we’d be able to do.

I don’t know if it was because everyone was present for the first time, or because people had all gone away and done a bit of private practice, but it was like everyone simultaneously found the key to the door, unlocked it,  and then decided to batter it down for the hell of it! We raised the roof – and some. I think many of the singers were genuinely exhilarated by the experience and lots of them came up to me afterwards to say how they’d suddenly understood everything and were thrilled to be taking part in the section.# blushing #more pride #take that Sally Brown.

As the rehearsals roll past, I see more and more characters in the choirs whom I find myself drawn towards. Some people simply love singing, and it’s the most infectious thing in the world to witness. I also love watching the leaders of each of the choirs, and the rapport they have with their singers, one of whom conducted me in my first term at university in a Gilbert and Sullivan show. I took her on a picnic to Whitby in December 1992, and insisted that everything in the basket was orange. It rained all day and so we sat in a car park eating orange jelly, red Leicester cheese and wotsits before driving back to York again. It’s been brilliant to see her again after all this time.

When 20 or so amateur and semi-pro singers get together in one City alone, one is reminded just how many choirs there are out there in the world. It is thrilling to realise that, every night of the week, behind a myriad doors in thousands of towns, cities and villages, people are singing; and experiencing the joy that singing brings. I maintain that the feeling of singing in three or four part harmony is about as good as it gets. Heaven on earth in fact.

We ran the anthem I’ve written for the project last of all – as the rain started to fall. I have never needed to conduct so big in my life. It’s less a baton that I need and more a blinkin’ light sabre! The musicians and singers are spread out over about 100 meters, and they have to watch like hawks to keep together.

The anthem sounded wonderful however; magical – and there’s some charming dancing and sequences of movement going on in front of the singers... so charming, in fact, that all I wanted to do was join in with them... and I did from time to time.

And what of Pepys? He was up "with the 4am chimes" and spent the day paying the hundreds of Navy men who'd helped to bring Catherine de Breganza from Portugal to London.

The Rebel Chorus

It's very rare for me to forget to write this blog. I suppose my only excuse is that yesterday went by at lightning speed and didn't offer up a single opportunity to take stock. I was like a machine from start to finish!

We spent the day at The Pool studios in Bermondsey, a fabulous rabbit warren of a place, filled with intriguing musical instruments. It was the turn of the Rebel Chorus to lay down half of their tracks on the Requiem recording.  The day, however, started with my mother, whom I've asked to sing a little cameo vocal in the Gradual, which is the third movement of the piece. The requiem features gravestone inscriptions from Londoners of every conceivable religious and cultural background. Some of the messages are deeply heartfelt, and hugely personal and it's important for me that they're represented by a large variety of singing voices. I asked my mother to sing some of the words written on the grave of a first world war solider. The words are obviously written from the perspective of the lad's mother and so my own mother felt like the perfect choice to perform them.

I was incredibly proud of her. She sang beautifully. It struck me that she sounds a little bit like a cross between Lana Del Ray and Marlene Dietrich, which is pretty cool all things considered. 

The choir arrived at noon, many of them bringing cakes and things to share. We've become a little family. We hit the ground running, but took an obscenely long time to record the first movement, The Introit. I suspect there were many reasons for this. It's one of the longest movements, and the choir know it well, but we've always rehearsed the 7/8 sections at a slightly faster tempo. The choir were also getting used to the hugely alien environment of a recording studio; trying to lock in with each others' sounds, whilst wearing headphones and hearing click tracks in their ears. 

From then on it became relatively plain-sailing and the mysteries and joys of five of the movements were slowly unlocked. Sometimes, particularly when listening to the Gradual, I found myself overcome with emotion. We finished the day with everyone listening to that particular movement, which ends with the dignified and deeply affecting vocal of Sir Arnold Wesker. Nathan tells me there were tears from the choir. I tried to be brave! 

The immediate aftermath of the  rehearsal became phone-gate, with first Nathan losing his and then Abbie leaving her's in our car on the way home. Julie eventually found Nathan's in her bag. It was close to midnight before we got home. 

Pepys spent the day 350 years (and one day) ago paying off the sailors from the ships of the flotilla who'd brought Queen Catherine de Breganza from Portugal to the UK. There was some dispute as to the class of vessel each of the ships belonged to, which apparently had a bearing on how much money various officers could expect to be paid. A compromise was reached until Lord Sandwich could get the answers they needed from the king.   Pepys met up with an old friend from his sea voyage to Holland in early 1660. The two men discussed mathematics, which Pepys knew very little about. In true Pepysian style, he immediately booked himself a series of lessons with the man to start the following week.