Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Waterloo sunset

I have woken up for three days now with the words "Jodrell Bank" floating about in my head. I don't know what that's all about. Until I did a Google search, I had no idea that Jodrell Bank is a giant telescope. Even if I knew that fact in my subconscious, why would it be fighting to make its way into my conscious thoughts? It's all very odd. I went to school with a girl called Jodrell Banks (I didn't.)

I have felt all day today that I'm about to fall off the edge of a cliff. This walk, which starts tomorrow at 9am, seems an increasingly bizarre prospect, the nearer it gets. I keep asking myself why I'm doing it and not coming up with a better example than that it's simply a life experience. And I suppose that's why we all go on holiday and such. I'm just not sure I'm physically, or mentally ready for the challenge. I don't think I've dealt very well with the year in general to be quite honest, so I guess I might as well try to buck the trend and end the year with a success!

I went into London to meet a lovely lady from the Arts Council this morning and then took myself down the South Bank where Nathan is working at the moment. We had lunch at Wagamama and then went up into the gods of the building to the office where he's working with Philip, one of our best men at the wedding.

I love the Southbank. The building is such a wonderful example of brutalist architecture and there's always something going on. Nathan introduced me to a little upstairs bar which members of the public can visit during the day to sit and work. It's a gloriously calm spot. Utterly silent to the extent that people walking through are forced to whisper.

Walking across Waterloo Bridge was a glorious experience. A haze was coming off the River Thames and the sun was low in the sky, tuning Hungerford Bridge, Westminster and the buildings of Vauxhall into layers of silhouettes which went from dark brown to pigeon grey.

I came home to pack my tiny rucksack, trying to work out what it is I really need and what I can get away with leaving at home. I read an article today which suggested that Kate Bush has praised Theresa May. The news made me feel a bit ill. This is Theresa May who is "putting her faith in God to guide us through Brexit." Just what you want in a prime minister. There is a huge amount of fear in the Arts community about the meaning of Brexit for us. The European Union is directly responsible for a huge amount of money going into British Arts, and no one in central government has made a single pledge about how a post-Brexit Arts scene in the UK might look. Maybe Kate Bush is angling for a dame-hood? It's about time...

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


Today's been one of those days which I will be glad to see the back of. Everything seemed to be stalling before it had begun, and I had a list of things to do which seemed to be about a mile long.

At lunchtime, just as we were about to set off for Brent Cross to buy a load of stuff for my ludicrous walk, which starts on Thursday (weather forecast suddenly awful!), I went into my wardrobe, looking for a pair of arch supports to put into my trainers. It was at that moment that I realised my clothes had been eviscerated by moths. Nathan is so diligent about the little critters in his part of the bedroom, but because I don't tend to wear wool, I'd assumed that moths wouldn't want to eat anything of mine. Turns out my clothes are utterly scrumptious, particularly the jacket I got married in and the ludicrously expensive coat I bought a the beginning of the year to wear to the premiere of Beyond The Fence, both of which now have holes in them. I know they're just things, and that anything that reminds me of Beyond The Fence probably deserves to become moth-eaten and ragged, but it made me feel a little upset. The wedding suit particularly...

We've fumigated everything, thrown much away and taken the very special things to the dry cleaners. I guess all things must fade away at some point: memories, photographs, little nicknacks, people... it simply makes me want to live a little more in the present.

Speaking of which, I drove to Milton Keynes tonight to assist on another quiz. It was a very charming occasion. The client was the Mind charity, who seem like a genuinely lovely bunch. We sat down with a group of them for some food and I was hugely taken with them all. The technician for the evening spoke with a familiar accent and I asked if he was from Northampton, which he was. He looked about my age, so I asked him which school he'd gone to, and he answered Roade, which is where Fiona and a whole heap of other people I know went. He was in the year above Fiona, and knew her very well. He was a drummer and they'd been in the same production of Godspell alongside Zara Nunn, who now writes musicals, Sam Jane, whom I lived with when I first moved to London, and Helen Whitehurst who used to lead the Northamptonshire Youth Orchestra. It was a bizarre encounter. Often when you meet those sorts of people there's a lot of uncomfortable moments when everyone pretends to "vaguely know" the person in question, but he seemed to know them all really well, and it was lovely to fill him in on how they're all doing. He asked if Fiona was still playing and nearly fell of his seat when I told him she was touring with Placebo!

