Monday, 31 August 2015

Old Friends

I have done a lot of work this weekend, and seen a lot of old friends. I would call that a pretty perfect way to spend my time! Saturday started at the kitchen table formatting another two scores from Brass. I’d love to say that I could see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but I still have to return to a piano to write (from scratch) two new numbers. I’m procrastinating. I know I am. I am doing everything else that needs to be done, because the idea of sitting down to re-write the show’s prologue is profoundly distressing, especially as Tuesday really marks the start of our going hell for leather on the documentary project. 

Anyway, at about 6pm, I jumped in the car, and drove down to a tiny village in deepest, darkest Kent. I must say, I’ve usually only ever driven through Kent on my way to the Cinque Ports. For me, Kent is nothing but a rather green-looking place with alluring Oast houses poking out from behind dark trees, brown estuaries and grey power stations wrapped in early morning mists. These are the snapshots one views from a car speeding along the M2. Kent means holidays are getting closer. 

I actually felt a little freaked out when I left the motorway and started driving into the somewhat dimpsy Kentish countryside. Perhaps it was the blueish evening light, or the fact that the fields were covered in a light layer of whitish haze, which made me feel a little like an extra from the Midwich Cuckoos.

I was in Kent for my old mate, Tom’s wedding party. Tom was in a show I did at the Edinburgh festival exactly twenty years ago. Twenty years! What happens to time? It was a 1920s-style girl’s school romp called Big Book for Girls, and I was the show’s musical director. The piece was described as being “camper than a bottle of coffee with chicory essence,” a description I rather liked. We’d probably just done one of our last performances this time twenty years ago. I think we left the city in very early September. Those last few days at the Festival, the ones after the mega-busy August Bank holiday weekend, always made performers feel a bit like they were the hangers on at a party which has been ruined by gate-crashers. The magic has gone. The audiences have dwindled. These days I don’t think the festival goes into the first week of September. 

Anyway, Tom had invited a big group of people from the show, and we had a riotous evening, catching up, taking silly photos, dancing like lunatics, and, for about twenty minutes, searching for my wallet (which I subsequently found underneath the seat of my car!) I feel genuinely privileged to have met, and stayed in touch with that particular group of people. The highlight of the evening was almost certainly dancing to Wuthering Heights in the style of Kate Bush. 

It was actually Nathan and my thirteenth anniversary yesterday, which means it’s exactly a year since I was at the Kate Bush concert… one of my most treasured memories…

Should yesterday not be known as Notoday?

The former Big Bookers...
Emily on the dance floor

Today, I worked again through the morning, before driving (with Nathan) to Hackney to meet an old, dear university friend, Waidehi, whom I haven’t seen since 2008. She came over from the States at the start of the week, and has spent the last few days hooking up with old friends. A group of us, mostly former students from York University, sat in a beautiful pub on the edge of Victoria Park called The People’s Park Tavern. It’s a great place to go with kids with an enormous garden backing onto the park itself. The kids with us had an amazing time searching for slugs, rushing around and drawing pictures with giant crayons. Poor Philippa, who’d organised the event on Waidehi’s behalf was too poorly to attend, and was greatly missed. It was wonderful to see Waidehi. She looks so well; utterly at peace and radiant. I hereby make a pledge to see more of her in the future. And Philippa, if you’re reading this, thank you for organising such a wonderful event. 

Waidehi and Ellen

I came home and worked more; polishing off another song from Brass. On and on it goes…

Saturday, 29 August 2015


If I’ve learned nothing else in life, it’s not to tempt the universe. When you blithely write blog posts which start, “today couldn’t have been a great deal more frustrating and stressful if it tried” the universe, with it’s great sense of irony and sarcasm, will instantly say, “wanna bet?”

And so, just after I’d posted yesterday’s blog, all hell broke loose… 

I’d popped to Old Street to do a quick errand, found a parking space just off Great Eastern Street, and, after returning to the car at about 11pm, sat for a few minutes writing my blog. Blog duly posted, the battery went on my phone, before I could text Nathan to say I was on my way home, or place the blog on my Facebook feed. 

Imagine my horror, therefore, when I tried to turn the car’s engine, and realised that it wasn’t just the phone’s battery that had died. The car had broken down. Entirely…

I sat there for a moment trying to work out what on earth to do. As I got out of the car, all of its alarms started sounding. I walked down the street and realised my only option was to find a phone box and try to call Nathan to see if he could call the AA on my behalf. I didn’t even know if phone boxes existed any more, but found one fairly speedily. It was horribly mucky inside and smelt of pee. The receiver was sticky for some reason, and, as a little knife-in-the-back message from the universe, an advert in the phone booth said just four words: “no more flat batteries…” So, so ironic. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any money with me and the phone refused to accept my credit card, so I had to phone the operator, old school style, and reverse the charges! Thank God, something in the back of my mind told me to dial 100. 

Old Street on a Friday night is a hideous place to be. It’s full of drunk, edgy people and rather dodgy-looking fellas who all seem to want either a fight, or to rob you. 

Nathan had the devil’s own job with AA, who kept him waiting for twenty minutes and then told him they couldn’t help him unless they could talk to me in person, which, for a man in a phone box, unable to do anything other than make reverse-charge phone calls, seemed a like an odd request. Eventually, after many arguments and much swearing, he was forced to phone back and pretend to be me. 

By the time he got through it was about 11pm, and the AA said there might be a waiting time of up to three hours. Meanwhile, I was standing outside the phone box waiting for Nathan to call back, being hassled by pretty much every drunk person who passed. 

When Nathan finally called back and told me the grim news about the wait, I decided to take myself to Brick Lane to find some money and buy a bagel, which I thought it might be nice to sit and eat in the car whilst doing some work. I walked all the way to Spitalfields because I knew there was a Barclays Bank there. When I got there, I discovered it had closed down. In the end I paid through the nose to get money out from a cash dispenser in some dodgy convenience store, where the local youth kept pushing into the queue in front of me. I didn’t say anything for fear of being stabbed. Brick Lane at that time of night is a somewhat frightening place to be, filled with people tripping out on drugs, drunken city workers, hassling Bengali curry house workers and angry homeless people. It really was like some sort of nightmare.

When I finally got back to the car, with my cup of tea and bagel, I discovered that some sort of electrical fault meant that I couldn’t actually sit inside the car without the alarm permanently going off, which brought unwanted attention from every passing piss-head, all of whom felt the need to bang on the window; “are you breaking into that car, mate? Good for you…” “Your alarm’s going off…” In the end I was forced to leave the car and sit in a wee-stained doorway reading a copy of The Sun which had been left there underneath a McDonald’s wrapper. And there I sat, like the central character in a 1950s Kitchen Sink drama, for about an hour, wishing I were anywhere else. 

The AA man arrived at 1am, mercifully earlier than expected, and it turned out that the car’s battery was entirely knackered, but he was able to sell me a new one and fit it, and within half an hour I was on my way home. Relieved, but knackered, vowing never to tempt the universe like that again! 

Friday, 28 August 2015

Pee Hitting a Bowl

Today couldn't have been a great deal more frustrating and stressful if it tried. At about 4pm I finally reached the end of my tether with Brass formatting. I'd spent the day making scores of ridiculous, yet utterly time-consuming mistakes, and then the computer decided it had had enough and went on a mega "go slow." At various stages during the afternoon I found myself laughing hysterically, banging the table and shaking uncontrollably. I even found myself YouTubing clips of awful choirs just to take my mind off the hell I'd stumbled into. It turns out there's basically a limit to the amount of time a fella can work on something so pernickety under time constraints of this nature without loosing it altogether. Almost everything I did today was unproductive as a result.

I guess you have to put that down to emotional and physical exhaustion and, I guess, just one of those days. I think there will be a few more days like this before I'm done, so it's time to batten down those hatches and stop whinging! The alternative is no work, which I've experienced this year and is to be avoided at all costs!

By the way, who decided to put a new emoticon button on the keyboard for the iPhone? For those who haven't yet come across this grotesque phenomenon; these days, right between the "press here for numbers" button and the space bar, there's a button with a smiley face on it. It's not just any smiley face. It's a big round blob with a mouth like something unspeakable. If pressed by mistake by a man with gigantic trowel-like fingers (i.e. me... all the time), the screen fills with lots of pretty colourful pictures which apparently allow a writer, who has no real words, to express his inner feelings. There are pink bows, red broken hearts, silly little pumpkins (heaven knows what that's to express) and they're really bloody irritating...

To make matters worse, there's also a button which the kids of today use when they're too lazy even to use an emoticon. This one allows them to leave a pithy little spoken message. Press the button, speak, and the text is sent. It is a catastrophic button if, like me, you're a man who often sends a quick text whilst peeing. Fortunately Nathan is the only person who has actually received a sonic message featuring the comical sound of wee hitting a toilet bowl, but to any of my mates who receive something similar in the future, all I can do is apologise... profusely.


