Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Trees and osteopathy

Whilst heading to my osteopath appointment this morning, I read a article about John Cantlie, who is the latest British hostage to be held by IS or ISIS or whatever the hell those silly bastards are called these days.

I can imagine nothing more horrific than the situation Cantlie is in. Surely it's only a matter of time before those animals behead him, yet in the meantime they're forcing him to read out propaganda messages criticising his own government. At a certain point a life like his surely becomes unliveable. He must wake up every morning wondering if this day will be his last, wondering what ridiculous message he'll be forced to read out next. In fairness to him, he always seems to read in a way which subtly tells those who understand sarcasm he has no belief in what he is saying. Cantlie by name, can't lie by nature.

It strikes me that Muslim terrorists thrive on humiliating people, which, in my view is the lowest and most tragic practice. Just as children in playgrounds are cruel because they don't yet understand humility and empathy, so these people use rape and loss of dignity as their tools. My one hope is that, when they themselves die, there will be a moment, before complete oblivion, when they realise they aren't going to a place where they can make love to virgins and whatever their un-evolved brains tell them to expect...

The osteopath informed me that my back situation has now moved into the "managing" rather than "curing" phase. The mild scoliosis of my back, coupled with my less-than ideal working posture apparently means that this is the best scenario I can expect. So I could be in osteopathy on and off for the rest of my life which seems a little insane.

I came home on the tube, and entered such a peculiar trance-like state somewhere near Archway, that I entirely missed Highgate tube! It was only the tube bursting out of a tunnel somewhere before Finchley Central which made me realise what I'd done. It was hugely confusing!

The rest of the day was spent writing the Fleet Singers piece. It doesn't yet have a name. I probably need to think of one. I got Nathan to read out all the poems I've selected, so I could hear someone else's rhythm patterns. I think I'm definitely there and have selected the most appropriate poems. It's such a shame I've had to cut so many that were submitted, but some of them were so personal, I thought the writers might actually feel a little uncomfortable hearing them being sung. I made a decision rather early on in the selection process only to include (universal) poems which I thought larger numbers of the choir stood a chance of empathising with. I also had to cut back on the number of poems about trees! John Hegley's poetry workshop, which generated many of the poems submitted, used trees as a theme, and people were obviously hugely inspired! I think, perhaps 2/3rds of all poems mentioned trees in some capacity!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Santa who?

It was back to the proverbial grindstone again this morning. I was up in the loft at 9am, writing the first bars of music for the Fleet Singers commission, which is based on the poems of Betjeman.

I always get in a bit of a bad mood when staring at a blank page of manuscript at the very start of a composition. You'd think it would be exciting, but it's terrifying. Nathan tells me knitters have something similar which they call COA or cast-on anxiety. The weather hasn't exactly helped my mood. Hot. Sticky. Wet. The tube into town this evening was unbearable; so hot in fact that Nathan had to stop knitting because his hands had become too sticky to deal with the yarn.

So for most of the day I sat in the loft listening to the rain pouring down outside, making my way through copious cups of tea whilst flinging notes crudely at a page. It's a noisy process. I sing and shout a lot, and thump chords out on the piano. Periodically I write something down; a little verse of something, a little riff, then turn to another part of the lyric to see if something else inspires. Over the next few weeks I will add layer upon layer, as Sir Arnold Wesker would say, "worrying at it. Honing it."

Composing is awful for the back. Hunching over a piano and then scratching words on perilously balanced scraps of paper is no good for anyone, and after a single day of writing my mid-back is in spasms. Thank God I'm off to see an osteopath tomorrow.

This evening we came into town to meet Ellie for tea at Pizza Express. Ellie had buy-one-get-one-free tokens which she said she wasn't afraid to use, so we stuffed our faces, whilst talking about everything, including Ellie's prodigiously intelligent 8-year old, whose propensity to read adult books badly backfired when she read an account of the myth of Santa Claus. Ellie is at a loss as to how to respond. Should she say that the book was wrong or cynical, or should she simply accept that the game is up? "I just want one more Christmas" she said mournfully. I sympathise enormously and still remember where I was standing when I was told the dreadful news that Father Christmas was dead. Still, I've never believed in Jesus and I love the nativity story, so it's possible to have a great time even when the Gods have gone!

We have another friend, who shall remain nameless, who refuses to engage her child in any story based in myth. Unicorns, fairies, dragons and ghosts are all rationalised and poo-pood, which I think is tantamount to child abuse. How on earth can there be happiness in the world without at least the potential for magic?

Dylan Thomas

Llio and I have just returned from a rather lovely cabaret-cum-theatre performance at The Crazy Coqs, which is a glamorous basement venue opposite the Piccadilly Theatre on the fringes of Soho. The piece focusses on a recently published set of letters which the poet Dylan Thomas sent to Pearl Kazin, an American journalist, with whom he had an affair. No one knows what Kazin wrote back to the poet - her letters were all understandably destroyed by Thomas' wife - so the rather charming conceit of the cabaret was that a male actor would read Thomas' letters whilst a female singer sung songs which imagined what her responses might have been.

The end result was intoxicating, and hugely intimate. It is not often you get to feel the heat of a singer's breath on your face because she is standing so close to you! I was particularly moved by a setting of the poem "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night." Such an astonishing poem.

Llio was less impressed than I was, and, indeed, if you allow yourself to be pulled into the slightly troublesome moral minefield triggered by the fact that these beautiful love letters were being written to a mistress, not a wife, then they take on a considerably less romantic quality!

What tickled me was to discover that the performance was being proudly funded "by the Welsh Government."
Proof positive, if proof were needed that devolution is good for the arts. Can anyone imagine Westminster directly sponsoring and putting their name to a piece of cabaret based on an English poet? An arms deals, yes, but certainly not a work of art!

It was surprisingly warm outside today and Nathan and I went to Highgate Woods to take photographs of some of the pairs of socks he's about to release as patterns. We found a big tree trunk which created a rather lovely backdrop, until, that was, scores of children decided that they wanted to walk along the trunk as well!

We went to the local laundrette. Our own washing machine has broken, but at £4 for a wash and £2 for a tumble dry, we'll go bankrupt if it remains broken for long! It's astonishing how much these things cost.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Quizteama Aguilerra

We've just got back from a quiz in Thaxted... Where we came second. By one point. On the bright side, I won a lovely bar of soap in the raffle. Correction. My mum won five lovely bars of soap in the raffle which she split seven aways. I can't wait to use it. It's red with a little pink heart inside. I forgot to wear deodorant this morning.

This afternoon, we mostly had tea in the garden. Lots of tea. Lots of cake. Lots of spiders, but then it's that time of the year. I like spiders. The bigger the better. There were seven of us on the quiz team. My parents. Abbie. Julie. Bal and Michelle. I knew lots of random stuff, which made me feel proud.

I wish I weren't half asleep. Then I would write more. Abbie wanted to have a midnight adventure to the church where the weird Wiccan symbols are. But it was too late. It's too late to be awake now. Night night.

Friday, 26 September 2014

These kids can't read!

I woke up in Brighton rather too early this morning. I was drifting in and out of sleep, listening to the crashing of waves, which were eventually drowned out by the sound of a city waking up.

I hauled myself out of bed, and had breakfast at Tiffany's (genuinely - it's a lovely little vegetarian cafe just off the Lanes on the way to the station.)

The train journey back to London was somewhat marred by the arrival of a mother and child. As soon as they got on the carriage my heart sank, because I knew it meant that the calm and tranquility I so wanted was about to be destroyed.

She was one of those mothers who thinks a child will only understand if it's addressed in a loud, grating, high-pitched voice. Why do some mothers do this? I have never had a problem communicating with children in a normal voice and furthermore have many friends who don't speak to their children like Munchkins on acid.

The silly-voiced approach surely only encourages the child to learn to speak like Micky Mouse. I don't actually know if this particular child was a boy or a girl but it spoke in a stupidly high voice. Boy or girl, he'll need to learn to use a lower resonance. Mummy decided to read "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" to the carriage at a volume and pitch which can only be described as irritating beyond words.

I met Philippa in Shoreditch who tells me that children actually respond better to a high-pitched sing-song voice. My Grannie was the same!

It was good to see Philippa. We worked on our individual projects in a cafe, drinking pots of tea, sitting opposite one another. I'm now at a stage with the Fleet Singers commission where I'm just about ready to start composing.

I had a meeting at the new BBC Broadcasting House this afternoon. The plaza outside the building is just beginning to take on something of the old-school feeling of the beloved television centre. They were setting up for a One Show outside broadcast with a load of straw bales and a set of fibreglass cows. There was also a stream of freaky-looking children emerging from the building with fluffy dogs. All very Blue Peter.

They were doing tours of the building for young people, which involved an opportunity for some of them to sit in front of a camera and have a bash at reading autocue. I say reading. I was astonished by how bad their reading was. These were maybe 17-year old A-level students, and not a single one could read a sentence without badly faltering! I'm pretty sure that my own geography A-level group would have coped much better, and believe me, we were nothing to write home about. I'm actually wondering whether this new plague of dyslexia, ADHD and whatever other diagnoses we're offering as excuses for not taking studies seriously, is beginning to have a really negative effect. The kids were all from ethnic backgrounds and are exactly the sort of people the BBC want to engage, but if they can't read autocue, what hope do they have? Cut to the BBC ticking their boxes by scrambling to employ ethnic minorities from hideously wealthy backgrounds who went to public schools. All this, on the day when the Evening Standard is patting itself on the back about the success of its get London reading campaign. Honestly, people whinge about the wealth of London compared to other places in the UK, but try telling these kids they're not disadvantaged!

This evening we went to Wimbledon theatre to see our friend Chris working as the musical director on a musical version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I'm pretty sure this particular story has had every treatment going, from film and telly adaptations to untold new musicals. I'm also pretty sure that this adaptation didn't manage to cast any new light on the story. What's definite, however, is that Chris did a wonderful job with a cast of very talented actor-musicians, so that was a relief.