When I emerged from the hotel, the entire car park was covered in thick frost, and I had to sit in the car for five minutes with the heating on to clear the windscreen. The first frost of the year... what a time to decide to walk the length of the Nene!!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Swimming gala

I've been using Head and Shoulder shampoo of late.

You: Head and Shoulders? I didn't know you had dandruff...

Me: I don't. It was the first bottle I picked up from the shelf.

It's just as well I don't have dandruff and wasn't looking for a remedy because if you look on the small print on the back of the bottle it says it defines dandruff as "visible flakes from a distance of 2 feet." Surely a good wash with any shampoo would get rid of such enormous flakes of dandruff?

So, in fact, that ancient advertising campaign should have been...

You: Head and Shoulders, I didn't know you had dandruf

Me: Stand a little closer and you'll think you're at Slava's-freakin'-Snowshow.
I went to Aylesbury yesterday to watch my god son and his sister swimming in a local swimming club gala. It was such a lovely afternoon, which started at Raily and Iain's house with a lunch, which Iain tried to sell as a "savoury porridge." It sounded revolting, and for some reason made me think of snails but it actually tasted delicious. Meriel was there briefly with her girlfriend Elizabeth, and they swore blind that there's a more cheffy and appetising word for a savoury porridge. I wracked my brains to think of that silly-voiced woman in Masterchef who talks about jous, foams and soils, but couldn't bring a term to the front of my mind. If anyone reading this goes out to fancy restaurants, feel free to suggest a term, made up or otherwise.

The gala was great fun. People race, not in their age groups, but according to their personal best times, and there's a brilliant electronic board which displays the names of the swimmers, their lanes and the split times. The interesting aspect of racing against your ability is that you get a massive mix of ages in any single race. Swimming is one of those sports where you tend to plateau young, so nothing is predictable. Will (11) was racing a 50 year old, who only just beat him. We had a good laugh at the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't aspect of the scenario. If the 50 year old beats the 11 year old, everyone calls him mean. And if he loses everyone takes the Mick!

Medals are awarded by age however, so it can take a while to work out if your God son has won! Little Jeannie (6) was doing her first ever competitive race and the poor lamb got disqualified. She came last but the other girls in the race were two years older than her, so she'd have won a gold by default, but the disqualification meant she couldn't have a medal which seemed a little unfair, but I rather like that they're sticklers for the rules.

Anyway, Aylesbury has a wonderful swimming complex. There's a whole network of pools, many of which are interlinked, including one circular pool where the current sweeps people on a watery journey around a very camp palm tree. If people were in little boats, it would be a ride at Disney Land!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Large feet

I watched rubbish telly this morning. Don't you just hate it when they use deeply inappropriate music to accompany little segments on those cheaply-thrown-together daytime telly programmes? Today, for example, the Hairy Bikers were on a fishing boat on the Orkney Islands. Every time someone stopped talking and they cut away to shots of the boat, they faded up this really obscure Hawaiian guitar music. It was only after a while that I realised that they were playing the song because the chorus lyrics went, "my ship will sail." They do it all the time on Homes Under the Hammer as well. To a much more ghastly degree!

I went into central London again today, and was horrified to find Oxford Street even more rammed than it was yesterday. I literally wanted to weep. I sat for some time in a JD Sports, waiting for a pair of trainers to be brought up from the bowels of the earth, having ascertained that I could "waterproof" said trainers with a special spray for my walk. It was a fairly horrible experience, surrounded by people jostling, shouting and screaming, and I tried to make myself as small as I could...

When the bloke finally arrived with a pair of size tens, he looked at me and said, "right or left foot?" I looked at him blankly for a moment, "well, both, I'd say..." He looked sheepish, "you can only try one on at a time..." What on earth kind of messed-up policy is that? I assume it's all about shop lifting, but surely there's an absolute requirement for people to be able to try both trainers on at once? Particularly if they're wanting them for comfort rather than fashion. I was absolutely horrified and immediately left the shop.