This morning's rain was unbelievable. At about 9am, the heavens opened and a day's worth of rain dropped from the sky like a million ice bucket challenges. The sound on the roof in the attic was intense. I thought the windows were going to break. I actually had to force Nathan to delay leaving the house for five minutes, under the belief that rain simply can't keep falling at that velocity. I was right. The storm eventually subsided and the morsel of blue in the Western sky provided me with my cue to leg it up to Highgate Village, sweating profusely as I ran. It was hot, sticky and nasty.

Speaking of double entendres, I found myself trying to describe a keyboard sound for the Brass score this morning. Usually I end up writing words like "warm pad," "Wurlitzer," or "Hammond-like" to describe the sound I'm after, but this morning I simply opted for "dark, throbbing organ." It took me way too long to realise the error of my ways. I had images of musicians in the orchestra pit of future productions laughing so much they become too floppy to play properly. I thought about taking it out but I've obviously left it in. Just as every single film I've ever made has a rude-sounding fake name in the credits. Quite frankly, I can think of no better set of words to describe the sound I want to hear!

After a ten-hour day down at Uncle Archie's, we had dinner with Penny in Tufnell Park. We went to Stingray, my favourite eating place in North London. It's cheap and cheerful - you can get a three course meal there for £13 - but the atmosphere is lovely, the staff are hugely friendly and the food is surprisingly good. I always have the "Greek style" pasta and potato skins. Nathan once made a little film of Fiona and me sharing a meal there. We watched it again today and it's really rather fun. You can see it on YouTube here. Quite what we're doing with the basil leaves I'm not sure.

It was so lovely to see Penny. She was on great form. Penny is actually the woman I owe my career to. She commissioned the first film I ever made, the random, and somewhat embarrassing Hampstead Heath: The Musical, which I actually can't watch these days without feeling slightly perky! That was exactly ten years ago. Imagine that? But without that film, who knows what I'd be doing these days...

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Broken windows

So, it would seem that my gym is on the way down! I've had many issues with the LA Fitness Highgate over the years. The place has been mismanaged and physically falling apart since I first set foot in there just after it opened in 1999. The clientele, however, have always been polite. Quiet. Respectful of others. Until now that is. It seems the gym is being taken over by a different company. We're losing the pool, there will be no staff on reception and, as the little carrot to get us to stick around, we'll be charged less for the privilege of using the place. In the meantime, it seems that LA fitness have entirely lost interest in repairing the building. The floors are damp. The ceilings are covered in mould. No one has bothered to clean away the anti-Semitic graffiti from the changing rooms. This is proper broken window syndrome. The customers who use the gym have lost all respect for the environment, the decent personal trainers have all headed for pastures new, and a shadier, seedier, nastier type of person is making himself known. They shout crudely at one another in the changing room, talking about "nailing old women" (old being 30 apparently.). I don't know how much longer I'll be able to last with dick heads like that about.

The news continues to worsen to the extent that I actually feel like I might stop watching it. Today's headlines felt a little too close for comfort. Some poor presenter/cameraman duo have been shot and killed whilst broadcasting live in the States. It doesn't really bear thinking about. We're told the murderer was a disgruntled former employee of the TV station, who had accused the people he shot of being racist. As if the race relations situation wasn't bad enough in America. Frankly, after this, I don't think any side gets to claim the moral high ground. I actually worry that this will spark a modern day civil war. Time to ban guns in the States? No! Let them keep shooting one another, I say. See how far they can take this blessed footle...

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Breast feeding

It's been another long and gruesomely tiring day down at Uncle Archie's in Kentish Town. It was most tiring, I suspect, because I'm having to keep my head inside two worlds at the moment. I've been surrounded all day by people researching the documentary project, so have been keeping one ear on all of that, whilst the other ear is immersed in Brass. Today I dusted off an old familiar, the somewhat clunkily titled, Wire, Ire, Mire, Fire, which didn't make it onto the original cast album because it's largely instrumental, and a bit scary in its scope and ambition. As a result of all of this, it's taken me a great deal longer to format than I'd hoped. The sixteen songs which featured on the album have all been through more processes than the songs which were last performed live at the Leeds City Varieties theatre a year and two days ago. Album tracks were re-scored for studio sessions, and then thinned out again during the process of mixing, so by this stage I'm pretty confident everything is playable and sonically spot on. The process of peeling back the layers of Wire, however, has uncovered countless problems. To make matters worse, a whole new section has gone back in which didn't even make it to rehearsal. It's dense. It's hideous. And it nearly tipped me over the edge!

It was good to have Nathan with me in the office all day today. He's been busy working at various box offices for the past two weeks, so hasn't been able to be hugely present, which can make matters a little frustrating when decisions need to be made which he needs to have a say in. We walked all the way to Kentish Town this morning in glorious sunshine. We took the route down Swain's Lane, through Highgate Cemetery, which was traffic-free and rather charming. As soon as we arrived at the office, the heavens opened, and it pretty much rained all day until home time, when it cleared up again. I'd call that fairly considerate weather!

We had takeaway pasta for tea from Papa Del's, the little Italian two doors down from us. There's a sign on the door which I found really quite heartwarming, if I'm honest; a true commitment to the local community. "Breastfeeding mums..." The sign reads, "Need a pit stop? Come in and have a cuppa on us. No need to eat. No need to ask."

I'm wondering if there's a post-recession shift going on in society at the moment. I'm pretty sure people have started to look out for one another a little more of late, as evidenced perhaps by the wave of interest in Jeremy Corbyn and his more humanitarian policies and, of course, in the overwhelming support the gay community has garnered of late. People seem less greedy, perhaps, more caring. Nathan thinks it's a knee-jerk response to a second term of Tory government: when people realise that their politicians don't give a stuff about them, maybe they start thinking about protecting one another.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Out of the loop

We were up bright and early this morning and had travelled all the way down the hill to Uncle Archie's before either of us had a clue what was going on. We've been in something of a bubble all weekend, opting to listen to ELO on our long car journeys rather than Radio 4. I've subsequently only just found out about the Shoreham plane crash. I initially assumed it had happened in Shoreham, Kent, but the discovery that it was Shoreham By Sea sent me into a tizzy, ringing round my mates from Brighton and Lewes. They all appear to be okay, but many are waiting to hear if anyone they knew was caught up in it. Terrifying...

It's a very strange experience to read a three-day old news story for the first time. The headlines in the paper sitting on my table in the greasy spoon at lunchtime were all very specific: "brave Nan survives fire ball..." "Pilot of plane in intensive care." None gave me any sense of the overall story or what had actually happened. Until I got back to the office and talked to Cat about it, I had no idea that anyone had actually been killed.

That, coupled with the news that the ISIS turds had destroyed an important archeological site, made me wonder whether it's actually worth coming back to the real world after a sojourn in the magic of the Midlands. Quite how anything ISIS do can be justified by God or a religious leader I've no idea. Quite why they think what they do is anything but counter-productive I've no idea either. Kill 'em and bury them in bacon... That'll rain on their parade!

And talking of rain... What on earth is going on with the weather today? It's blinkin' miserable. It's a horrid, horrid day all round and I need to bury myself in blankets!

Sunday, 23 August 2015


We're currently on the M4, heading back to London through a dazzling sunset and, periodically, big swirling mists of floating thistle down, which are sometimes so intense that it feels like we're passing through snow storms.

We woke up this morning at Lisa and Mark's house in Huntingdonshire. The weather was glorious, and we sat in their sun-filled garden eating dippy eggs with soldiers for breakfast. I introduced Lisa to the blissful joys of a little dash of balsamic vinegar taken with one's egg. When I was a child I would actually pour large quantities of malt vinegar directly into the egg shell, but these days I'm refined enough to scoop the egg out before applying a more classy type of vinegar.

Sadly, whilst everyone else chatted and laughed in the garden, I was forced to work on Brass. I've given myself the untenable task of completing yet another song by the end of the day, which will no doubt mean I have to return home tonight and carry on working. But that feels okay because, even though I've worked quite hard today, I also feel like I've lived a bit, soaked in a little sun and achieved a life time's ambition... But more of that later.

We had our lunch in a cafe in Higham Ferrers, the small Northamptonshire town where I grew up. Despite always having been something of a glorified council estate, its centre is old and rather pretty, so, in recent years it's become a place where people like to buy nicknacks and drink tea! The cafe we chose was Barker's Shoe Shop in my day, but also happens to be the very spot where H E Bates' novel, The Sleepless Moon was set. Of course the woman who worked there couldn't have looked less interested when I dusted off that particular nugget of information, but I thought it worth a punt!

A huge group of Higham's finest female pensioners were taking tea and gossiping whilst we ate. Their East Northamptonshire accents burred and drawled: "foo" instead of few, "goo" instead of go, "Toosdy" for Tuesday and a's which lasted an aaaage. It created slight mayhem in my head. On one hand, the dialect was charmingly recognisable. It's a quirky, rather beautiful accent if I put my impartial hat on, one which I ought to enjoy because it's a large part of my upbringing. But a lot of me wanted to block my ears and run in the opposite direction. The matriarchs of the town were always rather stern when I was a kid, and, if I'm honest, brutally homophobic. So, periodically, as we ate, I'd listen to them chopsin' and start to feel a little uncomfortable, gauche and, bizarrely, judged... Like I did so often in my childhood.

