Friday, 31 January 2014

Miserable London

A three hour wait for a transfer flight in Paris is a very cruel thing after a 9-hour, through-the-night flight, particularly one which was quite so turbulent. I've always been a slightly uneasy flier, but as we took off yesterday, I realised that traveling in darkness freaks me out a whole lot more. Without day light one never gets a sense of how high the plane is, and I've been known to convince myself that we're plummeting back down to the ground again, purely because I can't see where the ground is. I basically sat for the entire journey trying to keep a handle on my nerves, whilst listening to classic albums on the Air France in-house entertainment system. In the absence of any music by ABBA, I started my musical odyssey with Sergeant Pepper, before moving on to the Faure Requiem, and, for some light relief, a hugely eccentric (for the sake of being eccentric) recording of the Four Seasons. I fell asleep listening to the whinnying of Maroon Five.

The short hop back to London from Paris was easy enough, and made rather fun by a brilliantly witty purser called Stefan. As we touched down, he made one of the greatest aircraft tannoy announcements I've ever heard;

"Welcome to London, where the local time is 1.41pm and 32 seconds... approximately. The temperature here is 22 degrees... Inside the plane... And seven degrees outside... Which is not enough. Please don't forget to switch on your mobile phones. Thank you for flying with Air France!"

London was a miserable place to return home to. Freezing cold rain replaced the soft trade winds and the tubes were way over-crowded.

I booked myself in for a massage in the hope that I'd be able stay awake until a reasonable time in order to beat the jet lag... Although at 8.30, I'm flagging!


We woke up this morning - our last day in the Dominican Republic -  and decided we'd spent rather too long sitting by pools in all-inclusive hotels. We still had the Dominican Pesos that Brother Edward gave me for Christmas, and decided it was time to spend them on something special.

Our hotel runs a service called the "Dominican Safari", which gives more adventurous tourists an opportunity to take a trip into the "real" country. I think the tour had already left by the time we reached the lobby, but the man there explained that we could, if we wanted, commission a private tour. So that's what we did, and we had an extraordinary time.

It turns out that the Dominican Republic is a fairly astonishing place, particularly when seen through the eyes of Odalis, our personal tour guide for the day.

Odalis does these sorts of tours on a daily basis, which means we'd periodically find ourselves walking into a shop which was run by a mate of his, who'd do the hard sell on some kind of ghastly souvenir, but that's all part of the deal, I suspect. Did we want a bottle of Mamajuana bark? No. Did we buy one for fifteen dollars? Sadly, yes!

But blimey, it was worth it for the exhausting, exhilarating, extreme riot of colour that today became.

As we pulled out of our hotel, we found ourselves following an open-backed truck which was precariously piled high with everything you'd associate with a house move. Wicker furniture, mattresses, even a little potted plant. On the top of the mound, a young lad was trying to keep everything balanced. "Only in the Dominican Republic" said our guide, and we instantly began to understand why...

This place seems to be suspended in the 1950s. Shop signs are hand-painted and little men sit on the edge of rural villages with plastic bottles filled with gasoline. At one point we passed a man on a horse overseeing the resurfacing of a road, and a steam roller going through a car wash!

Our first port of call was a delightful village called Macao, which was situated in the middle of banana plantations, and a series of green pastures on dark red soil, which could almost have been the meadows around Cambridge, but for the odd palm tree! The pastures were the home of an assortment of livestock from horses and donkeys to a strange part-cow-part-buffalo creature which seemed to co-exist quite happily with a white bird with a long beak.

Macao has its own beach, and that's where the Dominican people go to eat fish al fresco and surf. The whole place smelt of wood smoke and a patchouli-like flower. It was a heavy, breathtakingly beautiful aroma, which immediately made me want to drop everything and simply be. "Dominican people are always happy", said Odalis. With beaches like this, it's hardly surprising.

We got back into the car and drifted up into the mountains through a series of ever-larger towns, all of which were one street wide, which, by the time we'd reached a place called Veron, became almost nonsensical. The main street in Veron is more than six kilometres long!

All of the towns we passed through looked fairly similar. The insides of shops tumble out onto the main roads. Piles of pineapples, limes and coconuts, raw meat hanging on washing lines. All houses and shops are a single-storey high, and all are painted in bright colours; blues and yellows with red roofs, or, for the more rural properties, dusty shades of green and pink. In one village we passed a giant Christmas Tree made out of beer bottles. "Why on earth is that still up?" I asked. "Well, they've not yet taken them down from Oxford Street," replied Nathan, sagely, "it's the hot weather which makes it seem so out of place." And he was right.

People buy water in these parts. There are no pipes, believe it or not, so a common sight in the villages is a giant water truck, stationed by the side of a building.

We went off the beaten track into an intensely rural area, where grander Catholic Churches are replaced by little tin shacks where the evangelists on the island go to worship. Here, enormous pink flowers line the roads and scores of insanely bright butterflies dart through the air.

Odalis took us to the house of one of his "friends", a family of small holders, who make honey, vanilla extract, coffee and chocolate. They welcomed us into their gloriously cool, shade-filled home, and gave us a little tour. It was like something from the Grapes of Wrath, with a modern fridge. The sort of thing you'd see in a film about the Deep South of America.

Their garden was stunning; filled with the most beautiful flowers with hummingbirds flitting all over the place. The air was rich with the aroma of coffee and chocolate. It was, in all honesty, a paradise. Plainly, a paradise which is fuelled by the pennies of tourists who turn up from time to time and buy, at wildly inflated prices, the little pots of produce which the family produces, but somehow, to me, this doesn't matter.

We continued further into the mountains, past a little school, where kids were posting their satchels through the windows.

Odalis gave us a lesson in the difference between the three types of dance music they have in the DR. Salsa, Merengue, and something I'd not heard of, which is called something like Bartiada or Barcharga.

Up in the mountains, we pulled up beside a Creole man who was selling coconuts on a truck. Odalis encouraged the man to chop one open, and poured the milk into a cup. It's the first coconut milk I've ever had, and I didn't like it at all. It was slightly fizzy and tasted rather bland. Neither of us were much impressed by the nasty fleshy stuff inside either, but we ate it like the polite boys we both are!

We learned at this moment that the Haitians, with whom the Dominicans share an island, are considered to be a something of a sub-class. They are dark-skinned by comparison and most of them are apparently refugees. If they're walking down a street wheeling a barrow filled with fruit, or begging in the town square, you expect them to be Haitian, apparently.

Our final destination was the curiously named Cuidad de Higuey, or (appropriately) White City. A sprawling 250,000 resident city in the mountains, which was beyond description. Definitely a million worlds away from the White City I was working in this time last year.

Odalis took us first to the market, pouncing upon a Haitian with a wheelbarrow filled with black sugar cane, and insisting we were given pieces to chew. The poor bloke, who didn't speak a word of Spanish, duly cut us off a few morsels and Odalis instructed us to chew only, then to spit it out. It was a remarkable sensation. A little like chewing a lump of candied rhubarb, or a sugar cube soaked in tea. You could almost crunch the sugar crystals inside. It was absolutely divine.

The market itself was insane. Behind every stall, another careworn, remarkable face peered out. Wild dogs and skinny, feral cats wondered everywhere. Honey and preserves were sold in whatever bottles and jars the stall holders could get their hands on, chickens and rabbits sat in tiny cages, huge pigs heads covered in flies lined the walk ways, piles of offal were strewn across the floors, the stench of death was everywhere, mini-warehouses were filled with second hand clothes from the USA, whilst next door, a shop filled with men sitting at sewing machines customised the second hand clothes.

A shambolic 500 year-old Catholic Church in the middle of the mayhem was filled with men on their knees praying and women on plastic chairs softly reading the bible to themselves, broken windows plugged up with pieces of broken concrete...

As you can probably tell, my mind is still trying to filter through the riot of colours, shapes and smells I experienced today, and as I'm about to board my flight home, it's probably best I try to post this before a day goes past without a blog, but suffice to say, today was the day I wanted in the Dominican Republic, and I owe it all to my brother. Without his pesos, we'd never have been able to afford the excursion, or had the currency with which to pay for it.

Thursday, 30 January 2014


We're in a new hotel, a little further down the coast, which we booked independently to extend our stay by a day. Sadly, the Punta Cana Princess Hotel doesn't seem to have any hot water at the moment, so we're covered in sand from the beach, aching from the sun, and unable to relax before bed. I should point out that this is the most expensive hotel we've ever stayed in! A whopping £200 for a single night! I really think hot water would have been a nice touch!

I woke up at Hard Rock feeling a little confused after a series of incredibly vivid dreams. At one stage, I was in a church in the grounds of Balmoral Castle, talking to Prince Edward and Prince Andrew who'd just commissioned me to compose  a piece of music! Five seconds later I was in a hyper-market with Nathan who was trying to steel a purple shirt. Do any dream analysts reading this fancy a crack at working out what that's all about.