By complete comparison, Foot Locker, a few doors along Oxford Street, provided me with a fabulous shopping experience. All the sales staff, particular Thomas, who mostly dealt with me, were friendly, polite, knowledgeable and effective. I have bought a pair of simple black trainers and Thomas has given me some extra comfortable heal pads. I bought size 11 1/2!! I'm usually a ten, but the tens were very tight, and Nathan's Mum suggested I bought a size too big so that I can wear thick socks.

I handed them over to the woman behind the counter, who winked at me and said "tiny feet..." Nathan told me he very nearly said, "why do you think I married him?" Mortifying...

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Betty Turpin's Hot Pot

I worked at the Costa in Highgate village this morning and found myself, as usual, surrounded by an eccentric assortment of village types. There was one of those angry women in there. The ones who are so horrible to their husbands that you wonder why they're still alive. Everything he said to her was met with extreme sarcasm, a roll of the eyes or an embarrassing dig. Just loud enough, one assumes, so the rest of the cafe would hear, and realise how awful it must be for her to have to live in a love-less marriage to a man who's plainly hopeless. She spent a good hour with her facial muscles firmly to planted in the "lips to lemon, eyes to half" position. Poor bloke.

It must have been a day for it, because moments later, a man arrived, who rather rudely asked me to remove my bag, before sitting down at the table next to me opposite his son, who was probably 11. The son was very quietly playing a game on his mobile phone. Periodically, he'd put the phone down and try to engage his father in conversation. His attempts were systematically shot down in flames by the father, who would click loudly to indicate to the son that he was too busy looking at his own phone to listen, or shush him loudly with the irritating word "weesht". The son took it in his stride. Every rebuff was met with a little sigh and a return to his mobile phone. At one point, the lad lent on the table, and it tipped up slightly. Nothing was spilt, and it was plainly an accident, but the dad went ape: "you have to be more careful. How many times do I have to tell you this?" There was real menace in his voice. Almost as though, at any moment, the threat would be followed by some sort of wallop. It was horrible. And instead of saying "now look here, Dad, that was plainly not deliberate," the lad merely apologised and returned to his mobile phone, looking sad. It was horrible.

Behind them both, a woman was over-sharing on the telephone: "I told him he could smack me on the arse and I wouldn't tell him off..." The mind boggles!

I came into town this afternoon, essentially to buy myself a pair of walking shoes. I hadn't factored Black Friday into the equation, reached Oxford Street and immediately flew into a panic. I was sort of sucked into one shoe shop, like an iron filing to a magnet, and, due to the large amount of people in there, was unable to escape again. Bewildered looking sales staff holding piles of shoe boxes were blocking every conceivable exit like the worst sort of game of Pacman. I have had the wind put up me by people saying I need walking boots for my journey along the Nene, but I have to keep telling myself that the most important thing is that I simply get a pair of comfortable shoes. I don't need to spend hundreds of pounds on specific walking shoes. I'm not climbing mountains. I'm sauntering along a pathway by the side of a river in some of the flattest terrain known to man - and, because it's a river, it's all going to be down hill. I'm a big walker. I walk everywhere. I know it's going to be hard work, but I've never been one of those people who needs all the fancy gear simply to feel like I'm doing something properly. I'm far more worried about chafing. Too much information? I apologise...

I met Nathan for lunch. He was relieved I'd decided not to buy shoes because the poor lamb is still feeling really rough. I've generously given the cold to Abbie as well, whom I saw yesterday at a quiz.

Harrison met us, and, after Nathan had gone back to work, we had tea and cake. Harrison is conducting a concert version of Brass in Birmingham on Monday 20th February. If any Midlanders are reading this blog, I urge you to put the date in your diaries. It ought to be a wonderful evening of entertainment.