On the way home we encountered all sorts of lunatics on the tubes from the man who sat next to me, fell asleep and dribbled all over his lap top screen to the 50 year-old glamorous Chinese woman who lost her balance and ended up sprawled all over the lap of a business man who didn't see the funny side.

Long day. Sleep please!

Brighton and Hove (and Worthing)

I woke up this morning in bright sunlight. Fiona’s flat is one of the sunniest places in the world. One of the most joyous experiences is taking a bath with the window wide open bathed in dusty sunshine. 

We had a slightly lazy morning, listening to music and eating bagels before I packed my suitcase and headed off to PK’s for another day on the Pepys Motet. I’m please to announce that this will be our last day of grunt-work on the project. Everything is now tuned and meticulously cleaned, although another day of polishing is probably on the cards once PK has gone in and worked his sonic magic. The problem I have with the process is that there’s sometimes a slight disconnect between the information which goes into my head and the things which come out of my mouth! One of the things we have to do is compare the notes that the singers are meant to be singing with the notes they are actually singing! This involves a great amount of faffing with me sitting with a score on a table in front of me, announcing quaver-by-quaver, part-by-part what’s required. I look at the score, I see a “B”, I register it as a B, but tell PK it’s a D. I realise immediately I’ve said the wrong note, and instantly correct myself… sometimes another wrong letter pops up in the process of announcing the right one. Is that an age thing? My dear old Grandmother used to do that with the names of my cousins, but it seemed to frustrate her a great deal less than it frustrates me! I’m wondering if it’s to do with music being a series of visual dots which you instinctively interpret by striking a key, or singing a note, not reading the letter out loud. I think that maybe relies on a different part of the brain?

On a far less frustrating note, I read today that Brass has been nominated as Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards. These awards are for regional professional theatre, so it’s almost gobsmacking that a show performed by the National Youth Music Theatre for just 5 nights would find itself nominated for something. We’re actually up against the Leicester Curve and the National Theatre of Scotland! Even more surreally, the show from the National Theatre of Scotland was written by my great friend, James Fortune, prompting people to write “fight” on our Facebook page! He’s bound to win. I can’t think that enough of the judges, if any, can have seen Brass. It certainly wasn’t officially entered for the awards. I think we have Mark Shenton to thank for the nod. And very grateful I am, too. 

This takes the award nomination tally for me to five this year, which is quite insane. We didn’t win the Guardian innovation award or television moment of the year for the wedding, but we’re still in with a shot for a Grierson for Most Entertaining documentary. My CV has never looked so rosy! 

I’m heading back to Brighton where I’m actually rather decadently staying the night in an hotel. I didn’t think for a moment I’d finish so early with PK, so it would have been more than easy for me to return to London. But hey, I found an hotel for forty quid which is suitably ramshackle and on the sea front. There’s nothing I like more than having a lovely hot bath and watching telly in a bedroom which isn’t mine. Fiona told me that a mutual friend of ours likes to stay there, where he’s often found “quietly off his tits wearing sunglasses whilst lying on a chaise longue.” Sounds brilliant. I’ll get off my face on chocolate.  

Turns out the hotel IS brilliant. Fiona dropped off a mobile phone charger at reception in a little envelope marked “for Benjamin Till on arrival”. It obviously made the concierge think that I was incredibly important, and he immediately upgraded my room to one with dual aspect, over-looking the sea and the pier. I arrived in the room and had the deepest, hottest bath in the world, wondering why I don’t do this more often! 

I then took myself off to a takeaway and sat on the beach eating chips, listening to the sound of the sea crashing onto the famous Brighton shingle. I can still hear it from my room. Such a wonderful, lulling sound. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cornflakes and porridge

I grabbed a copy of Metro this morning as I rushed through Highgate Station. The headline jumped out at me; "Hairy Cornflake Faces Porridge." For the benefit of readers from outside the UK, "Hairy Cornflake" is a nickname given to a 1970s radio personality who has been in and out of court on a string of sex offences. He's not a raper or a kiddie fiddler. He's a groper. (Porridge is English slang for jail.)

When will this Operation Yewtree stuff end? I get the Savile thing. He was a horrible man. I furthermore understand the need to go after men who systematically abused children.  But the Hairy Cornflake business is an historic case where the victim was an adult when what occurred occurred. No one deserves to have their breasts groped for fifteen seconds (that's the crime for which he faces jail) and in today's world, that stuff is unacceptable. But people behaved differently in the past. It's time to forgive and forget and focus on the present and future...

Many of you reading will remember my wedding vows drawing reference to an upsetting childhood incident where a group of teenagers stood in a circle, spitting on me, and taking it in turns to call me gay. Teachers at my school were openly homophobic. It was damaging at the time. It affected my development, and frankly, it still sometimes hurts. But I am either evolved or forgiving enough to realise that I was brought up in a different world. People used to be homophobic. They used to be misogynistic and they're not allowed to be anymore. That's the victory of my generation and it's a positive thing. Dave Lee Travis is a dinosaur; a relic from an era where people pinched bums and treated women without respect. Let him die in peace. In thirty years' time, my behaviour will be considered inappropriate by young adults. It already is to an extent. That's what happens. Our moral boundaries shift. We rebel against our parents and reject their values.

And tell me this... If DLT's crimes were as bad as the media suggests, why on earth are they being reported with a series of light-hearted puns? It's either a crime or it's not. Frankly, I think any media involvement completely invalidates a legal investigation. In my mind it's tantamount to corrupting DNA evidence. No one can be expected to have a fair trial once the press has got involved.

I've been in Worthing with PK all day, working our way slowly and forensically through the last movement of the Pepys Motet. It's tiring work, particularly after the early rise which coming here necessitated.  We're slightly over half way through and probably could have carried on for a while had I not been keen to leave to get to Fiona's in a decent time to relax.

Sadly, I arrived at West Worthing station to announcements that all trains were cancelled due to a person under a train, which was dull beyond words, particularly as West Worthing is the sort of station which doesn't have staff to shout at of an evening.

I decided (it turns out quite wisely) to walk to the main station in Worthing. I figured it would be more likely to have staff who could tell me how to get to Fiona's house. I was right. It did.

"How on earth will I get to Hove?" I asked, ready to burst into tears at the gross injustice of the situation.

"Take the next train from platform 2. Four minutes" said the staff person, calmly.

Storm in a teacup! I wondered if the tramp who'd rolled off the bench in his sleep at West Worthing had managed to catch his train.

Fiona cooked delicious food. I will no doubt sleep like the dead.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Perfume and erudition

On the way back from osteopathy, I came upon what was obviously a film shoot in the streets behind Borough tube. There are always too many people working on film shoots; hundreds of people wearing hi-viz, carrying clip boards and looking unbelievably bored! Oh, for the luxury of feeling bored on one of my shoots! Shoots for my films are adrenaline-fuelled nightmares, where crew and performers rush about like insane people trying to reel in a shot list as long as a trans-Atlantic flight.

I was asked to speak on BBC Radio Northampton this morning. The discussion was about stereotypes. Alice Arnold, the charming partner of Clare Balding, had written a piece in response to American research which addressed the issue that US lesbians are apparently more likely to be overweight than their straight counterparts. Arnold argues that this statistic is misleading because the survey will only have been filled in by those who were openly gay, as opposed to bisexual women or those who were still in the closet. Unfortunately, the logical conclusion to Arnold's argument is that women come out and THEN get fat! She argues that we should stop the stereotyping. "When will the myths about gay people finally die a death?" (She screams like an angry lesbian;-))

I, for one, believe wholeheartedly in stereotypes. They exist for a reason, and not all stereotypes are bad... Welsh people sing better, Dutch people are more direct, gay people are more body-conscious, and so forth. (Actually, the same American study found that gay men tended to be thinner than straight men, which I would say was almost certainly true.)

I don't mind the "myths" attached to gay people. They're largely true. We tend to be more promiscuous, and we tend to love ABBA and musical theatre. In fact, my love for these particular types of music was formed long before I knew I was gay. In fact, I'm quite convinced that the ABBA-loving gene attached itself to my mother's DNA whilst I was in the womb. Four months after ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest, I was born. I plainly wanted to see what was making the glorious sound I could hear!

When stereotypes become damaging, it's important for those who buck the trend to be as vocal as they can be so that people can see a  community which is multi-faceted. This is why I'm proud of the British muslims who are currently standing up to extremists with placards which say "not in my name."  Part of the stereotype of any minority is that they spend too much time whinging about being stereotyped rather than challenging the stereotypes.

I had a meeting in Gospel Oak with Uncle Archie, and then walked to Rustique Cafe in Tufnell Park to work on the Fleet Singers' composition. A gentleman sat in the cafe barking erudition at a young woman sitting opposite. From the moment I imagined that he was the reincarnation of Betjeman, I couldn't think of anything else. He talked of nothing but painting and literature. Perhaps no one else could hear or see him!

On my way to Rustique, somewhere near Acland Burghley school, I came upon a couple of girls who were chalking messages onto the pavement with a soft stone. Plainly one of them had written something she wished she hadn't, because she was frantically trying to rub it out. Slightly randomly she was using an old fashioned bottle of perfume - the sort with a rubber bulb which you squeeze to use - to spray liquid onto the pavement. What an eccentrically costly way of going about things!

I walked home in the half-light, all the way up Dartmouth Park hill, through the village and back down, pausing briefly to look across mist-shrouded lilac-coloured London with its patchwork of white and orange twinkling lights. It's nice to live on a hill...

Monday, 22 September 2014


I found myself continually flitting in and out of Central London today. I went in to do some errands, then came back to Highgate and then went back in again to meet Nathan. In the meantime my debit card stopped working. I stood for several minutes at the ticket machines in Highgate station trying to top up my Oyster card with absolutely no luck. I wasn't overly concerned. I knew there was money in the account and merely assumed the card was getting a little decrepit. The signature strip has entirely rubbed off and bits of the plastic coating are chipping away. It actually expires next month. This will be the first card I've managed to keep until the bitter end! I usually lose them after a year or so...

