Monday, 30 November 2015

Synagogues and requiems

What a roller coaster of a day! I headed into Soho at 3pm to eat at the iconic Stock Pot cafe for one final time before it closes forever, swept aside by the unstoppable bulldozers of commercialism. This really does mark the death of Soho. Long may the district live in our memories. I'm sure the chi-chi cafe which replaces it will be popular with hen dos from Guildford, but I genuinely wonder where the theatre crowd will be able to afford to eat when it's gone. I've eaten there regularly for the best part of twenty years. 

The place was packed with well-wishers looking sad, hugging the waitresses and taking photographs of some of the beloved pictures on the walls. Leaving the place was a real wrench. 

I returned from New York to catch up on some very bleak news. Comedian Iain Lee has been sacked from his radio show on the BBC's Three Counties Radio for calling a Christian woman a bigot after she suggested that gay people would go to hell. I've listened to the interview in full. Lee was perhaps a little aggressive with the woman and didn't give her much of a chance to speak. Had she spoken more, she would have undoubtedly hung herself with her own rope, but nothing of what was said by Lee seemed a sackable offence to me. It would appear, yet again, as was the case with the gay marriage cake row in Northern Ireland, that we are forced to pussy-foot around fragile Christians, who think they can sling mud at everyone without any legal repercussions. As Lee rightly pointed out, "we don't accept hate preaching from someone with brown skin" but when it comes from the mouth of a smiling white Christian who's shimmering with self-righteousness, we instantly leap to their defence.

The bottom line in all of this is that my decision to marry the man I love has not had a negative effect on anyone else on this planet. Nor has my genetically-based proclivity to love men. This kind of irresponsible and old-fashioned scare-mongering preaching, however, is responsible for scores of young Christians feeling ashamed or terrified. It's responsible for hideous bullying and ultimately for the deaths of scores of LGBT people across the world. Lee was preaching love and tolerance and was sacked for losing his calm exterior in the face of ludicrous bigotry.

Lee was a much-needed straight ambassador for gay rights. Earlier on in the year, he walked through the streets of Luton holding another man's hand to prove that homophobia still existed. He was told what he was doing was "disgusting." He has fought on our behalves and needs respect, not unemployment. 

As I see it, like it or not, homosexuality is tangible - a real thing - and I refuse to understand why the rights of LGBT people should be valued below the opinions of people who believe in something which, at best, is nebulous.  That is the message the BBC is sending out to my community. 

Huff it out...

On a more positive note, I want you all to look at this

This is a little piece of joy and shows people of all ages and sizes coming together to perform a Kate Bush dance routine. If anyone reading this is worried that community is dead or that the bad guys are winning, I would urge you to see it. It made me genuinely weep with happiness. 

It's five minutes long. Grab yourself a cuppa and a hanky, put your feet up and press play. 

The day ended in Marble Arch, where we went, with Matt, to a world AIDS day service at the West London Synagogue, followed by a rip-roaring concert by the London Gay Men's Chorus in the same space. There is so much good to say about what we saw. The choir sang wonderfully and ended the concert with a hugely moving and suspension-filled a capella version of ABBA's The Way Old Friends Do. I think they're such brilliant ambassadors for our community. I always feel proud when watching them because they remind me that gay people come in every shape, religion, age, colour and creed. 

I think you's struggle to find another religious sect who would actively welcome a gay men's chorus into their building of worship. And I never got the impression that anyone in the space was merely putting up with their presence. The Rabbis talked about partnerships with the choir and one is on their board. The high pulpit was draped with an AIDS quilt. I can't actually get my brain to put all the good I witnessed tonight into coherent sentences. Everything was done with compassion, kindness and beauty. One of the rabbis was moved to tears on several occasions by the things that were being said and sung. I felt at home (and protected) from the moment I walked into the building, in a way that I have never felt entering a Christian church. The religious music was deeply moving: all of the stuff that I love. 

Reform Judaism, I should point out, has accepted and embraced gay marriage in a way that only the Quakers can rival. We were never asked to pray for souls or made to feel our lifestyles were unacceptable. We were encouraged to give thanks to scientists for bringing antiretrovital drugs into the world and then asked to remember and honour those who had died of AIDS, vowing to look after those who were suffering. Everything came from a place of positivity, which is the one thing I think many modern religions have lost. 

Of course the difficult thing to stomach was the sheer amount of security on the door of the synagogue. For some ungodly reason, Jewish people are mistrusted by Christians and Muslims alike, despite the fact that it's the only major religion which doesn't recruit. By and large, you're Jewish or you're not, which means it's a religion which is effectively dying as more and more Jewish men procreate out of the faith. So what's the threat? 

It's the first advent today, so here's a picture of the advent crown we made yesterday... with the first candle lit. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent crowns

We're currently driving to Highgate from Aylesbury where we've just spent the most wonderful time with friends.

I'm proud to say that the day was my idea. Some of my happiest childhood memories deal with the magical run-up to Christmas. It was the period when all the carol concerts and school plays happened. We'd stay at school into the evenings to practice and then walk home excitedly in the dark, icy, wood-smoke filled air.

One of my favourite customs was the creation of a crown on the first advent. My family aren't at all religious, but this was the one semi-religious tradition we upheld. The four advents are obviously the four Sundays running up to Christmas, and in our house they were marked by four big meals when we'd eat a fancy roast dinner.

During the morning of the first advent, we'd go for a long walk to work up an appetite and to forage for berries, bits of holly, ivy and moss to weave into a crown shape which we'd then use as the setting for four red candles. Whilst we ate on the first advent, the first candle would be lit, on the second advent we'd relight the first candle and light a second candle to join it... and so on so, until, when we tucked into our meal on the fourth advent, all four candles would be merrily spluttering away. I believe it was a tradition my Mother brought back from Germany with her...

Obviously, with no children of my own, I've never been able to pass on some of those special childhood traditions... But then I realised that I have God children for this very reason, so I got Raily, Iain, Wils and Jeanie together along with Mezza and Elizabeth, Nathan, Hils and little Jago and we all went for a foraging walk on Coombe Hill in the bracing wind.

The forecast was dreadful, and actually, as we drove towards our destination it was raining solidly. Strangely enough, however, despite a dire forecast, the rain suddenly stopped, and we were able to walk for two hours without getting wet.

The wind was hysterical. We walked to a monument where the views over Buckinghamshire are staggering, but the wind on many occasions was strong enough to knock young Jago off his feet. You couldn't put a bag down because it would immediately be blown away. We stood for some time leaning into the wind, at moments our entire bodies were kept upright.

William and I went off the beaten track for a while and got chased by about forty cows, which was a bit weird. I think they thought my Sainsbury's bag full of undergrowth was food for them, but we certainly weren't prepared to hang around to find out if they were just being friendly!

We reached the car park just as it started to rain, and drove back to Iain and Raily's house where we sat around the sitting room table assembling our crowns in a sort of magical production line. "Does anyone have a use for this little berry?" "Has anyone got any glitter?" Fabulous. I recommend it for anyone reading this, even if you're doing it on your own. Tomorrow is the first advent, so you have a whole day to buy four candles and take yourself out into the big wide world. If you don't fancy doing it with greenery, get a bit of tinsel and some baubles like they used to do on Blue Peter!

On that note, I was horrified to mention Blue Peter today and find that my godson, William didn't know what I was talking about! How things change. Blue Peter is an institution.

After making the crowns we sat down for a fabulous meal before gathering around the piano to sing carols in three-part harmony, which created a really rather lovely and quite moving moment.

We sat in front of the open fire chatting, laughing and drinking tea until 11.30pm, before begrudgingly making our way back to London.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Homeward bound

We're home safely in the UK feeling like a pair of wrung out dosh cloths. The journey was about as hideous as I'd expected it would be. The plane was actually half empty, on account of it being Thanksgiving, so, as soon as the ground staff were told to leave the plane, passengers started heading for empty rows and seats with more leg room. The row in front of us (which had extra leg room) went from being completely empty to being full of a family with two children who screamed constantly. I probably wouldn't have minded had the stewards not made a big deal about stopping a young couple from sitting on the same seats, informing them that they'd need to "pay to upgrade." It seems it's one rule for a family, and another for everyone else. The young couple would have been considerably less noisy.

To make matters worse, the father of the family opted to recline his seat whilst I was still eating my food, which sent the tray flying into the aisle and made me hugely grumpy. I think there should be rules about when people can and can't recline their seats on a plane. It's incredibly rude to do it before the meals have been cleared away. I felt like I was sitting in a cardboard box.

I'm ashamed to say that I also spent much of the flight suffering from bouts of Islamaphobia, obsessing about a woman in a veil sitting near us, who was having a very animated telephone conversation with someone until the plane literally took off. She then spent the flight nervously fiddling with her mobile phone and I became utterly paranoid that she was going to detonate something. It sounds ludicrous in retrospect. I'm a terrible flyer, so was dealing with my own demons at the same time, but I'm horrified I became that person - as was Nathan. It just shows that, however liberal we like to think we are, when we're under duress, all sorts of crazy and irrational responses bubble to the surface. I almost went up to her to explain that she was freaking me out, hoping she'd give me a big hug to put my mind at ease, but I felt it would have gone down rather badly. I didn't sleep a wink.