We sat on the beach last night until about midnight, watching scores of Chinese lanterns drifting up into the sky from a point about a mile along the coast. The tiny dots of yellow light formed the most amazing, ever-changing constellations in the ink-black sky. Seconds later, the heavens opened, and for about five minutes it absolutely bucketed it down with rain. I was so relieved to finally experience a tropical shower!

We took a car from Hard Rock to our new hotel, and, in the process, finally got to see a tantalising glimpse of the actual Dominican Republic, which my rose-tinted glasses presented to me as something from the pages of On The Road.

It was a strange, disorientating experience to watch everything flashing by from behind a car window which refused to open. The Spanish road signs, the dilapidated street-side bars with corrugated iron roofs filled with men smoking cigars, fanning themselves casually whilst watching the world passing by. An old-school, rickety 1950s truck screeched past - beeping its horn at a clutch of mopeds with one, two, three riders -  its tall sides covered in a giant advertisement for Coca-Cola.

Our mad driver was in a hurry to get us to a hotel he didn't know. (In this part of the world, all hotels have the same name.) He dodged every piece of traffic around him, and we bobbed about in the back seat, feeling like we'd been thrown onto the most dangerous roller-coaster in the crappiest touring fair!

"You want music?" He shouted

"No thanks. We had too much music at the Hard Rock Hotel. The silence is lovely..."

A minute later, he switched the radio on full blast and sang along at the top of his voice whilst drumming the steering wheel with his fingers. A light waft of halitosis drifted back to us from the front seat.

We drifted through a little town, back from the beach resorts, and probably the nearest the Dominicans can get to their coastline in this part of the country. Here there were car washes with neon signs, curious hairdressers, cigar stalls, men selling paintings by the side of the road, handmade, faded, jaded shop signs, red, yellow and bright pink flowers, tiny supermarkets, heaps of fruit on trestle tables, motorbike repair shops. Waste-not-want-not...

The poverty levels behind the fancy resorts are incredibly high, making a desperate mockery of the terrible wastage we witnessed at Hard Rock.  The food that place must throw away. The bins I saw filled with brand new pens, paper, glitter and glue which delegates had used to make banners for a few tawdry minutes during their conference.  It all suddenly felt grotesque as we juddered through that little town. I thought about the kids coming from school in their yellow busses and how excited they'd be to find a bin filled with such amazing stationery. I imagined how excited I would have been as a ten year old child to find it! What's happened to the world in the last thirty years?

In this dusty part of the world, most of the buildings either look like they're in the process of being built, or about to fall down. We saw kids playing on gravel paths next to piles of rubbish and people waiting for buses on benches made out of tree trunks.

But there's a life here which excited me. A life I never once saw at the Hard Rock Hotel with its crazy marble crypt-like walls, sycophantic staff, piped music, ornate lawns and fancy smells.

And yet, I go to bed in a bad mood because I can't have a hot bath! I've got some serious thinking to do haven't I?!!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Sun burnt eccentrics

We may well be in Paradise, but today's lesson taught us what hard work in Paradise feels like... and let me tell you, it's exhausting! I can't even remember this morning, it seems so long ago.

At about 9am, Nathan, Carrie, Pete and I were standing on a stage in front of 2000 people, teaching them how to sing One by U2 in three part harmony. We were backed by a Vegas U2 tribute act called 2U. We asked their Bono how he wanted to be introduced, and he said we should probably simply call him Bono, which triggered a rush of jokes about what might be a more appropriate name; "Faux-no" "Oh-no!" "Mono" ('cus he's only half as good as the real thing...) It turns out he was rather good and was a very nice chap to boot, so we thought it was fair to call him Bono!

A rush of activity followed the singing session, which found us firstly on the beach setting up the most bizarre and complicated obstacle course, then in an air-conditioned corridor in the depths of the complex putting 400 kazoos into individual white paper bags, before watching Nathan teaching delegates how to play the instrumental from The Final Countdown on said kazoos. We then returned to the beach to run a two hour "Olympics", which involved the delegates in groups of 50 rushing from one peculiar race to another. I was stationed by the side of the water and put in charge of a group of people building six giant sand castles. It was mayhem. Great, great fun, truly exhausting, but one of the most surreal things I've ever done! I kept looking out to the banks of palm trees on the edge of the beach, and thinking "I can't believe I'm in the Dominican Republic judging a giant sandcastle building competition!"

At the end of the day, we took our sorrowful, sand-baked, sun-burnt bodies to the nearest pool and threw ourselves in, fully dressed. And it felt bloody good.

Nathan has a migraine, bless him. It's hardly surprising. None of us drank enough today, and by the time we'd cleared an entire beach of the detritus our event had generated, we'd been working solidly for 12 hours, at least 7 of which had been in direct 30 degree sunlight. Nathan also chipped his tooth whilst trying to gulp down some lunch in a twenty-minute break earlier, so the poor bloke is properly in the wars. For my part, I actually managed to get sun burned on my back... THROUGH my shirt!

I think today will embed itself in my brain in a series of images. Lying, fully-clothed in a swimming pool at dusk, whilst enormous bats swept over our heads like a scene from Scooby Doo. The giant green and yellow butterflies which periodically fluttered past whilst we prepared our beach Olympics. The "legs, bums and tums" class that was going on in one of the swimming pools which made Hard Rock look more like Hi-De-Hi. The colour of the sea just before sunset tonight, like a peacock, dark indigo at the horizon and then every shade of blue to a yellowy shimmering turquoise as the water met the beach. Riding a golf buggy through a hotel corridor (so Rock and Roll) and then, on the same buggy, steaming through the hotel gardens performing (in multi-part harmony) the Final Countdown, on kazoos, whilst bemused hotel guests looked on wondering quite how eccentric the Brits could get!

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Rolling in the shallows

We've just decided not to play a round of mini-golf based on the fact that they were blasting out such loud music on the course, that we all started to panic. It comes to something when an outdoor event (which isn't a music concert) can potentially trigger tinnitus! Sadly, that's the way of things here. One spends most of one's stay trying to avoid pointless, mindless, insipid European music. This Dominican Republic prides itself on its fine musical traditions, yet the Hard Rock complex is pumping "No Limits" through its rose bushes!

Most readers, well my brother I'm sure for one, will be wondering why we're staying in the complex and not venturing out into the real Dominican Republic. The complex is absolutely enormous, and is only linked to the rest of the island by a 2-mile road, which deposits its guests on a motorway which heads straight to the airport. This part of the island is geared towards package tours, and is filled with nothing but huge resorts. There are no towns within a 50km radius, and nothing to visit other than other hotels and golf courses. We're also here to work...

We actually did our first gig this morning - and when I say this morning, I mean almost yesterday. We were up before dawn, introducing conference delegates to the joys of Boom-whackers; those brightly-coloured plastic tubes which sound a note when struck across the palm. In a fifteen minute session we, the good folk of Creative Team Events, taught 1,500 people how to play their individually pitched boom-whackers. Like a giant rainbow-coloured orchestra, we were. I'm pretty sure we were a major hit. There was lots of cheering at the end of our session, and delegates were allowed to take their boom-whackers home as a souvenir, a gesture which was very well-received, judging by the number of people we saw afterwards carrying theirs around.

My ears continue to give me problems. As soon as I'm back in Highgate, I'm going to need to take myself in for syringing as I'm grossing everyone out with the amount of waxy gunk which I'm pulling out of my ears on tissues and things, and freaking myself out by being half deaf!

After the gig, and a couple of hours by the pool, we went back indoors to rehearse tomorrow's gig, before heading to the beach. I'm a little burnt, I think. That, or an hour being buffeted by enormous waves, has pummelled a layer of skin from my arms. Body surfing is enormous fun but some waves have the capacity to make you feel like nothing but a rag doll. The one which sent me limping back to the beach carried me on its crest in an almost upright position for a few seconds before dragging me into a rolling foamy death spiral!

I was reminded of a trip to Crete with Fiona where I got trapped in a cycle of stormy waves which I didn't have the strength to fight. I could feel myself being dragged further and further out to sea and imagined needing to be rescued somewhere north of Egypt. Eventually the waves subsided and I opened my eyes to realise with horror that I'd been rolling around like a terrified freak in shallow water no more than a metre from the shore, and that all I'd actually needed to do to get myself out of peril was stand up!

Fiona was sitting on the beach at the time, and I went running back to her, feeling all shaken; "I just spent the last five minutes thinking I was in a rip-tide being dragged out to sea," I gasped. "Oh," she said, laughing, "I wondered what you were doing! I was about to come and chat to you!"

We've come back to our hotel room for a little peace and quiet but, unfortunately, the entire complex is now throbbing to the soundtrack of some kind of dance spectacular, which is going on a good 500 meters away, but, you know, why keep the music down? If you stay at the Hard Rock Hotel, it stands to reason you're going to love insanely loud moosik! I wonder how late this is going to go into the night. It rather feels like we're in the chill-out room at Heaven!