Yesterday, after the quiz, I met Nathan and our American friend Adam for a "Thanksgiving Meal." It's such an important day for Americans, but it's not something the Brits have ever really got into marking. I'm really not sure what the purpose of Thanksgiving is. It's bound to be something a bit murky with shades of anti-Britishness, but it felt really important to find Adam a turkey to chow down on, and a plate of pumpkin pie, which, of course, only the Yanks haven't realised actually tastes of farts. I would have thought a few pubs in London might have taken the initiative and thrown on a special meal for our American friends who are flocking over here to take advantage of the worthless pound. Sadly not. We were in Victoria, and marched from pub to pub, looking for something which fitted the bill, but weirdly all the pubs had exactly the same menu. And when I say exactly, I mean down to the photos of the dishes and the font used. Of course all this implies that the food in all of those pubs is coming out of the same little centrally-packaged, chemically-preserved frozen bags of non-food joy. I was devastated. Where's Betty Turpin's Hot Pot when you need it?

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Please do not read this if you're squeamish about sex...

I was extremely worried to read today that, as part of the digital economy bill, the UK government is pushing through a deeply draconian clause which limits the type of porn which British people are allowed to access on the internet. Now, this is obviously something which most people will shy away from wanting to discuss. There's so much moral panic floating about at the moment that we've reached a stage where no one feels they're allowed to debate issues relating to pornography for fear of being branded some sort of pervert, but, believe me, this clause in this bill is the thin edge of the wedge, and if this country takes its pornography laws back to the way they were pre-internet, it is only a matter of time before we all start to be affected.

So here's the science: What the government, with this bill, is wisely trying to demand is better age-verification checks, which stop those under eighteen from accessing extreme online sexual pornography. No one is going to argue that this is not a good idea, and this aspect of the bill has been discussed at length in parliament. The worrying bolt-on is an un-debated clause which means that British people are banned from watching porn which, though consensual, features "non-conventional" sexual activity.

Now I realise porn isn't everyone's cup of tea, and furthermore, that more obscure or hardcore porn is distasteful or frightening to many more. We all get squeamish talking about sex. We all feel inherently ashamed of the things that make us tick down below. But how can any one person or collective possibly attempt to decide what's appropriate within this murky, yet incredibly diverse world?

This law will throw British people back into the dark ages in relation to the so-called liberal world. Europeans, Americans and many other nationalities will still be able to access porn of whatever flavour they desire, whilst we have to be content with Tesco's own basic vanilla extract. Some of the things that we'll be banned from watching as a result of this bill include, and please don't read on if you have a fragile disposition, scenes featuring female ejaculation, sex in public places and "any form of spanking which leaves red marks..." which is basically all spanking.

And there we are: back in the 1990s, when the British porn industry was the laughing stock of the world because it could only show un-erect penises in its films. In actual fact, there was an industry standard called "Mull O'Kintyre." If a penis stuck out of a male body at a greater angle than the Mull O'Kintyre sticks out of Scotland, then it was deemed inappropriate. Fact.

How on earth have we ended up living in a country where the government gets to dictate what those of us who are over eighteen are allowed to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes. We've spent most of this year punishing MP's for being out-of-touch, and not understanding what the little people want, so why on earth are we letting them take the lead on porn?!

None of the practices which are being banned from online porn sites are actually illegal. They don't involve children or animals. They're all things that two consenting adults are presently allowed to do in their own homes (except the sex in public bit...) The female ejaculation ban is particularly odd, because it doesn't involve a sexual act. Ejaculation is a bi-product of sex and it's certainly not merely triggered by heavy-duty sleaze.

Control what we can see on porn sites and it's just a hop, skip and a jump before someone tries to ban the acts themselves and we all start dobbing in our neighbours because they have louder sex than we do. And then what? What else do we ban? Where does it stop? Do we decide that trans people shouldn't be able to have sex in porn films because it's unnatural and we don't want "innocent" eighteen year-olds suddenly deciding to swap gender? Do we ban sex toys? Sex clubs? Saunas? Do we start to regulate the length of hemlines on telly? Or ban soap operas from exploring plot lines involving sex before marriage? In my view, when a government attempts to get involved with questions of morality, those on the fringes of society, whoever they are, get punished. How many Tories or Tory voters have felt the need to apologise recently for the years of hurt caused to the gay community by Clause 28? We condemn Russians for having a law banning the "promotion" of homosexuality, and then stand by and watch our government bringing in something equally draconian. Why the hell do we not learn from our mistakes? There will always be the Daily Mail to whip up a moral panic. Remember those "video nasties" in the '80s? We're right back there.