Anyway, I sauntered into the bank to be told there had actually been an issue with all Visa cards and that no cards had worked between the hours of about 10 and 11, so if anyone else had issues, then you now know why!

En route, and in various cafés around London, I worked up a pitch for Uncle Archie which he thought was very strong. I then continued to sift through the Fleet Singers poems, still a little perplexed as to how to bash them all into a coherent shape. I did, however, discover a rather charming, but utterly crazy poem-filled 1976 documentary about John Betjeman on YouTube, where the poet visits all the locations from his childhood. The piece was made all the more eccentric by Betjeman's decision not to speak in shot. The entire film is done with voice over, with Betjeman, in a curious straw hat, shuffling around in vision. He was wearing particularly clumpy shoes as he walked around the Tate, and I felt incredibly sorry for the other people in the gallery who had to listen to the noise of his walking! It was a treat to see the North London locations (which for him triggered childhood memories) as they looked when the film was shot in the 1970s. Betjeman's London is very much my London. He writes about Kentish Town, Gospel Oak, Highgate and Hampstead Heath and very little at all has changed in these parts since the 70s. In fact, they started flashing up pictures of the area in the Edwardian era, and very little has changed since then too!

This evening we watched the first episode in the new series of Downton Abbey. I'm afraid much of that show drifts in one ear and out the other. I still have very little idea what most of the characters are called, particularly when they're being spoken about with their full title. The plot moves faster than Desperate Housewives, and often requires a piece of information which was provided two seasons ago. I find myself looking at the wall paper in the house, and bang! I've missed a load of really important exposition!

Still, it's become an institution, and of any of you fancy a laugh, get Nathan to do you his impression of Lady Grantham!

Sunday, 21 September 2014


We woke up rather late today. The debacle with the police searching for Mr Machete lasted rather long than we'd hoped last night, and we stood for almost an hour at the entrance to the alleyway behind our house whilst a policeman arrived with an excitable German Shepherd dog whose task became to search every garden in the terrace. It all became rather entertaining when one of our neighbours heard a commotion in her yard and sent her own dog out to investigate. There was obviously some sort of dog-off which was only resolved after a lot of shouting between dog owners! Exciting biting.

Anyway, as we might have predicted, it came to naught, and we were finally allowed back into our house feeling rather bleary-eyed at 4am!

I spent the afternoon working on another pitch. The third this week. I'm turfing them out like sweeties at a pantomime at the moment. They're a necessary evil. The more pitches you create the more likely one of them is to be picked up.

In the late afternoon, we drove across London to Julie and Sam's house for a bit of R and R. Julie made a delicious potato salad and we put the world to rights whilst catching up on a fairly eventful summer, and our general plans involving life, love and liaisons.  Sam's Matt appeared as if by magic at the end of the evening. I last saw him in the journey back from Derbyshire and it was lovely to see his sunny face again. That trip feels like forever ago. Brass, a honeymoon and the big 4 oh have all happened since. Actually it's only a month and a half since we saw each other.

We drove back through the Blackwall Tunnel which is a curiously wiggly affair. Surely it would have made a great deal more sense to build a tunnel which went directly from A to B?

Ugley machete

I went to the comically-named village of Ugley today for a meal at the charming Cricketer's Inn, which sits beside a cricket pitch on the edge of the village. One wonders quite how the village got to be so-named, and yes, to add a layer to the humour, there is an Ugley Women's Institute! Ironically, the place itself is anything but ugly. It is, however, in Essex. Albeit the darkest, most rural part.

We were there celebrating brother Edward's birthday; an event which then took us to Saffron Walden, where Edward was bought a birthday pair of shoes and I went with my mum to a wool shop. In the light of the fact that most of my friends are now knitters, I'm proud to say that my mother, who was always a very fine knitter, has started to knit again. She's already gone entirely off piste with a cardigan, which, because she didn't quite understand the pattern, has become an astonishing work of freestyle art with cables and bobbles, which Nathan believes she should release!  Anyway, for those thinking about a trip to the knitting shop in Saffron Walden, the selection of yarn is small (the shop also sells crafty stuff and sewing stuff), but the woman behind the counter is deeply helpful and very knowledgeable.

We returned to Till Towers for a delicious chocolate cake and a thrown-together meal of potatoes, pizzas, salads, quiches and raspberries which was, in a single word, heavenly.

The journey home was uneventful, which was a relief after the journey there, when I was literally driven onto a verge by an enormous lorry taking a stretch of road too quickly. It was a little scary, but no lasting harm was done, either to the car, or my ability to drive without panicking!

Speaking of driving, I had the mother of all late-night missions to pick up Nathan at 2am from Chiswick. He'd been doing a gig in Somerset and managed to cadge a lift as far as Chiswick from a fellow performer. The journey around the North Circular was made rather jolly by Heart FM who played a blinding set of songs including This Woman's Work by Kate Bush, which made me drive a little erratically.

It's a treat to drive around the North Circular at this time. There was nothing on the roads, the traffic lights were all in my favour, and the city lights - the neon signs and so on - seemed particularly alluring for some reason.

We got home at 2.49am and were prevented from entering our house by two policemen. An alarm had gone off in one of the shops in the terrace below us, and they'd sent the dogs in, which apparently meant we couldn't go back into our house. Not the best news at such a late hour but more understandable when we learned that a man with a foot-and-a-half long machete was seen rushing from the Boogaloo pub towards where we live and that he "got no further" than the junction one up from us. Obviously the police are taking an alarm going off in the area where the man disappeared rather seriously! Bit odd, really.

Friday, 19 September 2014


I couldn't sleep last night, firstly because the Scottish referendum was so firmly on my mind. I popped into the living room at about 2am and watched the first few results coming in, feeling less panicky about not being asleep on account of so many other people in the country still being awake.

I ventured back to bed and instantly fell into a reverie about entering the Eurovision Song Contest with a song Nathan and I wrote last year called Thunder. Just as I'd started imagining how we'd stage the song, with visual gimmicks involving lightning bolts, the mother of all flashes of lightning tore through the sky outside, followed by a thunder clap of biblical proportions. It freaked me out good and proper. If I weren't a cynic I'd have thought it was a sign. Without wanting to waste a good message from the universe, however, I instantly went back into the sitting room and sent an email to the BBC's head of Eurovision. They'll no doubt ignore me. They're so obsessed with their own agenda of faded rock stars and music which screams "cool" to listen to a man who's been following the competition since he was born!

I woke up, bleary-eyed, and met Philippa for lunch in Soho. She'd already eaten, so I had falafel at Maos, which is a little vegetarian chain which originates from somewhere like Holland. I never know how to pronounce it, so always describe it as the falafel place with the green awning.

The purpose of our afternoon was to sit and work in a café, so we went to Starbucks, which was the last place Philippa wanted to sit, but the only place where there were enough plug sockets for our plethora of technology.

Philippa worked on her novel. I started to make my way through the poems I'm setting for the Fleet Singers. There's a huge amount of material, at least fifty percent of which is about trees on account of the poetry workshop which was run in connection with the project using the theme of trees as a "way in." I have a lot of work ahead to shape and structure the written material before I can set anything to music. I enjoyed sitting with Philippa, however. It was like the old days when we sat in Rustique in Kentish Town, her writing the screenplay for the film Little Ashes and me writing my first musical, Blast.

This evening we went to see the film Pride, which tells the tale of a group of gay people who supported Welsh miners during the strike. In return, when the strike had finished hundreds of Welsh miners led the pride march through the streets of London. Too too moving. I'm told the National Union of Miners were actually instrumental in bringing LGBT rights to the forefront of the Labour Party's agenda. Fabulous.

...The film was equally fabulous. Essentially, it lined up all my little touch papers and lit them one by one. Gay people. Tick. Miners. Tick. Welsh people. Tick. Brass bands. Tick. Welsh people singing. Tick. By the time the scene came along when bricks were being thrown through a gay bookshop window, I was a quivering wreck.

When I was a child, I think because my father was a teacher in the local school, we had a series of bricks thrown through our house window. On one occasion my father was away, and my mother had to deal with two rather frightened young teenagers. It's a memory I've stored somewhere towards the back of my mind, but it all came flooding back today. In the film, the brick was followed by a firework. As a twelve-year-old, I remember hearing a rattling at our front door, and opening it to find someone from my school - not known for his intelligence - standing with a lit firework in his hand. "What are you doing, Peter?" I said. Peter was so stupid that he stood for a while (lit firework in his hand) trying to think of an excuse, before lobbing the firework down the street and running away!

We were blessed to have in the cinema audience one of the people who the film had actually been based on. In fact, we later discovered that he was the second person to be diagnosed with AIDS in the UK, in the days when it was known as GRID (gay related immune disease.) The very fact that this terrible disease was once thought of as a specifically gay illness terrifies me, and demonstrates how perceptions have changed so dramatically.

The opening sequence of the film took place on Nathan's 10th birthday. It's astonishing to think how far human rights have come in exactly thirty years. The out-and-out heroes who this film was about paved the way for Nathan and me to get married. And they will eternally have our gratitude. May the ones that didn't live into the 1990s rest in gloriously camp peace.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Bard of Barnsley

We went to sit in Highgate Wood in the bright sunshine this afternoon, in what must surely be the last day of summer. It was boiling hot, the sky was an almost shocking shade of peacock blue and the dark green trees were only just on the turn. I'm told we're in the middle of the driest September in sixty years. They know rain's coming, of course, which is why they're getting the statistic out mid month. By the end of September, it'll no doubt be an average month in all ways. It's astonishing what you can do with statistics.

As we walked back through the wood, we witnessed the desperately  undignified sight of a mother holding a child in the air whilst it peed. What made the image bizarre was that the child was as stiff as a board and being held vertically about a metre above the ground. To bring more attention to itself, the child was also shrieking whilst great torrents of pee sprayed onto the woodland floor below. I wasn't quite sure where to look, or indeed if I should have let the mother know that there was a public loo no more than five metres from where the horrors were occurring.