We drove up to my old school, which is now, somewhat laughably, an arts academy. I say laughably. I wrote to them about five years ago, during a period when I was speaking in a lot of schools and universities, and offered my services (as an alumni) to go back in for an afternoon and talk to the kids to inspire them about working in the arts. They didn't even respond to my letter, which I thought was a little rude! The school's sign offers an eccentric piece of information: "The Ferrers School. This is a good school." I assume this is a reference to some kind of Ofsted report, but it seems a somewhat bizarre thing to be displaying on a sign. It's rather luke warm as superlatives go!

On our way into Higham, we passed Stanwick Lakes, which, in my day, was a former quarry in flood planes next to the Nene where archaeologists had recently dug up a Roman villa. It wasn't much to look at back then: a few newly planted trees and a couple of migrating herons. The trees are a bit taller these days, but it doesn't appear to have altered a great deal, except that now there's a big sign which says "Stanwick Lakes: a great day out!" I guess the moment it goes in print, people start to believe it. Great day out. Good school. For that reason I was rather chuffed when someone at the BBC described me as a renowned composer (when I was not even close to being anything of the sort!)

From Higham, we drove cross country to Newbury and Greenham Common, a place I've been meaning to visit for my entire life. My mother was a card-carrying CND woman and a great deal of my early childhood was spent hanging out on a commune which was largely peopled by women who would go on to become peace protesters at Greenham and Molesworth. I have always considered the Greenham women to be great heroes, so visiting the spot where they changed the world felt like something of a Mecca for me.

Of course, because they eventually succeeded in having the U.S. Airbase at Greenham closed down and those evil cruise missiles removed, the site of all those clashes and angry encounters is now an incredibly beautiful and blackberry-bedecked Heathland.

One area remains fenced off; the site of the infamous silos where the missiles were actually stored. They're a chilling reminder of the Cold War, a symbol of everything which terrified both Nathan and me as children, and staring through the metal fences at them was incredibly unnerving. But the overall sense was one of great peace. It's a wonderful spot to visit. If you're an old leftie like me...

The rhythms of life!

We're on our way back from Leicester where we've been watching the NYMT's production of Sweet Charity at the Curve Theatre. It was a lovely show. The band, some of whom played in Brass, were absolutely astounding. I genuinely think they were as good, if not even better, than a West End pit band. From the first chord, I entirely forgot that I wasn't listening to adult seasoned pros.

There were some stand out performances in the cast as well. Obviously I felt a great deal of paternal pride for the two remarkable cast members who'd been in Brass (Robin and Ruby) but props have to go to the young lad who played Herman, who chaînés débouléd his way across the stage at one point like Baryshnikov on acid, and a young lass called Florence in the ensemble, who I've been keeping my eye on for a couple of years since she auditioned as fifteen year old for Brass. If you want to know how much commitment and finesse is required for an ensemble track in a musical, look no further than what she was doing tonight.

Sweet Charity is an odd show, which is not entirely successful. On one hand it features some of the musical theatre canon's greatest ever songs (The Rhythm of Life, Hey Big Spender...) but on the other, the book is relatively weak. It's a rather light, fluffy piece which is has a somewhat unsatisfactory ending. To make matters worse, a number of the songs feel a little crow-barred into the plot, which drives me mad in musical theatre!

We spent the afternoon in Cambridge, which was probably the hottest place on earth today. My parents very kindly took us out for a fancy, highly-filling pub lunch along the Cam in Grantchester. Brother Edward and Sascha joined us, and after eating, we took ourselves off to the Orchard and sat under the laden apple trees eating a cream tea. I love that place. I'm a sucker for the Bloomsbury set and love the thought that the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke would have wiled away long Edwardian summer days underneath those very trees. Just perfect.

We walked back to the car across Grantchester Meadows, which was like something from a Seurat painting in the late afternoon dappled sunlight. Scores of people were picnicking on the grassy banks of the Cam and more were bathing in the water. Just as they've done for hundreds of years... Just as I've done so many times in the past.

We're staying with Lisa and Mark tonight; a last-minute decision brought about by a last-minute decision to pop in on them for five minutes on our way from Cambridge to Leicester!

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Willow

I left the house with no wallet this morning, which is a sure sign that there's too much going on in my head. Fortunately I'd remembered to pack some lunch, and felt chipper enough to walk to Kentish Town, so I was able to save money whilst getting fit. I arrived at Uncle Archie's, of course, feeling like a rinsed out flannel, but one which hadn't wasted a couple of quid on a bus ride!

I learned today that The Willow Chinese Restaurant and Discotheque in York has closed. Anyone who has lived for any time in that particular city - especially as a student - will know the legendary status of that particular location. I don't quite remember the details of how the place was run. Until about 11pm, I'd say, it was like any other Chinese Restaurant. Some of the tables were incredibly long, so that long, in fact, that large numbers of people could sit on them together. I seem to remember that the table cloths were made of paper and that there were crayons that we could doodle on them with, but I may be mixing that up with somewhere else...

Anyway, at about 11pm, the big long tables were pushed to the sides of the room, and a wooden (I think) dance floor revealed itself. And so the music began... A Chinese DJ. 1970s pop. What wasn't there to like?

We went there all the time. It was a particular favourite location for the last night parties of drama society productions, and I was involved in a heck of a lot of them! In my day, the drama society was called YUSADS, an unfortunate acronym which earned us the collective nick name, "Yusad bastards." Sad bastards or not, huge crowds of us would head down to The Willow after the last performance of a show and we'd stay up through the night eating cheap Chinese food and dancing to Gloria Gaynor. It was always Gloria Gaynor, and, at the end of the night, Everybody Hurts by REM. Some poor girl would be weeping in an attempt to get an army of fellow thesps to tell her what an amazing actress she was. The rest of us would tell each other it was the best show we'd ever been in, and that our group were all going further in the big wide world than any other drama society group previously.

Actually, it turns out quite a few of us did okay. Dancing on those dark sticky floors in 1994 were people who were destined to win BAFTAs, write award-winning screenplays and TV dramas, and play lead roles in countless films and plays. We did alright. Much better, it turns out, than the people I was at drama school with, which puts things in perspective, I suppose.

Anyway, The Willow provided 41 years of students with great nights out and I'm sure the good folk of York will mourn its passing.

I did a very good day of work today, finishing off one song from Brass and making headway with another, whilst keeping one eye on the rapidly-developing project at Uncle Archie's offices in Kentish Town. As the day wore on it became progressively hot. I was working by an open door and no air whatsoever seemed to be coming in. We're told temperatures tomorrow could reach 30 degrees... Just when we'd all started to wonder whether summer was officially over.

On my way home, the bus driver at Kentish Town refused to allow me to pay for my ticket with the couple of quid in loose change that I had in my trouser pocket. Apparently cash is no longer accepted as a valid way to pay for a bus ticket. "You have to use your credit card..." he said. "But I've lost my wallet." "You have to go to a shop or train station..." "There are no shops or train stations between here and Highgate Village..." In the end he gestured for me to sit down and muttered something about my needing to phone someone else. I smiled gratefully. It's only three stops, but it's a mile straight up hill, and after a ten hour office day, that's no fun.

I walked the rest of the way home in glorious evening light. The buildings of Highgate were bathed in clear amber light but as the night descended it became hot and humid again. Almost unbearably so. Now an alarm is going off in the shop next door. Will I ever sleep?!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sore throats and lethargy

It's 11pm, and I've only just stopped working for the day. I thought I'd manage to finish formatting the piece of music I'm currently working on (When You're a Pal) but it's trickier than I thought it was going to be and I've had to throw in the towel, panicking somewhat that I simply don't have the time to finish this before going full-time on the documentary project. It's really touch and go!

Speaking of the documentary, I've been down in Kentish Town for much of the day, battling sore throats and general lethargy, whilst doing research and trying, as often as possible, to return to Brass to prettify or re-score another couple of bars. I feel like I'm in an episode of Challenge Anneka!

In other news, I finally won my appeal against the parking fine which some knob from Haringey Council slapped on our car, for parking (in our street) in a "suspended bay" which wasn't properly signposted. The bay was apparently needed for gas works, but not so necessary that they actually had to remove our car to do the work. The comedy in the situation came from Haringey's absolute ineptitude when it came to the appeals process. They made it ludicrously easy for me to tie them in knots. They faffed over the course of countless emails, totally refusing to answer direct questions until I had such a huge dossier on them that they had the option of dropping the charge, or my billing them for a huge number of hours of wasted time.

I feel proud not to have caved in and paid the fine. I came close so many times, but sometimes you have to stand up for the little people, particularly if that little person is you!!