Sadly, any argument about sexuality always comes down to the need to protect children, and it's the one thing no one feels they can argue with.

Believe me, as a gay man who came out in the late 1980s, I know everything there is to know about "choosing" a "non-conventional" sex life for myself, and because I've always been on the outside of "normality" staring in, I've learned one thing about humanity. We all have kinks. Some we talk about. Others we don't. We don't choose our kinks. We acquire them. Some people like leather. Some like suits. Some like satin. Some like feet. Some like boobs. Some like nurses and firemen. Some like pain. Some value monogamy. Some go cruising. Some go dogging. Some wife swap. Some wear masks. Some like sex at bus stops. Some have fantasies about joining the mile high club. Some wish they weren't so boring. Some want to do it on a glorious beach with the waves crashing around them. And who gives a shit about any of that if none of us are breaking the law? We're all different and our right to be different is something which we should be protecting until we draw our last breath.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Planned obsolescence

I sat in the cafe at Jackon's Lane this morning waiting for a rather jovial-looking chap to fix the coffee machine. He had a European accent, and, at one point, the woman behind the counter, who'd been chatting away to him, asked if he was Polish. She wasn't accusing him of anything. She was just interested. His response, however, was telling. Instead of saying "yes I am" with a big, proud Slavic smile, he mumbled an affirmative, looking around, hoping that no one else would hear. Is that really the truth of the post-Brexit world?

On another "is this really the world we live in?" matter, my music writing software has suddenly become incredibly glitchy. I am having to restart the programme over and over again, just to get it to do what it used to do faithfully and reliably. Nathan suggested I went online to see if there was an update for the software, and there is, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a paid for upgrade. I was moaning about it to Fiona this morning, who introduced me to the concept of "planned obsolescence," where a company or inventor deliberately creates an object or programme with a limited shelf-life, to up the amount of times you have to replace it - and therefore pay the company more money. It's a hideously cynical thing, and probably explains why Nathan's ancient iPod is still working whilst generations of newer iPods have broken down on us. The same is true of those old Nokia phones, and Fisher Price toys... it's made worse by the fact that, in this post-Brexit world, where we're all obsessed with being British, we're still buying shed loads of tatty shite from China.

You can read about the ghastly practice of planned obsolescence here:

But, you know, as long as we get rid of the immigrants and take back control of all of our laws, who gives a damn what the multi-nationals do?

I had quite a lot of fun at Jackson's Lane people watching in the gaps between composing. One little girl, who, based on her limited vocabulary, must have been about two, was repeatedly saying the word "mummy." Seconds later, she caught sight of the giant charity donations pot behind me. She rushed over, threw her arms around the Perspex box, and started intoning the word "money..." This went on for about five minutes. "Money, money, money, money, money, money..." She'll make a fabulous investment banker one day!

Another child stood at the food counter with her grandmother. "Would you like fish fingers?" Asked Grannie. "Yes." Said the girl. "Wouldn't you prefer a sandwich?" "Yes" "Or a beigel?" "Yes" "Ooh, they have chips. How about some lovely chips?" "Yes..." "Well which do you want?" "All of it..." Ask a silly question... I'd have personally quit whilst I was ahead with the fish fingers...

I helped out on another quiz tonight. It was on High Holborn in one of those Edinburgh-esque buildings where one of the entrances is on the third floor on account of the building straddling two roads on very different levels. I think the area is known as Holborn Viaduct. I don't know that part of London at all, so afterwards, ended up walking in the wrong direction, arriving at Blackfriars when I was expecting to find myself at Farringdon. Boo!

The quiz rather finished me off. It was in a loud, hot space and, by the end, my cold was beginning to rear its head again, like that unwanted party guest who talks obsessively about science fiction and then vomits in the bath.

A seventeen year old song!

I think I'm slowly beginning to feel well again. I still have a blocked nose, a bit of a headache and a sensation that, any moment, I might get ill again, but I'm not coughing anymore. Unlike Nathan, or, I hear from my Mum today, my brother. I must have given him the dreaded lurgie when I was there the other week. Am I the only one who takes a degree of comfort in other people around me getting ill after I've been ill? It's not a form of schadenfreude: I think it's a genuine sense of relief that it's not something more sinister! There were times last week when I thought I might be checking out...

