Wednesday, 30 January 2013

White noise


About five years ago, I visited a prison just off the A1 Road in Rutland and spent a few hours talking to some of the inmates about their lives and music. One of the inmates was a saxophonist and had sheets and sheets of manuscript attached to the walls of his tiny cell, so that he could imagine playing, even when he wasn’t allowed to make any noise.  Many of the people I met were serving life sentences. We talked about freedom and I asked whether there was anything that frightened them about the big wide world. One of them said something very interesting; “I’ve heard that when you’re on a bus all you can hear these days is the sound of mobile phones ringing.” This man had gone to jail in the early 90s, long before mobile phones were widely used, and what he said struck a very distinct chord. We’ve all had time to very slowly get used to the change, but the sonic landscape these days is very different to how it was 20 years ago.

As I sat in the cafe today, I became aware of the weirdest assortment of noises coming from mobile devices. Someone had the sound of a woman screaming in pain every time she received a text. There were hooters, weird triangle clangs, duck quacks, warped beeps and farting noises. At one point I thought I must be listening to one of those dreadful comedy radio stations where there’s a crazy sound effect every five seconds to wake listeners up who've zoned out because someone's spoken on a single subject for more than a minute.

It suddenly struck me that the average 21st centuryer is forced to filter out so much unnecessary noise that it’s not surprising city dwellers try to zone out when they’re in public places. Pointless announcements about buffet services on trains, the titter-titter of iPod speakers, the silly four note melody you hear every time you switch a computer on, the “mind the gap”s, the “please remember to take your bags with you when you leave”s. Sometimes I long for simpler times so that I can compose again without all these constant interruptions!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

LA Shitness


I went to the gym this afternoon and was astonished to find, yet again, that they’d removed the free weighing scales from the changing rooms.  It's fairly unusual, I'd say, for a gym not to offer its members a chance to weigh themselves after a workout. A member of LA Fitness staff in his black company T-shirt was floating around. One of the other gym-bunnies asked if there was a reason why the scales had been removed. The response was as predictable as it was irritating; “head office policy.” It’s something we hear all the time at the LA Fitness in Highgate. If in doubt, blame a faceless, be-suited moron in a tower block in a town just outside the M25. Never one to shy away from showing solidarity to those who dare to speak out, I went over and asked a question which was burning in my mind; “why do they disappear and reappear regularly if it’s company policy not to have them at all?” The man in black replied, “oh, that was a member of staff here who didn’t know the rules.” This didn’t surprise me. The turnaround in staff at the gym is almost comic. Staff members obviously work in the most horrific circumstances and get no support from their seniors.  

“What happens if I want to weigh myself?” asked a third gym goer. “There’s a brand new machine on the main gym floor” came the reply. “But it costs 50p every time you want to weigh yourself” said the gym-goer. There followed an incredulous silence as the penny dropped for us all. That’s why they got rid of the free scales in the changing room! Of course the situation is made even worse by the new weighing machine’s position on the gym floor. Most people prefer to weigh themselves, naked, and in the comfort and relative privacy of a same-sex environment. The following question just tumbled out of my mind:

“Would you mind if I went onto the gym floor, took off all my clothes and weighed myself? I always weigh myself naked because clothes get heavier and lighter depending on how much I’ve sweated and how cold it is.”

The LA Fitness staff member looked at me like I’d just asked him on a date, and said sternly; “that would obviously not be appropriate...” I softened, “well, look, if you could just lobby your manager to lobby LA Fitness head office to have the scales returned, that would great. They’re an important part of my people’s work-outs.” The response was, once again, as predictable as it was irritating; “that’s not my job. I’m just fitness staff here.” And there it was; the impenetrable vicious cycle created by a man who simply doesn’t care about his job, the company he works for, or the interests of his customers. Congratulations LA Fitness. You’ve created the perfect example of broken window syndrome!

I went upstairs to the main reception and asked another member of staff if I could talk to the manager and he tootled off to look for him...

Imagine my surprise when the manager revealed himself as the disinterested staff member I’d been talking to in the changing rooms, who was now wearing a little white badge which said “deputy manager!” There was nothing to do but burst out laughing. “You told me less than five minutes ago that it wasn’t your job to speak to the manager... but you appear to actually BE the manager.” “I said no such thing,” said the deputy manager.  And there we were again, riding the Becketian cycle of genuine lack of interest. I had no other option than to walk away...

As I passed through the barriers, I could hear a woman kicking up merry hell because the staff wouldn’t let her look at the gym before she signed up to become a member; “surely I’ve a right to know what kind of place it is?” She said. I shouted over my shoulder, “it’s the kind of place which charges its member 50p every time they want to weigh themselves!”

Monday, 28 January 2013

40 to 20


I’ve been working on the Pepys Motet all day, from early in the morning, when Nathan got up to do his jury service, to about ten minutes ago when my eyes started to go a bit weird. Those who haven’t followed this blog from its conception may not know that it’s called the Pepys Motet, because I wanted to write an online diary which would track the progress of what remains the most ambitious and insane musical project I’ve ever attempted. At the beginning of 2010, exactly 350 years after Pepys started to write his diary, I began to write this blog, and at the same time, a 40-part motet based on passages from the diary.

The idea of the piece was that each of the 40 chosen singers would sing their own, unique line and just like Thomas Tallis’ famous Spem In Alium, there would be no doubling. It took me the best part of 9 months to write and the work was eventually recorded with eight choirs of five singers, representing a host of different musical styles from gospel through opera to folk. A number of choirs came from institutions associated with Pepys, including Magdalene College, Cambridge and the Navy; yes, we actually worked with five young officers from the Royal Navy! It was bonkers. I rehearsed them in Dartmouth in Devon after driving through the night in the worst storm imaginable.

The recording sessions were close to hell on earth. The work was desperately ambitious, some singers were hugely under-prepared and I nearly went mad on several occasions, behaving like a terrible Hitler character and going into complete meltdown at least twice. If you read this blog from September and October, 2010, you’ll start to get an indication of what was going on. The entire project nearly fell apart on several occasions. It’s the closest I’ve ever come in my career to throwing in the towel. We only managed to record 5 of the 6 movements and what we did record was patchy. There were moments where the piece feels epic and incredibly filmic, but other sequences where it doesn’t hang together quite as well as it could have done...

We performed three of the movements live in November 2010, at St Olave’s Church, the church where Pepys worshipped and is buried. The actual performance was the first time that all 40 singers had been in one space at the same time and the evening was a triumph. The Navy boys turned up in full uniform, the Magdalene college choir came in their gowns, and each of the choirs dressed appropriately for their voice type. The last movement was performed with the singers in a circle around the audience; surround sound. I look back on the night with a little sadness, however, as one of our 40 singers, Sam, a young counter-tenor from the early music choir, overdosed last year. Even if we’d wanted to get together to repeat the magical performance, we’d never be able to with its original cast.

It’s my ambition for this year to try and record the piece properly, and I want the Rebel Chorus to pick up the reins. So at the moment I’m condensing the piece from a 40-voice behemoth to a (only slightly) more manageable work for 20 soloists; a process which feels a bit like trying to bottle air! I’ll get there eventually...