On my way into town I stumbled upon a saxophonist busking at Leicester Square tube. As with all buskers I could hear him from quite some way away. He was playing to a track, which may have been an instrumental of something originally sung by Witney Houston... You know the sort of thing; soaring synth-strings, a 1980s power ballad. There was something deeply, almost movingly, authentic about the sound he was making: thick and robust, full of slides and noodles. It suddenly struck me what an insanely 1980s instrument the saxophone is, and, that actually, there's a nostalgic value in its honking hideousness. I predict a big come back for the instrument. I'm talking the works; massive Careless Whisperesque sleazy instruments coming to a pop song near you! Mark my words. And it will arrive with the mullet. Oh, yes, I'm predicting a return of that ghastly 80's accessory as well. There'll be perms too... Bubble perms.

This evening I met up with the two NYMT Jeremys and the wonderful poet, Ian McMillan, who is perhaps better known as the Bard of Barnsley. We were talking to Ian about the Prince Edward/ NYMT project, which is fizzing along as an exciting possibility for next year.  I adore Ian. I first met him whilst working on A Symphony for Yorkshire in 2010, and we swore back then we'd work on something together. He seems fired up about this particular idea, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It was great to hang out with the Jeremys as well. All three are men for whom I have an astonishing amount of respect.

Ian introduced us all to a new concept, that of the anacoluthon sentence. He'd apparently been discussing them all afternoon on Radio Three. From what we can all gather, there's little difference between an anacoluthon sentence and an non sequitur, the former indicating a sentence which interrupts itself with a totally unrelated thought. I'd be rather interested to know if anyone reading this knows this particular term, and impressed if anyone can use the phrase in a sentence within the next 24 hours... Challenge set. And I dare someone else to have a perm.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Pastiche and narcissism

So yesterday's blog garnered a rather generous anonymous comment, "please shut up, you self-important arse hole." I'm pleased to note a correctly-punctuated adjectival phrase; these things are a very important aspect in the art of trash talk. I happily hold my hands up, however. I suspect I may well be a little self-important. Writing a blog is, by its very nature, a narcissistic act... But at the same time I'm pretty sure yesterday's entry wasn't any more narcissistic than usual... If it was, I apologise. I can only assume Mr(s) Anonymity is otherwise a great fan of my oeuvre. I'm deeply sorry to have let him or her down. If this is not the case, perhaps, as a suggestion, in the future, they might like to try to avoid reading my blog? I realise it's very difficult to avoid - what with its weekly serialisation on primetime BBC TV, and the countless adverts I've placed in the broadsheets - but it IS possible to live a thoroughly pleasant life without the Pepys Motet. Believe me. I used to!

We've just returned from central London where we watched the workshop performance of a new musical by Nick Barstow, who was assistant MD and musical coach on Brass. He's just finished a postgrad year at Goldsmith's college studying musical theatre composition. I'm genuinely very pleased to hear that such a course exists. They never used to in my day. They've had them for years in the States, of course; at top universities, where leading lights from Broadway like William Finn and Stephen Schwartz will happily teach. Not here, though. The arts establishment in the UK looks down on musical theatre as, at best, commercial and at worst, a load of desperate tripe.

I was appalled to hear that the actual music department at Goldsmith's won't acknowledge the musical theatre course, so poor Nick was forced to buy himself a £30 toy glockenspiel for the percussionist to use because the music department wouldn't lend him one. Sadly, I'm ashamed to say that I think the very same thing would have happened at York University. I tell you, if I ended up teaching on the musical theatre course at Goldsmith's, I'd be in that music department like a shot, humiliating them into sharing their equipment!

Nick's show was great. He has a lot of potential as a composer and revels in scrunchy choral writing and interesting harmonic shifts. We had a fascinating discussion afterwards about whether a composer should have a distinctive voice or whether he should be able to write in any style. My view has changed on this recently. I used to think the more versatile a composer, the better, but these days I think that society actually wants to pigeon-hole an artist. We like Kate Bush, Adele and Sam Smith because their voices are like no other. We can tell a Vaughan Williams piece regardless of which part of his career the work comes from. Ditto Sondheim. Ditto Andrew Lloyd Webber. No one ever got famous for writing pastiche, or for having too much variation in their sound. In their early days, ABBA experimented with all sorts of musical styles from Schlage to Glam Rock, but it was only when they found their sound that they become successful. I guess the journey towards uniqueness is littered with pastiche!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Heath light

I walked across the Heath earlier this evening. The sky was an incredible shade of mauve, fading through indigo, into a mix of light blue and yellow in the Western horizon where the sun once was. The air was unnaturally warm. A little misty perhaps; almost as though someone had been burning the corn fields.

It's evenings like this when I realise quite what a well-used resource the Heath is. Despite it being essentially dark there were still joggers jogging and dog walkers walking. There were quite a number of children rushing about as well. No one seemed frightened or jumpy. Everyone was having a lovely time.

The athletic tracks were full. They're flood-lit, so I'm sure they ought to have been pretty crowded at that time of night, but it was rather nice to see them being used. A group of lads were practising rugby scrums on the field next door. As I crossed the Heath, the air was so soft that I could still hear their coach shouting and whistling from a good mile away.

Clocks across London started chiming eight o'clock. It was almost as though the light mist was making them seem a little soft-focus. An owl cried out. Water was rushing into one of the ponds where a pair of swans was glowing an eerie silver colour. A pair of bats flickered past, silhouetted against the sky. The air smelt of soil and earth.

I've been hustling more again today. I'm pleased to say I've reached a stage in my career where, even if someone isn't interested, they'll at least reply, and usually fairly swiftly. It's one of the only differences between being 40 and being 20, that, needing to see an osteopath more regularly and remembering high fashion when it used to be high fashion! I actually vowed never to forget how awful it felt to be ignored and have sworn always to write back to the people who bother to write to me. Until recently, that is, when a composer contacted me and said "I'm a big fan of your work, and wondered if you'd like to collaborate with a composer." Rule number one. When contacting someone, make sure you know the facts. If she genuinely was a fan of my work, she'd have told me why, and which of my films she liked, and she would then almost definitely have drawn reference to the fact that she knew I was also a composer and therefore that it was fairly unlikely I'd want to collaborate with a composer! I could almost see the template email which she'd sent to everyone who was marked as a British filmmaker on Wikipedia!

Highgate village smelt of chimney smoke; a sure sign that autumn is upon us. And what a glorious, ancient smell wood smoke is. It's not a usual London smell. It reminds me of my childhood, and of Thaxted.

We found out today that Our Gay Wedding has been nominated for a Grierson award. Grierson awards, named after the luminary film maker, John Grierson, are seen as the Oscars of the documentary world. We're up in the category of most entertaining documentary. I'm not actually sure our film can be classed as a documentary, and as a result don't think we have a hope in hell of winning, but it's jolly nice to receive a nomination. My film about the A1 was also nominated for a Grierson - for best newcomer - and I lost out to someone far more deserving who made films about mental health. I wrote to John at Channel 4 and told him that I had unfinished business with the awards, and that I hoped we'd win this time; "I refuse to be the bridesmaid for a second time - especially at my own wedding!" He wrote back to tell me he hoped I'd finally get my man!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Caution resolved

I didn't sleep a wink last night. I lay in bed tossing and turning with a busy head, periodically going into the sitting room and watching a bit of telly before going back to bed again. I watched with horror as the hours flitted past. I saw 3am, 4am, 5am, 6am, and then finally fell asleep watching breakfast telly, whilst the sun rose outside. Jet lag is a strange thing isn't it?

I've spent the day hustling. I have work to take me through to the end of the year, but will obviously need something beyond that time. There are various ideas in discussion, and even more projects which I am trying to get off the ground on the basis that only one in ten projects in this industry actually flies. I seem to spend much of my life creating pitching documents. It's a hazard of the job.

Fiona came to see us late this afternoon and we walked in the early autumn sunshine up to Highgate Village and down through the Heath to Kentish Town where we had a meal at Stingray.

The Heath looked rather glorious. The sun was setting into a milky cloud, and streaks of pastel orange and yellow were stretching across the horizon. At one point a sun corona appeared behind a cloud, like a little blurred rainbow. We stopped for a while and watched swimmers bathing in the men's pond. There was something about the soft, warm light which made everything look rather inviting. I wanted to be in the water myself until Fiona pointed out how cold it would have been.

We had pasta and potato skins in Stingray, and then walked up Dartmouth Park Hill and back home to watch the new drama about Cilla
Black, which we all enjoyed rather a lot.

I suspect I will sleep well tonight based on how utterly tired I am. We heard from our lovely commissioning editor at Channel 4 about the iTunes "caution" on our wedding film. He was incredibly fast to act, and horrified at what had happened. It actually turns out that the re-arrival of the warning message came as a result of an admin error on Channel 4's part. Apparently a new rule means that all shows with a 15 rating need to be listed with a caution, but for some reason all PG rated content was mistakenly also issued with a caution. Our film was rated PG (Channel 4 reserve U for their children's programmes) so when the error was pointed out, the caution was lifted.

Thanks to everyone who tweeted on our behalf. Channel 4 have  apologised profusely and John Hay, our commissioner, has pointed out to those responsible how genuinely destructive an error like that could have been.

So all is sorted. Hurrah!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

iTunes-a phobia

Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will notice that we found out this evening that Our Gay Wedding the Musical is being sold on iTunes with a "caution." A little digging suggests that "caution" in iTunes terms means that the film they're selling may not be suitable for children...

I find this both offensive and quite shocking, not least because I happen to know that the film initially went on sale with the same caution, and that Channel 4 successfully lobbied iTunes for its removal. This warning has subsequently re-appeared.

Plainly, in a film with no swearing and no scenes of a sexual nature, the only thing which could be considered inappropriate about the film is that it portrays two gay men getting married, which, in my view, is exactly the sort of thing which children SHOULD be viewing if we're going to bring them up in a liberal society. The fact that iTunes have decided to "caution" the film can only really be described as homophobic.

I am deeply offended by this, and have tweeted them demanding an explanation.