We got back to Highgate in the late morning after that long old tube journey from Heathrow which everyone dreads when they touch down.

We had three hours' kip and forced ourselves to get up again so there was some hope of our getting sleep tonight.

For the last few days Nathan has been suffering from an eye problem. His right eye looks puffy and a bit bruised. In fact, over the last couple of days it's looked increasingly like I've been knocking him for six, but it turns out it's simply a nasty case of blepharitis.

He went to see the doctor who suggested he take himself to the A and E department of Moorfields Eye Hospital. The journey down there was pretty miserable. We got a flat tyre in Highgate village and I spent the entire trip on the phone to Amazon trying to ascertain whether there's been some fraudulent activity on my bank account via Amazon Luxemburg, whatever that is. It turns out neither Barclays nor Amazon are particularly able to/ interesting in help(ing) me in this respect. It's like pulling teeth.

Tina, who works at Moorfields, met us at the hospital and sat and chatted to Nathan whilst my ludicrous phone calls continued.

Nathan was dealt with by hospital staff incredibly speedily. I was very impressed.

When we emerged from the hospital, the skies opened and half a tonne of rain fell in about three minutes. It seemed to be falling horizontally somehow. Great big sheets of the stuff were just rolling down the street. We stood under a bus shelter but it was no protection. In the end we made a dash for it, just after Nathan realised he couldn't find his car keys. It turns lit that he'd left them on the front seat (with the car doors unlocked!) Old Street is SO not an area of town to leave an unlocked car in. Thank God it was still there when we returned. I think Nathan is probably more tired than I am!

Thursday, 26 November 2015


We're sitting in the lobby of our hotel waiting to collect our bags before making our way across town to Penn Station and on to Newark Airport where the holiday officially ends. We have a night flight, which is guaranteed to be hell. In my experience the person in front of me will recline his seat almost immediately, and, for six hours, I will feel trapped like an insect in a Venus Fly Trap. It will be hot and stuffy, my nose will get blocked and my eyes will get all scratchy!

Our last day in New York started in our hotel room watching the Thanks Giving parade on TV. It seems to be a parade of giant balloons which starts up at Central Park and heads down to Macy's on 34th. It was odd to think of it happening in real time just two blocks away, but there was no way we were going to get caught up in all of those crowds. There was also a sense amongst some of the New Yorkers we met this week that the parade might be the target of a bit of terrorist nonsense. Besides, I don't like balloons shaped as Sponge Bob Square Pants. After about twenty minutes of watching, it became clear that the parade was one long advert, with the TV show presenters reading little spiels about the companies who had sponsored the floats. If you ask me, the brutal commercialisation I was witnessing goes entirely against the spirit of the day.

Even more horrifying were the cheerleaders on the parade who were twirling replica rifles, which I found distasteful in the extreme. After everything that has happened in the past few months, you'd think someone would have had the decency to suggest they return to twirling batons. What kind of message is America trying to send to the rest of the world?

...And of course the city is bracing itself for Black Friday tomorrow, which is when people have fights in the streets and get involved in crushes and terrible accidents, all for the sake of a bargain. Last year we had it for the first time in the UK, and it was, by all accounts, predictably revolting. TV and radio adverts over here encourage people to be the first in the queues with ludicrous incentives. What on earth has the world come to?

The other thing I find a little perplexing in New York is the fact that all buildings are steam heated centrally, which means you can do very little to control how hot or cold they are inside. I've heard talk of people sleeping with fans on during the winter because their flats are so hot. I can't think it's the best way to conserve energy. My mouth and nose have been permanently dry as a result of being here. It's surely not good for people?

Anyway, enough of the whinging. This city is beautiful and remains one of my favourite places on earth.

It's been unseasonably hot today. T-shirt weather hot. We took the subway underneath the mayhem of the parade and crossed Manhattan to the West Side at 34th to walk the length of the High Line, an old railway line elevated above the streets, a little like Parkland Walk in North London, which fell into disuse in the late 1960s. I learned today that the last cargo train which went along its route was carrying frozen turkeys!

During the 70s and 80s no one had any idea what to do with it. Plants started growing out of the old sleepers and it became a haven for wildlife.

In the 90s, the authorities decided to pull it down, at which point, two young men stepped into the limelight and lobbied the world to turn the tracks into a long, thin parkland, which would snake its way from the Meat Packing District to 34th street, twenty-five blocks north.

It's absolutely beautiful and has become a display ground for large scale art, sculpture and installations, a wonderful green space and a brilliant location for New Yorkers to head to when the hustle and bustle of the city becomes too much. There are hundreds of quirky benches and tables up there, little tranquil corners away from the main paths, lawns, and tremendous glass walls which allow people to look across the city from the elevated position.

New Yorkers have obviously taken it to their hearts. Many cafes, bars and hotels along the walk's length have the words "High Line" in their title, and all sorts of chi-chi/cool bars are opening up in the railway arches below the tracks. There's even a tiny ice rink!

We took the subway back up to Mid Town where we decided to embrace Americana and attend the Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular at Radio City. I guess it's the New York equivalent of a pantomime and the Last Night of the Proms rolled into one. Out here, it's iconic!

Radio City Hall is the most astonishing example of 1920s Art Deco. It is vast, and glorious: Like being inside a giant shiny pumpkin!

The show itself is brash, over-the-top, camp and schmaltzy. The huge stage is flanked by two fully-operational Wurlitzer organs which appear and disappear behind curtains like coffins at a crematorium. A full orchestra rises from below the stage. And then the Rockettes appear, kicking their legs and flicking their arms with the precision of robots. I have probably never seen such in-sync dancing.

Just when you think it can't get any bigger, it just gets bigger. More singers. More dancers. Dwarves. Real-life camels. 40 life-sized toy soldiers. 60 dancing Santas. A 3D film. Two ice skaters spinning like dervishes. Of course it's all grotesque, but it HAS to be seen. The Brits would never do it. We're too arch. It would need to be done as an ironic statement, or a piece of campery, which would make it instantly lose any potential audience because no one would understand how they were meant to view it. But actually, sometimes it's really rather nice to simply let go of all that coolness and imagine what it would be like to be a child watching. Believing in magic...

I felt vulnerable in the theatre. I'll not lie. It will take a while to get over the horror of Paris and not feel like a giant sitting duck in a theatre audience. I found myself planning various escape routes. It's ludicrous. Mostly because it's exactly what they want us to feel.

Anyway, Nathan tells me it's now time to start our journey to Penn Station, so I'll wish you all a very pleasant day... And catch up with you when I'm back in London.

Dames at Sea

Today started with tea served in beautiful china cups in the genteel surroundings of the upper West Side Apartment belonging to our friend, Carey. He tells us the entire top floor of the building once belonged to the mistress of a theatre impresario, I think a chorus girl on Broadway, but these days it's been divided into several flats and he lives in what was once her library and sitting room. It has a beautiful roof terrace with stunning views over the Hudson River.

The grass is always greener, of course, and Carey, a true anglophile, is desperate to one day live in the UK. We'd be lucky to have him. He's a brilliant writer. It should be much easier for successful creative people to up sticks and move from the U.S. to the UK and vice versa. I'm quite sure you'd end up with the same number of people living in both countries. When he was last in England, we took him to see my parents in Thaxted and he loved the place so much, he told me today that he keeps an eye open online for properties in the town similar to my parents' house. It's good to have made an impression! My mission is to make all Americans fall in love with my homeland!

We had a quick bite to eat on Broadway. I ordered a horrid vegetable lasagne which arrived cold, and was full of little cubes of butternut squash. I have very clear rules about the vegetables I feel it's appropriate to put inside a veggie lasagne. Mushrooms, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers. End of. Aubergines and potatoes turn it into a moussaka. Butternut squashes make the texture weird and watery.

We went to see the matinee performance of Dames at Sea this afternoon. Ian is an off-stage cover in the show, which, I was a little surprised to discover only features six performers with no ensemble. The story of the show is fascinating. It was written in the 60s as a sort of pastiche review of clichéd Broadway shows: the shows where people burst into tap routines for no apparent reason and seem able to sight read complicated romantic songs whilst snuggling up to their beloveds on a piano stool.

The great Bernadette Peters performed in the review as a teenager and over the years it has gone from being fifteen minutes long to a full-length show. This is the first time it's officially reached Broadway however, although it did make it to the West End in the 60s and then again in the 90s. Blue Peter's Peter Duncan was in the cast when it played at the New Ambassadors Theatre... Which is the theatre where I worked as a stage door keeper for two years. I'm tempted to say it was the show which was on in the theatre just before I tipped up. In those days the stage door keeper was a ninety-year old woman, whose equally decrepit sister worked at the stage door on the other side of the alley! The sister used to wave wistfully at me.

Today's show was performed with great wit and charm and beyond-amazing tap routines. I was a little disappointed to discover that it's already had its notice, but theatre audiences in NYC will have until January 4th to catch it, so they've been given a dignified amount of time to put the show to bed and prepare their finances. The perilous nature of the life of an actor is, of course, yet another reason why they should be paid handsomely to perform.