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Older than Methuselah


I sat in the cafe this morning next to a couple of old ladies who seemed to be older than Methuselah himself. They struggled through the door, spent ages trying to read, and interpret the menu, and ended up sharing a soup because they thought the portion sizes might prove to be too big for them. They were like tiny little dignified sparrows.  Frankly, I was just thrilled that they were still going out for lunch together. My biggest fear in life is being separated from friends because of old age. The idea of being sent to a retirement home and not having kids to ferry me to other homes to see my friends is horrific. The fact that these two women could barely walk but still had the desire to go out for lunch gave me a great deal of hope. They were fascinating women as well. I assume one of them was an Austrian Jewess who’d come to Britain to escape persecution, because she talked about studying in Vienna before the war. She was also a vegetarian, which made her all the more interesting.

Meanwhile, a silly woman sitting opposite was complaining that her coffee was too cold, and then that there weren’t enough nuts in her porridge. “I’m not paying for this”, she said, her lips taking on the shape of lemons, “I could make this for 20p at home.” Yes, love, you probably could, but you’re not experiencing the wonderful ambience of a cafe when you’re at home are you? A cafe has to pay for its overheads, to support writers like me when we sit in there for hours with just one cup of tea. I think she irritated me mostly because she’d as good as finished her porridge before complaining. For all I know, she'd already eaten all of the nuts.  I’m aware that she also irritated me because she reminded me a little of myself. I can be a stroppy complaining bastard sometimes and I think it’s one of my least attractive traits. When someone holds a mirror up like that it can be quite difficult viewing.
From our window, during the winter months when the trees are bare, we can see all the way to Alexandra Palace. The sunset was extraordinary this evening, and the yellow bricks of the building were glowing like gold. I popped to the shops a few minutes later, and the sky was electric blue. Perhaps because we've had a rise in temperature today, quite a number of birds were chirping. The air felt fresh and somehow optimistic. I often get a sense of optimism at this time of year. I can't really explain why because the winter is obviously far from over.
I came home and watched Songs of Praise, and instantly felt incredibly angry. It struck me that we always think it's hugely amusing when people appear on the telly to talk about angels or ghost-hunting and yet no-one seems to think it's odd in the least when people cram themselves into a church to talk and sing about something which there's just as little proof for! It's absolutely insane.

350 years ago Pepys was still searching for a wife for his unfortunate brother, Tom. There was another setback when the latest girl on the list claimed she couldn’t  fancy him due to his speech impediment, which feels quite hard line, and gives us an indication as to why poor Tom ended up hanging out with servants and using prostitutes. Pepys was sad but philosophical; “there the business must die, and we must look out for another.”

Pepys’ other brother, John, was at university in Cambridge, and the news wasn’t looking good on that front either; “I have news this day from Cambridge that my brother hath had his bachelor's cap put on; but that which troubles me is, that he hath the pain of the stone, and makes bloody water with great pain, it beginning just as mine did. I pray God help him.” Pepys survived an operation for the removal of a bladder stone in the late 1650s. The odds were stacked right against John, and Pepys knew it.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Desperately dull


The cold continues, both in my head and outside on the streets of Highgate. I was coughing up all sorts of rubbish this morning. I didn’t know it was possible to blow something solid out of a nose!

We went to the cafe to do some work this morning. I’m still working on the first movement of the Pepys Motet, and it’s driving me insane. It changes tempo and tonal centre so many times that I’ve lost all ability to understand it using the basic laws of music! I realise now that I’m usually very aware of the underlying chords in the music I write, which makes the process of orchestration a little easier. The original Pepys Motet was written with a great deal more fluidity, however, so there are mini-modulations, and really crazy chords all over the place.  I carry on chipping away at it because I refuse to be defeated by anything in life.

We went to the gym after lunch, and then to the dentist where I was fitted for a new gum guard, which will stop me from grinding my teeth whilst I sleep and hopefully stop my shoulders from hurting during the day.

This really is the ultimate in boring blogs isn’t it? I’m racking my brains to think if there’s anything else more interesting to say. There’s nothing in the news, nothing on the telly. There was a bus crash on the A1 outside our house this morning, but we didn’t see it, and it was more of a shunt than a full on crash. The back windows of the bus were smashed, so we assume that another bus simply didn’t stop fast enough.

Tonight’s all about awful Saturday night telly. I was hoping something more interesting than Splash and Take Me Out would be on, but it’s nice to see how the other half live! Nathan has gone off to Crewe to do some singing. Crewe is a town I have very little concept of. Is it nice?

Friday, 25 January 2013

Smile, open our eyes, love and go on

Today I went to Poole in Dorset with Philippa, Silver, Kate and Miguel. Under any other circumstance it would have been a wonderful adventure with a lovely set of friends. Unfortunately we were attending the funeral of our friend Sally's husband. 

There are no real words to describe how horrific it is to witness a vibrant 32-year old man with a young child losing his fight against cancer, or to watch his mother fighting back the tears, or to see a room filled with young people grappling to make sense of a situation. Life can be so intolerably cruel. 

Sally was dignified and brave. I suppose she had no other choice than to be strong for her daughter, but she exuded a sort of majesty which took my breath away. She delivered a beautiful eulogy before playing the song that her husband, Ben, had asked to be played at his daughter's wedding. I think we were all suddenly struck by a single tragic thought; the little toddler in Sally's arms is destined to grow up hitting all those important milestones without a father. It was too much for us all, and as the song played, many wept bitter tears. 

The service was non-religious, which meant the focus was on Ben himself. We heard from family members, old pals, work colleagues. He was incredibly well-loved. 

For obviously reasons my Requiem has at the front of my mind all day.  On the way down to Poole, the train took us, rather slowly, past Brookwood Cemetery, home to the beloved Yasi, whose gravestone inscription, "and we laughed and laughed and laughed" features so prominently and proudly in my composition. As we stood around Ben's grave this afternoon,  a poem was read which ended with a line which also features in the requiem; "smile, open our eyes, love and go on." 

A wonderful sentiment.

Poor Sally.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Overdone

I've over-done it! I knew last night I was coming down with a cold and today has been so ridiculously busy - and long - that my head is now spinning. My throat hurts. My lips are dry. My nose is all blocked. I can't string a sentence together. It's basically all over for the day. Blanket and hot toddy time! 

A quick summing up of the day: Woke up at shit o'clock, so unaccustomed to early starts that I began to wonder if the sun was ever going to come up. 

I went to Borough for an osteopath appointment and stopped at the cafe in Highgate Station en route. They always play classical music and happened to be playing The Swan by Saint Saens. I used to play that piece on the 'cello all the time, particularly to my Grandmother, who would always request it and sit dabbing her eyes. Maybe it was the early start, or the cold, or the memory of my childhood, or the smiley, kind face of the man behind the counter, but I suddenly found myself openly weeping and having to hide my eyes whilst I walked down the station steps. 

The osteopath prodded, poked, clicked, massaged and advised. 

I returned home, worked on the Pepys Motet, made a vegetable soup, went to the gym, rowed with a horrid bloke who refused to move his illegally parked car, returned home, collected my bag and then ran to White City to attend a residents' association meeting to spread the word about our latest project. 

Non-stop... I'm shattered. Sleep now...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Forget about the price tag

Those who know me well will be aware that I have a sort of phobia of stickers. By stickers, I mean price tags and those dreadful things you find attached to pieces of fruit.  It's an odd phobia to have and I guess it's more of an aversion. When I see a sticker, I need to peel it off and roll it into a tiny ball for fear that I'll find it at a later point attached to me somewhere. 