One of my friends on Facebook points out that some people might not WANT to watch Our Gay Wedding the Musical because not everyone likes gay people. This is of course true, but I would have thought the title itself would be enough to put these people off. It's also an invalid argument to suggest that something which people simply might not like is something which requires a caution. Some people don't like black people, but the Cosby show doesn't come with a warning! That would be deeply inappropriate.

Anyway, we went to bed at 1am last night and woke up thirteen hours later at 2pm today. This was not just surprising, but a little worrying because we had a dinner date with Jem and Ian! How is it possible to have slept for so long? I don't think I've slept in this long since I was a teenager. Actually, I remember once waking up when I lived in Tufnell Park after it had got dark, which was one of the most surreal experiences.

We finally arrived at Ian and Jem's an hour late but we were greeted with the most delightful food; a goat's cheese quiche and a beautiful chocolate mousse. Jem certainly knows how to cook. The company was rather lovely as well. We met an Australian opera singer called Catherine and her charming husband and daughter.

Anyway. Feel free to contact iTunes (@iTunesmusic) on twitter, if you feel similarly confused by their decision!

Saturday, 13 September 2014


Today has been something of a wash-out. Much as I'm pretty sure I still have jet-leg, I confess to having slept pretty solidly for 12 hours last night, waking up periodically through the night after experiencing a series of vivid dreams. In one of them, my mother was suggesting I wore a suitcase full of smart clothes from the 1990s, which were all box-shouldered and shiny.

I drove in the late morning to Brent Cross and got stuck in traffic which made me re-route and eventually lose my way. I wanted to buy a copy of the film Milk, which is about Harvey Milk. I don't know why I bothered. I had thought finding the film would be a needle-in-a-haystack scenario, what I didn't expect was that finding a shop which sold ANY form of DVD was the futile search. It would appear that no-one buys their DVDs or CDs in shops anymore, which I think is a desperate shame.

I came home and watched a lot of telly, falling asleep in front of The Queen, which struck me as a rather silly, somewhat pointless film. Who can be sure what was going through the Queen's head when Diana died, and more importantly, who cares? I have never been a fan of actors playing real-life figures when they're still alive. Everything feels like conjecture and nothing seems that believable... You can't help but wonder if the Queen herself watched it, and sat wondering what on earth was going on!

I got sucked into watching The Last Night of the Proms, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I always do if I'm honest. I love a bit of jingoism, and who could fail not to be stirred by Jerusalem, or, indeed Benjamin Britten's take on the National Anthem, which is the first time I've ever semi-enjoyed that terrible piece of mush. It upset me a little to think that this could be the last time we get to celebrate the UK in this manner. This particular night always makes me feel extremely moved and very proud to be British. Actually, one of the reasons why I think Scotland is contemplating going it alone, is that we never get enough opportunities to celebrate our special union, and seeing people in the different parks around the country waving Welsh Dragons and St Andrew's Saltires made me suddenly aware of the fact that we have something here which we are duty bound to protect.

Actually, what this county needs is further devolution, so Yorkshire people and Cornish people and Midlanders can all feel proud and noticed and, above all, responsible for their respective corners of this wonderful country. And then we all need to get on with not feeling guilty for having had the Empire and the Crusades and slavery, and enjoy being the country which excels in all the things that the rest of the world envies; the arts, high fashion, pharmaceuticals and IT. I think the time has come for us to relish the brand and become Britain again. Come on Scotland. What do you say?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Rinsy Willis

The journey from LA to London was a deeply gruelling one. I've never been a good flyer, and sometimes night flights send me into a state of apoplexy. It was desperately frustrating; literally every time I fell asleep, I got the feeling that the aeroplane was listing or diving, and woke up with a start, grabbing Nathan's arm. I've done this sort of thing before. Actually I remember doing it repeatedly to Fiona the last time I flew back from San Fran. God help me if I ever go to Australia.

So basically I'm a quivering wreck and feel like death, but it's all been worth it. We've had the most awesome honeymoon.

We tubed it back to Highgate, cursing at the intolerable length of the journey, but returned to find the most beautiful present waiting on our stairs. A card from lovely Abbie welcoming us home, and with the card, a bag of choice groceries; two baked potatoes, a tin of beans, some cheese and a packet of cookies. It is, without question, one of the most touching and thoughtful gifts I have ever received.

We also returned to a spotlessly tidy house. Cindy, who'd stayed on in the house later than us, had made everything look beautiful.

That, with all the wonderful messages we received when things went wrong in San Fran, and we feel like the most loved couple in the world.

Right. Time to catch up on Bake Off with a pair of baked potatoes...

The San Fran dream

I'm currently on an American Airlines flight which is winging its way high above the arid mountains of California from San Fran to LA. These internal American flights are curious affairs, which feel rather like British bus journeys. People bring their own food with them. Some have even come equipped with takeaway meals. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase budget airlines. The stewards are all grumpy gits and the air is thick with the stench of potato chips and Haribo. One child is eating sweeties which are "happy cola" flavoured. God knows how many E numbers she's chowing down on, but I reckon someone's gonna get a sugar high and then crash before this flight is done. She's already laughing like an addict. She'll be checking herself into the Betty Ford clinic before the week is out.

We went into a bookshop on Market Street today and were greeted by the sound of Holst's Planets Suite. It felt rather prescient to be hearing something so quintessentially English on the last day of our American adventure. To add another layer of brilliance, the movement which was playing was Jupiter, the main theme of which is, of course, I Vow to Thee My Country, otherwise known as Thaxted; written in and named after the town where my parents live. And what a tune that is! I wonder if I'll ever write a tune that good.

We sat outside Starbucks on Castro and 18th for old times' sake and met a ballet dancer with eyes the colour of forget-me-nots. He'd come from Russia via Jamaica and wanted to open a dance school for young people. We couldn't tell if he was odd or just Russian. I think he was probably also a rent boy.

A car was illegally parked outside the cafe and a traffic warden sidled over. Instead of crudely slapping a ticket on the windscreen with a sense of desperate glee (as I'm sure would have happened in London), he took the time to ask every single person sitting outside the cafe whether the car was theirs. When the owner finally appeared, the traffic warden ushered him on his way without the ticket, which he'd already written out. In my view this is exactly how traffic wardens should behave. Everyone deserves at least a chance to move their car.

A man in his thirties arrived with a beautiful black dog. One assumes they were homeless. The man left the dog with the Russian dancer and went into the Starbucks to get  himself a glass of water, which he shared with the dog. After a few minutes, he entered what can only be described as a drugs-related episode, which I assume was related to the can of spray paint he was holding in his hand. He started sweating profusely whilst shaking, moaning and banging his head with his hands.  Eventually the panic subsided and he fell asleep, only to be woken up by Starbucks staff who informed him he could only stay if he bought himself a drink. He picked his broken body off the chair and disappeared with the dog.

And there it was: the flip side of the San Franciscan free-loving, hippy-drippy dream. People come here, and, encouraged by the Castro-Haight vibe, live decadent, irresponsible, sun-drenched lives. But then it catches them. Bang! And they're nothing but relics. Their pace of life has slowed to a stand still, they're unable to function in everyone else's reality. Unable to move elsewhere, unable to find a job, they remain in the Castro or the Haight because it's the only place they don't feel like freaks, the only place where their sense of normality is mirrored by others. Anywhere else in the world, they'd probably be hospitalised. And they know it.

There's a mobile dangling from a lamppost on 18th street. Made from a bicycle wheel, it spins in endless circles, buffeted by the wind. Suspended from the spokes of the wheels are a series of action men dressed up in camp costumes. Some are figure skating, others are ballroom dancing, some are placed in suggestive sexual positions. For me, the mobile sums up the entire lifestyle here. A sort of wonderful, beautiful, relaxed bubble, which eats itself and ultimately leads nowhere.

Our San Franciscan honeymoon has been rewarding, exciting, remarkable, intense. It will never leave us. But ultimately it's time to head back to the real world, before we're sucked into the bottomless whirlpool!!

Thursday, 11 September 2014


Our last full day in San Francisco was just what last days of holidays should be. Quiet, relaxed, drifty. We had nowhere to be. No time constraints. Just a day to simply be in this beautiful city. And Nathan was feeling well again! How could things have been any more delightful.

Our Bed and Breakfast is delightful. We had breakfast in the little kitchen with an older straight couple from Australia and a lovely pair of queens on their own honeymoon from the UK.

It took them about two minutes of chatter to recognise us. "It's you isn't it?" The English one said, "who?" Said his Scottish partner. "The gay musical wedding couple!" "Oh my God, we have your wedding on our Sky planner. It was so moving. Your mothers' duet was exquisitely moving." And so on. It felt very special to be recognised like this on our honeymoon, especially after the painful nonsense of the last few days.

We left our lodgings and took ourselves along the length of the Haight, drifting into some of the second hand record shops in search of ABBA singles, and up to Haight Ashbury, land of the hippies, where I bought myself a flat cap, which I'll no doubt lose. I can't even count the flat caps I've worked my way through in my life, but no autumn is complete without one, so this one can be the next!

We ambled back to The Castro, deciding to sit outside Starbucks and attract as many wonderful locals as we could, encouraging them to sit down with us and tell us their life stories. First up, and by far the most entertaining, was Chuck. Chuck was in his eighties. He'd been in the military just after the Second World War and lucked out, being stationed in Germany instead of Korea like all the other people in his division.

Marcarthyism was his enemy however and his was dishonourably discharged from the army for being (in his words) a "cock sucking Commie." There are, of course, worse things to be, but, like so many in his position, he headed West and ended up in San Francisco, rubbing shoulders initially with the beat poets  before embracing the hippy culture; "the Haight had to be closed to traffic because there were so many people there. Be under no illusions, this place was JUST as exciting as they say it was... More so..."

Eventually he opened up a dog grooming parlour on Castro (where he looked after Harvey Milk's dogs), and spent all his spare time shooting films of the area on Super 8. The 1970s documentary footage in the opening of the film Milk was all his work. I was deeply honoured to be in his presence.