After the show we went for a nice cup of tea with Ian before taking the N Train to Astoria where he lives with husband Jem. I was much impressed by Astoria. It's right at the top of the borough of Queens, near La Guardia Airport, and it's a part of town which has a large Greek population. I am thrilled to report that I found halloumi on its supermarket shelves!

Astoria is quieter than Manhattan and has a low-level, ramshackle vibe. The Main Street is lined with cool little bars and shops and the subway trains run on elevated tracks on imposing wrought iron bridges above the street. People sell fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk. It has a wonderfully filmic vibe.

Jem and Ian live in a set of apartment buildings surrounding a number of well courtyards which are full of pine trees and little fountains. There's a slightly old-fashioned 1950s quality about it which I found really fascinating. The flat itself is small but beautifully decorated and I can imagine they must be very happy living there.

We had dinner in a burger joint where you can create bespoke burgers. First you choose the "meat" you want (there were three veggie alternatives) then you select the bun (which includes the option to have the burger "green wrapped" in spinach instead of bread) and then you select the salad vegetables and sides and dressings and relishes you want to throw into the mix. My burger was lush! We shared a portion of giant onion rings.

We went back to the boys' house for tea and chocolate and suddenly our last night in New York was over and we were feeling a little sad. I'll be honest: we're used to most of our friends in this city having been here for a long time, so when we bid them a fond adieu, we know we'll see them when we next see them. It might be months. It might be years. Ian and Jem, on the other hand, have much more recently been wrenched from our regular lives, so seeing them so often out here has simply reminded us both of how much we've been missing them, and will miss them again.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Alone in the Universe

I bought the new ELO album in Barnes and Noble on Union Square last night. I only became aware of the album's existence whilst standing on 42nd Street waiting for an advert for Cindy's latest project to flash up on a giant screen.

The album is called Alone In the Universe, and I listened to it this morning. It's legitimate ELO, in that Jeff Lynne wrote and sang all the songs. Quite a number of the original line-up of ELO are now dead, including the bass player, Kelly Groucott, but I was slightly disappointed (albeit simultaneously impressed) that all instruments on this album were played by Lynne himself, so there was no Bev Bevan on drums, and, crucially, no astonishing virtuoso keyboard solos were played by Richard Tandy. The saddest aspect for me however was that all the strings, which I would define as the most crucial element of ELO's sound, were played on synths, so the album loses the surging, dramatic, engulfing, over-the-top sound world that typifies masterpieces like Into The Blue, which taught me everything I've ever known about writing for strings. As a result of all the above, there's a demo-like quality about the album. There just aren't the layers of detail one might expect from an album by the band.

There are shades and hints of the ELO back catalogue, which I quite like. Can't Get it Out of My Head finds its way into the title track, and there's more than a whiff of Showdown in Love and Rain. This self-referencing feels like a deliberate choice. At one point Lynne sings that he's feeling "Midnight Blue," which fans of the Discovery album will appreciate!

The songs are short, and there are only ten of them on the album, but what shines through is Lynne's astonishing song-writing ability and his distinctive voice. It's worth hearing the album just for this and to be reminded of Lynne's genius when it comes to finding catchy, yet quirky chord progressions. I'm convinced that a few extra pennies spent on real strings would have taken the album from being a wonderful curio into something quite fabulous.

We had a dreadful time this morning trying to find something to eat for breakfast in the hustle and bustle of midtown and downtown New York. We kept assuming we'd find a little diner we liked the look of, but sadly, the nearer we got to the impenetrable crowds of people, the fewer places we could find to eat. Nathan ended up in a Starbucks behind 50 people in a queue. It was noisy, over-crowded and reminded me why touristy areas of this city are to be avoided like the plague, particularly when I'm grumpy and hungry! If another person had screamed "Statue of Liberty boat tours" in my ear, I might have decked someone!

We were in the downtown district to visit the new World Trade Centre, which is currently the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. I'm not actually sure what the Western Hemisphere is, but I'm sure the statistic is very impressive!

It's well worth a trip to the top, if you don't consider $32 to be a rip-off and aren't gullible enough to be pulled in by the offer of additional expensive bolt-ons like photographs and weird noisy iPads to show you the buildings you're seeing when you look out of the windows.

...But the views are staggering. The building is so high that the only way I could comprehend what I was seeing was by imagining I was in a plane. Up there you're looking down on skyscrapers and passing helicopters! It's very strange.

The New Yorkers refuse to call it The Freedom Tower, which is a fake nick name they believe politicians have coined. No one can ever force a building to have a nick name. The people will call it what the people want to call it. (I think the architects of the Swiss Re building in London were actually quite upset when people started calling it The Gherkin!)

Anyway, I found the experience of going up the building mostly awe-inspiring but periodically unnerving. I don't like heights and it's impossible to shake away images of the dreadful things which happened in the area on 9/11. I guess more than anything the experience reminded me that there would have been tourists at the top of the original World Trade Centre buildings when they were hit by the planes. I'd never really thought about that before, but it adds another layer of horror to a scenario I've replayed in my head so often and from so many differing perspectives.

I've always sensed that the streets around the building feel a little sad. Of course, I might be projecting something, but whenever I've traveled down that way in the past, I've always felt a really heavy and lugubrious atmosphere. The first time I ventured down that way was a couple of years (almost to the day) after 911, and I remember how silent those blocks suddenly seemed compared to the rest of Manhattan. Maybe they always were, but I guess these were the streets that would have been covered in white dust for months after the terrible events. They're also the burial ground of thousands of people whose bodies were never found. Sadness pins itself to locations through the people who populate it.

We walked from the World Trade Centre back to the village, finding the American obsession with the concept of "happy holidays" increasingly amusing. Now, I'm not religious in any way, but I appreciate the story of the nativity and the concept of Christmas as a time when families get a state-sponsored period of time to stop work and hang out together. Christmas is simply what we, in countries which were (and in some backward cases still are) Christian call this lovely day off.

I appreciate the effort not to offend, but, let's face it, as our friend Lesley put it on Sunday, "how offended would you be if someone wished you a Happy Hanukah?" Surely no Jewish or Muslim person would really object to being wished a Happy Christmas? In any case, Like Easter, it's merely a pagan festival which has been appropriated by people who have read a novel called The Bible, so what are we all panicking about?

The village in New York has its own very special light. I think it's something to do with the colour and low-rise nature of the buildings in those parts and the fact that the streets in the district break away from the grid pattern which means the sun hits buildings low and from a variety of angles. The shadows are always long and a very specific white light bleaches faces in a hugely flattering manner. The photographs I take in the village always have a washed-out, timeless quality. Like the place itself.

We met Cindy for lunch and then took the subway up to Midtown to meet Christopher for more lunch. Every time we meet friends here, the assumption seems to be that we'll get a little something to chow down on, so we're learning the hard way to walk lots and eat little and often!

We saw Christopher in Matilda tonight. He plays Trunchball (brilliantly) and had sorted us out with amazing tickets in the stalls (or "orchestra" as the stalls are known on Broadway.) The English accents coming off of most of the cast were very dodgy, to the extent that we felt they were limiting the acting (and in one case the vocal pitching) of cast members. I couldn't tell what half the cast were actually trying to say. The word "hot" in most Americans' mouths becomes "hort" in a cod "British" accent and certain vowel sounds get expanded into mini cadenzas which absolutely destroy the sense of sentences! My main bug from last night, however, was the cast's grotesque desire to remove the lateral plosive release from the word "little" and replace it with an ordinary "t" whilst the "l" became a "w" (in the style of someone from Hertfordshire who's trying to sound posh.) Personally I'd have dropped the accents. The show was written by an Aussie, and only references England once. If you're going to get better performances out of people by letting them find characters from a world they know, then you're often better off. I heard one English couple in the interval. Their conversation went: "I think the doctor was English" "darling I think they were ALL meant to be English!" I also walked past a young American lad who asked his Mum how long "half time" was! It would have been a distinctly underwhelming production, I felt, had Christopher not been so epically brilliant. He was insanely good.

After the show we met our friend Frank at Les Mis. He was collecting money for the Broadway Cares charity and we went back to his flat afterwards for cocktails. He lives in Hell's Kitchen right by the river in a flat with astonishing views over into New Jersey on one side, and a very pleasing vista along 42nd street into the theatre district on the other. He's actually right next to the spot on the river where the plane landed five or so years ago. Remember that story? The pilot (with some sort of insane name) got into trouble after taking off from Newark and successfully landed the craft on the river, where a set of somewhat bewildered passengers were rescued by a fleet of boats. I love stories like that!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015


Our day started with a walk through Central Park to the Upper West Side. Funnily enough, as we passed the Rockafella Centre on Sixth Avenue we were greeted by a friendly and familiar face in the shape of a chap called Tim who directed the live footage of our wedding. He was in New York to direct film footage of a six-minute fireworks display at Sachs Department Store, which sounded like it was going to be very exciting.