Imagine my horror, therefore, when I went into the little newsagents next to the Post Office to find the man behind the counter with a price tag actually in his mouth! He was sucking a great big yellow sticker. It kept appearing on his tongue and then disappearing again into the dark recesses of his gob. The bile started pouring into my mouth and I was forced to throw my shopping at Nathan and run into the street to escape. Pathetic, really, but then again, I don't understand why people have issues with spiders and rats. 

Speaking of rats, Cas seems to be doing okay. He's still not eating very much, and routinely turns his nose up at anything we try to give him with painkillers in them. In fairness, the medicine tastes foul and if we manage to dupe him into eating something with it inside, the poor tyke rushes away in a panic and starts wiping his mouth on his bedding. It's really difficult to watch, because he's obviously in a great deal of pain. 

I spent the morning in East London, meeting all sorts of fascinating people on the White City Estate, where we're about to start work on our next BBC film. This is the scary part for me. Knitters call it COA, or "cast on anxiety." In a month's time I'll be staring at an empty piece of manuscript, wondering how on earth I'm going to write a song cycle... And feeling a little like a talentless fraud. Yes, even on the slow march towards 40 with a clutch of awards to my name, I still often wonder if I'm about to be unmasked! 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Condensing


I started to condense the Pepys Motet today from a work for 40 singers, to a work for 20. I want the Rebel Chorus to be able to sing it, and feel a piece for 20 voices is probably more commercially viable – especially if we’re going to try and record it.

It’s proving almost impossible to cut half of the parts. The original score is ridiculously complicated and I don’t want to end up with a piece where the 20 singers sing almost constantly just so that all the harmonies are covered. It’s all about thinning things out, without losing the essence of the writing. My friend Fiona once very wisely told me that the key to good writing was to get everything on the page... and then cut half, so that’s what I’m going to do. Unfortunately, my original files keep crashing, so I sense a long, thankless task ahead of me. Still, I’m glad to be back in the game with a project I can sit in cafes working on!

We went to the gym this afternoon and Nathan took me through a series of stretches in front of the mirror. Believe it or not, I haven’t looked at myself in a mirror for some time, and did not like the little frumpy dumpling that was staring back at me. I also didn’t like the fact that I’m almost entirely without coordination. I simply couldn’t make my body move in the way that Nathan was moving. He’s suggested I try yoga. My osteopath says all my leg muscles are over-developed and need to be repeatedly stretched, so he might be on to something. I just think I’d feel like a bit of a tit in a yoga class. I also think that women wouldn’t necessarily appreciate a man in their midst whilst they stretch their legs around their shoulders with their biddy bits all over the place. Yoga feels very much like a private women’s club. I don’t know why. I’m acutely aware that many men do it...

Cas the rat had a lovely run around the living room today, and spent a good deal of time behind the sofa ripping up pieces of paper, which is his favourite thing to do, so he’s on his way to recovery. His appetite, however, seems to have not fully returned, or possibly altered. Difficult, because our only way of administering pain killers is through his food, and he regularly turns his nose up at what we offer!

Monday, 21 January 2013

I am Cazareth




We took Cas the Rat to the vets’ first thing this morning for his operation. The vet told us she’d give us a call when there was news, so we sloped away, beside ourselves with worry, knowing he was very unlikely to survive the ordeal. The general aesthetic alone is something which often kills little animals – especially those with large, heavy tumours – because the vet often can’t calculate the animal’s actual weight.

On the way home, we took ourselves to Hampstead Heath for a couple of razzes down Parliament Hill on our plastic sledges, which are rapidly falling apart. The Heath looked astonishingly beautiful. The sun was shining, the ponds were frozen solid, the trees were white with snow.

Parliament Hill is such a magical place in the snow. The slopes are currently littered with tiny pieces of plastic from all the rubbish sledges which have disintegrated after hitting bump and ledges. The dogs were having a wonderful time, running behind sledges speeding down the hill. One little fluffy thing came bounding up to me, leapt on my shoulders and started licking my face with great alacrity.

We went back home, and I spent the afternoon sending emails and filling in more funding bids. Looking for money is a lonely old business!

At 5pm we heard the great news that Cas had survived his operation, so we rushed back to the vets’ to pick him up and bring him home. He looked surprisingly well, and immediately devoured an enormous piece of cheese. The vet was thrilled, and perhaps a little surprised that Cas had pulled through. He was weighed before and after the operation and seems to have lost a sixth of his body weight. Apparently someone walked down a corridor in the animal hospital saying; “we’ve just removed a rat from a tumour!”

So it is with a happy heart that I write this blog tonight. I always said that Cas was invincible, and he’s taken another leap towards this particular status.
I leave readers with a photograph of the beautiful Heath. It never fails. 


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Let it snow


I’ve officially done nothing today other than sit on the sofa, filling in application forms and watching television whilst the snow drifts down outside. It has, I’m pretty convinced, snowed without stopping for the entire day - only tiny little flakes, so I don’t think anyone in Highgate will need to worry about being snowed in – but pretty impressive nonetheless. Since darkness fell, I’ve been hypnotised by the way the snow is dancing underneath the street light outside our house, creating a magical swirling blizzard of tiny orange diamonds. There’s been snow on the ground for almost a week now, and they say it’s going stay around for at least a couple of days. This is the longest period of snow that I can remember since my childhood.

I’m watching Dancing on Ice and am really beginning to get irritated by the lazy choreography.  Why is there so much nodding? Keenly nodding one’s head in time to the music means nothing and looks like amateur street dance. Almost every time there’s some kind of lift, one of the dancers starts nodding their head like the dog in Churchill commercials.

I’ve just been out in the snow for the first time today. It’s deeper than I thought. There’s 4 or 5 inches sitting on the top of the wall outside, and with every step, my feet made a low squeaking crunch, which is a rare sound on a London street!

350 years ago and Pepys was still trying to find his lonely wife a paid companion. He had wanted to bring his sister Pall back into the house to “save throwing away money on strangers,” but Elizabeth wasn’t so keen on the idea. Instead, she favoured the daughter of one Mr Ashwell, so various meetings were set up. Poor Elizabeth. Imagine having to pay for a friend?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Rail replacement bus replacement


Today was all about my god daughter's 4th birthday party, which took place in a little community centre around the corner from Columbia Road in Bethnal Green.

The theme of the party was fairies, and one of Deia's Grandmothers, a hugely talented artist, created a grotto out of ivy branches, crepe paper and about 300 balloons. It's extraordinary how some people can so effortlessly take on a very plain-looking space... and win.

The party itself was a roaring success. An entertainer joined us for an hour and played silly games with the kids, who were dressed in a shimmering riot of lilac and pink. After the games had stopped, a flotilla of mothers rushed in with plates of party food, which the kids ate whilst sitting on the floor in a sort of indoor picnic. It was a triumph.

Birthday parties are a much bigger deal than they were in my day. Thirty children came to Deia’s party today. In my day I think we were only allowed to invite as many friends as could fit around the kitchen table. In fact, we once had a hallowe'en party, to which my Mum had said we could only invite, I think, 10 friends. I made a mistake and invited 11, and got in such a state as a result, that my poor mate John Blackie was uninvited on the day. A very spiteful friend of mine called Kathryn took great delight in telling him the bad news. The poor chap was even dressed as a skeleton. I felt terrible at the time and it feels even worse to recount the story. Funny how these childhood things can make you feel so bad in later life.