Monday, 27 January 2014


The trouble with Hard Rock's version of paradise is that it involves music... almost constant music. Every bar, every cafe, every single corner of the complex which has been set up for R and R has music piped into it. There are even Bose speakers in the bushes, so as you walk around the complex, you get little blasts of music... And it's not good music. Not by any standard. This isn't the music of rock legends. It's people like Avril Levigne if you're lucky, and if you're not, it's some ghastly techno track, which repeats the same single phrase over and over again.

I actually want to listen to the minor birds, and the bees, and hear the crashing of the waves, but there's even a stage set up on the beach. For a musician, particularly one who wants to sit under a tree and write whilst the trade winds blow, it's a form of torture...

Perhaps as a result of all this, my subconscious has awarded me with deafness! I think it's something to do with the amount of water I've been jumping into since getting here. I obviously have too much wax in my ears at the moment, and water has managed to lodge itself behind a big old blob of it. Not the best situation for someone who has to sing in two days, but there's no way I'm going to pay out to see a doctor here. The last time this happened, I was in Florida, and it cost the best part of £200 to sort it out.

Judging by the majority of staff here at the hotel, I'd say that Dominicans are a rather short race. They also seem to be a race of people who adore children. Lisa's little bab, Rosie, is here with us and is getting a huge amount of attention, particularly from the Dominican men who will regularly rush over and tickle her, sing to her and generally make her the centre of attention. How refreshing to visit a place where men aren't scared to be affectionate towards children. I realised today what a profoundly messed-up society Britain is in this respect. One of the girls we were with today said she saw man in a wheelchair giving out chocolate coins for charity at King's Cross station just before Christmas, and that mothers with children were going out of their way to avoid a situation where their child could be seen to be taking sweets from a stranger. What are we breeding? A society of children who don't trust adults? A society of children who don't understand that physical contact doesn't always need to be a prelude to sexual activity? It's shocking, it really is. We arrogantly think we've got everything sewn up in the UK - that we properly understand human rights - and yet, we don't seem to fully understand the meaning of love!

The astonishing thing about this hotel is how much food there seems to be everywhere. A buffet here, a little corporate pile of pastries there. Everything is free. You walk into a restaurant, ask for as much or as little as you like, chow down and then leave! The buffet restaurants are the most extraordinary, with plates of everything you can think of and many things you can't. I'm currently looking at a ham sculptured to look like a rose. Stomach-churning!

It pisses it down here just once a day, either first thing in the morning or just after sunset. Usually first thing in the morning. I'm sad to say I've always either been asleep when it's happened, or in rehearsals. I'm disappointed as the storms are meant to be quite extraordinary. What I have experienced, however, is the phenomenal humidity which descends around the time of the rain. One can barely breathe! I've experienced nothing of the sort before, although I'm told what we've had here is not a patch on what happens in the Far East.

This evening, at the height of the humidity, we were taken through the complex on a golf buggy. I was hanging off the back, and we were going at quite a speed through the walkways and mini-roads, past the casino, the theatre, the palm trees, the mini golf, the pools and bars, all lit up with twinkly lights, the air blowing through our hair. It was like a roller coaster ride without the safety belts. Astounding!

Sunday, 26 January 2014


We spent our first full day in Paradise today. Everything here is very much as you'd expect it to be. The hotel complex itself is a barn-like, rather false world, filled, almost exclusively by white people. By and large the only black faces you see are cleaning rooms, serving food, opening doors or hidden away in offices. They're all terribly friendly and I guess they seem happy enough. In fairness, I'm sure most of the people in the Dominican Republic don't give a stuff about the prohibitively expensive tourist hotels in Punta Cana. There will be better, freer and emptier beaches elsewhere on the island, where they don't need to doff their caps to people with an inflated sense of their own importance!

That said, the beach here has brought us absolute joy today. When confronted by pure white sands and warm turquoise water fringed with lines and lines of coconut palms, what is there not to love? It was like stepping into an advert for Bounty. The water is astonishingly clean, which is hardly surprising; if you travel due East from here (conveniently skirting over the top of Puerto Rico) the first land you'll see belongs to Africa... Mauritania more precisely. And oh! Those famous trade winds, acting like a fan oven, making us feel gloriously cool, and yet slowly baking us like pale Cumbrian sausages.

The waves were enormous today and we spent an hour or so being buffeted like little pieces of seaweed, laughing like maniacs, our eyes stinging from the salt in the water.

We first came to the beach at midnight last night. We paddled in the water whilst staring up at the brightest stars I've ever seen. Venus, right over head, was particularly impressive, whilst The Plough surprised us all by appearing at right angles to the horizon, almost as though the famous pan handle was falling into the sea.

To keep up the theme of Nathan always being bitten by something when we're away together (spiders, jellyfish etc...) he got stung by an ant today. I don't think it can be too serious. He only complained for a bit!

We have sat by three swimming pools already today, playing ping pong and drinking an "ABBA" cocktail in one!

As the sun set, we walked along the beach, a hugely romantic experience, with the rows of palm trees on the edges of the beach stretching off into the smokey horizon. Very magical.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

It's a Hard Rock Life

We're currently in the Hard Rock Hotel at Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. I didn't think I'd ever find myself writing that particular sentence! We have no idea where we are in relation to the rest of the island. The Hard Rock Hotel is an enormous complex which no one is expected to leave, with giant shopping malls and restaurants everywhere. It smells very nice, however, and I'm currently sitting underneath a dress that Gloria Estafan once wore. It's very lacy and wonderful, but is Gloria Estafan hard rock?

There's a picture of Rod Stewart above the loo in our palatial bathroom suite. It's a little off-putting. That said, we've a massive hot tub in our bedroom, a huge balcony and plates of fruit and champagne on a giant marble table next to the bed. Every thing is on the house. Everything, and I'm not sure I approve. It leads to terrible wastage and binging. Paying for food and drink makes you respect it more somehow.

The journey to the Caribbean was good on the whole. We got up at shit o'clock and came via Paris, which was a little surreal. I WOULD have had a nice cup of tea in Charles de Gaulle airport, but they'd "run out" of English Breakfast tea. Bloody French! I could hear the delight in the woman's voice as she told me she could only offer me Earl Grey. Soap in a mug.

Here's an interesting thing, which in my mind is indicative of the French people's mock hatred of the English. The interactive maps on the Air France planes, which show you where you are above the Atlantic, refuse to acknowledge any cities in England. London is not marked. Glasgow and Cork are there to represent the British Isles. Bloody French and their Catholic club!

The plane journey to Punta Cana was fairly interminable and one of the Air France hostesses was Gallically surly, bordering on down-right-comically rude. She was so rude, in fact, that her behaviour would instantly have lost her a job had she been working for an American airline!

The airport in Punta Cana is like nothing I've seen before. It's thatched for starters(!), and a live band was playing salsa in the baggage reclaim hall. I think the Dominicans would like us to believe that they're wild party animals. The concept is obviously central to their tourism. The women checking passports were even dancing and they play music here all the time. Everywhere. The taxi which brought us here played meringue and strange accordion tunes whilst the driver zig-zagged across the motorway like an absolute lunatic. We almost killed two men driving a fruit cart.

The air here smells extraordinary; verdant. Rich. Intense. Heavy. Probably what you'd expect from a tropical climate, but unlike anything I've ever experienced. It's a little humid as well, which may have an effect on my thighs!

We left the airport and were immediately greeted by a thousand crazy birds chirping in a tree. The sound they were making was like fireworks. Those crazy, slightly tragic fireworks screech like balloons deflating. I've never heard the like.

Poor Carrie, who's one of our number, seems to have brought Argentinian pesos with her. It was the only currency with pesos she could find at the post office. Thank God my brother sorted me out with the proper currency before I made a similar mistake!

Thursday, 23 January 2014


I watched a very silly advert on the telly today for a funny little red pill, which is meant to be really good for us in some inexplicable way. I can't remember the name of the pill. No doubt we'll soon see Carol Vorderman advertising it, saying it's got all the benefits of cod liver oil without the fishy taste. Anyway, what struck me as rather tragic about the advert was its pathetic and completely unnecessary use of quasi-scientific terminology. This pill, we're told, is full of EPA and DHA. What we're NOT told is what these letters stand for, or why we'd want to find them in a red tablet! A similar thing used to happen with Danone yoghurt and it's "Bifidus Digestivums". We never knew what Bifidus Digestivums were, but we wanted them because the woman's voice made them sound appealing. I think I'm right in saying that Danone actually invented the term to describe a sub-species of Bifidobacterium Animalis.

So there we have it: another less than subtle example of profiteers attempting to make us spend money we don't have. It's an age-old thing, of course. In World War One, emotional blackmail become de rigueur; "if you care about the soldiers in France you'll buy them foot salve, Zambuck and lice-killer."

We're more subtle these days. I recently saw a programme about the way that smell can affect our shopping habits. In one particular experiment, the same pair of trainers was shown to two groups of people, one of which was in a room which smelt of vanilla, and the other in a room with no scent whatsoever. Both groups were asked to say how much they thought the shoes were worth. Those in the vanilla-infused room valued the trainers at twice the cost as those in the same space after it had been well-ventilated. We all like to think we're somewhat impervious to these sorts of things, but when it comes to the sense of smell, all bets are off.