My Pepys Motet CDs have arrived. 1000 of them. They look gorgeous and it's been wonderful to pay the final bills associated with the four-year project and finally being about to put the project to bed. Now I have to work out how I'm going to release the bleeding things. There's certainly no time to do it right now... Soon though. Soon.

The Brass cast have all been atwitter with the news that it's the one year anniversary of the first performance of Brass at the City Varieties theatre. It seems forever ago, somehow. And perhaps not surprising the show is still killing me!

Keys please Louise

Well what a silly nonsense! Imagine a scenario where both you and your husband leave the house without keys and return home from work after your land lord (who has a spare set) has left the shop below where you live? That! We stood in the garden whilst the rain pelted down, wondering if life could have dealt us a crueller blow.

Fortunately our land lord's wife is a brick, and came all the way to Highgate from Watford to rescue us. She very politely made out that she was passing anyway, "on her way to see her Mum" she told us. Turns out her Mum lives in Wembley. Highgate is most definitely not en route! We're feeling somewhat relieved, but massively embarrassed. And hugely grateful to her for saving the day.

Fortunately I'm feeling a little better this evening. Quite how long this will last I've no idea, but I'm making the most of it as I was feeling ming de mong this morning.

I think I'm being carried along by a feeling of elation after an incredibly good day in Uncle Archie's office with Cat and the team, when we took a mighty step forward in the planning for our documentary project. I think everyone is really excited about what's happening. There's a lot of work ahead, but we now have rock solid foundations to build upon. It seems bizarre to me that a good ten hour's work have to be condensed into a single paragraph, but that's the nature of a confidential project!

We rushed home to watch the Great British Bake Off, but obviously our plan was mercilessly wrecked by not having a key between us, so, whilst waiting for our landlady to ride to our rescue on her silver Honda, we sat in The Woodman Pub and ate our tea.

We got back to the house to discover that Little Welsh Nathalie downstairs had left us the ingredients to make a honey, lemon and ginger tea. I'd be surprised if anyone could think of a more beautiful neighbourly gesture. Pip-less lemons and delicious fresh ginger to boot, which well-and-truly set us up for the night. We watched the Bake Off on iPlayer whilst Nathan double knitted a skull and cross bones. Is there no end to his talents?

Tuesday, 18 August 2015


I woke up this morning feeling like shit on a stick. I slept really badly and subsequently woke up with no reserves to work with. I literally hauled my sorry arse up the hill to Highgate Village to get the bus down to Kentish Town, when under normal circumstances I would have walked the entire distance. Once you've got yourself up into the village, it's a solid down hill and rather charming stroll through the Heath. But I couldn't manage it.

I got myself some lovely cold and flu tablets which the woman in the chemist assured me were two different types of pill for day and night time use, "but don't try to drive on the night time tablets... They might make you feel drowsy." Sadly when I opened the box there didn't seem to be any difference between the two blister packs inside! Just what I needed this morning: a lottery. As a compromise I took half the recommended dose. The idea of getting to work, smacked off my head on codeine felt a bit hard core and inappropriate.

The work went well. I think. It may have been that I was just in that lovely space that a cold can sometimes being about when you're warm and nicely dosed up. Because I can't talk about what I was doing, all I'll say is that I worked in my spare time on Brass, and made inroads into the song Barnbow Lassies, which I'm told is a popular ditty with younger audience members of the show although I'm not sure Brass is exactly one for the under twelves. Hilary's son, Jago, for example, loved Billy Whistle, until he found out it was about death, and now it gives him nightmares. Oops.

I'm presently waiting for Nathan to come back from his knitting group to find out if he's feeling any better today. I do hope so. I'm also rather hungry so I hope he hurries up. #knitwidow

Monday, 17 August 2015


Thank God my family are blessed with decent gnashers! I went to the dentist today for a check-up, and the lady told me I had marvellous teeth... So marvellous, in fact, that she apparently doesn't need to see me as regularly as her other patients. Quite why I saw this as a genuine sense of achievement I'm not sure, but I felt very proud of my teeth!

I also felt a bit virtuous. "Do you smoke?" "No." "Do you drink?" "No." "What? Not at all?" She stared at me as though she were looking at a recovering alcoholic, so I felt the need to quality; "A gin and tonic or a whiskey every three months..." Then she looked as though she didn't believe me, and I got all giggly in a nervous sort of way. God I'm weird!

I spend the day in Kentish Town with Cat at Uncle Archie's office. We did some good work on the documentary project and I'm starting to feel excited about where we're all heading with it. Sadly, the later in the day it got, the more horrible I started to feel. Whatever cold that Nathan and I have got ourselves is taking rather a while to clear. I spend most days feeling fine, but then one night's bad sleep, and I'm back to square one again, feeling all achey-shaky. I have a mildly sore throat and feel like my insides have been sucked out through a tube and stuffed back in upside down.

We slept poorly. Nathan, bless him, spluttered his lungs up through the night and managed to cough right into my ear at about 5am before disappearing into the bathroom for a proper coughing fit. I got up and gave him a lecture about needing to go to a doctor, and, when I woke up again this morning, he'd booked himself an emergency appointment and was subsequently issued with a course of antibiotics. Hopefully this will put an end to his misery. He needs time off work, and yet he soldiers on...

Whilst not working on the documentary project, I spent every spare second on Brass, actually achieving more than I'd expected, despite a hideous triple-computer crash start to the day, which instantly lost me about an hour and a half's work. I was putting the peddling into a piano part. I was forced to do it three times. Any writer will sympathise with that!

I'm currently working on the song Shone With the Sun, which is the only song from Brass which wasn't specifically written for the musical. It sat in a metaphorical drawer for many years, but I knew it was right for Brass, so pinned an entire storyline and character to the song. The song's original lyrics were actually penned by renowned playwright, Sir Arnold Wesker before being tidied up a little by Nathan when the character singing the words needed one or two more role-specific sentiments.

The history of songs are often interesting. You Were Meant for Me, from Singing in the Rain, for example, was actually featured in a Broadway show and two musical films before Gene Kelly and Debbie Thingamajig sang the version we all know. Shone with the Sun was written by my 22-year old self as an unsuccessful entry to the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest. That's the year that Dana International won, so it would have been inappropriate to try and beat her! I always knew it had to have a home, however, and sixteen years later, a home was found.

The death of Soho

It would appear that my birthday celebrations have lasted a full eight days. I feel like the queen!

After a day of work, where I managed to complete noodling with the eight-minute epic song from Brass that I'd started yesterday, Nathan and I trolled into Soho for a belated birthday dinner with Fiona and Sam.

We had a lovely evening. Central London on a Sunday night is often charmingly quiet. All the city workers are at home, doing their washing and being sensible and all the louts have hangovers from Friday and Saturday, so you tend to come across a more genteel crowd hanging out in the cafes and bars. It's also rather lovely to spend time with people whom you've known for way over half of your life. Old friends become more important the more ancient you get. I met Sam properly on his sixteenth birthday. I was just fifteen. We were at a music residential course. He was covered in shaving foam as a result of some sort of birthday prank which had gone a bit wrong, and we sat on my bed in the dormitory until 5 in the morning, talking about music and looking out across a darkened garden, getting a little freaked out because the wall seemed to have a face in it! As I've written here before, I can't remember meeting Fiona, but it must have been at about the same time...

We ate in Soho. The plan had been to eat in Amalfi, but to our horror we discovered the restaurant had closed down. The rents in that particular part of London have sky-rocketed in recent years, to the extent that Costa Coffee closed down on Old Compton Street because they couldn't justify spending that sort of money just to have a presence on the street.

Old Compton Street, once solely the haunt of those who worked in the theatre and sex industries, and almost exclusively gay, is now a ghastly, shiny place which, for the first time tonight, appeared to us to be more straight than gay. Cue the tipping point. Even the gay bars no longer fly rainbow flags, one assumes for fear that they might frighten off the broader and straighter clientele needed to pay the ludicrous rents. It's a desperate and sorry sight. At one point Nathan raised a very interesting point; "what if you were a gay tourist and you'd heard all about the legendary Soho? You'd turn up here and wouldn't know which bars and cafes to go into. You'd probably end up feeling really disappointed!"

Other gay districts in other world cities - The Castro, West Hollywood, The Marais - proudly fly the rainbow flag so you can be in no doubt that you're in a gay area. Not a single rainbow flag flies on Old Compton Street. That's a little sad, I'd say.

Of course this may mean that being gay is so acceptable in British society that we no longer need a gay ghetto. All pubs and clubs are now as gay as they are straight. This is surely a sign of the equality I've fought for for my entire life? Am I simply complaining because I wanted people to accept me as different, but am horrified that being accepted now makes me the same as everyone else? Who knows.

Either way, I think it's sad that Soho is no longer what it used to be, if for no other reason than because the younger generation will never get to feel the excitement which used to reverberate through its streets.