Today’s party was cleared away by conscientious mums, and was nothing but a glorious memory three hours after we'd begun the process of setting it up.

I'm now on a replacement bus service heading home from Camden. Some hideous Sloaney women, obviously not used to slumming it on busses, are laughing like horses on the back seat. I don't need to turn around to know what they look like. Long, vapid hair, designer coats, little dinky wellingtons because it’s snowing. We reached Archway and were tipped off the bus and told we’d need to get another replacement bus up to Highgate and beyond; a rail replacement bus replacement bus.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Night time taboganning

The much-anticipated snow started falling at about ten o'clock this morning, just as we were taking young Cas to the vets' in Camden. We were hoping that they'd take him straight in for an operation to have his tumour removed, but unfortunately he's going to need to wait until Monday. 

The lovely vet sent him home with some pain killers. Apparently rats are rather adept at suppressing all signs of being in pain. In the wild, a sick rat would be ostracised by its family group and end up a target for predators, so you don't tend to discover they're ill until it's very much too late. As a result, vets tend to treat rats with pain killers at the merest hint of a problem. You learn something new every day. 

I went for a haircut as the snow began to swirl. The man who did the honours spoke very quietly and had the silliest hair in the world which looked like a squashed porcupine on Tarmac. Frankly, anyone with a do like that was never going to make the best job of my hair, and sure enough, when I looked in the mirror, I saw Mr Whippy staring back at me; a great big, quiffy turret on the top of my head. 

We've just returned from the top of Parliament Hill, where we've been doing a spot of night-time tobogganing. Spinning down a hill in an out-of-control manner without any sense of its topography is both insanely terrifying and wonderfully exciting, especially when you're going head-first. I'm not entirely sure it's the best thing to do with a bad back, and Nathan seems to have dislocated two fingers, but, you know. Hey ho!

We've come home to watch an episode of Rosemary and Thyme whilst eating pizza. A Friday night doesn't get much better than this. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Metaphorical blood


The dental hygienist made a right mess of my mouth today. She's a crafty one, that one, and always tries to sell you stuff whilst you're incapable of speaking ‘cause she’s brandishing a dangerous-looking mirror. I almost signed up for teeth whitening today as a result of her wily ways!

She went in armed with an assortment of medieval torture implements which she jammed, scraped, drilled and bored into my gums. The resulting bleeding, which felt like a haemorrhage, was put down to my not flossing often enough.

...No love, you've just jammed an enormous metal pointy spike into my gob!

I went to the osteopath first thing and had to deal with a most horrific tube journey into central London. For almost an hour, I found myself crammed between an armpit and a chin. The tube smelt of bad breath and BO and seemed to grind to a halt in every tunnel. I felt like chicken in a piece of cling film.

I returned, aching a little, and found Nathan spitting metaphorical blood at the telly. Phil and Holly were interviewing some grotesque homophobe who was spouting bile about the corrupting influence of homosexuals and the fact that gay marriage should not be "taught" in schools. I'm not quite sure what teaching gay marriage would entail, but if he’s suggesting that any mention of gay marriage should be suppressed by teachers, then we're sailing dangerously close to the bad old days of Clause 28.

The lovely Holly, I'm pleased to say, made her contempt for the man very plain, and lost all objectivity as an interviewer by holding her head in her hands whilst he was speaking and confessing to being horrified by the results of the ensuing phone poll. 40% of This Morning viewers apparently believe gay marriage shouldn't be discussed in schools. Some grim woman then emailed the programme with that old familiar phrase that has haunted me throughout my life, “I’ve nothing against the gays... but...” Her particular worry was for her impressionable 7 year-old daughter. Frankly, if she’s more worried about her daughter becoming a lesbian than she is about her getting involved in a gang, she only has herself to blame if she completely goes off the boil!
It’s worth pointing out that the This Morning audience of pensioners, housewives, lazy students and the long-term unemployed is ever likely to yield a higher than average percentage of bigots and homophobes, but the poll was a sobering indication that the war for true equality has not yet been won.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A cloud of steam


I woke up this morning with back ache yet again. I’m hoping that my follow-up appointment with the osteopath tomorrow will nip that particular problem in the bud because it's nudging into the zone of slightly worrying.

I’m feeling rather listless and dissatisfied at the moment. We’re half way through January and I feel as though I haven’t really achieved anything. I’ve sent a few pitches out. I’ve read a number of books about The Thames. I’ve had meetings with a few people, but I have nothing tangible to show for the first 16 days of the year. Because I’m not being active enough, the days are rather flitting away. I feel like I’m vanishing in a cloud of steam.

There’s nothing else to report, really. I spent the entire day reading what turned out to be the most intensely boring book about the River Thames ever written. Essentially, it was an in-depth essay about the docklands with a yard-by-yard account of every single warehouse which had lined the river in 1934. Dry as toast, and yet I persisted.

Cas the rat is ill again. The poor tyke is bleeding from his tumour and we’ve decided to risk the operation to have it removed. Essentially, he’s unlikely to wake up from the anaesthetic, but at the same time unlikely to live for much longer with the tumour growing on a daily basis. Having been through the trauma of Poll the rat being euthanized with an injection which hurt him and made his last moments a hideous panic, we’ve decided we’d rather Cas died in an operation, which will afford him the luxury of having his anaesthetic administered by gas in a special tank. He’s a strong lad. He may just survive.

On that note, I shall return to my cloud of steam. With any luck there’ll be more to report tomorrow!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A game of chance


At Euston Station today, I was deeply alarmed, not just by the man who sat next to me on a bench (with the weirdest excrescence on his forehead), but by the enigmatic tannoy announcement that echoed through the building; “Code 4 in the ticket hall area... Code 4 in the ticket hall area.” The woman made the announcement in a monotone voice. Everything felt just a little bit “1984.” What is code 4? A fire? A strange person? Fortunately the train pulled into the platform before I was forced to find out!

We had codes when I worked at the New Ambassador’s theatre. Mr Sloane meant there was a fire, and that all the ushers had to rush to the emergency exits shouting “this way out please ladies and gentlemen...” Mr Magpie indicated that there was a strange package in the building, and Mr Dudley were the words we said quietly but firmly if a person started acting strangely. I once had to announce on a walkie-talkie that Mr Dudley was in the building after stumbling upon someone in the gentlemen’s loo more than thirty minutes after the last audience members had left the building. The man claimed to have become disorientated when all the lights went out in the building. I remember thinking that it was all too clear he’d been hiding out so that he could nick stuff from inside the building after the theatre had closed, but there was nothing we could do to prove this particular fact, so he was merely escorted onto the street.

I think the most common codeword for fire is Mr Sands, which is why, on one occasion, whilst I was at Bank station, not long after 7/7, I became almost apoplectic when the tannoy system decreed that “Mr Sands was in the ticket hall.” I think there was then an announcement to say that everybody needed to evacuate the station and immediately I seemed to be heading in the opposite direction to everyone else, following signs for the Monument exit. In my panic, I started to imagine smoke, before starting to run, and suddenly I understood how terrifying it must have been for the poor people who got caught up in the King’s Cross disaster, who apparently ran in circles looking for a way out. I’m told it’s human instinct to lose one’s bearings in times of crisis.