It's funny: every time we come to New York, we randomly bump into someone we didn't know was going to be here, which bails out my theory that London and New York function in their own unique orbit. This city is full of Brits, particular the mid town area where we're saying. We had breakfast this morning surrounded by English accents! It was bizarre. You hear fewer Brits in cafes in Soho!

Anyway, Central Park looked beautiful in the winter sunshine. You get a real sense of quite how stunning it must have been a month ago in the fall. The few leaves that were left on the trees were the most incredible colours. Reds and bright oranges. Far more vibrant than the colours we get in the UK during the autumn.

Anyway, our trip through the park eventually took us to a lovely yarn shop on the Upper West Side called Knitty City, which is New York's most well-respected wool store. Nathan was wearing one of his double-knit scarves, so it wasn't long at all before he'd become a bit of a celebrity with the old Jewish women who hang out in those parts! I think Nathan may well end up with a new legion of podcast fans.

We took the subway down to the village where we were meeting Jem and Ian for lunch. Rather curiously, at 42nd Street on our way down there, our train carriage doors opened and they got on. Of all the carriages in all the subway trains in the world, they chose ours. Have I just misquoted Casablanca?

Anyway, lunch happened on Bleecker Street, which those who like Menotti operas will be pleased to know generated a discussion about stigmata, Samuel Barber and telephones. Top marks to anyone reading this who has the faintest clue what I'm writing about.

We had a little wander about the shops, which, in the village, are mostly second hand clothes and record shops in the style of Brick Lane. And just like Brick Lane, the independent shop keepers, restaurateurs and artists who gave the place its iconic status are being priced out of the district by greedy landlords, edgy hedge fund managers and fancy brands. It's incredibly sad. The place is fast becoming a theme park version of itself.

From the village we trotted up to Union Square, where, at the Union Square Theatre, we saw the 39 Steps starring our good friend, Billy, who was wonderful. I actually saw the first ever production of that show which I'm told was ten years ago. My mate Nat originated the female role and at one point today I swear I saw something which only she could have brought to the play's stage directions. I think this particular production was created by the original creative team, so perhaps the director said "do it like this..." And out popped Nat! I loved the idea that a little part of her had lodged itself in the character and travelled across the Atlantic!

This production is the last show that will ever be performed in this, the oldest and largest continually-running Off-Broadway theatre in New York. Evidentially, the building's landlords think they can get more money by turning the building into flats, and there's little anyone can do to stop that kind of progress. Seems a shame: all sorts of theatrical luminaries have performed on that stage, including Vanessa Redgrave.

We chatted a little to Billy about how tough it is to be an actor in New York, which is home to 40,000 registered actors. Auditions are like cattle markets. If you go up for a musical, you'll only get to sing 32 bars of a song, which makes a mockery of the last audition I ran where we allowed an actor to sing all eight minutes of the soliloquy from Carousel! Acting auditions here don't allow for any chatter either. There's apparently no sense of working with an actor to get the best out of him or her or a "pull up a chair, let me tell you about what we're dong on this project" type scenario. Billy once received feedback after one of his auditions which merely asked him to "avoid wearing aftershave next time!" Apparently there are sometimes signs in audition waiting rooms warning actors not to wear scent because it "hangs about in the audition room." That's right folks. Once the actors are out of that space they can't leave anything of themselves behind. Apart from, one hopes, a decent memory!

The flip side to all of this is that Broadway actors are, on average, three times better paid than their West End counterparts. They have a union which is incredibly strong and medical insurance which is staggeringly good. Actors in New York can't afford to get lazy, or even whinge, because the rewards are so huge.

We also talked about the difference between Americans and Brits when it comes to self-promotion. Now there's a gulf which needs to be bridged! Within a minute of meeting any Yank, they'll have told you their full name, and probably listed off the high points of their CV. Ask an American how good they are at, well, anything, and they'll reply "excellent." Ask a Brit if he's good at his job and he'll more likely than not say, "oh you know, I'm okay," hoping someone else in the space will big him up. Brits and bragging are just not comfortable bed fellows!

We took the subway home. A brilliant thing happens on some of the subway trains in New York. As they leave the stations, something in their mechanics makes a sort of squeaking buzz which is always pitched to the same four notes - rather wonderfully the first four notes of "Somewhere" from West Side Story! Every time I'm on a train pulling out of a subway station, I feel compelled to join in... "There's a place for us..." It never gets dull!

Monday, 23 November 2015


We had cheap pancakes for breakfast in a little diner around the corner from our hotel which is up on Lexington and 48th. The Lexington Hotel is a pleasant enough place, even though the bath water is brown and the wifi is catastrophic. I haven't been able to check emails since arriving, and I can only post this blog by tethering myself to Nathan's iphone.

American-style pancakes are fluffy and fat and entirely unlike the pancakes the Brits eat on Shrove Tuesday, which I think the Yanks might be more likely to call crepes. I was slightly embarrassed to overhear another Brit, in this morning's diner, attempting to make a big deal out of the fact that the man behind the counter didn't have lemon and sugar for her pancake. He looked at her blankly and offered maple syrup. She wasn't impressed.

We took the subway from Grand Central station, which is surely one of the most beautiful stations in the world. Its most impressive feature is a gigantic Egyptian-style zodiac ceiling mural in the main concourse. The intricate shapes of lions and water carriers are painted onto a vibrant aquamarine backdrop. Some of the stars within the constellations are actually tiny lights which almost twinkle. I think I'm making it sound a little tacky. It's not in the slightest. It's breathtaking - a huge contrast to the murky, sepia-coloured, subterranean world lurking in the subway below.

We took the R train down to a quiet but very charming little district in the south of Brooklyn called Bay Ridge, which is where Sharon and Dan live with their son, Edsy. Sharon and I were at drama school together about 100 years ago and one of the huge draws of New York for me is being able to see her. It was the first time we'd clapped eyes on each other for five years, which is the longest period we've ever been separated.

We had pizza in a local restaurant with two other drama school buddies, Derek and Lesley, who met at the same drama school and have subsequently had two children, Charlie and London (named after the city where they met!) It was so so lovely to see them again.

Derek and Lesley trilled their way back to Manhattan after lunch leaving us at Sharon and Dan's to catch up and get to know Edsy, who is a brilliantly sparky kid. He has autism and it's extremely difficult to watch his parents struggling to communicate with him. Sharon is doing everything right, however. In fact, she refuses to allow his condition to beat either of them and is exploring all kinds of cutting-edge treatment methods including paying a great deal of attention to Edsy's diet. It is slow, slow process, but she will get there. He's plainly an incredibly bright kid, with a brilliant sense of humour, and if anyone can do it, Sharon can. As we left this evening I realised quite how much I've missed her.

A fabulous maroon and purple sunset descended on New York this evening. We could see it out of Sharon's window, brewing. She suddenly threw her house keys at us, pointed at the street below and said "you need to be out there right now taking photographs." And so we ran outside and took a few rather epic shots of the sky with the Statten Island bridge silhouetted in the foreground.

I've grown to associate Sharon with sunsets. Her wedding day five years ago generated the most spectacular sunset I've ever witnessed. She got married in Brooklyn in a venue with huge windows and views across to Midtown Manhattan. The sky literally turned a shade of scarlet. It was almost as though the city was on fire. Sharon, who is herself a very fine photographer, was utterly thrilled. I have pictures of her in her wedding dress wearing the most enormous smile, with the blood red sky glowing behind her.

What I love about the Americans is that they they don't replace or redecorate buildings for the sake of everything looking shiny and fancy. Everything in this city, apart from the glitzy skyscrapers down in the financial distinct, is a little rough around the edges, which makes it feel so much more atmospheric and authentic. Americans will only replace something when it actually starts to fall down which means a huge amount of this city hasn't really been altered since the 60s and 70s. I find it hugely alluring as a result. No wonder it's featured in more films than any other city. Another wonderful day.

Sunday, 22 November 2015


Our feet feel like little tree stumps! During the course of the day we must have walked twenty or more miles; up and down the sidewalks of Manhattan, usually in a diagonal direction to avoid waiting at pedestrian crossings for too long. We have been as far west as 10th Avenue, as far East as Lexington, north to 50th, and south to 4th Street. I'm pleased we walked everywhere because we've also eaten a huge amount of food, largely because we miscalculated our timings and ended up promising to eat with everyone we met today!

First port of call was brunch with Ian. Brunch for me in New York is always an omelette with fried potatoes and rye bread toast with blueberry jam. Ian and Nathan both appeared to be eating sweet things like pancakes with bacon strewn on top, which seems an odd combination to me, but I'm told it works.

Ian walked us through Washington Square Gardens where a busker was playing an actual grand piano! He must make a fortune if it's worth shipping a huge instrument like that into a park. You've also got to be fairly confident about the weather to do that sort of stunt. One rain shower and your piano is wrecked. He didn't need to worry today. It's unseasonably warm and the sun has shone permanently.

We met Cindy in the early afternoon and she took us for a wonderful walk around the village. We saw her beautiful apartment on McDougal, sat in cafes, went to second hand record shops searching for ABBA singles and then had lunch in a veggie restaurant. I learned that the Yanks don't use the word "squizz" to mean look. The man in the record shop didn't know what to say when I asked if I could have a squizz at his ABBA collection! I also learned that New York is full of practising psychics.