So, today I worked on the last number in Em. I'm recycling musical material I wrote in 1999! A seventeen-year old song. God, I am a slow writer! It's right for the piece, however, and God knows it wasn't going anywhere else. I'm hoping we'll perform the song at next month's new writing cabaret. I may have to be wheeled into the room to perform as I'll have just returned from my one hundred-mile walk along the River Nene, for which I booked a series of hotels today. I now have guest houses in all but one location. I rejected a number of hotels based on the fact that they only had showers in their rooms. If I do nothing else every night, I'm getting into a bath with some heavy-duty, sweet-smelling chemicals, which are going to make me feel human again.

I released the news of the walk on Facebook today, to which someone said, "you do realise you're doing this in December?" Little Welsh Nathalie downstairs has told me not to describe myself as mad, however, so I'm now seeing myself as a pioneer. What is the point in being given this precious thing called life if we're not prepared to live it? Who knows what I'll experience walking along the Nene. Who knows what I'll discover about myself, or Northamptonshire, or water, or rain, or nature?

Philippa has told me to go and buy shoes. I need shoes. I told her I was going to do the walk besuited yet barefoot. Until I said the barefoot thing, I think she believed me. I'm certainly not prepared to walk in neon colours and man-made fibres designed to keep me simultaneously warm, cool, dry and comfortable. I have a lovely rain coat with flowers all over it, which looks rather San Francisco circa 1974. It fits the bill perfectly. I may not take my Pritt Stick with me. I'm not altogether sure I need to walk with a perfectly curled moustache!

I do have to keep reminding myself, however, that I'm not going to the Arctic Circle. There will be shops and phone reception and even though the Northamptonians talk a bit funny, they do speak a form of English... even in Higham Ferrers. I've never been to Wisbech, however. What's that place all about?

I've just swallowed a mouldy pea. It was in a glass I filled with water. It's days old. If I don't wake up in the morning, you'll all know why.

In other news, Nathan's enormous hap is off the needles. It's a giant hexagon, a metre-and-a-half across. He's been knitting it for months.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Against the Tide

I woke up this morning and instantly embroiled myself in admin, whilst, at the same time trying to learn how to sing Against The Tide from Em. The plan had been for me to sing it at the new writers' cabaret this evening, but the best laid plans always go to pot.

I'm sort of relieved that I didn't end up singing it. Having had a cold for a week, my voice is feeling very tired, and, as I sang the song through, I'd find myself getting to the last chorus unable to sing the top notes. 

Anyway, the plan had been to get Jade, one of the regulars at the cabaret nights to play piano for me, but I was waylaid by a phone conversation with the BBC, and when I texted her to say I was on my way, she was already leaving the house to go to another rehearsal. So I got as far as Tufnell Park, and had to turn around. Thank God that modern day technology enables us to text whilst we're on the tube, or I'd have been at London Bridge before finding out the rehearsal was doomed.

At that point I decided someone was trying to tell me that performing the song was a bad idea, but when I texted Nathan, he said he'd have a bash at singing the song if I'd have a bash at playing the piano. So I spent a couple of hours learning an approximation of the piano part, and by the time he'd got home from work, he'd managed to learn the vocals. Quite how a man who was feeling as ill as he is, and coughing up lungs, managed to make such a sweet sound I've no idea.

We were on second, and things went surprisingly well. When there's no time to worry about making something perfect, the pressure has a habit of disintegrating. I knew there would be mistakes and I knew I didn't have the time to learn any fancy figures, so I stuck to what I knew I could play, and busked my way through the song. I royally screwed up the opening bars, but Nathan styled it out to make it look like I wasn't repeatedly looping a four-bar phrase. Nathan couldn't see the music, so ump-ti-tumped his way through one section but I think we just about got away with it. The crowd seemed to enjoy it.

There were some lovely songs from other writers, as usual. Michelle hit all the right notes with a song sung from the perspective of a woman battling cancer singing to an unborn child, and my new friend Seánna's musical set against the back drop of the Belfast troubles is shaping up to be a very fine project. There was even a flash mob where one of the writers had placed students from a Brussels-based musical theatre school in the audience, who suddenly burst into song. It was all very exciting.