This of course reminds me of the news story today of the poor woman, stuck in the block of flats in Camberwell that caught fire, who called the emergency services to ask whether she should try and get out, but was told to stay put and cover the door with a towel. She stayed on the phone to the 999 operator for the best part of an hour whilst the fire slowly crept up through the building. First there was smoke coming through her floorboards, and then she announced that everything was turning yellow. Then she lost consciousness. It’s one of those 911-style stories, with terrifying levels of detail, which make us feel both helpless and incredibly sad. I can’t understand why no-one monitoring the fire in the hour that she was speaking to the emergency services was able to tell her to evacuate to a higher floor – or indicate a safe escape route...  Those who ignored the emergency services' advice and exited the building all lived.

Life certainly is a massive game of chance.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Click


I went to see an osteopath today; more specifically I went to the British School of Osteopathy, where you get treated by 4th year students, but pay ridiculously small sums for the experience; about 20 quid for a session. It’s well worth it.

My student osteopath was called Barry, and he was brilliant. Maybe all osteopaths are brilliant – I’ve nothing really to compare him to – but he very quickly seemed to work out what was wrong. There’s an area of my spine which has apparently been frozen for some time, with the vertebrae above and below working overtime to compensate.

He prodded and poked for a while, and tapped my spine, which was apparently hollow-sounding in the affected area. He asked me to lie on the bed, wrapped his arms around mine and suddenly and very sharply twisted. Clllllick. The sound was like a machine gun. I immediately burst into peels of hysterical laughter. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that much. It was the shock, I suppose, and the ridiculous noise, because it didn’t hurt in the slightest. Apparently many people either laugh or cry when they get “popped.” It triggers a nerve which goes direct to the brain and screams, “react! React!”

I’m apparently to expect some soreness at some point and a lot of stiffness in the morning, but I’m excited to see what difference it’s made.

On the 9th January 1663, Pepys got into a pretty major row with Elizabeth, triggered by the news that their ex-servant, Sarah, was spreading gossip about the Pepyses around London. Elizabeth broke down in tears and said that she’d been telling servants her deepest secrets because she'd no one else to talk to, poor lamb. Pepys was initially sympathetic, until Elizabeth pulled out a letter (written in English) which basically outlined all Pepys’ faults whilst declaring how miserable she’d become. She’d written the letter some time ago, but thought better of sending it.

Pepys was incensed that she’d effectively written a document which could have turned him into a laughing stock if it made its way into the wrong hands. He tore the letter up whilst Elizabeth pleaded with him. He then went into her secret chest and tore up every single letter and document she’d kept over the years; the tokens of love, the little poems, and the letters he’d written to her whilst at sea. All were ripped up in front of her, and then burnt in a display of unacceptable cruelty. The only things he couldn’t bring himself to destroy were the marriage certificates and the very first love letter he’d sent to her.

All was well again by the 13th January, when Elizabeth and Pepys hosted a pretty mega dinner party with “oysters, a hash of rabbits, a lamb, a rare chine of beef, a great dish of roasted fowl, a tart and then fruit and cheese.” Pepys was thrilled with the evening. The house looked neat and tidy with good fires in all the rooms. After eating, the women withdrew to play cards and the gentlemen went to Pepys’ chamber, because the fire in the dining room had started to smoke!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Les Mis on ice

We've just spent a glorious Sunday in the presence of Brother Edward and Sascha. 

I woke up this morning with terrible back pains. I think the process of sleeping is making the muscles around my ribs somehow go into spasm, and so once I wake up, there's no other option than to get up and take a bath because it hurts so much. Getting up at 8.30am on a Sunday is no laughing matter and I've spent the day yawning. 

In the afternoon we went to see Les Miserables (the film.) Some of it was overwhelming moving, and the cast was like a roll call of every one Nathan's ever worked with. The bit parts and ensembles were almost exclusively played by West End Wendies: Hannah Waddingham, Di Pilkington, Caroline Sheen, Jonny Barr, Katie Seacombe, Michael Jibson, Frances Rufelle. All Britsh. I felt proud. 

There was some dodgy singing from the lead men, primarily by Russell Crowe, who's opened himself up for a shed-load of potential abuse by singing really badly. It should have been the casting director's responsibility to stop that from happening, however many bums he's going to put on seats. He's just not good enough to play such a pivotal and serious role. No one cared that Pierce Brosnan was rubbish in Mamma Mia, because the film was silly and lighthearted but listening to Crowe singing "Stars" was horrific.

I was slightly disappointed with Hugh Jackman at times. His "Bring Him Home" felt throaty, strangulated and completely lacking in subtlety. There were some horridly nasal areas of Marius' voice, and Cosette had a weird bleety sheep-like vibrato.

That said, the women steal the show, and the absolute stand-out performance was Anne Hathaway, whose "I Dreamed a Dream" was close to extraordinary; one single 3-minute shot creating perhaps the most engulfingly moving cinematic experience of my life. 

We went back to Ted and Sascha's after the film to watch Dancing On Ice (from the sublime to the ridiculous) and eat the nicest raspberry souffle I've ever tasted. 

There was a shocking moment on Magic FM Radio this afternoon involving Rick Astley interviewing a somewhat frosty Helen Hunt. The conversation at one point went something like this;

Rick: So after you'd won your Oscar, I understand you gave up acting for a while?
Ms Hunt: Um? No... (thinking) I don't think so... Where did you hear that
Rick: That's odd. It says here that you gave up acting and started learning the viola...
Ms Hunt: No! What on earth? Wait...(dawning) I PLAYED Viola in Twelfth Night! 

I was so embarrassed that I had to immediately switch the radio off! 

Music and cake

We've just come third in a music quiz in Walton-On-Thames. It was a poor showing, really, but the picture round let us down big time. In fairness there were only three of us on the team, so we'd have won hands down if they'd divided all scores by the number of team members! We sat in the corner of the room like a group of Nobby No Mates wishing we'd have thought to ask someone else to join us!

One of the rounds consisted of Christmas songs, one after another, sung by those exceedingly dull 1950s crooners who, frankly, all sound the same if you don't own a single one of their albums. I don't know my Acker Bilks from my elbow. 

The rest of the day was spent at Craft and Cake with the knitting gang. The cakes were provided by Sam this week: glorious blueberry muffins. 

Kate and I decided that the majority of knitting terminology is deeply comic, and laughed like little children every time someone said "gusset", "heel flap" or "ball band." I reckon you could go to a dodgy shop in Soho, utter a special codeword, and get all of that from under the counter!

Friday, 11 January 2013

Skylon ham


We're on a tube, heading home from Waterloo, where we've been eating with Jim at the Skylon restaurant on the South Bank. What a lovely evening we've just had. 

I often find myself mourning the disappearance of the actual Skylon, which, for those who don't know, was a weird, space-aged metal tower, which became the centre-piece of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in the early '50s.

...The Skylon standing tall and proud

The Festival of Britain was a post war "we're finally emerging from the mayhem and bleakness" exercise. All that now remains from the festival is the Royal Festival Hall, which is not a bad legacy. I'm told it was the first post war building to be listed. 

The Skylon itself was demolished when the exhibition closed. Some suggest it ended up being dumped in the Thames. So much for futurism!