I bought a loaf of bread in Mark's and Spencer's in Wakefield just before Christmas, which I genuinely didn't need, simply because the woman in charge of the bakery had been instructed to leave the oven doors open to allow the extraordinary smell of freshly-baked bread to waft across the store.

This evening I went to the corner shop to buy a bottle of Ribena which I found in the corner in an upright fridge. I'm not sure the shop owners know that Ribena, as a cordial, really doesn't need to be chilled, but there we go.

Anyway, as I took the Ribena from the shelf, a terrible chain reaction occurred, which seemed to involve every single bottle in the fridge making a bid for freedom. I immediately ascertained what was happening and slammed the fridge door shut, which caused more bottles to roll off the shelves and end up leaning against the door, ready to create an astonishing avalanche of Tizer, Lucozade, tonic water and bottles of lime essence the next time someone opened the fridge. I apologised profusely to the shop owner, who was very laid back about things and said he'd deal with it. But there was really no hope. The moment that door opened, those bottles were coming out, and they were coming out en masse!

Manchester again

I read in the papers today that there's been a riot in a 99p shop in Wrecsam! Apparently, the shop staged some sort of closing down sale whereby everything on the shelves was lowered in price to 50p. Unfortunately, and rather inexplicably, the people in the queues, no doubt holding huge quantities of cleaning products and out of date Jaffa cakes, were suddenly told that prices had returned to 99p. They became so distressed that the police were called.

The story makes me feel rather sad. It feels so trivial and almost comic, but tells you all you need to know about this recession and the way that it's still affecting people; still making people behave in an undignified manner. I'm sure these people wouldn't have rioted for the sake of rioting.

I found myself in Manchester again today for the second time in a week. It's a funny old city, which I'm yet to fall in love with. There's something about it which feels a little phoney, a little pleased with itself, and I don't think I've ever been there when it's done anything but rain in a miserable sort of way.

I had a meeting at the BBC in Salford with the charming Tommy Nagra, who's been tasked with putting the Brum back into Birmingham (from the BBC's perspective in any case.) I'm not sure anything will immediately come of our chat, but I liked him enormously, and it was fabulous to meet another person who feels as passionately about the Midlands as I do.

On my way to the BBC, I stopped for lunch in Canal Street, which, for the uninitiated, is the gay bit of Manchester. I sat in a lovely bar called Via and had a vegetarian club sandwich.

Two proper Manky scallies in the bar were behaving rather strangely, ducking and bobbing around the place, with their hands thrust deep into track suit pockets which were bulging with coins. It transpired that they were expert slot machine players and were making huge sums of money out of the two machines in the bar. Scores of coins were flying out and they seemed to be taking it all in their strides.

I left the bar and immediately became obsessed with recording the unique sound of Manchester, which, I decided today, is the beeping of the tram horns. Every Mancunian tram horn sounds the same pitch - an open fifth on a D and an A. When you tune into the sound, you can hear it echoing all over the city. I'm sure Mancunians get very used to it, but for a visitor like me, it's a fascinating sound; a sort of urban minimalist symphony.

From central Manchester, I took the tram to Salford, and, because I had an hour to kill, found myself drifting towards the Lowry Theatre. Someone told me recently that they have a gallery upstairs which displays loads of original paintings by Mr J S himself.

I've always had a bit of a penchant for Lowry, but don't believe I've ever seen one of his paintings in the flesh. I thought I'd be impressed. I wasn't expecting to be so profoundly moved. As I stared at the images; the misty factories, the smoky football stadia, the dirty fish and chip shops and washed-out brick walls, I was transported somewhere very familiar. Maybe a different life, or a world I once knew. Perhaps I simply recognised the love that Lowrie painted into his pictures. He painted with profound love for his subjects and his locations. All of the famous images have a wonderful flow to them. Most of the people seem to be heading in the same direction, sweeping into buildings. Your eyes are drawn to the destination, as though a wave could simply scoop you up and transport you into that foggy, primitive world.

My train home left Manchester at 9.15pm and I sat in various cafés writing music, and slowly reaching a place where I feel I might be winning the war with Brass. There's so much music to write, but I'll only feel I have permission to work in glorious detail when I have completed the broad strokes, which means that every bar needs to be at least sketched out.

I got on the train and sat down opposite a grotesque-looking slaggy girl with makeup like a drag queen, who refused to move her bag from my seat when I tried to sit down. Her boyfriend, sitting next to her, was Asian, (she could well have been Asian as well, underneath the troweled-on make-up.) Anyway, there was a really violent energy between them. She goaded him really quietly, and he kept grabbing her by the neck, subtly, but with enough force for her to know he wasn't joking. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It seemed such strange behaviour for a train.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Tickets go on sale

There's very little to be said about today. Nathan and I are slightly in stasis, waiting to hear about the project we've been pitching over the last week or so. For the first time (certainly in my life) we've passed on a rather extraordinary opportunity because it didn't feel quite right. It remains to be seen if we will get an opportunity to develop the project in a slightly different way, but if not, there's plenty to be getting on with to keep us busy, and we've very much enjoyed the process of working on the pitch.

The frustration of the day manifested itself in an absolute flurry of creativity  on Brass. I wrote about 30 pages of manuscript, almost on autopilot. I genuinely couldn't write things down fast enough. It was just as well, really, because, towards the end of the day, news arrived that tickets have now gone on sale for Brass! How terrifying is that? Tickets on sale before the show is either fully written or cast! Still, all I can do is quote the divine (and sadly no longer with us) Tessa Schneiderman, my first tutor at drama school, who sat us down before embarking on a devised project and said, "I've no idea what's going to happen over the next six weeks" (cue everyone looking at each other slightly uncomfortably) "but I know that it will be remarkable!" (And it was!)

Like Tessa, I am suitably confident in my abilities to know that Brass will be extraordinary. It's almost certainly the best thing I've ever written. It's gritty, funny and desperately sad. Plainly, as a British man, I'll be forced to tell the world that it's flawed or a bit rubbish for fear of coming across as too arrogant (but I'll be secretly lying because I know how great it is!)

...And for those early-birders who want to see this extraordinary work, and like to book tickets eight months in advance, you can purchase seats by going to...

I'm sure there won't be a stampede just yet, but am equally sure the show will eventually sell out.

Monday, 20 January 2014


I realised something today, namely that my osteopath is a flipping sadist! However, as I lay there on the funny table with the hole in it, being dorsal sprung, I also realised that a sadism is an important trait in an osteopath! He was working on the muscles on the back of my thighs today, which he said were abnormally tight before adding; "I might have to do that thing where I hurt you a lot!" I was curiously impressed...

We talked at one stage about vegetarian diets and the importance of eggs and he said, "it's a shame we live in London because I'd really like to keep chickens." For the eggs?" I asked, "or to eat?" "Both." I shuddered; "crumbs, do you think you could actually kill a chicken?" "Yes," he said, without any hesitation or emotion. And I believed him, especially when he then revealed he's recently got into taxidermy! Michelle of the Turkie, whom I met for lunch today, tells me that taxidermy is bang on trend with the Hoxton set right now, and that stuffing pheasants is a good way to start...

I'm quite bemused by the hobbies and fashions which are making widespread 21st Century come backs. Knitting, for example, the First World War "Tommy" hair cut, and the desire to wear genuine animal fur! I find the latter most peculiar. Fur coats invariably look like they were made out of animals with mange...

There was mayhem on the Archway Road this morning, following the erection of temporary lights at the junction with Southwood Lane. Unfortunately the beeps kept going off whilst they were setting things up, and old ladies with cats and things were blithely shuffling out into the road, thinking the noise meant they were free to cross. Cars and lorries were screeching to a halt. People were shouting. Dogs were barking. Traffic was gridlocked. Comedy.

Sunday, 19 January 2014


We're on a train from Manchester, drifting rather aimlessly through Northamptonshire. We've been holding auditions for the NYMT all day at Cheetham's school of music and are all completely knackered. We've just discussed the young people we'd like to recall, and argued bitterly over some of them. We're only allowed to recall an actor for a maximum of two out of the three shows NYMT are producing this year. It's surprising how this process usually works itself out without any issues, but every so often, someone's photo will crop up which everyone instantly stakes their claim to... Passionately!

We saw some genuinely lovely kids today. One lad brought his cornet in to play, and damned near broke my heart. I felt rather embarrassed to be watching him with tears pouring down my cheeks, but the sound he made was simply devastating; imbued with the most extraordinary sadness.

We worked hard, however. Virgin Trains deposited us in Manchester a full hour late, and from then on it was audition after audition for a seven hour stretch. We worked through lunch without so much as a cup of tea.

I was on the music panel today, and heard sixty songs back to back including four Green Finch and Linnet Birds, three As Long As He Needs Me and two On My Owns.

Onwards and upwards...

What will tomorrow bring, I wonder?