A lot of cafes, bars and shops have closed since I was last here, which made me sad, particularly when I discovered they'd closed due to rent rises.

We took the subway up to Midtown for the late afternoon and met Christopher Sieber out of the matinee of Matilda, where he's playing Trunchball. We sat in another cafe and essentially watched him eating whilst catching up on about three years of chatter before heading back down to the village again.

We met Jem in a piano bar called Duplex, where the waiters sing show tunes and a big old tattooed bear plays the piano. New York, and possibly the whole of America, has gone Adele crazy. She's releasing her much-anticipated album, 25, this week, and is doing the rounds over here. In fact, I think she's in New York today. They LOVE her. And actually, one of the waitresses in the piano bar opted to sing the song Hello, which created a real moment, with all the punters joining in with the choruses. Oddly, and for some bizarre reason, I suddenly felt incredibly proud to be British...

We went from Duplex to an Italian Restaurant on Bleecker where I had a salad. As we arrived, a crazy light installation was happening in Father Demo Square which involved a giant light switch, which members of the public could turn on and off. The switch triggered a million fairy lights attached to the trees around the square, but also lights attached to about fifty people who were in frozen tableau poses. When the lights went off, they moved, and froze again when the lights came back on. It was a curiously alluring sight.

We walked home. Forty blocks. I have to sleep.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

So good they named it twice

I seem to be writing this blog entry on a trans-Atlantic flight. Turns out we’re sitting in the worst seats on the plane. To my right is the toilet. People are queueing in the aisle next to me. I have to keep leaning over to close the door. When we were eating, someone made a very horrible smell! As if that weren’t bad enough, the row behind us is for the people who have “paid for extra leg room” which means there’s a sort of wide aisle by the emergency exits where people feel the need to congregate. The people who have paid for the leg room are getting very shirty at the people who are trying to walk across the plane in the space where, one assumes, they feel their enormously long legs should be. I don’t really think they have a right to be shirty. They may have paid for extra leg room, but I didn’t pay for the screaming child they brought with them and I’m keeping my angry mouth very firmly buttoned! 

We had pretty bad turbulence at one point. I say pretty bad. I’m sure I’ve experienced worse. In fact, on my way back from Greece once, the aeroplane dropped hundreds of feet in a few seconds, everyone’s dinner flew everywhere and an air hostess hit the ceiling with her head and was taken off the plane in a neck brace! Fun times! But today’s turbulence was horrifying. I’m not a great flier at the best of times, and, obviously, after Paris, I’m rather jumpier than normal, but this turbulence was accompanied by the endless sobs and wails of children across the plane, which made it incredibly distressing. The bloke behind us (the rich one with the long legs) decided to entirely ignore his screaming child, so it simply screamed louder and longer. When he eventually picked it up to give it a bit of attention, he decided to hold it just above my head. It was like a hovering harpy, which immediately triggered an attack of tinnitus. Just what the doctor ordered. 

So we’re off to New York. Yay! We haven’t been here for too many years. My very close friend Sharon has a young lad whom I’ve never met and, when we were last here, Ground Zero was… well, Ground Zero. I understand it’s a fabulous shimmering tall building these days, which I’ve no doubt we’ll be able to see from everywhere on Manhattan. I’ve heard the journey to the top of the building is well-worth the effort (even for a man with staggering vertigo), so, if I’m feeling brave, we’ll probably do that. 

We are excited about our trip. We have an obscene amount of theatre to see. Many friends out here are currently in many shows. We get to catch up with Cindy, Ian and Jem, Christopher and Kevin, Derek and Lesley and, of course Sharon and her crew. We get to hang out in the village, stroll along the High Line, sing in piano bars, have brunches of french toast, omelettes and fried potatoes sitting in 60s style booths, eat cup cakes in coffee shops and see those beautiful, ostentatious lights of Broadway. As the plane gets closer to our destination I’m allowing myself to feel a little more excited. The hideous thought of flying will always prevent me from actually looking forward to a holiday until I’m about to land! 

We arrived in Manhattan at about 7pm New York time and I immediately received word from my bank that they’d frozen my card on account of “fraudulent activity.” This is the third time this has happened in as many months. So there I was, in my hotel room, speaking to someone called “Warren” in an Indian call centre, begging to have my card unfrozen so that I could get some money out. It’s a fairly ludicrous situation but it appears to be mostly sorted.

We’re staying on the East Side in the Midtown area, so went to Times Square for a little wander this evening. If anything the place is even brighter than it was when I last visited. There are new walls of light with huge advertisements for theatre shows, perfumes and Hershey chocolate bars almost everywhere you look. There’s also a large presence of armed police, all of whom carry machine guns, one assumes to show Americans that they don’t need to worry about their theatres being attacked by extremists and to show the rest of the world that America won’t be fucked with. There’s a very crazy juxtaposition between them and the street artists on stilts, dressed as minions and the Statue of Liberty, having their pictures taken with excited children. Americans seem to be able to ignore people holding guns. I was drawn to them like a moth to a flame, and then instantly repelled after realising that if I stood anywhere near them I would be caught in the cross fire if there was a shoot out. 

We had a slice of pizza in a cruddy cafe somewhere around 9th Avenue, and then swung back into the theatre district, where we found Ian lurking in the foyer of the Helen Hayes Theatre where he’s working on the production of Dames At Sea. We whisked him off for a catch up and a slice of apple cake in a nearby cafe, bought some melatonin from an all night chemist, and… well, I guess it’s time to go to bed. My clock informs me it’s 5am in the UK. No wonder my eyes are itching! 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Kitchen Impossible

We're currently watching "Kitchen Impossible with Michel Roux Junior", which, baring its ghastly title, is an incredibly compelling programme. It follows the fortunes of a group of young people with physical and learning disabilities ranging from Tourette's to Down's Syndrome via all shades of autism. The aim of the show is to train the young people in the skills which might give them a shot at a job in the culinary industry.

The most distressing story in the show belongs to a young lad called Dan who lost his sight a few months ago as a result of diabetes. It's astonishingly upsetting to watch him trying to cope with his new situation. He exudes sadness. Even the other young people give the impression that they feel he's ended up with the rough end of the stick. They try to look after him, but plainly none of them can look after themselves.

The comedy aspect of the programme is universally provided by a girl called Sophie with Tourette's, who, during Michel Roux's opening pep talk suddenly shouted "Michel, can I lick your face?" When she was finally offered a job at the end of the series, she said, "yes please. I quit!" Brilliant telly. I've howled with laughter. I've wept...

We've been writing all day, whilst tidying the house in preparation for our holiday which starts tomorrow and couldn't come at a better time because we're both rinsed out I tell you. Rinsed. Why is it that we feel the need to tidy a house for a period of non-residential activity? I stuck a load of bleach down the loo before chucking the bottle away in a bin bag which Nathan took out with him as we left the house this evening. Sadly it must have got on the wrong side of the liner because it's splashed all over his trousers and ruined them entirely.

Anyway, we're currently working on an incredibly rude song for the secret project, which, once we'd got the tone and gist of the lyric sorted, offered us a bit of much-needed comic relief. It's the big solo song for the one cast member in the show we knew well before the project started rehearsals, and we sincerely hope she's not going to be too shocked by its content!

Later this evening, we watched a show about First Dates, which featured a pair of waiters discussing two mega-haired hipsters who were eating a meal together. The most perfect description of hipsters emerged from one of the waiter's mouths: "It's like someone's taken a rainbow and dragged it through the mud!"

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


I took a last-minute decision this morning to jump in the car and drive to Thaxted where I was reliably informed my brother and brother-in-law were spending the day.

I'm glad I did. It was a much-needed tonic after another sleepless stress-filled night. We spent a great deal of time looking into our familial history online. Edward has managed to track one branch of my mother's side back to 17th Century America! It's not often it goes that way round! How many times have you heard an American tracking their family back to 17th Britain!?

It turns out that there's a heck of a lot of Welsh blood on my Mum's side as well as my Dad's, so, as I've always suspected, if you cut me in half, I'd bleed red, white and green!

We took ourselves to a wine bar called Recorders for lunch. I'm rather surprised we've not been there before. It has a good ambience (lots of exposed beams), friendly staff, a wonderful menu - tonnes of veggie food - and omelettes which are light and fluffy like soufflés. Better still, they were playing ABBA on the stereo... And not just the big hits. We heard all sorts of obscure tracks: He Is Your Brother, Hasta Mañana, The Day Before You Came, Head Over Heals, Eagle...

Each of the songs seemed to trigger a childhood memory. Playing records in my bedroom as kids, dancing to Honey Honey in the sitting room... The lyrics seemed to have extra poignance today for some reason as well. It's funny, you can travel the globe and have the most extraordinary life, but your siblings are the only people who share the memories of formative experiences. That seemed very apparent today.

I left Thaxted after Strictly It Takes Two and zipped back through gales to London. I haven't driven out of Thaxted on a still night recently, which means the conditions haven't been right to witness the crazy hovering band of ghostly smoke you sometimes find on a hair-pin bend on the edge of the town. We saw it a month or so ago, and I'd love to see it again so that I can get out of the car and explore it properly.