We talked musical theatre and gay rights long into the night.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Let's look at the whole picture

We've been at Julie and Sam's at Craft and Cake all day today. Nathan is really under the weather with this cold, and I'm still suffering. I feel like my head's in a big jar of cotton wool, like the one my Grannie had in her blue bathroom, next to all of the fascinating-looking bottles of scent and the crocheted loo roll covers. But let's not talk about smells. I can't smell or taste a thing at the moment. I can distinguish between salt and sweet, and that's about it.

Craft and cake was lovely. Stephen West was there who I'm not sure I've seen since we spent a week in Italy together at Julie's house. Crafters reading this blog will possibly know Stephen's name as a top designer of knitwear. Walk into any yarn shop, say his name, and all the people behind the counter will go weak at the knees!

There was some lovely grub today which included an eccentric-sounding banana and pumpkin loaf, which tasted wonderful. Or did it? It had a nice texture! Tina made us all a sticky toffee pudding. Again, I was desperate to taste it properly because it looked beautiful. I thought the dates in it were pears. That tells you quite how screwed up my taste buds are right now!

We watched Strictly, which triggered a heated discussion about race. I'm not sure why. A lot of talk is happening at the moment about the need for colour blind casting and the lack of opportunities for BAME people in musical theatre. Traditionally, of course, there have been pitifully fewer opportunities for black and Asian performers in theatre. But things are improving (slowly) and many people out there are attempting to address the issue. Sadly, I sometimes feel that the changes which ARE happening are failing to register with people as they search for ever more examples of white-washing.

I feel it's really important that the leaps which are being made towards racial equality in the industry aren't swept under the carpet. This has to include acknowledging that there are presently a fairly large number of opportunities for BAME performers in the West End. When casting Beyond the Fence (where we ran a policy of complete colour blind casting) we were told that it was actually quite difficult to get BAME actors to come to castings for ensemble roles, because so many high calibre BAME actors were already in work in shows like Thriller, Memphis and Motown. Certainly our experience when it came to casting the male ensemble in the show bailed this theory out. When we put our hands on our hearts, we had to acknowledge that the three best actors for these three ensemble roles were the three white men we'd auditioned. Casting one of the less experienced, less well-prepared BAME actors we'd seen would have been tokenism. And wholly unfair.

Critic, Matthew Hemley, recently wrote an article in The Stage where he lambasted British musical theatre for its all-white casts, without a single mention of shows like Moby Dick, which featured two black leads (in roles you might expect to have been played by white people) and Wasted, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where actresses from three separate ethnicities play the Brontë Sisters. It's wholly inappropriate, in my view, to point out what's bad in theatre without acknowledging what's good, because you're not painting a complete picture.

He writes about camp clichés in Lloyd Webber's School of Rock, but did he bother to come and see Brass? A more subtle and complicated exploration of homosexuality would be hard to find.

Sometimes I want to throttle these critics and say, "look beyond the shows which open in the West End, and see what people ARE doing in musical theatre. The ones written by people who can't get their heads above the parapet." There's some amazing work going on. If only we'd all open our eyes a little.

A day in Bristol

Yesterday was one of those days which seemed to go on forever. In retrospect, it did go on forever. 

We woke up at 6am. It was a genuine privilege to be up so early. A really intense light was making the horse chestnut trees on Southwood Lane glow in bright, metallic colours. I rarely get to see the magic hour in the morning.

We drove to Bristol, Abbie, Nathan and I, where Andras' life was being celebrated in a really beautiful woodland cemetery. What was very special about the service was that we weren't being rushed out of the building by the next funeral in line. We had the entire place to ourselves all day, and, more perfectly, the wake took place within the same complex of buildings, so instead of feeling like we were being engulfed by a conveyor belt of grief, there was a sense of everyone being in it together, and able to contemplate, grieve, share and laugh at our own pace.