We had lunch and wandered back to Delores Beach where we marvelled at the number of insane casualties from the drug era, and in a far more positive light, how mixed the whole of this city seems to be. Gangs of young people are mixes of black, white, every shade of Asian, gay and straight. It's a true melting pot.

Back in the Castro we made more new friends. One of them introduced us to a plaque in the memory of a local character, a gay Vietnam veteran by the name of Leonard Matlovich whose chilling epitaph read "when I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one." Come on! That's got to be worth a few minutes' thought!

Just around the corner another of our new friends showed us the latest plaque on the Castro. This one is very carefully made out of a cardboard box and is to Robin Williams. There's a little picture of him cut out of a newspaper and a quote from him which goes something along the lines of, "when I walk the streets of San Francisco I no longer feel like freak." It's another corker.

I'm now drunk. I wrote all the rest of this blog before drinking two gin and tonics. Doesn't sound like much, but I don't drink. We went to a piano bar and I sang ABBA. Money something. Funny key. I'm not Frida am I? Am I? Am I Frida? Shh. Mustn't talk to the locals.

Tonight we climbed Corona Heights and are cake. Watched mists rolling in. Nice crisps by the way. San Fran in mist is delightful. Somewhere across the bay, the dying sun caught on windows. Like balls of fire.

Shh, because people in the B and B don't want to hear me singing. Can they hear me eating crisps? Packet of crips. I'm riding the special bus.

Is that enough? Have I written enough? Little tiny people on the street outside. Dear little San Franciscans. Of course I love them all even though they're tiny. Are all tiny people tiny or just further away?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sing if you're glad to be gay

Nathan woke up this morning feeling particularly chipper, which was just as well as we had to wheel our suitcases up Market Street from the Travelodge to our new little gay-owned Bed and Breakfast. This place is an absolute joy to behold. There are about ten bedrooms within the guest house. Breakfast is served in a tiny upstairs kitchen. There are cocktails for all the guests between 7 and 8pm every night in the lounge and fresh towels and beautiful scents drift through the building. We're very happy in our new home. It's much cheaper than the Travelodge and fastidiously clean... Unlike the lodge, which was a desperate shit hole with drunk vagrants peeing all over the car park; the car park which guests were charged $15 a night to park in. I was reading a review of the place today from someone who'd checked in and found a can of Tox on his bed!

Because Virgin Atlantic haven't even responded to us about changing flights, the decision has been made to take an internal flight down to LAX on Thursday in time to catch the flight we'd already booked. The alternative was shelling out £2000 for new flights, and, frankly, our insurance company have been so sketchy about what they're prepared to pay for, we didn't want to take the risk.

Nathan ended the day back at the medical centre who have signed him off as fit to travel. Apparently if Virgin get a sniff of a word like pneumonia, they'll refuse to let Nathan fly without a doctor's note... So $150 dollars later, we have the necessary document.

Nathan was already a celebrity in the clinic on account of his lovely accent and his pneumonia being so acute, but today he became a veritable pin-up boy because his body has responded so speedily to the treatment.

He does indeed seem like a new man. We celebrated by taking the train to Ocean Beach so that he could see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. We actually fed crows on the beach. I wasn't aware that crows liked to nest in sand dunes, but there they were, squabbling with the seagulls over our chocolate chip cookie.

We walked, barefoot, along the sea shore. The water was freezing. The surf was fairly high, and quite a lot of surfer dudes were taking advantage in their wet suits. A fair number of artists were painting pictures on the beach, strangely very few were attempting to capture the sea views they were sitting in front of! One woman was painting a picture of two people crying blood. Only in San Francisco!

We walked up to the camera obscura, which is quite a lot of fun. You're led into a dark room with a white parabolic dish in the centre onto which a 360-degree view from a spinning roof is projected via a mirror and two lenses. It's a surreal and rather beautiful sight. Some of the waves on the ocean were glinting magically in the sun which, whilst we were inside, had popped out from behind the sea mist. Knowing what I know about San Francisco weather, I'm not sure the sun ever shines for long on Ocean Beach!

The complex within which the camera obscura is situated used to be a Victorian penny arcade. I visited it with Fiona when I was last here, 14 years ago. We had our photo taken in a 1950s black and white photo booth. I was immensely sun-tanned and looked like a little Bengali lad. Sadly, the arcade was re-located 12 years ago, so there was no before and after shot for me, which is a real shame. I very badly burnt my forehead about four days ago, and I look a proper state with all the peeling and nastiness. There's a brown layer of dead skin on my hair line. It looks like I'm wearing a dirty wig. It would have been fun to capture this on camera!

We walked back the entire length of Golden Gate Park, which, for those in the know, is quite some trek, albeit a hugely worth-while one. The park is stunningly beautiful. Closer to the ocean, it's all dusty red earth and native fir trees, but the nearer to the Haight you get, the more it becomes landscaped with stunning Japanese tea gardens, waterfalls, lakes and lawns as green as fresh peas. Golden Gate park's only drawback is that it's nowhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a little confusing, especially when you consider that the park next to the bridge is actually called The Presidio.

The most moving area of the space is the National AIDS Memorial. The Americans really know how to do a monument. They don't stick a crappy brass plaque on a tree or go for some conceptual piece of marble, they dedicate whole acres of land to the cause and make everything thought-provoking and emotionally-charged. Perhaps it's because they tend to honour their more recent history more fervently. We wait until everyone's dead.

Anyway, the AIDS memorial is essentially a series of walkways and circular stone platforms carved into a verdant ravine. Many of the stones are inscribed with touching messages to the insane number of San Franciscans who died of the disease. The community here was ripped apart - just as it was pulling itself together and becoming a force to be reckoned with in the wake of Harvey Milk's assassination.

One poignant stone carving instructed passes by to stop inside the circle and contemplate that
"Although they all died of one cause, remember how their lives were dense with fine compacted difference." Another stone said simply, "we fought for love." My God how my community did just that...

Elsewhere in the complex, a little toy dinosaur with its stuffing falling out sat on a stone. Was it simply a dog's toy dropped carelessly? Or did it have far greater significance?

In one circular platform, an almost bewildering number of names were written in a giant spiral: the names of those who'd died, and their loved ones left behind. That's when I started weeping bitter tears.

The entrance plaque pretty much summed things up. "This grove proclaims to the world that there is a dedicated public space where anyone who has been touched by AIDS can find comfort, grieve openly without being stigmatised, and experience the feelings of hope inspired by nature. The National AIDS Memorial Grove signifies that the global tragedy of AIDS will never be forgotten."

San Francisco has repeatedly made me feel proud to be gay. It makes me feel free to celebrate my sexuality because it constantly reminds me how people fought and died to give me that right. It's also made me realise quite how much, until I got married, I'd found myself making compromises with the way I behaved, because I knew my own sexuality could make others potentially feel uncomfortable. When I made the films for The Space about my Requiem, my BBC mentor actually told me that he felt the films were too gay; "if you rub your sexuality in your listeners' faces, you'll intimidate them and lose audiences." I responded that I'd spoken openly about being gay in the films because the requiem is about love and the people I love tend to be men. I asked if I was black, and had written a gospel-inspired piece, if he'd have found that intimidating. "Would that have been too black?" I asked. He didn't know what to say. In San Fran, nothing is too gay, and because of that, no one feels the need to scream about it!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Will someone ride to our rescue?!

There was a moment this afternoon whilst I was speaking to the British consulate when I realised I'd hit something of a brick wall. The futility of the situation we've been wading through for the past twelve hours suddenly struck home.

Nathan had had an awful night. He'd coughed almost constantly; deep, chesty, rattling coughs which made me feel utterly helpless. At 5am, I'd attempted some kind of whacko spiritual healing thing and focussed all my energy into my finger tips which I'd pressed into Nathan's head, urging whoever might have been listening to stop him from suffering. I thought if nothing else it might soothe him somehow. Bizarrely, it did the trick, the coughing almost instantly stopped and he fell asleep. I don't know how or why it worked. Sometimes the touch of another human being is all we need. In the morning Nathan accused me of practising dark arts, but I hadn't been able to stop him from feeling utterly exhausted as a result of having only managed three hours' sleep.

We got up and took a cab across town to the medical centre where Nathan was pumped full of a shedload of saline and anti-biotics and given cough medicines, headache tablets and anti-nausea drugs. On route to the clinic we had a flurry of phone conversations with our travel agent and our insurers who were refusing to talk directly
to one another. We were trying to find out if the insurers would authorise our traveling back to London with a different airline as Virgin were apparently entirely booked for all their flights from San Francisco. We got precisely nowhere. I tweeted Virgin to ask what to do. They ignored my messages.

The only highlight of this troublesome part of the day was our cab journey, which was presided over by a young San Franciscan with a metal bolt through his nose who told us his life story. His father was a con who'd gone AWOL, his mother had just returned from a mid-life crisis during which she'd run away to the circus! Insane!

Whilst Nathan was attached to his drip, I took myself back to the wave organ. High tide in San Francisco Bay was at noon and a full moon was on its way. These were apparently the two key factors which would assure the wave organ's success. And it definitely sounded more chirpy than it had before. I made some sound recordings of very strange gurgles and pedal notes in a little half-hour window of relative bliss and calm...

The joy was short-lived. Nathan seemed to be iller than ever when I picked him up from the clinic. He had a pounding headache and needed to go straight to bed.

We returned to the Travelodge to find our rooms keys not working, so ambled off to reception to report the problem.

That's when all hell broke loose. The air-head-cum-pot-victim who served us (and had booked us in the day before) said we'd only actually requested accommodation for one day, and that if we wanted more nights, the room rate was rising from $99 to a whopping $350. $350 for a room with no wifi, a broken sink and bath, and faulty electrics. She seemed completely disinterested in the fact that we were there on our honeymoon and that Nathan had pneumonia and needed to be in bed, in fact, if anything, our desperation, seemed to harden her resolve. I'd almost describe her response as callous.