We came home and edited our film for the Eurovision entry, discovering to our chagrin that even though the deadline is Friday it can take up to 72 hours to be sent the details of how to submit a song once you've registered interest. I sincerely hope this doesn't scupper us in any way. Life can be awfully complicated sometimes can't it?

Eurovision Thunder

After a morning of work on the mystery project, Nathan and I set sail through a rainstorm for Sonica Studios in Clapham, which is, after Julian's studio, the place in the world where I've recorded the most music. I've done sessions for all sorts of projects there, from the Busker Symphony to parts of the London Requiem and the whole of the Pepys Motet. It's a true home from home. Apprentice fans will recognise the studio's name as the location where this year's contestants recorded children's story books.

Today we were recording vocals for our Eurovision Song Contest entry. And I can reveal that the vocalist who breathed wonderful life into our song was young Lauren Samuels, the lead actress in Bend It Like Beckham in the West End and an all round good egg. She's probably best known for reaching the last three in the BBC TV search to find a Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. You remember the show? Each week one of the potential Dorothy's got carted off in a hot air balloon singing Somewhere over the Rainbow. Camp. Beyond. Words!

It turns out that Lauren is actually from Nuneaton, which makes us practically brother and sister. Her step Dad lives in the street where my Dad was brought up, and her accent is instantly recognisable (and genuine music) to my ears.

Of course she was brilliant. And not just brilliant vocally, but friendly, charming, funny, low-maintenance and completely unfazed by the fact that entry requirements dictate she had to be filmed singing live at the microphone.

The entire session was done and dusted in an hour and the music was whisked off to Julian by some virtual magic and mixed this evening. We've just heard the results and they sound epic! I couldn't be happier. Nathan is currently sweating and swearing whilst editing the film together. Poor lamb has a cold which is making things very difficult.

Speaking of the London Requiem, (which I mentioned very briefly at the start of this blogpost), if you go onto You Tube and search for the film of Agnus Dei from the London Requiem, you'll find a new comment which says (in caps), "why was this London Requiem event not given any publicity and I saw nothing about it anywhere until three years later when I found an entry in the book 'Bizarre London' by David Long?" Fame at last! I'm not sure I've been mentioned in a book before...

Whilst we're on You Tube, I'm more than a little happy to report that my film, Tyne and Wear Metro: The Musical has recently passed 100,000 views on You Tube. Adele I am not, but I'm fairly chuffed with that figure!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Bermondsey biscuits

Fiona and I have just been to a very pleasant gig at a former biscuit factory down in Bermondsey. The material we were listening to was written by Stef Olsdal from the band Placebo. It was essentially electronica with a prominently featured a string quartet, the 'cellist of whom was actually playing my 'cello. The players had come from Spain, and, to avoid her having to take her instrument on an Easy Jet flight, Stef asked around to see if anyone in London could lend her one. I stepped into the breach and am proud to say the instrument sounded very nice, although the girl playing it said she'd found it a little hard to play because the bridge is really high. It suddenly struck me that I might have been a much more dextrous 'cellist in my youth had I sorted this particular feature out!

The band performed in front of a wall of film projections, which, at one point featured rather compelling images of buildings and bridges being demolished. I'd rather like to watch a building being exploded like that in the flesh. There's something incredibly dramatic about the way they implode, although, there's tragedy there as well. The tattered curtains flapping in the broken windows of a condemned building tell a million stories.

Stef made a moving tribute to those who had been killed in Paris, some of whom he knew personally. Shivers.

Bermondsey is a weird and slightly eerie part of town. Fiona said she'd heard someone getting off the tube and turning to her friend to ask "are we still in London?" The place is full of imposing council blocks and dark railway arches. I was a little relieved to get out of there if I'm honest.

We're watching the X Factor results show. I have three observations.

1) Nick Grimshaw needs to stop going on about how much he hates musical theatre. He never misses an opportunity to say something facile about how acts shouldn't do this and that because it makes them "look like they're in a musical."

2) Girl singers shouldn't tap their fingers on their microphones whilst singing - especially when it's not in time with the music. The Sugababes used to do it and it irritated me then.

3) Modern flame-haired bleety "singer" Jess Glynne should not be mistaken for 1970s Rock God Jeff Lynne.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

So what do we do?

I kept hearing horrifying stories from Paris today and then going online to see if there was more information available but not quite being able to look at what was there. It's genuinely difficult to know what to say. When people start being attacked for listening to music, watching football and sitting in cafes then I no longer understand the world. I certainly don't understand the ludicrous people who feel the need to make comments like "if you thought Paris was bad, imagine what it feels like to live on the West Bank." The Paris attacks were on the fringes of my world. The theatre massacre, for example, happened in a venue Fiona has played in three times. Some of the people shot were people she knows.

Stef from the band Placebo came to borrow my 'cello this morning and was telling me that the fans of the band who were playing in the theatre when the gunmen stormed in, were, in many cases, also fans of his band.

...And then you start to wonder what theatre they'd choose if the same thing happened in London? The Kentish Town forum? The National Theatre? The Shaftesbury, where Nathan works on the box office...?

I genuinely can't get my head around what has happened. Two thoughts are currently flying about in my brain: Firstly, that we have to carry on as usual. We must continue to make art. We must continue to go to the theatre. We have to or our industry will die. Frankly, if someone takes me out whilst I'm in a theatre, then so be it. I'll die doing the thing I've lived for.

The second thing which I've started to wonder is whether the Muslim community itself needs to stand up to be counted. It's no longer enough for religious leaders to simply send written messages which say "we condemn this." They need to march. They need to irradiate radical preaching so that young Muslim people don't think it's okay to do this sort of thing. I realise a lot of Muslim people are scared of their elders and scared of raising their heads above the parapet, but unless they do, we are lost. I'm somewhat sad to report that very few if any of my Muslim contacts on Facebook are displaying solidarity symbols on their profiles. And, of course, why should they? I'm not... But then again, there could well be hideous retaliations against Muslim people after Paris and I worry that if the Muslim community doesn't scream "not in our name" vociferously and angrily, then people will feel justified in their bigotry. But then, that's just one view, which comes out of a man with very little understanding of what the hell is going on in the world at the moment.

Speaking of bigotry, we watched Strictly Come Dancing tonight and were thrilled to see homophobe Jamelia in the bottom two for the fourth time running, which must be some sort of record. Of course there was a fabulous irony attached to her dancing to A Little Respect, not just because it's a song which was written by a gay man, but because Andy Bell, its writer, sang it at our wedding. Our gay wedding. One of the gay weddings that Jamelia doesn't approve of. I didn't see the dance of course. I spooled through it both times so have no idea if the woman can dance or not but she looked absolutely awful in her bright pink dress. Like someone who'd done a smash and grab in a charity shop.

Call it McCarthyism

So, it would appear that the crown prosecution service have dropped all charges against my friend, the genius, Roy Harper. I feel incredibly proud to have conducted a couple of mini-tours of his music, the last of which was just before a series of ridiculous allegations were made against him. I'm not even going to dignify the claims by repeating them here. I knew they weren't true at the time, and was incredibly vociferous about the fact. Roy, you see, had been inadvertently sucked into the Yew Tree witch hunt which has destroyed the reputations and careers of so many innocent men. Call it McCarthyism. Call it the Popish Plot. Call it the Salem witch trials. It doesn't really matter what you call it. History never repeats itself, but man always does...

Of course the news that all charges have been dropped never causes the same sort of splash as news of the original allegations. In the meantime, Roy has been through hell (and incurred considerably financial cost) whilst clearing his name.

My personal belief is that we ought to honour the English principle about a man being innocent until proven guilty, which means keeping news of any "crime" out of the press until a proper trial has taken place and a genuine verdict has been found. Trial by media is sickening and grossly unfair.

I've been looking forward to today all week. We had a de-brief about our workshop week first thing in the morning before heading down to Catford for an afternoon blast of craft and cake. It was a delicious chocolate fudge cake today and scones which we had with cheese and home-made tomato chutney. Nathan knitted a crazy scarf. Abbie had an adult colouring-in book. They're all the rage at the moment. They're incredibly intricate designs of flowers, butterflies and extraordinary birds, quite unlike the great big Disney shapes that we used to colour in as children.

This evening, Julie, Abbie, Nathan and I went to Thaxted to take part in the annual tennis club quiz. We came third, which was a very poor performance by our standards. I guess the questions didn't quite tap into our collective general knowledge. The sports round was an absolute catastrophe, although, I never mind tanking on a sports round. It's almost a badge of honour. Like the fact that I've never seen a Star Wars film!

We were fed chilli for tea at the quiz, and, when the chairmen of the club stood up to deliver her obligatory inaudible and humourless thank you speech at the end, I discovered that the spoons we'd been given to eat the chilli with created a brilliant launch pad from which to fire pieces of screwed up paper incredibly long distances.