Saturday, 18 January 2014


I went to my Goddaughter's fifth birthday party today in a community centre just off Columbia Road. I genuinely don't know how parents deal with these sorts of occasions. Planning a children's birthday party is like organising an epic film shoot. There's so much to think about; entertainment, the safety of children, catering for a million different eating disorders, the glorious cake, the tantrums, the decorations, the princess dresses, the doggy bags for the kids to take home...

I was quite exhausted just watching twenty children jumping up and down whilst screaming so loudly my ears started swimming with harmonics. Imagine then going home and the noise continuing to bedtime?

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly Dylan's "Smash Cake", which was essentially the edible equivalent of a piñata. Dylan had actually tempered his own chocolate dome which was filled with sweeties. I'm told the experience nearly sent him mad, but the result was a beautiful-looking hollow cake. Deia was handed a rolling pin, which she used to whack the crap out of the chocolate dome. The dome shattered and revealed the sweeties inside. The astonishing aspect, however, was the way the kids responded to the sight of the sweets. It was like a vulture feeding frenzy. Forty little knees in twenty pink and lilac dresses descended on the scene and when they retreated, just 20 seconds later, every last scrap of chocolate or sweetie had disappeared. All that remained of Dylan's cake was a lone spilt bottle of bubble essence which had been dropped in the rush for sugar. Hysterical!

We went back to Philippa's afterwards and a second round of total carnage was triggered by Deia opening my birthday present - a vat of make-your-own slime - which turned the kitchen floor into a skating rink. At one stage, Deia asked if she could take all her clothes off and literally slide like a snail through the sludge, which by now also included two vials of chemical snow and a piece of birthday cake!

The birthday cake itself had been made by Dylan's mother, Janina, who is Dutch, and tells me that they don't really do birthday cakes in Holland. "They're too lazy," she said, with typical Dutch frankness. She is a wonderful artist, however, and her cakes are legendary. Philippa and Dylan's wedding cake was the most beautiful I've ever seen, and even included a line (written in icing) which Dylan had sung in my film about the A1; "If I cycled 300 miles, I would be in Darlington. Strange to think I grew up on the same road as my future wife. She lived in Holloway. Two different worlds united by this road." Strangely, as I write this, I am on a 43 bus at the exact spot where we filmed the sequence with Dylan on his little bicycle.

Today's cake was a garden scene, complete with a pond, a lawn, and scores of little marzipan birds and insects. It's always a shame to cut into them.

I'm heading home to do nothing. Nothing at all, except maybe watch a little telly. I'm Manchester-bound at 7.50am tomorrow!

I know I shouldn't get annoyed at this sort of thing, but the bus I'm on currently has three children on it who must be amongst the most irritating in the world. They're screaming, literally screaming, and Mummy is doing nothing to shut them up. She's far too middle class to tell them off in public. "Tilly wants her Hello Kitty pencil..." Is being repeated by one of them, who is stamping her foot and encouraging her sisters to join in. Mummy is trying to get them to sing the Okey Cokey. It's bloody annoying and frankly, Tilly needs to learn to stop talking about herself in the third person.

It is not appropriate to allow your children to behave like this in enclosed public spaces, particularly when the bus you're on has taken an hour and a half to drive from Old Street to Highgate. I didn't realise how stressed I was until I got off the bus and realised every last muscle in my body was clenched!


I went to bed at about 1am last night and couldn't sleep for love nor money. My head was processing information like some sort of ludicrous ticker tape machine and then whole symphonies started floating through my brain; a true indication that it's time to acknowledge sleep simply isn't meant to be.

I got up and started writing music for Brass, and by the time my eyes had started feeling heavy, it was almost 5am and I had to be up at 8. I feel like I've been repeatedly punched in the face all day today as a result.

I had a meeting with Alistair from the Kaleidoscope Trust at the British Film Institute on the Southbank. We were discussing our Invisible Voices project, which will occupy my time from April to July this year. It seems such a long way off, but at the same time, just around the corner. We also talked about what's going on around the world in terms of equality. Alistair has been kept on his toes for the last month, what with the awful things happening in India, the Cameroon, Uganda and Nigeria. He described it as one of the most depressing periods of his life. People are dying, being whipped, being hanged. And yet, in 3 months time, British gay people will start to get married.

We spent the day with Archie and delivered our pitch at the close of business. Who knows what will happen with it. The self-preservationist in me will spend from now until we have a response trying to think of a million reasons why I don't want the project to happen, so I'm not too disappointed when it doesn't.

We had a lovely evening tonight. Little Michelle's father, Michael, took Nathan, his fabulous partner, Sheila, Michelle, her mate Craig and me out for dinner at Amalfi on Old Compton Street. The food was delicious and we basically laughed all night. Nathan stole the show on the humour stakes by suggesting that Jermaine Jackson's brothers were called Jerstarter and Jerpudding, which made us cackle like witches. That's a joke which wouldn't work in the States! I might try it on my mate Cindy just to watch her laughing politely but squirming inside.

It was midnight before any of us had blinked. Definitely the sign of a great evening.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Eton Mess

We're in West Kensington in a terrible rain storm, driving home from Philip and Daryl's house, where we were fed a delicious chick pea curry and a glorious Eton Mess. The company was rather lovely to boot. We watched the opening of this year's Golden Globes on You Tube, and planned Nathan and Philip's joint 40th birthday party in July. We're all turning 40. We can't stop it from happening. We're lemmings slowly marching to the edge of a cliff. At least my friends are suffering the same fate; facing the misery together.

I spent another day at Archie's office in Kentish Town, this time without Nathan, who was teaching at Urdang Drama School. He's been invited to run "acting through song," classes, and by all accounts  he's really rather brilliant at it.

We're almost being engulfed by paper work. We still have a huge amount to do before heading off to the Caribbean and yet, so much to do we're really only able to tackle one day at a time. Take tonight, for example, before turning in, we have a pitch to finesse! I spend every spare five minutes working on Brass. I've two separate trips to Manchester to make before we leave - the first on Sunday - and all manner of meetings about all manner of projects in the meantime.

The good news is that my first post-40 commission has come in. The gorgeous Fleet Singers have altered the timescale for the project I was worried about last week. I won't announce the nature of the commission on this blog just yet; I think that's something the choir itself should get to do, but suffice to say it's suitably North London/ Hampstead Heathy, and will involve the choir, a soloist and strings. #inmyelement!

After a slightly shaky start, this year has slowly started slotting into place.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Tired please

Another exhausting day, spent at my friend Archie's office in Kentish Town, fine-tuning the pitch we've been developing over the last few days.

Poor Nathan has a terrible sore throat and a stinking cold, but has soldiered through the day manfully. It strikes me that absolutely everybody is ill at the moment. Everyone I speak to seems to have some sort of terrible cold of a ghastly gastric nature. For the first time in ages I feel positively robust! I reckon that gives me about two days before my own symptoms start!

We left the office at 7 and came home almost dead on our feet, realising there was still work to be done. A quick bath, a plate of food, some washing up, twenty emails, another squizz at our pitch and the writing of a chorus for one of the remaining songs from Brass later and we were just about finished. But by then it was 11pm, and almost time for bed. We're watching the Comic Relief Bake Off on iplayer to wind down!

We've just heard an explosion in the street outside, which Nathan maintains was a lorry hitting a bump in the road. I'm not so sure. The house shook, and we've heard four sirens going past in quick succession since. I hope everyone's okay.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Trade winds

We drove up the A1 to Huntingdon first thing this morning for a rehearsal with Lisa and Mark's event company, Creative Team Events. We're all off in nine days time, to the Dominican Republic of all places, to work on a conference. I'd like to pretend to be all cool and say how going to the Caribbean will all be in a day's work for a man of my extraordinary talents, but I'm not cool; I'm desperately excited about the trip, I can't wait to sit under a palm tree, and I am more than a little grateful to Lisa and Mark for offering me this gig!

Lisa started talking about trade winds today, and I was instantly transported to my childhood, and the local drama group, where we once learned a song about Trade Winds. I didn't know what a trade wind was at the time, but it sounded hugely romantic. Since that date I've always longed to experience one, but never been lucky enough to visit the right sort of places. I'm also rather grateful to my brother, who, knowing I was heading to the Dominican Republic, gave me some spending money for the trip. I can't remember off hand what the local currency is called, but it's full of zeros, so I expect to feel like a millionaire!

It was a fun rehearsal and we laughed a great deal. I shall very much enjoy hanging out with the team out there.

Afterwards, Lisa took us to her local village pub for a halloumi and hummus sandwich and a bowl of twice, possibly thrice-cooked chips, which almost melted in the mouth. But God, I love halloumi. I've actually got a mate from Northern Cyprus whose surname is Halloumi because her family were the local cheese makers there. She maintains that it should be eaten raw. I think it's nicer grilled or fried.

We came home from Huntingdon and went straight into central London for a meeting about a film which may or may not happen and about which I dare say no more...