We ate Turkish food and then went on a brilliant walk which took us through Leicester Square (where we bought Haagen Dasz), along the Strand and across Hungerford Bridge to the Southbank, which I would recommend to anyone at a loose end on a Sunday evening. The city lights were twinkling rather magnificently on the Thames, and in those parts even the beggars sing! 

Perspex art installation on the South Bank
It was a little odd to be walking past Giraffe, which has become so synonymous with Jem and Ian. Nathan and I both felt a real pang of sadness as we passed, remembering many a happy evening spent there with very dear friends.

We explored a little garden space on a series of terraces above the Hayward Gallery. It's such a beautiful place to wander through. There are genuine gardens up there full of beans and chard and pumpkins. I was astonished that we were able to walk about after dark without security guards rushing after us, but then again, things are always rather laid back on the South Bank. 

Above the South Bank
We had tea and beer outside a little cafe tucked around the corner from the National, and then trekked further along the South Bank, under a railway arch where a young woman was singing opera, down the dark and somewhat eerie Clink Street, past the Golden Hind and round the side of Borough Market, which, at night, is all a bit "Jack The Ripper."

Sam hopped on the train at London Bridge, and we walked Fiona back to Borough, where we got on the tube and came home. It was an evening I didn't really want to end, if I'm honest. I think we all need to spend evenings with friends from time to time when no one worries about time and everyone simply drifts about. It happened rather regularly in my early twenties, but then life, children and responsibilities get in the way... I feel like tonight has restored my factory settings and I can face what is promising to be a very hectic week ahead with a big old smile.

Here's to old friends!

Nathan at Borough Tube

Saturday, 15 August 2015


There's just nothing to say about today. The weather looked nice out of the window. I would love to have been out there, on the Heath, picnicking, meeting friends... But that wasn't possible. I had to work...

Yesterday night I lost a load of time to a fabulous computer crash, which has yet to be solved by the people who make the programme I use for writing music. I was hoping for a nice easy day. I'd reached a rather scantily-orchestrated song, which looked like it might have been dealt with in half a day, leaving me the rest of the day to do nice things, but, as a result of the malfunction, I had to start the next song on the list, which is an eight-minute epic. At 7pm, I was only half way through, so I threw in the towel and knuckled down to an evening of Saturday night telly feeling somewhat disgruntled.

And that's genuinely it!

Night night.

Loving being boring, Ben xx

Friday, 14 August 2015

Very British problems

I sit at the kitchen table every morning, working with the window open wide. In my view, there's little that can beat the moment when a gust of summery breeze drifts through a room, cooling the cheeks and giving the nostrils a little sample of the smells of the outside world. Yesterday was all about the smell of rain, the day before, one of my neighbours must have been cooking cake because there was a wonderfully Germanic pastry smell wafting in. Today I could smell onion and garlic, which is no doubt the product of Papa Dels, the pizza restaurant two doors up the road from us. I'm very grateful to the smells. They give my brain something to think about when the mind-mincing task of preparing music files for publishing makes me panic. Which it does. Often.

We watched Channel 4's "Very British Problems" last night, which I was most excited about seeing. I thought it was going to be a genuine (albeit witty and irreverent) look into what it is that makes the Brits British. Actually it turned out to be a truck load of rather ghastly celebrities in their beautiful, aspirational houses, whinging about how awful it is when people try to talk to them in taxis or sit next to them on trains. This is apparently something they routinely feel because they're British. I would actually argue that it's something they feel because they're pampered and grotesquely self-important. Frankly, if you don't want to interact with the general public, hire jets and private cars and stop flipping whinging. None of the celebrities were witty or pithy and the show came across as horrible, crass, cheap television. No one said anything positive in the entire hour. Some grumpy cricketer was whining about the fact that his hairdresser talks to much. If I were his hairdresser, after seeing that, the next time he turns up for a do, I'd set fire to him by mistake and say "oops."

I'd like to see a "talking heads"-style TV show with real people talking about the things that worry them. The hopelessness they feel when they're ignored, or how blinkin' horrible it is to get old, or to be lonely and be so bloody desperate for someone to talk to, you go out in the street and start conversations with total strangers. A lot of people would more than happily engage a taxi driver in chit chat because some people are genuinely interested in other people's lives. There's a rich tapestry of experience and knowledge which comes from interacting with strangers. And more fool these stupid, arrogant celebrities for not realising this simple fact!

Thursday, 13 August 2015


I was somewhat horrified to read various titillating reports in the tabloid press about former prime minister Ted Heath's bedroom antics. I don't know when we're going to be done with the moral-panic witch-hunt which currently seems to be engulfing us, by but if we're not prepared to draw the line anywhere else, I'd suggest chasing after the dead and those whose minds don't function anymore is a good place to stop. Why? Firstly because the dead and the insane have no right of reply and can't defend themselves. You can say anything you like about a dead person without any fear of reprisal. Secondly, because you can't punish the dead, you can only reward the living, so before we can unstitch facts, we have to look very carefully at the motives of those who have waited forty years before reporting a crime which we're invariably told "ruined their lives."

Perhaps it's a little controversial and unkind to say that if the crimes were so bad, their "victims" ought to have come forward a great deal sooner. I'm afraid I don't buy this nonsense about the Jimmy Savile business giving people the courage to come forward. Why didn't the same thing happen when Gary Glitter was arrested ten years ago? I think by sensationalising child abuse claims, we completely undermine what is a very serious crime, and get in the way of the legal system doing its job. If we spend huge amounts of the public purse convicting dead people and compensating their victims, we run the risk of not dealing with present day criminals who pose a far bigger threat to the community at large.

The question becomes, when do we stop? Should we take thee Marquis de Sade to court? Or Samuel Pepys? He had a bit of a penchant for barely pubescent girls, so maybe we should suddenly start burning his diaries just as we destroyed Savile's gravestone?

I think it's worth looking a little more closely at Ted Heath. We don't know - and probably never will know - the exact nature of his sexual proclivities, but it seems possible that he was a gay man in an era where no one - particularly not a prime minister - would ever be allowed to be truthful about their sexuality. Ted Heath became an MP in a world where blackmail, jail and chemical castration were common solutions to the "gay problem." I genuinely think that all bets are off in circumstances like this. You can't expect a gay man from that era to have a clearly defined moral code. Everything he did in those days was considered immoral and grotesque. Even after it was legalised, right up until the mid 1990s, a gay paedophile was a bloke who slept with a lad under the age of 21.

I would personally like to look at what I consider to be much more interesting facts about Ted Heath. Heath was from working class stock. The son of a carpenter, he got into grammar school and won an organ scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford. He fought in the Second World War and was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. As Prime Minister, he oversaw decimalisation and took Britain into the European Economic Community. In latter days he developed a hatred for Margaret Thatcher, which, in my view makes him a fairly decent sort. Heath served continually as an MP from 1950 to 2001, which is a record and greatly supported the arts in his constituency. He conducted Christmas Carol concerts in his home town of Broadstairs from his teenaged years until his old age and was the founding president of the European Youth Orchestra. Good. For. Him.

And yet, we're prepared to sweep all this aside for a bit of red top tittle-tattle? Sometimes I don't feel that proud to be British!

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Suits you, Sir

As I made my way to Old Street on a rush hour tube this morning I'm pleased to report that I saw a lot of men in suits. I like suits. I find the aesthetic of a suit greatly appealing. A man wearing a suit, one assumes, has made a bit of an effort and takes pride in the way he looks. Everyone knows that all men look better in suits. Unless, of course, they're footballers when they often look a little like they've been rifling through their Dad's wardrobe. I'm not quite sure why that should be...

Of course, the criticism which gets levied at suits is that they don't allow for a great deal of expression, which is why you end up with these ghastly dress down Fridays when men, bereft of suits, get an opportunity to show quite how awful their dress sense is with a riot of ill-fitting chinos and button-down Ted Baker shirts.

Thing is, even the plainest suit can be accessorised to show a great deal of character and individuality. Today I saw a bloke in a very sharp suit with a fine set of dreadlocks, another was wearing a suit which could have come straight from the early 1960s and someone else was dressed in a three-piece suit with a cloth cap and a wooden beaded bracelet. Nobody could argue that they didn't all look smart.

Today was essentially a day of meetings. One was with a TV production company about a musical drama, and one was with Uncle Archie about the documentary project we're working on, which kicks off again next week. I was presented with a birthday cake. We drank tea and nattered. A perfect way to run a meeting!

I am still stumbling my way through the song Letters from Brass. On and on it goes. I think the cat is now sufficiently out of the bag for me to be honest and announce that I have been busily formatting scores from the show because Brass is being published by Rogers and Hammerstein Theatricals, which is a huge honour and something which fills me with a great sense of excitement and pride. So, if any one reading this blog belongs to a theatre group who like performing musicals, then you can now perform Brass, you lucky buggers, you!

Speaking of musicals, we trundled off to St James' Theatre this evening to see this year's NYMT new commission. Yes, folks, it's almost exactly a year since Brass was first performed.