You can rest assured that if we were a heterosexual couple on honeymoon, someone would have waded in at this point and saved the day. I'm not quite sure the entire world finds two gay men on a honeymoon romantic!

We've actually been made to feel a little odd about announcing that it's our honeymoon on many occasions on this trip. Our travel agent actually told us to mention at the airport that we were on honeymoon on the off-chance that they'd offer us an upgrade. We nervously mentioned the fact to the Virgin staff member on the gate and she looked at us like we'd crawled out from under a stone, making us both feel totally ashamed. A little unfair, I feel.

I'm pretty sure there was a racket going with the ghastly Travelodge girl and her unintelligible Indian boss who, when I complained, denied being present when we'd initially booked into the hotel despite being next to the pot-head girl when she did the paperwork. One assumes that when the dim-looking tourists book themselves in for more than a few days, the pot-head girl only books them in for a single night so that she can then scam the tourist into paying three times the value of the room because they don't want the hassle of moving out.  It's deeply disturbing. I complained to the head office at Travelodge USA. I was on the phone for hours - all at my expense. They said they couldn't intervene in the matter because the hotel was owned privately. Owned privately, yet proudly displaying the Travelodge logo? Incredibly suspicious...

I envisaged having to wheel Nathan down Market Street in a bath chair like some fucked-up Death In Venice/ Philadelphia mash-up. In the end the freak woman behind the counter offered us one more night at a reasonable rate, and we said we'd check out tomorrow.

And so I called the British consulate and burst into tears and the woman there was useless, promising to call me back but forgetting to do so...

After Nathan had slept for a few hours, he felt strong enough to stroll into the Castro where we walked like the gay Mary and Joseph from hotel to hotel asking if there was any room at the inn. The answer was no. Intel have a convention in the city starting tomorrow and everywhere is booked up. We sat in Starbucks and started calling hotel after hotel. All were booked. Just as we'd decided we were going to have to sleep in a park, we spoke to a little gay B and B who said they could give us two different rooms for the two nights we needed. The bathroom would be shared, but, frankly, I'm sure the stable will be warm and inviting and equally sure that Saint Harvey Milk will pay homage to us armed with sequins, poppers, and some dry shampoo.

We decided that this would be the turning point for our holiday. Nathan's headache was clearing and the antibiotics were kicking in, so we had some food, and sat for a few minutes in a bar watching people outside queuing up to have free HIV tests in the back of a truck. I wondered how it might feel to be given the news that you were HIV positive in such a peculiar environment. Only in San Francisco!

We then went to a piano bar and sat for three hours listening to people singing songs from the shows with varying degrees of success. We're hoping that tomorrow will bring us some good news about flights. I don't hold out much hope. Virgin have just responded to my tweet in such a half-arsed way that I am pretty sure we're going to be stranded here forever.

Monday, 8 September 2014


I'll confess. Today has not been exactly plain sailing. Right now, Nathan and I ought to be winging our way down the Pacific Highway in the direction of LA, but instead we've checked into a crappy motel on Market Street, where I'm not sure I dare leave my new laptop!

Nathan has pneumonia! We discovered this earth-shattering fact this morning. He's been coughing for days, and having night sweats and heavy joints and things, but we'd put everything down to some sort of crazy 'flu. Nathan tends not to complain. He wanted to enjoy the honeymoon, so suffered in relative silence. A few days ago he did say that he wouldn't be surprised if he had pneumonia, but was so flippant about it that I didn't pay much attention. I should have known to. Nathan's family are like psychic freaks when it comes to self-diagnosing health issues!

Anyway, we woke up this morning and his cough was like a death rattle. He was all for ploughing on, but I convinced him it was a good idea to go to the chemists just to see if they could recommend something. Actually what she recommended was the walk-in clinic out towards the Golden Gate Bridge, and we went there by taxi...

Our doctor, the charmingly named Dr Martin, immediately put Nathan in for an X-Ray and then speedily diagnosed a very severe case of the illness. She later showed the X-Rays to us, and there was white cloudy stuff all over the place. If Nathan had been any older, or less fit, she would have immediately sent him to hospital, but she decided to treat him as an out-patient, hooked him up to a saline drip, fed him some hard-core antibiotics and banned him from travelling to LA.

All this, of course, means that we have to change our flights, cancel our LA hotels and get on with contacting our travel insurance people. The medical bill is already close to $1000, and will go up further tomorrow after Nathan receives another intravenous dose of heavy duty drugs.

So really, that's been my day, but for a hugely charming evening trip to the famous Castro Theatre, an old-school cinema in the middle of the gay district which caters to its gay audiences with rowdy sing-a-long screenings of films like Mary Poppins, Sweet Charity and latterly, films like Frozen.

It was a Robin Williams tribute weekend, and we opted to see a classic film, Good Will Hunting, which, oddly, neither of us had ever seen. It was a tremendous film, but more tremendous was the atmosphere within the theatre. As we walked in, an old dude was playing a massive Wurlitzer, which vanished into the floor, old-skool style, as the film started. The cinema is a massive barn of a place, dating back to at least the 1920s, with glorious wall-friezes. American audiences are more vocal in their responses to the visual arts. Robin Williams' first appearance in the film generated a massive round of applause which, in the light of his death, felt both appropriate and rather moving.

After the film, I looked around the audience and was proud to see the full gamut of members of the LGBT community; from trans-people, little twinks and big gay bears, all the way across to a couple of elderly Chinese lesbian ladies, which is a sight I've actually never seen before.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Castro delights

The day started with breakfast on North Beach. Omelette, little diced potatoes and two pieces of toast with grape jam. It's a tradition I rarely deviate from when I'm in this country. It works. It sets me up for a day of hardcore walking. And hardcore walking we did...

First stop was Macondrey Street, which fans of Armistice Maupin's seminal Tales of the City books might recognise as the real-life Barbary Lane, home of the irrepressible Mrs Madrigal. Really, the street is exactly as Maupin describes it; wooden steps snaking up through a series of lush gardens, wooden houses poking up through the trees with top floor rooms looking out over San Francisco Bay towards Alcatraz. Perfect. Really. Of course the bohemians no longer live there. They were long-since priced out of the area by wealthy computer gurus. You can always rely on the gays and the bohemians to make an area desirable for the bankers and entrepreneurs!

We walked down towards City Hall via a corner shop which sold ice cream, which, for an added 50c, you could have dipped in melted chocolate. My ice cream melted rather speedily, all over my fingers, then down my T-shirt and onto my camera, but the discomfort of the clean-up operation was worth every second.

City Hall was closed. It's a Saturday today. We were a little disappointed because we wanted to see the statue of Harvey Milk. Instead we sat on the steps, found some free wifi, and listened to Milk's prescient "if I should be assassinated" speech, which he recorded on a tape a week before his actual assassination. One of the oft-quoted lines from the recording goes something like, "if someone puts a bullet through my brain, I hope that bullet destroys every closet door in the country." And to some extent the bullet which entered his brain did just that. Chilling. Deeply moving.

The Harvey Milk pilgrimage continued up at the Castro with a visit to the LGBT museum, which displays the blood-stained suit that Milk was wearing when he was assassinated. It sounds deeply mawkish, but round these parts the man is every bit a saint, and there was something about the way that the suit had been so carefully laid out in dark lighting that made it an important, treasured, dignified exhibit, rather than a nasty piece of exploitation.

Castro was full of its usual selection of brilliant oddballs. I was high-fived by a man wearing a chain-mail yashmak and stopped by a trannie Madam standing outside a bar who said, "oh my God, a bear." She then looked across at Nathan: "Can I be in the middle? For just a few hours?" So I'm a bear? How ghastly! Nathan says I'm to start embracing this identity. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes!

Later on, we were accosted by a lovely chap called Jamie Otis, who, essentially told us his life story whilst sitting outside Starbucks. Jamie was dressed all in white, with rather smart matching glittery earrings and sparkly nail varnish on the fingers of one of his hands. He told us that he was 64 years old, and that he'd been to London in 1971 where he'd bought a little poncho from the King's Road which never made it back to the States. He'd spent most of his life living on the streets, and at one point in a forest. He didn't explicitly say it, but I'm pretty convinced he'd been a rent boy at some point. He was obviously extremely attractive in his youth. Bright, piercing blue eyes, sandy hair, and a very good bone structure. Sadly, years of poverty, and probably drugs, meant he no longer had any of his top teeth. But he was a charming man, with a kind energy, who, with a set of false gnashers would have looked ten years younger than his years.

He lives in some form of care-in-the-community hostel run by Indians "you know, the ones with the dots on their heads... They don't charge me any money. It's very strange." He proceeded to show us his drawings; most of which were of flowers all done with psychedelic luminous marker pens. Some of them had little cartoon stickers attached to them, "funny little doughnut girls", he said. The experience left me feeling very sad. He had a cell-phone, which isn't connected to anything, but he says he likes to play the games on it, and likes it when the alarm rings. There but for the grace of God go we all.

We decided to explore the streets on the hills above the Castro. Nearly every house in this part of town displays a rainbow flag, or a trans flag, or a flag denoting that the house owner is into leather. Yes. All these flags genuinely exist!

We found a little play area where two highly-polished concrete slides snake down a particularly steep hill. The sign on the playground said "all adults must be accompanied by a child," but because no actual children were around, we decided to have a go. And much fun it was too! Nathan decided that he'd play the mentally subnormal card if any angry parent stopped him and told him off. Like they'd bother in San Fran! Everyone here is way too laid back to get angry. Dope is legal in this city... You can grow your own, as long as you don't grow more than 99 plants! Everywhere smells of pot! Everywhere!

Later on we climbed higher still to another one of those crazy lanes which are essentially just wooden steps winding their way through over-grown gardens. My favourite of the ones we visited was the curiously-named Saturn Steps, where we sat on a bench and made friends with a fluffy grey cat called Buzz who decided she wanted to sit on Nathan's lap.