Back pains

It's been an incredibly long day which started with osteopathy in Borough. My osteopath very kindly gave me extra time, and an absolute pummelling to boot. There's a sense that my back pain could be ebbing towards "chronic" status, which means it's in stasis; neither improving nor getting any worse. He seems to think the only potential cure may be to change my entire approach to work. I am almost permanently glued to my lap top and  lap tops, particularly when used on sofas and in tube trains, are absolutely hopeless for posture. I apparently run the risk of developing bone spurs and all sorts if I continue to work so obsessively on them!

Of course it's not easy to hear that your lifestyle is potentially damaging your health and I genuinely don't know what my next step should be. I can't just suddenly stop working. I'd be bankrupt in seconds. I'm therefore faced with the dilemma I once had when a doctor told me I was stressed out and needed to take a bit of time off work, without seeming to realising that, because I was a freelancer, if I didn't work, I wouldn't be paid, which would have generated even more stress!

Anyway, we made a start this evening by swapping the sofas over in the living room, thereby dealing with the problem that the cushion I normally sit on has become threadbare and bucket-shaped, which is frankly no good for anyone's back!

There's not much else to say about today. Nathan and I have been working on a film pitch all evening, so, before I turn into a pumpkin, I should post this blog, do some stretches and dive into the nearest bed!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Leeds auditions

I'm returning from Leeds rather late in the evening, charging through Lincolnshire with the rain smearing the windows outside.

It's been an entirely exhausting day of auditions at the Leeds Ballet School. I think we saw as many as 60 young people, split into three groups, each of whom did a two hour acting class, which I ran with our director, Sara Kestelman, and the director of one of the other NYMT shows, Nikolai Foster.

It was heartening to see how many of the kids expressed an interest in being in Brass. It really does seem to be capturing people's imaginations. I suppose this was always going to be the case in Yorkshire, however...

We did all manner of impro games and then Sara and I handed out sides from Brass to see how the actors handled text. I'd say the standard was very high overall, although only a few of those who came today truly shone. Nevertheless, when we totted up the figures at the end of the day, I'd recalled more people for Brass than I had in Bristol. I'm recalling far fewer than the other two productions, however. I've always held a strong belief that a recall has to mean something, namely that the actor actually has a decent shot of getting the role. Perhaps it's because I live with an actor, or because I worked in film casting, but almost out of pride, I feel it's important not to go with the splatter-gun approach. That's what they do on the X Factor, and it's why so many people turn up to boot camp and are immediately sent home without having another chance to perform. The danger, of course, is that you end up with no one for certain roles... So maybe I should take a leaf out of the other productions' books and up the numbers a little!

Frankly, I'm so tired I've forgotten my own name, so writing anything logical right now doesn't seem to be quite possible!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Chaplin and scams

I'm currently sitting on platform 4 of York Station dressed as Charlie Chaplin, waiting for the 23.07 to Leeds.

It was my old university friend's 40th birthday today and she celebrated with a glorious fancy dress party in a lovely bar on Grape Lane. Now, fancy dress, if I'm honest, ordinarily fills me with absolute horror, mostly because my friends tend to be rather brilliant at it. They wheel out witty, detailed, imaginative costumes which make everyone laugh and cheer. It was an Oscar-themed party and Ellen, for example, came as Bette Davies in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Philippa dressed as David Bowie in the Labyrinth and Pete and Rachel came as the central characters from The Birds, complete with stuffed crows sitting on their shoulders!

Here's a little quiz. Everyone remembers Tippi Hedron in the birds, but what was the name of her male co-star? Answer at the bottom of the blog...

There were other really brilliant costumes at the party as well. We had a convincing Cleopatra, Laurel and Hardy, and various characters from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Someone even came dressed as the red carpet!

Chaplin tends to be my default when it comes to fancy dress, mostly because my wardrobe is full of things that look a bit turn-of-the-century tramp, but also because he was, as Till family lore would have it, my Great Grandfather's cousin, and when I wear a bowler hat, a little moustache and put kohl on my eyes, I'm told the resemblance is striking... Although I'm sure anyone dressed like this would more than pass as Chaplin!

It was fun walking through the streets of York from the party to the train station. I passed rather a lot of groups of pissed up revellers, all of whom thought the sight of Charlie Chaplin waddling down the street was absolutely brilliant. If I had a penny for every time someone shouted "eh up Charlie!" Well, I'd have about 8 pence!

I've spent the day oscillating between Leeds and York after travelling up to Yorkshire from King's Cross this morning. I'm staying in a hotel in Leeds tonight. I like hotels and I like train travel, particularly when I get to sit at a table with my computer open to work and a nice cup of tea.

I often buy myself a baguette for the journey from Upper Crust, and today I bought my train journey cuppa there as well...

Here's a ghastly thought... When you ask for a tea or coffee at Upper Crust, staff are actually obliged to respond with a simple question; "what size would you like? Large or medium?" "Fair enough" I hear you cry, "if that's what they choose to call the two size options." Actually, Upper Crust ALSO sells a small-sized drink, but it costs considerably less, so, as a result, they opt not to offer it. How flipping cynical is that?

Someone in the management team of Upper Crust must have actually come up with this wheeze; "customers are silly!" (He must have said, throwing his arms triumphantly into the air,) "from now on if they ask for a drink, only offer them a choice of the two most expensive sized drinks because few people are savvy people enough to spot the third (less expensive) option. That'll net us about 30p on every purchase... If we sell 1000 cups of tea per day in our 1000 branches across the country, that's an extra £30,000 a DAY, just for changing the script we use!" Oh yes, I can see the greedy bastard running his hands together in glee! And he's right. Most people, if given the choice between medium and large will ask for medium without assuming there's a smaller option. Starbucks cottoned onto a similar customer mentality when they started sizing drinks with confusing names like "tall" and "grand", but I think the Upper Crust approach is perhaps even more crafty and underhand.

So, next time you buy a tea at Upper Crust, do watch out for this scam, and make sure you register your disapproval when you hear the words "medium or large"! This kind of misleading nonsense needs to be stamped out!

And the name of Tippi Hedron's co-star in the birds was Rod Taylor. Never heard of him? Me neither. He also voiced Pongo in the animated version of 101 Dalmatians. Fact!

Friday, 10 January 2014


The weather was stunningly beautiful this morning, but just after lunch the heavens opened and it turned miserable again; such awful news for the areas of Britain which are already flooded. Some of the upper reaches of the Thames in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire look positively apocalyptic at the moment, and I worry desperately for Michelle of the Turkie, who told me during lunch on Monday that the flood water was lapping no more than ten meters from her house.

Wonderfully, the lovely Fleet Singers have just got the funding through to commission me to write another piece for them, but, tragically, because of Brass and the music I'm writing for the Kaleidoscope Trust, there's no way I'm going to be able to deliver anything by April, which is what they were hoping for. I'm so disappointed. I have my fingers firmly crossed that they'll be able to make things work for a performance later in the year, as I'd so very much like to work with them again.

Today was rather productive on the work front. I managed to write the big love song from Brass this morning, which inches me closer to a stage where I can start finessing and developing the music which has been pouring out of me for the last two months. There remain very few songs in the piece now which I haven't at least played around with, although quite how long it's going to take me to plan and write the dance music for the show, I've no idea. It's vital I nail this particular aspect, but it's way out of my comfort zone. There are composers who actually specialise in writing dance arrangements for Broadway shows because it's such a specific skill. Who knows if it's a skill I'll convincingly be able to pull off!

It's Tina's birthday today and we went out for a fish and chip supper in a lovely restaurant on Gabriel's Wharf over-looking the river. I had a portobello mushroom "tower" which was rather tasty, followed by a honey comb cheese cake, which promised more than it delivered!

We came home via Waterloo, past a man who had collapsed on the ground and was surrounded by station staff and police. Slightly worryingly, they brought a load of portable screens out - the sort of thing you get in hospitals - which they used to protect the man from the prying rubber-necking eyes of the rest of the station. Unfortunately, the man had fallen or collapsed at the top of the tube escalators, so I was forced to pass right by. Of course, I did the wrong thing and looked back. They always tell you never to look back. There was blood all over the floor. So much of the stuff. A bright red pool on the alabaster concourse tiles. Heaven knows what had happened to the poor bloke, but he wasn't moving, and the police didn't seem to be tending to him. Perhaps they didn't want to touch him before the paramedics arrived. I worry he was already dead.

It's episodes like this that remind you of the fleeting, cruel, randomness of life. One moment you're coming up the escalator at Waterloo, the next you're lying motionless on the stone cold floor in a pool of blood, surrounded by absolute strangers.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Sewing man

A somewhat stressful day, largely brought about by a general lack of food and writing nothing but ragtime music all day, which pushes me right to the edges of my ability! That, and realising that there's a million projects coming up which I'm going to need to juggle very carefully.

I spent the very early morning sewing! Not cross stitch or anything twee like that, but mending things. In austere times, why throw clothes away just because they've got holes in them? A few choice stitches and they're perfect for another month or so. I've brought a pair of linen trousers and some pyjama bottoms back to life, and this evening I'm going to tackle our duvet whilst watching Dancing On Ice. Last night, upon getting into bed, I found my leg actually entering an enormous rip in the duvet cover, and feel it could well be time to address the issue!