This year's show is called Prodigy and it's absolutely bloody marvellous! Aside from this fact, it is the antithesis of Brass: light, frothy, laugh-out-loud funny with music which crackles like bursts of static on a tram line. Jake and Pippa, who wrote the show, are such a talented team. They respect and revere musical theatre... and it shows in the brilliance of what they write. Jake's words are witty and pithy, Pippa's melodies are surprising, beautiful and chirpy. That girl has perfected the art of the key change!

I won't go into details about the plot. You'll have to go and see it (before Saturday) if you want to know what happens. Essentially Prodigy tells the story of a group of young classical musicians who have been entered into an X-Factor-style reality show. It's a very clever premise for an ensemble show with scope for brilliant visual and musical pastiche. The cast were wonderful and it was great to see so many of the former Brass team acting, making music, show calling and working back stage - all with great aplomb. Top marks have to go to the young Welsh lad (from the Rhondda) who plays the TV show's presenter, who made the audience howl with laughter. Next highest marks go to the moment when a flute gets broken in half on stage. It's the best use of a flute I've ever seen in a show (although begrudgingly I will acknowledge that the lass who played the lead actress (brilliantly) also played a mean flute (if you like that kind of thing!)

Top marks to NYMT... and to Jake and Pippa. Another theatrical triumph.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015


Has anyone else noticed a recent spate of "forgiveness" permeating the world's media? It seems no dreadful event can happen these days without someone standing up and saying that they forgive the perpetrator for the wrong he's done them.

...And that's good, isn't it? Forgiving people makes us kind, decent human beings doesn't it? ...Or does it?
Forgiveness is a curious thing. It's one of that set of words like "love" and "want" that are easy to say but very hard to genuinely feel. I for one am convinced that it would be a struggle for me to even come close to forgiving anyone who did something which badly effected someone I love.
Certain people who've treated Nathan badly in the past, for example, would still feel my wrath if they came too close. I still have a fantasy about stuffing one particular pair of melting waxy faces into a passing trifle, but maybe that's just my Leo energy surfacing; as fiercely protective as I am vengeful!

Perhaps because of my own rather extreme and psychologically flawed views on the subject, I struggle to believe that people actually mean it when they bandy the word forgiveness about. In fact, I find the use of the word self-righteous in the extreme, to the extent that I often lose sympathy for the person who uses it. Sometimes I think people "forgive" simply so that the world thinks they're a better person, or worse, a better Christian, because, as the centre stone of Christianity, forgiveness is something that we're told we're meant to feel.

Forgiveness should have no caveats. You have not genuinely forgiven someone to whom you say "I forgive you but only God can decide your punishment." (That's a threat...) Neither have you forgiven someone to whom you say "I forgive you, but I will never trust you again." (That's a promise!)

In my view, forgiveness can only be achieved when aided by time (and plenty of it when the crime you're forgiving is a serious one.) Anyone who tries to make us believe that they can forgive their husband's murder within a week is either deluded, disingenuous or, quite frankly, a touch callous. In order to forgive, first you must understand, and then you have to empathise... And this takes a long time...

True forgiveness can happen of course; it's noble and remarkable and it ought to be something we strive for. We can all learn from the parents of Amy Biehl, for example, who set up a foundation to assist young people in South African townships after their daughter was murdered by a gang of black men shouting racist remarks. Two of her murderers (who were released as part of the Truth and Reconciliation commission) now work for the foundation, which is doing fabulous things.

So those are my thoughts on forgiveness. What are yours?

Monday, 10 August 2015

Murphy's law

When arranging music, it's important to tell oneself repeatedly that there are only a certain number of hours in a lifetime, and that, when it's not possible to complete an entire rearrangement in a single day, one mustn't beat oneself up or become too depressed!

I was at the kitchen table by 9.30am this morning with my computer open and my music software programme up and running. I'm working my way through the songs from Brass in alphabetical order, and it was the turn of one of the big beasts today; a number called Letters, which is not just a hugely complicated, incredibly lengthy piece, but one that features the full orchestra, twelve soloists and a choir. It's also one of the songs which has changed lyrically and musically from how it was on the soundtrack, so there's much to do... and it's taking forever.

There's little else to say. I went to the gym after lunch. It felt rather nice to be there, and with any luck my being able to complete a workout means that my cold is further away than it once was. I wish I could say the same for poor Nathan who's had a chest infection for the best part of two weeks. Poor bloke keeps coughing. Why is it always singers who end up with these terrible problems with their lungs? That's Murphy's law for you. I've no doubt I'll end up deaf by the same principle.

We're trying to use up all the food we brought home with us after our picnic on Saturday. It's forcing me to be rather inventive in the kitchen. This evening we had some really posh cheese on toast with the remnants of a bowl of mushroom soup from last night, blended with four types of cheese, some milk, a grated red onion and a chopped up pickle gherkin. I added some walnut chutney to the bread before putting it under the grill, and the end product was utterly divine.

We had strawberries and cream for pudding... I could get used to mopping up after a picnic!

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Moving south

I had a bit of a depressing start to the day, waking up at 5am with a chronic sore throat and having to take an Aspirin in order to get off to sleep again. Both of us took a night nurse before bed last night which instantly turned us into zombies, so the pain must have been quite severe to wake me up at all.

We eventually surfaced at 11.30am, which implies how knackered we both were, and, as a result of all that sleep I've felt a great deal better today. The cold is moving south, so maybe I'll be coughing like a child with TB tomorrow...

We did brunch in a greasy spoon in Muswell Hill, and were just a little bit excited to learn, en route, that a Bill's has opened up in the area, which will be useful for future fancy occasions.

I was meant to be hooking up with old music school friends for a belated birthday tea, but illness stopped play (everyone's ill at the moment) and we've decided to postpone, which made me feel rather glum. Nathan was out all afternoon, so I sat and worked on the living room sofa with the telly on in the background for company whilst occasionally peering out of the window at the beautiful sunshine, wishing I had someone to see or something to do.

Fortunately Ted Thornhill (one of the people I was meant to be seeing this evening) called to say he was in the Flask in Highgate, so I went up there instead and met his absolutely adorable girlfriend, Gersende, for the first time. She's what's known in the relationship trade as a "keeper." Interesting, quirky, open, kind and pretty as a button. I was astonished to learn they'd been together almost a year, an indication of the fact that I haven't seen Ted for way too long.

We caught up as best we could. Distilling a year into salient sentences is always somewhat challenging if you don't want your existence to read like a CV. Ted's doing very well as a journalist at the Daily Mail. And no, that doesn't make him a right wing prig!

So that's my day, really. I walked back home from Highgate Village in that electric blue light you only get after the sun has set on glorious summer nights. The church up in the village was all lit up and looked stunningly beautiful against the night sky. Ted purred as he walked through Pond Square, and I realised, yet again, how lucky I am to live in these parts.


Saturday, 8 August 2015


I woke up this morning with the sneaking suspicion that I'd caught the cold that the everyone in Wales seemed to be suffering from. By the end of the day it was more than a suspicion; I am feeling truly lousy. Happy birthday to me!

Being 41 ain't so bad, though. I've got nice short hair, clean, strong, unstained teeth, and most of my body is still working as well as it did in my 20s! When I don't have a cold that is...

As my birthday treat I decided to go to my favourite place in the world, Avebury. It was a small gathering by my birthday's standards. Quite a lot of my mates were out of London this weekend, so I decided to make the day about family, with Abbie joining us as an honorary sister. There were nine of us altogether snaking our way between the standing stones including Nathan's father and step mother, my parents and Brother Edward and Sascha. It was also baking hot. I think I might be a bit sun stroked as well as having a cold. Joy!

Avebury Church was our first port of call. It's a quirky little place, both architecturally (a mish-mash of everything from Norman to Victorian) and, it appears, spiritually. A basket of stones sits in one corner of the church. Visitors are encouraged to choose a stone, hold it, think about their pain and then drop the stone into a bucket of water to symbolically release their stress. It's definitely more touchy-feely Pagan than hard-core Christian, but then again it would be almost impossible not to acknowledge the ancient pre-Christian power which surges through the earth in those parts. The church itself sits right on the edge of the stone henge, thereby presenting an almost ludicrous clash of cultures. Perhaps as a result, the church has a fairly dark, uncomfortable sort of atmosphere which made me want to throw up. That said, it's obviously a church which is greatly loved and right at the centre of its community; that curious tribe of people whose houses are actually within a stone circle! There's a bowl of water in the church's porch for dogs, and a couple of doggie treats in a Tupperware box, which I thought was a wonderfully welcoming gesture.

We picnicked under one of the stones, and unwittingly cooked ourselves in the sun, which caused a few of our number to go running for the shade. Abbie made a delicious orange sponge birthday cake. Like properly delicious.