We drifted back into Castro and through the Pink Triangle Memorial to gay people who died in the Nazi regime. A haunting picture was displayed of a group of frightened men wearing pink triangles over their striped Auschwitzy pyjamas. It's been a day of realising how lucky we are to be able to enter the States on our honeymoon as legally married men. In fact, we entered the country on a single customs form and were almost embraced by our otherwise po-faced customs officer!

Nathan became the cat who ate all the cream when we walked down Castro Street and found an enormous knitting shop, lined from floor to ceiling with multi-coloured yarns. He was very restrained. I was proud of him. He only emerged with a single ball. The shop itself was full of men. I was a little perplexed until Nathan pointed out that we were in the Castro... and then the penny dropped!

We spent the last of the daylight hours in Delores Park, which had taken on something of a "be-in" vibe with thousands of young hipsters hanging out, practising their Hoola-hooping and circus skills, and dancing to music which was being pumped into the park by DJs sitting at decks. Kids played on the swings in the centre of the park. Others had picnics nicely set out. Everyone seemed to be having the greatest time. One little Chinese man was walking about with a trolly, recycling everyone's bottles! One thing I'll say about San Franciscans is that they seem to like to hang out in big groups with no sense of divisions within age, sexual or racial groups. They feel like a very social group. Part of this is plainly to do with the climate and the slower pace of life, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the whole Summer of Love thing hadn't left it's mark.

We went back to the Castro again and instantly realised that Nathan's iPhone had vanished. Fearing the absolute worst, we retraced our steps, all the way back to the little patch of grass we'd been sitting on in the park some thirty minutes before. Nothing. The same latino family who'd been sitting behind us were still there, so Nathan asked if they'd seen his phone. Negative. And that was that...

A minute later one of the group called him back; "what kind of phone?" she asked. "An iPhone" said Nathan. She proceeded to open a bag and pull out Nathan's phone. "My kids found it," she said. I think the fact that she'd switched the phone off made it pretty clear that until she saw Nathan, the phone was not destined to be returned to its owner, but seeing his troubled-little face plainly made her take pity on him. Crisis averted.

Back in Castro for the fiftieth time we witnessed two camp young queens trash-talking at each other. Quote of the day has to be one of them screaming at the other; "shut it, bitch, you ain't got no power!"

The ludicrous nature of this interchange was immediately replaced by the absolute joy of seeing a 'cellist, sitting on a balcony above the street, playing unaccompanied Bach suites to those passing underneath.

And such is the contradiction which makes San Fran the most eccentric, rich, beautiful, strange, laid-back city I've had the pleasure to visit. One which I shall be sad to leave tomorrow. One to which I hope to return sooner than 14 years from now.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


We met Brother Nathan, Sascha and our old friend, Daniel, in a hotel on Union Square this morning. It was such an unbelievably happy coincidence that we'd all decided to be in San Francisco at the same time and it was utterly surreal to be walking around the city with them.

First stop was the Apple Store. I decided to "go Mac" for my 40th birthday. Windows has become completely unusable since they inflicted Windows 8 on the world, and I'd decided some time ago that I would buy my lovely new computer in the US. It turns out that this decision saved me somewhere in the region of £150, which is quite extraordinary.

Computer purchased, we took ourselves back to North Beach via China Town. I'm told 40% of city residents are of Chinese descent, which is a figure I find quite extraordinary, particularly when you consider that only 20% of the population is gay. Somehow this city seems to scream its gayness more loudly than its Chinese-ness. China town is enormous, however, and occupies block after block of the city.

It's a fascinating place which seems to be full of shops which sell grotesque and enormous ornaments made of glass. All sorts of buskers sit on the pavements outside shops playing Chinese instruments which resemble tiny one-stringed 'cellos which are bowed from underneath the string. Most of the musicians were utterly rubbish. One appeared to be staggering his way through Auld Lang Syne which was utterly surreal.

We had tea and cake sitting in Washington Park before walking up to Pier 33, where we boarded a boat for Alcatras.

Ah Alcatras! What an extraordinarily atmospheric place you are. Nathan and I did the audio tour, which takes you through the network of ghostly cells and the bizarre and chilling stories associated with them. There were tales of escape, food riots, solitary confinement and disappearance. I was moved to hear about the inmate's music hour in the evening when people were allowed to play musical instruments, and to hear the story of New Year's Eve when prisoners could hear the sound of partying in the yacht club across the bay in San Francisco. For many, it was the only women's voices they ever got to hear...

From Alcatras, the Golden Gate Bridge looks particularly majestic, all silhouetted against the misty sun. It's a shame we weren't there this evening as we've just seen on the news that a massive traffic jam occurred on the bridge when two deer decided to cross it. There's some wonderful footage of the two creatures trotting across looking completely unconcerned. I wish I could say that I'd been as relaxed crossing it!

Back at Fisherman's Wharf, we were treated to one of San Francisco's famous eccentrics; a cool older black dude on a mobility vehicle, who sailed past us, disco music blaring out of a boom box, dancing and singing like an absolute lunatic.

There are a lot of drugs casualties in this city, and a huge number of homeless people, many of whom sleep like dead men on the sidewalks and walk about with shopping trollies filled with their lives. We saw a bloke yesterday whose trolley was proudly flying an American flag, which seemed a little strange. Your life falls apart, and yet you're still proud to be American!

We had drinks in Castro and tea in a Middle Eastern restaurant in the uber-cool Mission District, which, I'm told, is where all the wealthy people who work in computers are now living. On our way to the restaurant I solved an enigma which has plagued me since arriving here...

Fourteen years ago, when I came to this city with Fiona, I remember spending a few hours sitting in a beautiful park, on a grassy lawn with a steep sloping gradient. Until I returned here I'd always thought the park was Beuna Vista, but instantly discovered that this wasn't the case when we visited that particular park on Wednesday. From then on every park we visited in the city disappointed me because it wasn't the one I remembered.

Until today... It turns out the park I'd sat in exactly fourteen years ago was Delores Park, known locally as Delores Beach on account of the fact that when it is hot, hundreds of people go there to sun themselves. Despite the fact that it was almost dark when we arrived there, the whole place felt very San Fran. There was an overwhelming smell of dope, people were strumming guitars and a number of girls were playing with Hoola Hoops.

After tea we came back to the hotel to watch a bit of television, marvelling at how ghastly American news is! It's so profoundly biased. On one occasion an interviewer was talking to an Ebola survivor about his belief in God, without irony, and with a clear sense that he didn't think the man was a nutter for suggesting it was God and not medical science who cured him of the disease. Later on there was a news story about how Starbucks were opening special "express" branches with limited menus. In England, this news story would be called an advert!

Friday, 5 September 2014

Golden Gays

Today started with a pre-breakfast hike from our hotel, up the steepest hill in the world, to Lombard Street, or more specifically the bit of Lombard Street which is featured in all the films, where the road zig-zags because it's too steep to go straight. As usual for San Fran, it zig-zags through beautiful gardens filled with bougainvillaea and rhododendron which are ripe with the scent of tea tree oil.

We had breakfast at the Buena Vista cafe, which is, confusingly, no where near Buena Vista park. In fact, it's in the Fisherman's Wharf district at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill where the trolley buses rattle and clatter. Breakfast was a couple of delicious poached eggs and a lovely cup of tea.

From there, we doubled back on ourselves to see the sea lions on Pier 39, barking, mooing or squawking like a weird cross between a pack of dogs and a swarm of seagulls, whilst they sun themselves on the little wooden jetties there. They're a comic little community. I'm not sure why they stay there with hundreds of tourists standing on the pier, staring over them, laughing every time they yawn, or push each other into the water.

Fisherman's Wharf is a ghastly part of town by anyone's standards. It's chockablock with Ye Olde World wooden warehouses, selling fridge magnets, glass-wear and nasty trinkets. There are terrible human statues everywhere and people sail around on segways, those curious two-wheeled vehicles which you use if you're too lazy to walk and want the world to know how much fun you're having. A man was sitting with a guitar playing blues music because he was too fat to play anything else!

We walked ten miles along the top of the peninsular, past various yachting clubs and empty beaches to the wave organ, which is situated at the end of a spit of land which stretches into the bay between Alcatras and the Golden Gate Bridge. It's actually somewhere I've longed to visit for many years. The "organ" consists of a set of tubes with earpieces at the end. The waves crash over and into the tubes and a series of rumbles and pitched sounds creep up the tubes to meet the waiting ear.

We visited at the wrong time. It's apparently best at high tide (5.30am) on a full moon (yawn) and I was incredibly disappointed. Some of the tubes sounded pretty cool, but most, to my ears, simply sounded like the noise of waves. It was at the wave organ that we heard the very sad news that Joan Rivers has died. Nathan met her once. She fed him chicken soup. He said she was a wonderful woman. Kind. Friendly.

From the wave organ we trekked further North, past curiously unnerving tsunami hazard zone signs ("in case of earth quake, go to higher ground, or inland...") through scrubland, and past more empty, wind-swept beaches, to the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog descended on us at that point, and the wind started howling.

We decided to walk across the bridge, just as I decided to do with Fiona exactly 14 years ago when we were last here. It didn't go very well then, and it was fairly catastrophic today. Bridges terrify me. As I walk across them, I find myself grabbing hold of all my possessions to stop myself lobbing something into the water below.

There was a poster a little way along the bridge for the US equivalent of the Samaritans. The sign was next to a telephone and said something along the lines of "if you're distressed, there's always someone to talk to." In my horror, it didn't occur to me that the sign was there for potential suicides. I thought it was for people, like me, who didn't know if they'd be brave enough to cross the bridge!

I shuffled my way to about a third of the way across, almost exactly where I'd got to the last time, then a gust of wind threw me into a tragic paddy, and I sat, like an old lady, waiting for Nathan to venture further across on his own. At that point a young man stopped me and asked if I'd take his picture, and I felt too embarrassed to say I was suffering from Golden Gates-a phobia, so, with one hand on a railing, and the other holding his phone, I did the honours. As I handed it back with shaking hands he asked if I was okay, "do you need to talk?" He said. I imagined that he thought I was a jumper!

We've come home for a rest because our legs feel like they're made of lead.