I aimed most of my missiles at the team who won, and was thrilled when a piece of foil from a Kit Kat lodged itself in one woman's hair. It'll be a nice treat for when she brushes it tonight. Nathan pretended to be well shocked at my rudeness, almost certainly because my parents were there. After ticking me off he whispered in my ear that he was secretly very proud.

Abbie won a fluffy penguin in the raffle.

We came back to my parents' house for a quick cuppa before heading home. My parents have been growing grapes on a vine in the garden, which have done brilliantly well. I was a little surprised to find them fruiting so late in November, but I suppose there are types of eiswein which are made by grapes which are harvested after the first frosts, so grapes must ripen very late in the year.

We looked at my Mum's dachshund calendar. My family are all fans of the little dogs, so my brother-in-law always gets her a calendar for Christmas. Most of the pictures are or very lovely little dogs, but some seem angry, mentally disturbed, demented, or damn-right evil, so my Mum has been known to doctor the photographs, covering dodgy eyes with strips of paper and things. This month's photograph had been entirely covered by an enormous poppy. We peeled it back to reveal the creature underneath which was somewhat shocking. Abbie thought it looked like a potato. My mum said she thought it looked like a pig. I'm not at all surprised the picture needed to be covered over. I'd have done the same!

Saturday, 14 November 2015


We spent the day today working towards the final showcase of our little project. Beyond today, we're back to the process of writing, integrating what we've learnt in time for the next phase. 

A very bizarre thing happened just before lunch. This sounds perhaps a little dramatic, but I think the Caledonian Road area might have been hit by a tornado! We were rehearsing a particularly dramatic song, where one of the characters gets very angry and upset and then sings "no more rain" rather triumphantly. We were aware that something odd was going on outside. The sky had turned a very odd colour, and suddenly the curtains at the windows started billowing like something from Scooby Doo! 

I could see leaves swirling in circles outside, and then suddenly the wind started roaring, the windows started rattling, the building started shaking and the curtains nearly blew off their casters. Everyone stopped, a little shocked by what was happening. We started the song again, and, just as the character sang "no more rain" for a second time there was a huge roar of sound and the fire alarm went off. The building was immediately evacuated. 

We traipsed out into the courtyard, with wind, rain and hail smacking us in the face. And then, almost as soon as it had started, the sun came out and it was as though nothing had happened.

There was, however, carnage on the street. Someone's window had been blown clean out of its casement and was smashed on the street below. The manager of Co-op round the corner had lost all of his signs. "They literally blew half way down the street... I thought the end of the world had come..." He said. An old lady in the shop wanted to talk about what had happened "I was coming out of the community centre... I didn't have a clue what was was going on... I just ran back inside..."

Wind damage

We did our workshop presentation this evening and it probably couldn't have gone any better in terms of the performers truly raising their games and the audience response. Crucially, people hung about afterwards which is always a good sign. Within a week or so I'll be able to write about what we've been up to, which will be a great weight off my mind, but this past week has been a very special one: highly creative and full of laughter. I'm both relieved it went so well, and a tiny bit sad that it's all over. 

As the day wore on, we started hearing about the dreadful attacks in Paris, which made the weird tornado at lunchtime all the more prescient and strange. God knows society can't carry on living in fear like this. It genuinely feels like we're being held to ransom by these extremists but I'm not sure I know what the solutions  are without declaring all out war... and we all know where that ends up. Personally, I'm beginning to think it's time for the UK to protect itself by withdrawing from the world stage. If we're seen as neutral, or better still, inconsequential and powerless, I'm thinking we might feel a little safer. I realise I'm simplifying things. But an aggressive political stance could well place us in the line of fire. 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Fall Out 4

We've had another tiring day down on the Caledonian Road, working on our mystery project. It's so tiring that I can barely think by the end of the working day. Of course this is when all the meetings happen and you're expected to be on good form and in a brilliant mood. I'm always feeling shirty and impatient, so I snap and get sarky. I think people must think I'm on some sort of spectrum.

Still, things are slowly coming together. We're doing a little presentation tomorrow evening for an invited audience and we spent the day working on the material we've selected to perform for them. I think there's half an hour or so. Some of the music is really tricky but the actors are coping manfully.

I've just seen an advert on the telly for a computer game called "Fall Out 4" which appears to be set in a post-nuclear landscape. The advert shows a town being blasted by an atomic bomb, which I think is one of the most tasteless and distressing things I've ever witnessed. The game seems to involve people shooting each other up dressed in anti-radiation suits. I've never seen the point in computer games. They're plainly a complete waste of time and aimed at violent voyeurs who get bored to quickly. The adverts for the games always irritate me because whatever visuals they show are always run with the wording "not actual game footage." What's the bloody point in that? Surely people want to see what the game actually looks like? Mind you, the last computer game I played was PacMan, which was considerably more pixilated and basic than anything I've witnessed in those adverts!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Name that song

I'm getting really fed up with incredibly wealthy and famous people claiming to have been held back by sexism, ageism and any other ism they feel might suit their cause. Multimillionaire Oscar-winning Reece Weatherspoon has recently waded into the sexism row, claiming to have been held back by a society which claims women aren't allowed to be ambitious. I'm not sure quite how much more successful she'd like to have been. Perhaps she's suggesting that if she were a bloke she'd have won three oscars by now? Witherspoon is now 39, which means she's also started complaining about her age... Here's a little thought, love: if you really think there are no roles for older women in Hollywood, how about you use some of your not-so-tiny fortune to invest in female writers, producers and directors making films which readdress the balance? Whinging is easy. The older I get, the more I realise we're all rushing to claim the world is easier for everyone else, when actually, I think we simply have to acknowledge that this world is pretty tough for everyone! Except rich people who go to public schools... And then the world is quite tough for them because they grow up wanting nothing, which brings its own kind of misery.

NB - I have just spoken to a few friends who are closer to the world of Hollywood than I am. They assure me that Reece Weatherspoon doesn't just have a point, but she's also invested a huge amount of money in the search for female talent... So actually, quite a lot of that previous paragraph is a bit of a nonsense, which forces me to immediately eat my words... Especially the bit where I call her "love"... Although I call men "love" as well, so it's not as patronising as it might read!

It appears that there's presently a lobby to "name our storms," so people in the North of Scotland have started the ball rolling and are currently bracing themselves for storm Abigail. It doesn't sound very good does it? Besides, storms are not hurricanes... And using girl names to describe them (just as we do with hurricanes) strikes me as, not just a little silly, but potentially rather frightening for those who hear Abigail is on its way and panic because they think it must be a storm of epic proportions. If we must name our storms, surely we should be naming them after colours or animals or at least boys names to avoid anyone expecting a terrible disaster? And where does it stop? Will we start naming rain showers? It's just a storm, people... Let's not try to imbue it with anything more than that simply because we don't have anything more exciting.

We had another day of workshopping today, and it was as exhausting as every other day. Lots of singing, a bit of acting, a bit of dance. I think we're getting somewhere, although I wish we had an extra day... For no other reason than because I'm rather enjoying the process, despite the film crew's presence feeling a little intimidating, particularly when you're not too sure what you're doing!

We came home to watch a show about the number ones of the Beatles which the papers reliably informed us featured Benny off of Abba. Turns out it was Bjorn. Still a treat, but can you imagine the uproar if someone had mistaken John for Paul in the Beatles? No, you can't... so don't get your Abbas in a muddle!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Boom a bang bang

Today we had another bash at recording an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. We did the backing track today and will record vocals next Tuesday. Heaven knows if there's a point in our doing it. The BBC is making a big deal about the fact that they're taking the selection process really seriously this year... Although they said the same last year and I guarantee our song wasn't heard by a single judge. It makes my blood curl if I'm honest because I believe that Eurovision success can only come if a country starts to take the competition seriously, and that process can only happen if you allow those writers who care passionately about the contest, and shell out large sums of money to create high quality demos, an opportunity to feel they are being taken seriously. I am a life long fan of Eurovision - and a fairly well-regarded composer. If I were the selection committee, I would take me very seriously.

I understand, that this year, UK Eurovision entries are being presided over by a chap from the record industry called Hugh Goldsmith. I wouldn't normally do this, but if anyone reading this blog knows him, or might know someone who knows him, I'd love them to find out if it genuinely is an open playing field this year. I'd rather not enter if the BBC have already chosen their act and writers behind closed doors. As they plainly did last year...

We have a very strong song which I don't want to waste. The session musician who came in to play guitar (whom we'd not met before and is the guitarist for ABC) actually applauded the song when he heard it for the first time. I've not known that to happen before.

The song was recorded at Julian's studio in Limehouse. We had Vicky's Martin playing drums for us. He played drums on the wedding and was on fire in the studio today. Drummers are worth their weight in gold. You can convince yourself that computer samples and electronic drums are as good as the real thing until you sit in a studio with a bloke bashing merry hell out of his kit, and suddenly your song starts to motor into life!

We've gone for a rockier edge this year. I guess you might say it's a little like Muse's version of Feeling Good, and the girl who's singing it is very exciting (but more on that front in a week's time...)