Of course being poor is a little stressful at times, but it also brings out a fighting creative spirit in me. It is, however, at times like this, that I find myself relieved a) not to own a house and b) not to have children. If the boiler were to break tomorrow, it would be my landlord's problem. If I had a family to support and a mortgage to pay, a single catastrophe of that sort would send me spinning out into the darkness.

I shall raise a toast this evening to the people I know who are bringing up children on a shoestring budget. Keep up the good work, don't let the bastards get you down, and sundry other platitudes...

The nicest salad

We've just had dinner with Ian and Jem up in Friern Barnet. Jem fed us what I reckon was the nicest salad I've ever eaten, imbued with all sorts of seeds, mushrooms, cheeses, blanched carrot strips and other delicious things. Jem and Ian got married in New York just before Christmas, and we looked through their photographs and heard all about their wonderful adventures Stateside. Their stories made me desperate to get back over to New York before the place changes out of recognition. And it is changing. I heard today, for example, that my favourite sheet music shop on Broadway has now closed down. I always thought the grass was so much greener over there, but it seems the arts are struggling as much in America as they are in the UK.

I spent the rest of the day ear-deep in Brass. I've been working on a song in the second act which is sung to the soporific tinkle of a music box. It's performed by a rather angry character called Tats and becomes the one chink in her otherwise highly brittle and sardonic armour. Tats is a member of a trilogy of good-time girls whose names are Tats, Tots and Titty. I think it's time to reclaim the name Titty. And Fanny for that matter. And whilst we're at it, Dick and Lesbia as well!

I had a bath this evening with a fizzing bath bomb I bought in Haworth. It was like lying in a pool of hippy-scented slime, which instantly took me back to a childhood world of joss sticks, home made clay pots, geraniums and wrap-around skirts at Liza's commune, circa 1979.

My arms have smelt like the commune all night. It's a curiously feminine smell, but somehow quite calming in a nostalgic sort of way.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014


Waking up this morning was a little traumatic. A gale was rattling the windows, rain was splashing down the steps outside, and it was barely light. I literally had to use all of my will power to haul myself out of bed, and then I sat for long minutes in the bath, apparently unable to do anything but stare miserably at the taps, whilst my fingers turned into prunes!

Still, things picked up, and I completed another song for Brass, which took me, briefly, into the uncharted world of C flat major, which, for those reading who don't know a great deal about music, is a ludicrously complicated key, right on the edge of sanity! I don't know how I got there, and once I'd arrived, I made a hasty retreat with a snappy little modulation, which delivered me back into D major; a world which will always make far better sense!

I'm writing a sort of showstopper number: a big old ensemble song, with an internal narrative, which could be lifted out of the show and performed out of context. It strikes me that all good musicals have one of these numbers. Think Meadowlark in the Baker's Wife. Because they work independently, they're often the songs which become better known, but equally the first numbers to be cut when a show is too long!

Anyway, Billy Whistle, which is my song's name, is a bitter-sweet ditty about a soldier who likes to whistle. He whistles with the birds, and the steam train which takes him to France. He whistles in the trenches and all the other soldiers whistle back because his music reminds them of English summers. Unfortunately, the one whistle Billy doesn't recognise is the whistle of a whizz bang...

I got really quite upset whilst writing it. Obviously the song tells a sad little tale, and to make it as bitter sweet as possible, I'm trying to tap into a good balance of major and minor chords, to create the impression, musically speaking at least, that there's no hope without pain! There's also the knowledge that the particular characters who I've selected to sing the song will not necessarily survive to the end of the piece, and when you're basing a work on real people, this can be somewhat devastating.

I'm currently retuning from central London, where I had a lovely bite to eat with Ellie. We ate in Soho, and then I walked her to Queensway where she's staying in an hotel.

We met at Broadcasting House and, whilst waiting in the foyer, I bumped into a whole series of people I knew, including the lovely Tom Service, an old university chum, who now presents television shows about classical music, and my friend Ian, who produces current affairs shows. It struck me that the foyer of Broadcasting House is the ideal place to sit and network. I might take my computer there one day! This industry is all about being in the right place at the right time and popping into someone's consciousness just as they're thinking "I wish a really interesting project would present itself to me!" They're most likely to think that on their way to and from work!

Ellie and I walked along the top of Hyde Park and I was quite surprised when she said, "can't you just tell that this is one of those London places where bad things have happened?" She was talking, of course, about the Tyburne Tree, the location of thousands of public executions into relatively modern times, which stood forebodingly in that exact part of town.

Of course, as soon as she said it, the hackles on my neck started rising, no doubt simply because she'd put the thought in my head!

Monday, 6 January 2014

The tissue salesman

As I sat on the tube today, headphones clamped to my ears, I became aware of a man passing through the carriage, depositing something on all of the seats. At first I thought he was some sort of crazy Christian, spreading intolerance and bile, but at a second glance, I realised it was a young Eastern European, handing out little parcels of Kleenex tissues, with a note which read, "I need to support my family. Please help me by buying some tissues or offering me some work."

Applauding his courage and entrepreneurial spirit, I immediately gave him a couple of quid for the tissues, if for no other reason than to wipe away the tears that came after witnessing such a strangely pitiful sight. I was immediately reminded of the First World War soldiers who returned from France with no jobs, and ended up selling trinkets and bars or soap in the most undignified circumstances.

The Eastern European thanked me profusely and carried on with his work in the next carriage, whilst around me everyone else pretended he wasn't there.

I got off the tube at Tufnell Park and almost immediately bumped into a gang of young lads, possibly wagging school, in their fancy-brand sports wear, sitting in a heap, drinking cider and making everyone feel uncomfortable.

...And it suddenly struck me that, when we moan and whine about immigration, we conveniently ignore a number of inherent contradictions. Whilst our indigenous population of dispossessed hang about rather threateningly on street corners, spending their benefit money on fancy trainers, shunning hard graft because they've been brought up to believe the world owes them what they demand, Eastern Europeans, who can't or perhaps even choose not to claim benefits, are getting off their arses and trying to support their families by any means, even if it means humiliating themselves in the process.

Obviously, in all of this there are shades black and white. I'm sure there are Eastern Europeans who come to the UK expecting an easy ride, as much as there are indigenous Brits who long to find a job - whatever that entails.

The government, of course, must be held accountable for creating a sub-class of Eastern European who the law has allowed to be paid less for doing the same jobs as Brits. But I was shocked and genuinely fascinated by the contrast in the behaviour I witnessed today. There appears to be a genuine work ethic inherent in Eastern Europeans which is not necessarily apparent in UK residents. I therefore wonder if a period of recession in this country won't end up being rather good for us, if not simply to show us that good times can't always be taken for granted, and that initiative, hard work, empathy and a lack of complacency are the tools needed to nurse this nation of ours back to health.

Saturday, 4 January 2014


I've been in Bristol all day, running auditions for the National Youth Music Theatre. I think we must have seen approaching sixty young people, split into three age groups, who stayed with us for a full day, doing work-shops auditions which focussed on the three strands of singing, acting and dancing.

We saw some lovely kids, some of whom were incredibly talented. One girl in particular could very easily be right for the pivotal role of Eliza.

There are, however, as ever, never enough young men. Here's a staggering statistic. When it comes to young people wanting to get involved in acting, the ratio of girls to boys is 8 to 2. Out of the 20% of men who audition, 80% will be recalled, but of the 80% of women who audition, only 20% will be recalled! The odds are seriously stacked in favour of men!

We're currently auditioning for all three shows for the  NYMT 2014 summer season, which means there can be something of a bidding war for certain performers. When two of the shows (namely Brass and Howard Goodall's The Hired Man) have very large (Northern-based) male casts, the tussling can be intense, with everyone fighting for their own corners. Heaven knows what will happen when we get up to Leeds next weekend and find a 23-year old bloke with "leading man" written all over him! I'll fight to the death for someone like him, but suspect the director of The Hired Man will be equally viscous!

The day was immensely enjoyable. The NYMT team is so much fun to work with, but I can't wait to get back home to a nice warm television set! I only managed four hours' sleep last night after getting back from York and sorting out all the audition pieces for today.

Producer Jeremy listened to some of the songs on the way home, on the computer with its ghastly synthesiser sounds whilst the train rattled through Wiltshire. It was probably not the most ideal circumstances in which to hear music from the show for the first time, but he said how much he'd enjoyed them.

Obviously my insecure, caveat-soaked brain immediately assumed he'd feel compelled to say he'd enjoyed them out of politeness, but I guess, other than spontaneously bursting into tears, dropping to his knees and proclaiming me the saviour of British musical theatre, there's very little else I could have hoped for him to say!