We spent the day throwing more things away. I have found a second wig and a Dr Seuss-style red and white stripy hat. I have also found the majority of things that I thought had gone missing; everything, in fact, but the gum guard which prevents me from grinding my teeth in the night. It's probably the thing I need more than anything else. I woke up this morning with my teeth clenched shut, and such terrible tension in my shoulders that I could barely move my arms. Hmm.

As we threw away most of our possessions, day time television droned away in the background. It strikes me that This Morning is nothing but a ridiculous parade of adverts, and stupid packages with D-list celebrities sitting by swimming pools saying, "to enter the competition which could find you sitting by this very pool, all you have to do is call this number. Calls cost just £1.70. More if you call from a mobile." Silly competitions for silly people. 

You could ferment what is actually interesting or educational on the programme into a ten-minute show. Poor Philip and Holly. 

I was shocked by the level of ham being dished out by many of the presenters I watched today. I've never seen such a parade of prannies gurning, pouting and winking patronisingly at the camera. 

I have therefore decided to create a definitive list of the hammiest presenters on television. This list could well grow over the course of the weekend: 

1. Aggy off of "How Clean is your House" 
2. David (the Duke) Dickinson (with his mahogany face and camera asides)
3. Lorne Spicer (the Essex girl who does trashy shows about car boot sales) 
4. Tess Daley who pulls the oddest faces when Brucie makes jokes on Strictly
5. Jane McDonald, who can always be relied on to pull a Les Dawson face following a double entendre. 

I welcome other suggestions to add to the list and will update on a regular basis. Remember, we're looking for hammy presenters and not bad presenters. Being hammy is a proper skill! 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Fall out


Before I put the Ferrers School shooting to bed, I feel I ought to respond, in detail, to a comment written on yesterday’s post.

The person who left the comment subsequently contacted me on Facebook to say he was worried the picture I’d painted was less than accurate, because it didn’t deal with the causes of the shooting, and that the comments I’d made about the Fowler family were not just unfair, but based on rumours rather than fact.

The first thing I should say is that I’ve never claimed to have known Fowler personally, and if the blog gave a different impression, I apologise. Fowler was a loner. Everyone knew who he was, but no one seemed to know anything about him. We were kids. We didn’t know much about cause and effect. It felt simple enough to brand him as weird.

Yesterday’s comment made me realise that my blog had been written through the black and white eyes of an adolescent. Until recently the shooting had occupied a space in the very back of my mind, which I’d never really processed as an adult. I reported in the blog what I remembered about the event, and what had been said to me at the time about it, which was twenty five years ago. The curious thing about the shooting is that it was rarely talked about afterwards. The media lost interest, or were told to stop reporting and in the ensuing years, no one wrote a definitive account about it. The affected teacher opted not to do interviews (which is why I’ve opted not to name him) and a few posts on Friends Reunited about the attack were hastily removed. I suppose the event was unprecedented in its scale, and the good, but guarded folk of East Northamptonshire simply didn’t want the rest of the world to peer in. The comments left on my Facebook page after yesterday’s post were proof that the whole event has subsequently found itself shrouded in rumour and legend. How many people were actually hit by pellets and flying glass? Was the teacher shot through a window? Are the bullet marks still in the wall?

That said, although suggesting I’d “not allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story”, what yesterday’s critic didn’t mention was how I’d got the story wrong, other than by recounting gossip about the family in question, and not knowing that Fowler was rumoured to have been bullied by the science teacher he came into the school to find. This, I confess, is something that I hadn’t heard, although ask any kid enough times, and he’ll claim to have been bullied by at least one teacher!

The point of my blog was not to belittle the Fowlers, but point out that Darren and the school were grossly let down by the authorities. However – and this is a big however - if Fowler’s father really did buy him a gun for his 14th birthday, the family have to take some responsibility for what happened. The mother didn’t have to send the rest of her kids to the same school. Some staff members found their attendance at the school incredibly traumatic, and I seem to remember one of Darren’s brothers hanging out with the school caretaker because no one else would talk to him. Those kids deserved a new start, which, for whatever reason, they were not given.

There were plenty of kids from the same town who grew up in abject poverty, and plenty more who were brutally bullied, but they didn’t take a gun into school. Furthermore, Fowler didn’t actually choose to shoot the teacher who’d bullied him, he shot three other (totally innocent) people.

Look, as with all these things, it’s always a combination of little things; weird co-incidences, which come together to create a disaster. Fowler lived in a “closed” town which was very much under the rest of the world’s radar. Someone, possibly his father, gave him a gun. Teachers did what they could to tell the authorities that he was a walking time bomb but the authorities, for whatever reason, decided not to act. At the same time, Michael Ryan gained notoriety by walking through the streets of Hungerford killing people. Fowler was bullied, angry, and got himself expelled, and then BOOM.

The sad part of all of this is that, for whatever reason, it feels that no lessons were learned from what happened, and maybe, just maybe, if a proper enquiry had been held at the time, lives might have been saved elsewhere. Columbine. Dunblane. Sandy Hook. What is also clear, is that, given a few other weird co-incidences: if Fowler had been given a different gun; if the games teacher hadn’t tackled him to the floor, the Ferrers School might have become as infamous as the other places I’ve listed, which, of course, are sadly known to us all.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Shooting

