Sunday, 21 June 2015


Two nights ago I couldn't sleep, so, as I often do in these instances, I took myself into the sitting room to watch some telly.

Those who have visited our flat in North London will know that we have four enormous almost floor-to-ceiling windows which fill an entire wall.

The windows look out over North London. The A1 road is directly below us, and then a bank of trees prevents us from peering into a dell where the remains of the disused overground Highgate Station are located. When the trees are bare, we can see all the way to Alexandra Palace, which, on summery winter evenings glows majestically.

Anyway, we're on the third floor of the grand terrace we live in, and there's a street light outside our window which has recently been changed from having a halogen lamp to some sort of collection of white LEDs. We don't have curtains. We're high up and not over-looked, so the street lamp fills our sitting room with light.

So there I was, at 1.30am, entirely naked in a pool of LED, unable to sleep and settling down on the sofa to possibly watch a bit of telly, when I become aware of some flashing lights outside. Moments later a hard hat, followed by the figure of a man in hi-viz loomed into sight, riding a cherry picker. He was plainly there to refocus the street lamp. I froze. He was literally no more than 4 metres away from me. I could see the whites of his eyes. All that separated us was the window! I didn't want to bring attention to myself by rushing away, or grappling around for something to cover myself up, so I simply attempted to shuffle into a pool of darkness to sit the humiliating experience out, keeping my fingers firmly crossed that he wouldn't notice me.

I am horrified to report that, in the process of refocusing the street light, he pushed it to a position where I was fully lit. It was like some form of Nazi interrogation. And then it happened. He spotted me. I waved nervously, and then realised that, in the process of waving, I'd uncovered my genitals. I have never seen a cherry picker descend so quickly!

Why do these things happen to me? It's taken me two days to fully process the event. I wondered if I'd dreamed it for some time, but the street light is still shining directly into our living room, so we'll no doubt have to contact the council and see if it can be repositioned again, which will no doubt happen the next time I'm naked on my sofa again!

I watched a show yesterday called 1000 Heart Beats, which is a game show, the premise of which is to answer questions whilst hooked up to a heart monitor. You have as long as it takes for 1000 of your own heart-beats to, well beat, to get as many questions right as possible. It's an interesting gimmick because, of course, the more you panic, the faster the heart ticks and the less time you have to think...

The stroke of genius is that a live string quartet plays suspense-filled music at the tempo of the contestant's beating heart: Speeding up and slowing down accordingly. When a contestant gets into a tizzy, the music they hear makes things infinitely worse. All good so far...

...And then you meet the quartet: Four white dolly birds, wearing short dresses... And bang, we're back to the late 1990s where no Westlife performance on Top of the Pops was compete without a string quartet played by these sorts of women. I hate it for many reasons. Firstly, I think cellists look ├╝ber-trashy wearing mini-skirts, with their bare legs wrapped around the wood of their instrument. Secondly, it's not just sexist, it's agist and racist. I would far father look at a mixture of men and women of different ages and colours than I would the female extras from the Benny Hill show. It makes string players look like bimbos. It re-enforces the kind of prejudice and bullying I faced as a young lad when I was told that the cello was a "girly" instrument and, and this is the most controversial thing I'll say on the subject, I think sexual politics means that mixed-gender string quartets play better than single gender ones. I know! Get of the fence, Till, say what you really mean! Every single quartet I've ever booked has deliberately had a mixture of men and women in it. There's a relaxed banter which kicks off in mixed company, and a healthy frisson in the air which, I'm convinced raises people's games. I also think the visual aesthetic of a mixed quartet is better.

So there we have it: If you're a television exec thinking of booking some string players, remember it's 2015, not 1999, that funky string players come in all sorts of colours, sizes and genders, and that the pretty young white girls with thin legs aren't always going to be the best players!

I came to Hove today and took the opportunity to call in on my friend and life-long mentor, the writer Sir Arnold Wesker. We spent a few hours together talking about art and music and theatre. 'Nold has Parkinson's which means he's basically unable to walk, but he's as sharp as a pin and, as always, remarkably fine company. Whenever I talk to him and his wonderful wife, Dusty, I rue the fact that I never got to experience the hedonism and political shenanigans of British theatre in the 1960s; the time when the Workers Revolutionary Party was in full swing and playwrights occasionally ran onto the stage during performances of their own shows to urge the audience to stop watching! Ah! Those were the days.

Of course the sadness is that fewer and fewer people are around these days who remember those days. Our conversation often entered a cul-de-sac which ended with the words "dead now." When does it happen? When do we become so accustomed to death that the news of the death of a friend is met with a deep sigh and the words "who's next?"

I walked down to the seafront feeling contemplative; a feeling matched by the weather which was hazy like summer was dying as opposed to only just begun. When I was a child, on nights like this, there would often be tall black mushroom clouds in the sky, a result of farmers setting fire to the cornfields. Little black strands of ash would fly around in the air and attach themselves to car windscreens. The big excitement was hoping the drive home would take us past the fire itself. The sense of disappointment which cane when the plume of smoke appeared in the back windscreen was tangible.

Happy summer solstice, folks. I hope you all made the most of the light! It's the best you'll get for another year, and who knows where we'll all be then?

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