I am now (and not for the first time) stranded at Edgware Road tube station, which, because it's open to the elements, is always one of the chilliest places on the planet. Trains come into the station and are promptly terminated, which means all the passengers are turfed out onto the platforms and everyone stands in miserable huddles waiting for the next one to come in. This can take up to twenty minutes, which is not great when a load of pissed-up hetties in Ted Baker shirts are yelling and screaming around you. They're no doubt off to the ghastly clubs in Leicester Square to chance their luck with a load of mingettes, who refuse to wear coats at this time of year. It never ceases to amaze me how profoundly touchy-feely straight men get with one another when drunk. It makes me wonder how tragically devoid of physical contact they must feel when sober. Maybe we should initiate a "hug a straight man" week, to do our bit for this awful situation. Maybe my charity work on behalf of the gays has been badly misplaced!

Returning to the issue of Edgware Road and it's sub-zero temperatures, I genuinely think that stations where passengers are regularly turfed out of terminating tubes should at least be fitted with waiting rooms for cold winter nights like tonight.

Bah! You invest too much in the notion of getting home speedily and what can you expect?

Delayed tubes, that's what... and trains for the wrong blinking branch of the Northern Line turning up whilst the recorded voice says "customer announcement - a good service is reported on all London Underground lines." London wishes all of its customers a very Happy New Year!

Friday, 3 January 2014

York and Leeds

Just before leaving Wakefield for London, we had the mother of all issues with the emergency disabled alarm cord in Nathan's flat. Essentially, and I should add, only by mistake, I pulled the damned thing. More specifically, I lent against the bed that it was draped across and the thing was somehow activated. Obviously, this is only something which could happen to me.

The alarms went off - almost everywhere in the building; a nasty, high-pitched wail. I waited patiently for the obligatory "are you alright, Mrs Jones" telephone call, but nothing came. The alarms just kept ringing...

I ran into the hall way, and in a panic pressed a "call for assistance" button, which set a whole new alarm off... And still no one came.

Here's the issue I have: If you're going to fit state-of-the-art spac-cess into a building, you HAVE to have a procedure in place which is triggered when a disabled or elderly person pulls the blinking cord! Otherwise someone lies in a pool of their own vomit all night whilst a screaming alarm rips their ears to shreds! Insult upon misery.

In the end I found an emergency out-of-hours help number on some kind of inventory in the flat's kitchen, and a rather lovely lady let me know where the reset button could be found. I hit the button and the noise stopped as soon as it had begun. ...And breathe (or actually, run like the blinkin' wind to the train station to make the train with seconds to spare!)

The rest of the day was just lovely. The sun shone all day. It apparently rained almost everywhere else in the country. I drove Cindy to Leeds first thing in the morning. I had a radio interview with the BBC to publicise the Yorkshire auditions for Brass. I'll consider myself to have failed entirely if a good percentage of the eventual cast aren't genuine Northerners.

The chat went well, and I hope it will have generated a few enquiries from young people in Yorkshire.

From Leeds, we drove to York. I wanted to show Cindy the city which has probably meant more to me over the years than any other.

The nostalgia tour started in Ambrose Terrace, one of the many little Victorian streets which meander down to the River Ouse. It's where I once lived, in a corner house, in a little stables complex. My best friend, Pete and I, for three years running, wrote our initials in tippex on the bottom brick of the back wall of the house. Twenty years on, the three sets of initials are as clear as they ever were. Twenty years of rain and wind and broken guttering... And yet the letters are still white as snow. As I get older, the sight becomes more moving.

We parked up near Micklegate and walked along the city walls towards the minster. We fed squirrels in Museum Gardens, drank tea Cafe Concerto, shopped for antiques on Stonegate, ate proper Yorkshire chips, and climbed to the top of Clifford's Tower to look down upon a sun-drenched city.

I did a second, and rather lengthy interview with Radio York about Brass. The presenter reminded me that the last time he'd interviewed me, I'd just had vocal surgery, and was holding up a white board with written responses to his questions! That was the night that a Symphony for Yorkshire won three Royal Television Society Awards. Not the best time to be unable to speak!

We returned to Wakefield by car and sat for a while in Subway before heading back to the flat, where the incident with the disabled wire happened, and that, as they say, was that! A perfect day. I feel very much alive, tired, but stress-free.

Tomorrow, I head to Bristol...

Pretty Haworth

The new symptom of this ludicrous virus is blocked up ears, which have made everything a bit swimmy and echoey.

We were up early this morning, and on the road to Yorkshire by 10am. The journey was smooth and pleasant enough, but for the eerie sight of a jack-knifed lorry on the M1 in Northamptonshire. Twitter is a marvellous thing, and we quickly ascertained that the driver of said lorry had walked away from the accident with no injuries. No nightmares for me tonight...

We dropped Nathan off in Wakefield and then Cindy and I drove on to Haworth, home of the Brontes and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Note to all blog readers: when showing a spiritual American around this stunning country of ours, don't forget to factor in a visit to Haworth! Cindy absolutely loved the place. She loved the views, the crazy little shops, the tea rooms, the old-school apothecary, the history, the smell of wood smoke in the air... She even loved the piped guitar musak they were playing in the parish church, which I thought was a little too much!

I managed soup for lunch without the gripes returning, and a second soup for tea back in Wakefield after watching Nathan in the panto being even more epically brilliant than he was the last time I saw him. He looked a little tired afterwards however. 3 shows a day and a whole heap of make-up have slightly taken their toll. He just asked me to tell him honestly if his voice sounded like it was at the end of a panto run. "Not at all" I said, "just your face!" We laughed.

Cindy was a panto virgin. I've no idea why the Americans have no concept of the art form. They know all the fairy stories and love big songs, camp dances and slightly grotesque caricatures. It was amusing to hear the things that she particularly enjoyed (mostly the things that were unfamiliar to her.) Top of the list was the pantomime cow which she couldn't stop talking about!

Anyway. It's an early start tomorrow and a very full day, so it's probably time for bed.

We just watched Pretty Woman on the telly. I haven't seen it since it came out. I remember going with a group of girls to the cinema to watch it. We looked up the date that the film was released and I was quite surprised... What do you think? Go on, take a guess, think what you were doing around the time you saw it, and then spool down to see the answer...

(I would have said mid 80s!)

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Couch potato

So there were about fifteen of us bringing in the New Year at ours last night. Cindy and I had a much-needed lie-in and then spent the afternoon prepping food and tidying the house for the party.

For the record, I made a stew, two cheese, mushroom and leek bakes, a second non-dairy-gluten-free stew, roast potatoes and a big salad. Frankly, I might not have needed to bother. Loads of our guests arrived with plates of food: a delicious chocolate and orange cake from Julie, a perfectly-iced raspberry cake from Jem, gold and silver sparkling brownies from Meriel, a home-made panettone from Tina and a huge vegetable lasagne from Abbie. People bought fruit, chocolates, biscuits and huge quantities of wine and champagne.

We had an absolute riot, laughed like drains all night and played some brilliant games. I had a Gin and Tonic - in fact I had two - and by midnight had forgotten all about my stomach gripes, which sadly returned in the night and have been plaguing me all day.

On the stroke of twelve, we played ABBA's Happy New Year, and then, rather randomly, sang Away In a Manger in four-part harmony. I've never been in the company of so many music readers before, so zipped up to the loft and did five copies of the first relatively-easy piece of four-part Christmassy music I could find. This particular Christmas carol was slightly in honour of Moira, who had once held a birthday party at her house when she was so ill, she was forced to spend the entire night in bed. There was one particularly surreal moment when everyone gathered around her bedside and (miles away from Christmas) sang Away In a Manger.

Later still in the evening, a few of us gathered around the piano and Abbie sang through one of the songs from Brass. It was rather lovely to hear it springing into life.

Bed came at about 3am, just as our next door neighbours started playing dreadful techno music, which kept Nathan awake for hours.

Tina and Mez stayed the night. We had planned a walk on the Heath today, but the weather's been so grotty that we simply sat and watched the Sound of Music (for a second time this Christmas) and then the network premiere of the final Harry Potter film.

So, from today, Romanians and Bulgarians have the same right to work here has other EU Countries... And quite right. I was actually really moved and very proud to see that groups of British people had turned up to airports with bunches of flowers to welcome them in. I'm frankly rather bored of British xenophobia (which invariably comes from the mouths of lazy, uneducated people who read rubbish newspapers.) I don't believe a single person coming into this country from those two countries will be expecting to collect benefits (or, for that matter, taking any jobs which would otherwise have gone to British people.) Sure enough, the immigration Armageddon which was predicted for today hasn't happened. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, UKIP.

Happy New Year

...And a wonderful, happy and peaceful New Year to you all.

I am so tired that my head is spinning and my eyes are itching, so I very much need to go to bed.

2014 is the year of creativity; the year when creative people need to realise that the most important thing is that they keep creating against the odds that are being thrown in our paths.

On that note, I'll leave you all...

No more champagne and the fireworks are through

Here we are, me and you, feeling lost and feeling blue

It's the end of a party and the morning seems so grey

So unlike yesterday, now's the time for us to say

Happy New Year,
Happy New Year
May we all have a vision now and then of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy New Year
Happy New Year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I.