A number of people have asked me to elaborate on all of my recent blog references to the shooting at my school at the end of the 1980s. Seeing as nothing of any interest has happened to me today, and because the events that happened took place 25 years ago, almost to the day, I thought I’d regale readers with the full details as I remember them, and if any former “Ferrins” have other stories about the day, I’d be more than interested to hear them.
Wednesday January 6th, 1988. The Ferrers School, Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire. It was an unremarkable January day in an unremarkable corner of England. I was in the 3rd year at the time, aged, I think, 13. It was the last lesson of the day. We were studying geography, and I was very excited about seeing the local “am dram” pantomime in Rushden that night. The windows of the classrooms were covered in condensation. I’m not quite sure why I remember that particular detail. As the bell went to signify the end of school, my best friend, Tammy and I, collected our things and decided to go down to the school office to get some new notebooks.
As we walked towards the main doors of the Humanities block, two fifth formers came bursting into the building, screaming for us to get back inside; “Mr XX has been shot!” they said. They were crying and shaking, and we sat with them outside our classroom for some time, attempting to calm them down whilst simultaneously trying to work out what on earth was going on. Mr XX was a much-loved English teacher. Why would anybody shoot him? Why would anybody shoot anyone? People didn’t get shot in Northamptonshire...
“It’s Darren Fowler,” said the girls, “he’s shooting everywhere and there’s blood all over the place. He’s looking for Mr YY,” (a science teacher, whom he hated.)
Everyone knew Darren Fowler. He was one of the tragic kids at school. He was two years older than me and had a greasy bowl haircut. He used to shuffle around the school inadequately, and we all took the piss mercilessly, until we realised he had a temper on him. There were always stories of him smashing roof tiles, freaking out and attacking teachers. He lived with his Mum and a string of mini-me brothers in a terraced house on the edge of town. We were told that his next door neighbours had once complained to the council because there was damp on the wall which separated them from the Fowler’s house. The council had apparently investigated, and discovered that the Fowler family were randomly peeing against the wall in their sitting room.
Rumour had it that Fowler had guns in his shed, and teachers at the Ferrers School had sent letter after letter to the authorities warning them that Fowler was out of control and needed help. These letters reached fever-pitch, when we heard the news that Michael Ryan had walked through the streets of Hungerford in late 1987, killing scores of innocent people. I still remember my father turning to me after we saw the first news reports about the massacre and saying; “we’ve got to keep an even closer eye on Darren Fowler now.”
Fowler had been expelled from the school towards the end of 1987 and had, we gathered, come back to seek revenge.
The kids in my part of the school were all ushered out of the back of the building and led to safety via the school field. We could see Darren Fowler on the concrete ground in front of the science block, with someone sitting on his stomach, and later found out that this was our games teacher, Mr Greenhall, who’d bravely rugby tackled Fowler to the floor, after monitoring the number of cartridges he had in his gun and striking the very moment he realised Fowler would need to reload.
Ten minutes earlier, Fowler had walked calmly into the school, armed with a rifle, and immediately shot through the staff room window where teachers who weren’t busy teaching were hit by flying glass. He’d then gone around the back of the school and reloaded his rifle before shooting at two first formers who were coming out of one of the temporary class rooms. I believe both were taken to hospital, but neither suffered life-threatening injuries.
Fowler had come across Mr XX leaving another temporary classroom at the end of lessons, and that’s when he shot him, at point blank range, before heading down towards the science block where he’d started indiscriminately shooting through classroom windows... and that’s when Mr Greenhall did his heroic act.
Back at home we waited for hours for my brother (in the year above) to return. Brother Edward was taught English by Mr XX, and we were desperately trying to find a copy of his time table to see whether he might have been affected. We had no idea how many children had been shot, but rumours were already flying around that there'd been a proper massacre. A few hours later Edward arrived home, rather casually saying he didn’t really know what the fuss was all about. They’d heard the gun shots and been locked into a CDT room, which had suited him just fine because it meant he could get on with his woodwork project! It was at least an hour before they were allowed to leave the room, one assumes after the police had arrived and taken Darren Fowler away.
Mr XX was rushed to hospital, where he spent, I seem to recall, as much as a year getting better.
The following day, the authorities swept into the school and removed every last letter or document which suggested that Fowler was a danger to the school and himself. It would, of course, have been incredibly damaging for them, and we know from the Hillsborough enquiry that this was the way that things worked in those days. None of the teachers wanted to lose their jobs, and I guess no one knew their rights as much back then.
The news was reported for a single day in the tabloids – on the front pages – and then it mysteriously disappeared... Just like the school documents. Now of course we can argue that no one was killed in the attack, but back then, (before Columbine and Dunblane) this kind of thing didn’t happen. There’s a list of school shootings in Wikipedia, which include a number of events in Germany and Holland where no one was actually killed and yet the Ferrers School is never mentioned. Google "Darren Fowler" and "Ferrers School shooting", and there are no reports.
Fowler went to jail (where we’re told he stabbed a fellow inmate) and all his identikit brothers were educated at the school. It really was as though nothing had happened.
And that is the story of the Ferrers School shooting as I recall it.
Front page news... (from Colindale library)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

White City

I had a meeting today with community leaders on the White City estate in West London to talk about a potential project which BBC Outreach look like they might want to fund. Everything seemed to go very well, so I have my fingers firmly crossed that my first project for 2013 is about to roll in...

The White City Estate feels like it might be the focus of a really beautiful film. It's got an incredibly interesting past; the area hosted events at the 1908 and 1948 Olympic games and a number of extraordinary exhibitions in a series of impossibly ornate white marble-fronted buildings built in an oriental style. There were huge fountains and glass roofed structures, and, of course, the Olympic stadium, which eventually became a grey hound track. It almost beggars belief that these remarkable stadia and exhibition halls no longer exist.

The community who live on the estate seem to be proud of their area, which is hugely multi-cultural and very well-kept. This is just the sort of community I enjoy working with.

As ever with these things, there's never a moment when I can crack open the champagne (or in my case, Ribena). I'm often mid-way through a job before I can relax in the knowledge that it's actually happening! 

Anyway, as a result of the meeting I've drunk far too many cups of tea and am buzzing like a bee on crack! 

On this date 350 years ago Samuel Pepys reset his no drinking, no theatre-going, no doing anything fun vows, after a Yuletide period spent over indulging on all fronts.

Perhaps the most outrageous statement came from his pen on January 6th, 1663;

"Myself somewhat vexed at my wife’s neglect in leaving of her scarf, waistcoat, and night- dressings in the coach today that brought us from Westminster, though, I confess, she did give them to me to look after, yet it was her fault not to see that I did take them out of the coach!"

It's always someone else's fault, isn't it?! 

Monday, 7 January 2013

Gravy

I've just made the most agreeable gravy, with stock cubes, a knob of butter and half a tonne of port. Nathan and I don't really drink, but have a cupboard full of high quality alcohol left over from various parties which I'm always delighted to add to gravy to give it that special meaty flavour... Not that I have any idea what meaty actually tastes like! It's 31 years now since I last ate anything with a face or a mother, although I did find myself looking at a fish finger in Sainsbury's today and wondering what it might taste like, but that's probably because I've never eaten a bright orange bread crumb before and the ADHD kid in me wants a reason to climb the walls! 

I've been a-pitching all day. It's time to try and get something exciting on the slate for 2013, and I've put together a document which outlines a potential way forward for my composition about The Thames. 

There's not a lot else to say, really. Nathan and I have just sat down to watch last night's Dancing on Ice, and every time Beth Tweddle does the splits on the ice, Nathan says "cold minge," which is obviously making me giggle quite a lot.

They repeated 100 Faces on telly in the North East and Cumbria this evening. It's a little strange to think that it's all going on again without me. Apparently the BBC's website which shows the film in the area has had 4000 hits, which is great to hear. Messages of support are still coming in and I'm still incredibly proud of the film. 

 

Inferno

My cleaning frenzy took me up into the loft today and I spent a very merry three-hour period emptying drawers and consolidating boxes like a crazy person. 

It suddenly struck me that one is only required to keep tax records for the last 7 years, so a whole heap of boxes filled with flimsy pieces of paper immediately went into the green Haringey recycling sack. 

As I carried the bag out to the street, I remembered our eccentric neighbour who likes to break open bin liners to see what interesting things he can find within, so, with no shredder, I decided my only option was to burn anything which had an address attached to it, which turned out to be almost everything.

I used the chiminea that Nathan had bought me for my birthday, took myself to the corner shop for a can of lighter fluid, and created a brilliant inferno which incinerated the lot, whilst simultaneously filling my neighbours' lungs with the stench of wood smoke! Goodbye tax from the 90s and early naughties. You won't be missed! 

I'm obviously not the only one in Highgate doing a big clear out, as the alleyway behind our house was blocked by a bed, which I was forced to carry out into the street. The mattress was sodden and the whole thing weighed a tonne. Rule number one about alleyways; they're not places to piss and dump litter. They're often the paths to people's homes. Remember that the next time you're out on the piss, or thinking a piece of litter ceases to be your problem if you can't see it any more.

The curios continue to appear in every corner of the house; a wheelie suitcase too small to carry a suit in, a curious Afro wig, a little bag filled with Scrabble letters and Tiddlywinks, piles and piles of useless stationery and a box of broken staplers. Heaven knows how I've managed to accumulate so much dreadful junk. 

We went to Ian and Jem's for tea. Lovely food, as ever, and hysterical stories about Broadway and West End shows. 