We went to the clump of trees on the edge of the site where people hang ribbons of remembrance on branches. It's a unique little spot. The roots of the trees are largely exposed, creating the most amazing 3D lattice-work of fibrous cables on the ground. Fortunately Sascha had wrapped my presents in glorious red and orange ribbons, so we cut them into smaller pieces and all wrote messages to tie to the branches. My Dad, who's just spent a few days with school friends, dedicated his ribbon to "old friends," which I found particularly moving.

A Spanish woman asked us what we were up to and seemed so taken with the idea that Nathan insisted she was given ribbon and a pen to create her own message. This she did with great alacrity, asking Nathan if he felt she should dedicate it to a living or a dead person. Nathan told her it was a decision only she could make so she told him she was going to go with her heart.

My dedication was to the Leeds Pals, my Mum remembered her sister Gill and Nathan's was to all the LGBT people who had lost their lives in the struggle towards equality. He told me on the way home and I cried like a baby gay for five minutes!

If you're still reading, I'd like you all to remember someone you once loved. Think about them. Their eyes. The way they smelt. The way they spoke. The last time you saw them smile. Hold those memories tightly.

And read on...

We went back to the pub before visiting a pop-up second-hand book store which had been set up in one of the rooms in the Avebury museum. Nathan and Abbie independently bought the same Agatha Christie novel: different editions with different covers and a book I've not heard of called "Endless Night." It starts with the quote "in my end is my beginning" which I once sung repeatedly whilst touring an insane piece of music by Luciano Berio called A Ronne.

We drove across to West Kennet Longbarrow. Our trips to Avebury always follow the same pattern. Well if it ain't broke, don't fix it! 

I'm kinda glad we went there when we did because an extraordinary ritual was taking place inside which involved joss sticks, a man banging a drum like an amateur and a dude playing a tragic wooden flute which sounded like a pan pipe bring ritually abused. An American woman was standing in the middle of a group who were holding hands and had their eyes closed. She appeared to be talking them through some sort of visualisation. She spoke softly... like a lunatic; "remember the dragon we met before? Well he's come to help us again. He's going to help us to push through this wall into the burial chamber behind. Come on. Push..." The flute music kicked off, Sascha walked out of the long-barrow in disgust and I had a fit of hysterics.

The majority of the gang left at that point, but Abbie, Nathan and I stayed in the area to visit the magnificent Neolithic chalk horse at Uffington, across the M4 in Oxfordshire. It's hard to explain how magical that place is. I have never been there in anything other than glorious treacle-coloured sunlight.

As the sun drops in the sky the place literally starts to glow. The yellow grass becomes strands of gold, the sky turns a deep shade of blue, and the chalk of the horse itself becomes almost impossibly white. Daz white!

We sat at the top of the hill staring down into the valley. Raily very recently told me that the little Neolithic man-made platform at the bottom of the hill is supposedly the place where St George slew the dragon. The areas of chalk where grass refuses to grow are where the dragon's blood spilt. Who on earth would need religion when we have legends like this?!

A farmer was harvesting his cornfield. Great spumes of dust were billowing into the air and settling like dry ice on some of the ancient earthworks. The vista was timeless. Nostalgic. Mystical.

If you've never been to this extraordinary part of the world, I urge you to go, if for no other reason than to feel spiritually alive again, or, quite frankly, just to feel incredibly proud to be British. That's how I feel right now.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Wet shave

I had a fairly nasty start to the day, largely, I suspect, because my body was just not ready to he back in the smoke. Everything seemed crass and incredibly loud. The lorries trundling up the Archway Road sounded like heavy artillery being fired in the height of battle, and even the air conditioning unit in the shop below - a sound I've become almost deadened to - was suddenly the noise of a Boeing jet engine in the midst of a bird strike! I suddenly realised how much sound us city dwellers manage to filter out, largely out of complete necessity. I'll be used to it in a couple of days, of course, and silence will be no more pleasant than the tinnitus it brings!

To compound my bad mood, I had hoped to very speedily finish the song arrangement from Brass I'd dipped in and out of throughout the holiday, but there was a lot more to do than I'd realised and, at about mid day, I had a 1990's style computer crash which effectively meant I'd lost a morning's work.

My plan to start (and finish) another song vanished into cyber space and I felt considerably rattier than I'm sure I would have done had I not just returned from a lovely holiday.

It struck me that my only real hope was to ease myself into the day by somehow pretending I was still on holiday, so took myself to Camden Town for some male grooming.

On the tube on the way there I felt the bloke two seats along prodding my arm. He pointed at the open computer on my lap and grinned a toothless grin; "is that music?" He asked. I nodded and in the process opened up a conversation about piano playing. "Do you have your grade eight?" He asked. I felt sad. He seemed lonely.

It did, however, remind me that there's a certain sort of conversation a musician has to put up with which results from people feeling the need to proudly tell you the musical vocabulary they've accumulated over the years. So often when I tell people I'm a composer, they say things like "so you know a crotchet from a quaver then? Ha ha ha." Or more bizarrely, they simply list off the musical terms they know. Out of context, "crescendo, adagio, treble clef..."

I've no idea why people do it. It's the equivalent of me finding out someone's a lawyer and saying, "litigation, mediation, articles!" Nathan tells me that when people see him knitting, they invariably say, "knit one, purl one, drop one..." so I guess it's not just musicians!

Anyway, I took myself to a barber in Camden Town, and, for a hugely reasonable £23, had my hair cut and face wet shaved. I was given the full works: hot towels, warm shaving foam, a facial massage, all kinds of lotions and potions. Right at the end, he took a little metal stick out of his draw with a fabric swab attached to the end which he proceeded to dip into Paraffin. He then set fire to it and rubbed the flame all over my ears to burn off excess hair. It was fairly extraordinary. And a bit scary!

I have to say, there is something rather wonderful about having a wet shave with a cut throat razor, delivered by a stranger. Firstly, you're forced to entirely place your trust in someone else's hands, which is, I think, rather good for control freaks like me, but it's also an incredibly intimate, highly sensual experience which simultaneously feels extraordinarily masculine. It's the one bit of male grooming which is acceptable for those whose bodies buzz with testosterone. I don't think a straight male Afghani bloke would give another man a tender facial massage under any other circumstance!

The barber said my beard was "challenging". Apparently the hairs all grow in different directions. I probably could have guessed as much. Shaving's always been quite an event for me!

I went into town to meet Nathan for a late lunch. We ate at Stockpot on Old Compton Street, before I returned home to finish my arrangement and make a cursory start on the next one.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Coastal paths

We slept in the garage at the cottage last night on account of having been locked out of our digs. I say garage: We were actually in a dusty old games room attached to the garage, which, luckily, had a couple of zed-beds in it. Thank God nobody had thought to lock it, so we didn't have to wake anyone up to get the key.

We slept rather badly; the beds were a bit springy, I'm not very good at sleeping in a sleeping bag, and, because the morgue-like room had given me the heeby-jeebies when we first entered it at the start of the week, I felt rather uneasy throughout the night. To make matters a little worse, we kept hearing the garage door rattling as though someone were trying to get in. At one stage we actually both called out, utterly convinced that there was someone there. I can only assume it was the wind. Whatever it was freaked me out royally!

Anyway, the morning eventually arrived and Iain woke us up with a lovely cup of tea, and news that there were plans to go for a long walk. He knew it was our last day in Wales, had read in my blog that we weren't at the lodgings and wanted to know if we were joining the group for the day before heading back to London. The weather was expected to be fine and dry. It was a no-brainier. We leapt out of bed...

We drove back to the lodgings to collect suitcases from our room and were met by a hugely apologetic proprietress, who quite rightly waived the cost of the room for the night and offered us a free breakfast, which we thought was a rather sweet gesture despite declining. Her abject horror at what had happened was enough for us not to want to give her a hard time, so we had a quick bath and went on our merry way.

We took the coastal footpath from the cottage and walked around Dinas Head. It was a seven mile round trip which introduced us to views so beautiful they almost made me weep. Pembrokeshire is uniquely green; a product of a warm, wet climate, one assumes. The footpaths, which snake up and down the cliffs, are sometimes enclosed entirely by hedgerows of gorse and then, a few meters later, become entirely open to the elements with vertigo-inducing drops to the rocks below which make ones legs feel all fizzy and ones testicles ascend into ones stomach!

We stopped off at a beautiful cove where a tiny ruined chapel sits within an ancient graveyard, beside a smattering of houses and a little sandy beach. A few entrepreneurial locals had set up little trestle tables in the graveyard selling buckets and spades and refreshments, which I later realised was something to do with some kind of sea race or regatta. As we passed the cove on the way back, we could hear a bloke on a tannoy system sounding a little like one of those people who only exist on this planet to speak incoherently into PA systems at village fetes! I was somewhat disappointed to conclude that the trestle tables were probably not a permanent part of that particular cove on sunny days. I reckon if I lived somewhere like that - just like the man we met in LA who lives under the Hollywood sign and sells cans of drinks to grateful passing hikers - I might be tempted to set up a little refreshment stall in my front garden!