Our guitarist was a proper character. He was an American from New Orleans who'd obviously been travelling around the rock-God block for many many years. He was one of those musicians who seems to inherently understand where a piece of music needs to go and we gave him free rein to basically drop in whatever little bits and bobs he fancied, including a massive Brian May-style solo!

By the time he was done, he'd filled in all the gaps, at which point he declared, with great comic timing: "If I add any more screaming guitar lines to this chorus it will start to sound like a fire in a pet shop!"

Fiona joined us in the afternoon to drop in some violin on the track, which was brilliant. We were hoping to kidnap her and take her up north for an evening of telly, but she was rushing back to Hove Actually.

...And so, here we are back in Highgate at 8pm with nothing to do until the workshop resumes tomorrow morning. Let me tell you. This feels very strange...

Cally Road

Today we travelled to Caledonian Road for the first day of our workshop week on the mystery project. It was exhausting but entirely uplifting because we were finally able to sit in the presence of a roomful of people who are as keen to make the piece as successful as we are. There are few words to describe what a relief it is to share the burden with such talented people.

It was wonderful to work with a troupe of actors and to hear the words and music coming alive as they drifted out of their mouths. The cast are brilliant. Really lively and eccentric. And for the next week or so, just as we have, they have all been sworn to secrecy.

...and of course, because of this, I can't be at all specific about what we've been doing!

I had hummus, tomatoes and a French stick for lunch, from a little Co-op around the corner. Crumbs, it was a really exciting day, and all I can write about is the food I ate!

What I CAN say is that Our Gay Wedding: The Musical has been nominated for another award! This one is called the Rose D'or and would appear to be an incredibly prestigious international award. It seems remarkable to me that almost two years since we made the film, we're still receiving award nominations. As our commissioning editor wrote today in his congratulatory email: "if there were a prize for the shortest production period and longest awards run, you would definitely win it!"

We're up in the category of best Arts programme - against the Monty Pythons! Apparently a record number of programmes were entered for the awards this year. We won't win. We've had our fair share of wins.

But, it is thrilling to be nominated. We have had the most astounding awards season...

The nomination tally is as follows:
- 2 Guardian television awards (most innovative programme and TV moment of the year)
- Grierson award (most entertaining documentary) WON
- Broadcast Award (best music programme)
- RTS award (best Arts programme)
- BAFTA award (best specialist factual)
- Prix Italia (Performing Arts award) WON
- Rose D'Or (best Arts Programme)

...And all for getting married. #luckymen

Sunday, 8 November 2015

X Craptor

We worked at the kitchen table all day today, prepping material for our workshop week, which starts tomorrow. We tripped along at a fair rate of knots, which meant our evening was freed up to watch a bit of telly. We saw last night's X Factor, which, yet again was a complete road crash, with a massive whiff of product placement for Talk Talk TV, Nick Grimshaw going on about his hatred of musical theatre, and all the judges smack talking each other and rabbiting away in "street" cliches; "you got to bring it ten times harder." How the hell can you bring something harder? Could you bring me back some shopping? But make sure you bring it hard...

It was "re-invention" week this week, which appeared to mean that everyone sang "mash-ups" - which these days is what we call what we used to call musical montages. A "mash up" in my view is two songs superimposed on top of one another to create a new piece rather than two discrete songs segueing from one to another. Call me old fashioned. The ultimate mash up was Freak Like Me by the Sugababes. Or maybe that was just a heavily-used Gary Newman sample... Anyway, when Rita Ora started shouting "mash it up, mash it up, mash it up, boom" in a cod Jamaican accent, I felt so ashamed I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.

On and on Ollie Murs went about how he'd once been a contestant on the show. Didn't win though did he?

And then the infernal advert breaks... After every act. Adverts you can't skip on catch up. And adverts which are the same every time. My least favourite at the moment features the dreadful Nicole Kidman interacting with those ludicrous meerkats. She's had so much plastic surgery that the entire top half of her face has stopped moving. How can you be an actress if your face doesn't move?

Anyway, during the evening, we received an email suggesting that Cat, who we're working with on the mystery project, was down at the office in Kentish Town printing music and scripts, so we rushed to the shops to buy a load of chocolate, jumped in the car and drove down the road to give her a bit of moral support.

It was lovely to get out of the house.

We talked about children's telly in the 1980s and she was astonished to learn that there was a presenter back in the day called Christopher Lillycrap. Worse than his name was the fact that he presented a show called Flicks, the logo for which looked entirely like the word "fucks."

We dropped Cat back home in Finsbury Park (which is Krapy rub sniff backwards) and then came home to continue trawling through the X Factor.

Another double elimination. I can barely contain myself.

Cabin fever

I noticed earlier that Josh Widdicombe is currently doing publicity for his new sit com, which follows in a long line of slightly arch TV comedies featuring well-known comedians play heightened versions of themselves. Miranda, Simon Anstell, and the cast of Catastrophe, have all used their own names as the basis for fictional characters. It sits a little uncomfortably with me if I'm honest. It's one thing to tell a life story but quite something else to turn yourself into a character and place yourself in a variety of bizarre and ludicrous fictional situations. I have to ask myself what the purpose of doing this actually is? It's almost as though these comedians are acknowledging that they can't act for toffee and therefore that, in order to perform well, they need to "just be themselves". Except they're not being themselves are they? So why not just invent a character name and give acting a bash? I mean, Miranda always plays Miranda... Even when her character isn't called Miranda!

I have cabin fever again tonight, having sat, yet again, for twelve hours under a pair of headphones at the kitchen table. There's not much else to say, other than that I'm rather enjoying Adele's new song, Hello, which I see is at number one in every country in the world. That's pretty good going I'd say!

Saturday, 7 November 2015


There's not a lot to say about today. I got up. I had a bath. I ate some Shreddies. I sat at the kitchen table and worked hard all day. I made posh cheese on toast for lunch. As a little teaser, I've been working on a song about roller skating! Let your imaginations soar! (I certainly had to!)

Dear Jeremy from the NYMT has been leaving cryptic and tantalising messages on the Brass Facebook group all day about, one assumes, the possibility of more activity on the show front in 2016. The former cast are going wild trying to work out the meaning of what's been said, joining up the dots and contacting me in the hope that I'll spill the beans despite my not having any beans to spill! It would certainly be lovely to see the show on stage again in 2016.

I'm racking my brains to think of something else to say other than that I happened upon the song "Requiem" by the London Boys today. It has a nasty habit of cropping up on You Tube when you do a search for the London Requiem, and I've tended to avoid it... until today. It turns out the song's a right old blast from the past. Check it out on the link below if you're aged from about 38 to 44!

The London Boys were a German (and male) version of Mel and Kim. Ethnically non-descript, they wore wide-brimmed hats and multi-coloured jump suits and had all the same, slightly louche moves. I think they used to specialise in one-handed Arab springs and crazy acrobatics. Mel and Kim didn't do that. Anyway after seeing the video for Requiem, curiosity got the better of me and I had a little read about them on Wikipedia. It turns out they were both killed in the same car accident, somewhere in the Austrian Alps. The tragedy also killed one of the duo's wives and left their child an orphan. Hideous business.

Well that's a downer, isn't it?

Quick joke.

Q - What do you call a poodle with no legs?

A - A sponge.

Thursday, 5 November 2015


It's 11pm and I'm frying some potatoes for tea. Anyone confused by the fact that we tend to get up at 9am most mornings will suddenly realise that our hours are completely cock-a-hoop! We finish work at 10pm these days. It's a bit insane.

It's not all work. We had a pleasant little sojourn in the rain with our lovely new Italian friend whom we met at the Prix Italia. She was working as a translator on the awards and we were placed in her care for the day. She looked after us fabulously well, so we thought we should repay the favour when we heard she was passing through London.

It turns out she's the biggest Queen fan in Italy, so was off to a massive fan convention at Pontins in Southport. It sounds like they're going to have an amazing time. What a wonderful experience to share your love of a band with a whole group of people who feel the same way. I've hitherto thought the idea of these gatherings was at best eccentric and geeky and at worst, a touch tragic, but actually, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be a lot of fun. There are quizzes, games and dancing with like-minded people... I mean, what's not to like?

Anyway, we thought we'd take her for a lovely stroll on Hampstead Heath, stand on Parliament Hill and look down at the city lights twinkling in the Autumn air. Sadly it rained like I've not known it rain before, so we got in the car and decided to drive her around the perimeter of the Heath instead, instantly getting caught up in a sensationally awful traffic jam. We limped our way through Gospel Oak and South End Green, but the poor girl couldn't see anything out of the misted-over windows and whenever she unwound them, she got freezing cold and horribly wet. All in all it was a fairly miserable experience! I swear London is broken!

We tried to get out of the car twice in the hope that our friend might be able to get a little sense of how lovely the Heath is. The first time, we were driven back by sheeting rain, the second time my foot and ankle instantly vanished into a muddy puddle. This part of North London is so incredibly beautiful but really all our friend saw tonight was condensation and red tail lights! Boo!

The rest of the day has found me under headphones, developing my tinnitus and attempting to prep music documents for our workshop week which starts on Monday. I got awfully behind, and then made up a lot of time. The one thing Nathan and I are brilliant at is meeting deadlines!