We rushed back at just gone midnight to take down the Christmas decorations. Does it count if you take them down after midnight on Twelfth Night? It is, technically, January 7th. With Nathan and me both unemployed at the moment, a run of bad luck is all we need! 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The blue inflatable

I had great fun this morning emptying out cupboards. I found, and binned, all sorts of curios including a blue plastic inflatable thing which seemed only to semi-inflate. Was it once a lilo? An inflatable bed? An enormous balloon?  It looked a little sinister if you ask me, but it was made in China, so I didn't need to think twice about throwing it away. I am trying to cleanse my life of things bought in China. Obviously it's a battle I'll never win, but I'm determined to do my bit to register my disgust at the human rights record over there, and the largely rubbish quality of what they make in dubious sweat shops.

I left the house today looking like a tramp, wearing clothes I found in bottom drawers which I decided to audition instead of immediately throwing away.  The trousers I wore lasted until 2pm, when the zip of the fly suddenly broke, and left me needing to walk about with a bag pressed against my groin. I'm such a tramp!

Still, on that note, I feel very pleased with myself after throwing away every sock I could find with a hole in it. The joy about always wearing odd socks is that I only have to throw the damaged sock away! 

I met Ellen (Taylor - from the folk song) for lunch at St Pancras station. As ever, we laughed hysterically whilst putting the world to rights. She's had the most shocking 2012 and I sincerely hope that things will very much pick up for her this year. 

We talked, amongst other things, about the cul-de-sac of atheism. There's really no way out, apart from a miracle, which of course is about as unlikely as I am of knowingly eating meat again. 

Atheists have the most difficult paths to tread on this planet, largely because there are no easy answers for us to fall back on, and, more crucially, because there's no one else to blame for our inadequacies. None of us want to be atheists. All of us would love to believe there was something else; that we're merely pawns in a game of universal chance, but when you look at the inconsistencies of all religions, and the  complete lack of proof, there really is no other option. And that's very difficult to stomach. 

I listened to some of Plan B's Ill Manors album today. There is, in my view, no doubt that the man is a genius. His music is daring and unconventional and his lyrics paint extraordinary pictures. My great sadness is that he comes across as such an unlikable, arrogant sod in interviews. 

Friday, 4 January 2013

Mania

I've spent the day feeling extremely nostalgic in a rather sad way. This particular melancholy most likely descended with the news that my friend from university's husband had died. Cancer, of course...

Like me, he was a keen blogger, and had been writing regularly about his battle with the disease. He was young, fit and vibrant, and it seems so unfair that he's been ripped away from his family at such an early age. I can't begin to imagine what my friend must be going through.

The mood continued to deepen after I opened up my music chest to find a pile of beautifully developed black and white photographs, which, over the years I'd obviously meant to frame but never got around to it. The pictures go back to 1993 and are of friends and family members looking terribly young and smiling happily on warm summer days. Some were of people I no longer see. Some of the faces are no longer with us. It became almost painful to look through them. Face after face, smile after smile, memory upon memory. Where the hell does life go? 

We blink, and then another year goes by...

This slow process of cleansing my life is throwing up all sorts of emotions, which include a feeling of great relief. Another two bin bags went out today, stacked full of paper, and hole-ridden socks, and little bottles of toiletries I always thought I might use one day, but now smell of hay. It's almost astonishing what I've hoarded over the years, but the more memories I sift through, the more determined I am to push even harder to achieve my goals this year. What I've done so far isn't nearly enough.

Those reading should not confuse drive with mania, by the way. I've just re-read the previous paragraph and it sounds a little bit on the edge. It's not. I'm just in the process of doing what I do with the start of each year; drawing a line under the previous year, and whipping myself into a frenzy of excitement about life's possibilities. Loose your sense of magic and enthusiasm in this game and you'll go under forever. I'm also benefitting wildly from daily exercise.

My alacritous cleaning regime is generating tangible results however, and not just mental ones. I found my iPod yesterday night. There's still no sign of the gum guard I'm meant to wear every night to prevent me from grinding my teeth. I bit my tongue twice in the night as a direct consequence of not wearing it. Tragic. 

After a morning of life laundry, with Nathan doing taxes and things in the sitting room, we went to the gym and then into Muswell Hill to see my dear friend Nicky and her charming 20-month old, Oscar who has a large vocabulary already but still calls Mummy Daddy, which is priceless. Apparently she's given up correcting him! I love the idea that he might grow up calling her Daddy. It's so wonderfully eccentric! 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Ellen Taylor

I discovered that more things had mysteriously gone missing last night, and lay in bed, tossing and turning, wondering where on earth I'd put them. Proof positive that I need to get my life in order, and fast. 

I took myself to the library at Cecil Sharp House this morning, which is basically the beating heart of the British Folk scene. I wanted to track down some folk melodies about, or from, villages along the Thames, and almost as soon as I'd walked in, the incredibly helpful and knowledgeable librarian handed me a book called "Folk Songs from the Upper Thames," which had been collected before the Great War and published in the early 1920s. The collector, one Mr Williams, had done his bit for King and Country in the meantime and seemed rather apologetic about the fact!  

Williams had written an interesting and unpretentious essay at the start of the book, outlining how he'd convinced a number of suspicious elders in villages along the Thames to share the precious songs which had been passed down from their grandmothers. Money occasionally exchanged hands, but more often than not it was down to patience. 

He also wrote about how folksongs often falsely claim to be geographically specific, as is the case with Scarborough Fair, which is actually a Scottish melody. In crude terms, a travelling balladeer was more likely to sell sheet music for a song which mentioned a town close to where he was plying his trade than he was with a song about an alien world. So Whitby in a Yorkshire melody would be crossed out and replaced with Witney for the good folk of Oxfordshire. 

Those who know me well will know I have a dear friend called Ellen Taylor who used to live in Finsbury Park (Islington) and recently moved to Manchester to write episodes of Coronation Street. Imagine my surprise when I found the following folk song nestling in the book:

All around the room I waltzed with Ellen Taylor,
All around the room, I waltzed till break of day;
And ever since that time I've done nothing but bewail her,
For she's gone to Manchester the summer months to stay. 

'Twas at a ball at Islington, I first did chance to meet her... etc

How bizarre is that? 

We went to Reading in the late afternoon. This isn't part of the folk song. This is fact. Our good friend Ian is playing the baddie in a production of Beauty and the Beast with the wonderfully preserved Vicky Michelle from the iconic Allo Allo. We had a lovely chat afterwards. She's very gracious. 

I love a good panto, but felt incredibly uncomfortable sitting in an audience filled with Mummys and Daddys with no child of my own. The woman who sat down next to me gave me a proper once over with her eyes and I immediately felt like I'd done something wrong. 

A rather intense smell of vodka started wafting towards me from her general direction, and for a moment I started feeling incredibly uncomfortable until I realised I was experiencing the remarkably similar smell of hand sanitizer! Before long the entire auditorium was smelling of the stuff...

Reading feels like a rather unpleasant place; all concrete, yellow 80s bricks and bargain stores like Wilkinson and Matalan. The 99p store sits next to The Pound Shop. I'm serious. I wondered how many people would diss the latter because it was too expensive!?

I spoke to one of the actors afterwards who was incredibly opinionated about the subject, urging me to always use the Pound Shop. "That extra penny," he said, "buys you the better brands..."