We walked up onto the headland, passing over black streams which gushed through dark green gullies, with the vaguely sulphurous smell of fern never far from our nostrils. The sea, a tapestry of aquamarine, ice blues, mint greens and indigos glistened in the brilliant sunlight. The sky was never anything but pure cornflower blue. We could have been walking above the Mediterranean...

Our ramble took us to a second beach at the other end of Dinas Head, where we sat in a pub and ate tomato soup on picnic benches so weather-worn and knackered that the slats which formed the table part kept coming loose, shooting up and knocking huge quantities of food into the air! The poor old duffer on the bench behind was deposited onto the floor when the seat of his bench snapped in two as he sat down on it. His mate was unsympathetic in a typically Welsh manner as he rolled around like a giant beetle on its back: "you fat old bugger!"

We walked back to the cottage. Little Lily requested ABBA songs, so we ambled along, singing every song she could think of by the band. This occupied a good half an hour.

We got back to the cottage, had a quick cup of tea, and, well that was that, really. Our last view of the cottage was of Little Lily and Tanya waving us away, silhouetted by the late afternoon sunshine, whilst the rest of our friends, in bathing and wet suits, disappeared through the garden gate on their way down to the beach. Their holiday will continue for another day or so, but we return to London with heavy, yet hugely relaxed hearts, terribly grateful to Sam for sharing the knowledge of this house with us all and finding us a very specific location for a very special holiday...

Locked out

I woke up with small pieces of flint from yesterday's quarry attached to my legs, which was a curious sensation. Even after I'd showered, I was still finding little pieces of Flint attached to my legs, and when I pulled the covers of the bed back, there were scores of little black pieces of rock on the white sheets. That'll teach me for swimming in a quarry!

We went to St David's today, which, with a population of 1,797, is by far the smallest city in the UK. St David's is actually no bigger than a village. Its city status comes on account of its cathedral, a beautiful 13th Century building with some of the most stunning ceilings I've ever seen. Little William and I went and lay on our backs on the stone floor staring up, counting bosses, wooden panels and shields. It was perhaps a somewhat eccentric act, and a few mothers rather passive-aggressively pointedly told their children to make sure they didn't trip over on us, but we didn't care. It was great fun!

We took the kids up into a library in one of the cathedral's towers, which had books which everyone could take off the shelves and read. Despite there being plenty of books for children on the shelves, Will selected one about Medieval art and sat in a corner very happily reading it for ten minutes. The librarian, a suitably eccentric older woman, showed us a page of manuscript she'd found shoved inside a book which turned out to be 800 years old. As old as the cathedral. It felt very strange to be holding it.

We came home and spent the afternoon doing jigsaws whilst the rain lashed down outside. There was a moment... just a brief moment... when cabin fever struck and the kids got over excited. Sam retired to his room, I retired under a pair of headphones and Nathan ran knitting classes.

We made cakes and bread for tea, in honour of the first episode of this year's Great British Bake Off, which we watched en masse, the first telly any of us had seen in the cottage for the entire holiday. That's surely the sign of a great vacation!

Meriel ran a literary quiz which lasted well into the evening before a smaller group of us took ourselves down to the beach and went skinny dipping in the bible black water. It was a genuinely wonderful moment. We carried torches and lanterns down to the water's edge, which shone across the sea, casting weird, eerie reflections on the surface of the water. Periodically, a white, ghostly face would swim through a shaft of light. Great arcs of light shot up into the night sky in crazy directions and, when it started raining very lightly, it almost felt as though we were underneath a shower of sliver coins.

When we returned to our clothes, hundreds of tiny sand flies were dancing in the light from our torches which was a somewhat grotesque, yet curiously beautiful sight. We stumbled back up the hill, avoiding snails and worms and all sorts of other slimy creatures who only appear when it rains, and returned to our jigsaw whilst drinking hot toddies. It was 2.30am by the time we'd returned to our B. So late, in fact, that all the street lamps had been turned off in Newport.

Horrifyingly we'd been locked out of our lodgings. Who knows how or why that managed to happen. We simply couldn't get in, so we're forced to return to the cottage, and sleep in the games room. Not the happiest end to our final night in Newport but I guess these things happen.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Blue Lagoon

We went to Fishguard this morning, a charming little market town which clings to a series of cliffs and hillsides. It's actually the location of the last invasion in Britain by the French; an event which happened in 1797. By all accounts it didn't go too well for the invaders. Within two days they'd surrendered unilaterally. The Welsh, we're told, fought viscously. One Jemima Nicholas single-handedly captured twelve French soldiers, and women were also responsible for a brilliant act of subterfuge when they paraded around a hillock dressed as male soldiers and convinced the French that the British army was much larger than they'd initially calculated.

There's a brilliant Bayeux-style tapestry in the town library which local residents sewed in 1997 to celebrate the event's 200th anniversary.

I managed to hide two little toy snakes underneath the tapestry as part of the game I've been playing with the two girls. They knew they were looking for snakes in the shape of the number seven, and created a little rhyme in order to summon them...

"Seven snakes in the tapestry
One plus two plus one plus three
These are the words which hold the key
To set the snakes in the tapestry free!"

We came home for a late lunch before heading back along the coast, past Fishguard, and onto the most remarkable little spot called The Blue Lagoon, an old slate quarry which is breeched by the sea at high tide. At low tide an incredibly deep and impossibly jade-coloured lake is left in its wake which has become immensely popular with cliff divers, who jump from a couple of natural platforms created by an old industrial building on the edge of the quarry.

The place is so so beautiful. The slate cliffs which surround it are a fusion of blacks, greys, rusty oranges, browns and whites. It's been pretty awful squally weather today, but as we sat on the flinty beach, the sun suddenly burst through and everything started glowing majestically. I braved the freezing water for a swim. It was like being attacked by a thousand needles to the extent that my arms started going into spasm and my heart began to thump like crazy in my mouth. At one stage I thought my body was actually shutting down, but it was so so worth it. Nathan, Meriel, Sam and I swam to the mouth of the quarry and stared out through a tunnel of slate columns to the sea where the waves were crashing and bursting like foaming fountains illuminated like a million sequins by the late afternoon sunlight. It was magical beyond words and well worth coming close to death to witness!

Emerging from the water was like stepping onto a tropical beach, such was the coldness of the water in relation to the outside air. Drying myself with a towel, however, was like rubbing myself with sand paper.

As we left the beach, the heavens opened once again and we drove back to the cottage through driving rain, which, rather brilliantly, stopped when we got back to the house. This mad West-Walean weather can work rather well!

The B

We completed our jigsaw last night at midnight. Raily, Nathan and I became the perfect team, sparring off each other, getting more and more obsessive and excited as the hours lengthened.
Nathan and I are actually staying down the road from everyone else in a local B and B, which shall henceforth be known simply as a "B" as breakfast is (perplexingly) not included. We're in the village of Newport itself, which is surprisingly chi-chi and fancy for this part of the world. They have whole food shops here, farmers markets and fancy cafes. It's like being in Stoke Newington with plenty of sea air and no lesbians.
We went to Newport Beach this morning which is miles out of the village and like some terrible wind tunnel with dreadful grey sand. Going to a freezing cold beach to eat a picnic whilst shivering and huddling under blankets is such a typically English past time. Sam assured us that there were lovely rock pools further along the beach, but by the time all of us were assembled, we'd sort of had enough and decided to retire back to the cottage, and our much more beautiful sheltered beach, which is so empty and inaccessible to anyone but the cluster of houses at the top of the cliff that it feels like our own private beach. 
I spent most of the afternoon with Tanya's daughter, Lily, searching for pieces of sea glass, those little worn down flecks of glass of all colours which you seem to find on certain beaches. We colour-categorised our hoard, defining them as crystals, emeralds, blue bottles and cola bottles...
It started raining quite heavily, so we made a beeline for the cottage, and sat with the kids doing another jigsaw. This one was a much easier 500 piece puzzle of a fairground which we polished off in a couple of hours.

By the time we'd finished, the sun was shining again and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. There's a saying round here that if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes...
We ate our tea out on the terrace again, all sixteen of us eating al fresco sitting on a long table with the sea just over our shoulders and the sun beating down. Once again we were treated to a little play - this time a musical - performed by the kids. I think it was about a sea monster. It was all a little Bauhaus for my taste. Sam pointed out that the songs were like the Glee cast performing songs by Berio! Hugely surreal.
We watched the sun setting behind the cliff opposite, hoping for a "green ray," a phenomenon I've not heard of. Apparently the last flash of sunlight as the sun sets can sometimes appear green in colour, and this is something which is apparently considered very lucky. No such luck for us tonight, although I'd consider sitting on a terrace over looking a bay whilst eating food with a group of wonderful people plenty lucky enough.
Meriel and Iain actually went swimming in the dark tonight. When they returned I felt quite envious... But we'd started another jigsaw. This one was a thousand-piecer of Waterloo Station in 1948 which Tanya, Paul, Raily, Nathan, Iain and I stayed up until midnight making a good start upon before we skedaddled back to our B. Night night!