I was hugely impressed by the service. It was dignified, appropriate, deeply moving and, at times, rather magical. It was overseen by an old family friend of Llio and Silvia's called, Pad, and, whilst he made his address, just as he started to talk about the warmth and beauty of the sun, the sun outside suddenly burned through the rain cloud which had been sitting over the chapel since we'd arrived. It got brighter and brighter and more and more dazzling. It felt rather mystical.

The service was devoid of all religious content, which I appreciated immensely. It set out to be a service about love - and very much succeeded. At the end, Pad recited an ancient Celtic blessing: "Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you. Deep peace of the infinite peace to you." It made more sense to me than any prayer ever has. There was also a fair amount of Welsh being spoken in the service, which was music to my ears, and reminded me of my own Nana's funeral, where I remember my uncles reading, probably from the bible, in Welsh.

We listened to a lot of music. And we listened to it properly. So often with these ceremonies, things get faded in and out willy-nilly, but this way we were introduced to music we'd not heard before. I had no idea, for example, that the music to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was originally an epic track by the Eagles. We were also introduced to a fabulous piece of music by an Icelandic artist, which I must track down. It's called Vor i Vasgaglogi by Kaleo and it's utterly haunting. All the music was music which Andras had found powerful or inspiring in his lifetime, and his gift to us was that music.

There was so much love for Andras in the room. I have seldom heard such vociferous and effusive praise for a person. I only met him once, but I now wish I'd known him a great deal better. Almost everyone talked about him as a man who literally seemed to glow. Brave, witty, beautiful, deeply intelligent.

Silvia and Llio spoke beautifully and bravely. I genuinely don't know how you move on from something like that. I certainly don't think you ever get over it as such. Abbie said something insightful, which had been said to her when she lost her father, namely that grief is like getting used to wearing glasses. The way you see things is never quite the same again, and it's absolutely horrible to begin with, but eventually it becomes something you learn to live with.

We drove home in driving rain and sticky traffic on the M4. Abbie and I had a quiz to do in the evening in Dulwich which was a barrel of laughs. One of the competitors got hammered, came up onto the stage and, all weird and coquettishly, started inappropriately draping herself onto the other assistant, trying to get him to mark her team more leniently. It was all a little uncomfortable, but we dealt with it as best we could. It did, however, make me think about how the occurrence would have been perceived had the boot been on the other foot. If a 40-year old man had walked onto the stage, and started touching up a 22-year old girl, he would almost certainly have been escorted from the premises. There are certainly a huge amount of double standards in society.

By the time I'd dropped Abbie home and crawled my way home across London, it was midnight. A long old day...

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Supply teachers

I feel like my body is slowly beating this cold! It's taking it's bloody time. I wake up feeling okay, but as the day develops, I start to feel less well. I got completely out of breath climbing a flight of stairs earlier, so there's obviously something still wanting to make itself felt. And now Nathan is poorly. He's shaking in bed next to me like one of those hairless dogs.

I stumbled off to Swiss Cottage this afternoon for a meeting, and, in the process, bumped into young Ben Jones who played Alf in Brass. We had a lovely cup of tea at Hampstead Theatre where, incidentally, Sara Kestelman is presently performing, and where we also bumped into Ruby, who played Peggy in Brass. #BrassReunion.

Nathan kindly drove me down to Swiss Cottage, which is a doddle from Highgate in a car, but an absolute nightmare by public transport.

I worked out that it was actually quicker to walk home, but got to the base of Highgate Hill and jumped on a bus into the village. I didn't think a one in ten gradient was a particularly good idea in my present state!

The time zones all went wrong on my computer's email system this afternoon, meaning emails were (and still are) appearing in my inbox as though they'd been sent eight hours earlier. Then the same thing happened to my iPhone, and then Nathan's iPhone and then his computer. There's viruses everywhere in this house! It's like a form of time travel! Poor Nathan tried to sort it out and ended up on the phone for hours. We're still not sorted. I'm still living in the past.

Abbie came over this evening and we ate pizza and watched The Gilmore Girls. We're all off to Bristol tomorrow for Andras' funeral. I can't imagine how awful the day is going to be for Llio and Silvia, but all we can do is send bucket loads of love out into the universe.

It doesn't seem to be a good time for anyone at the moment. Someone who Nathan worked with at Urdang was killed last night on her way from a rehearsal and my Dad's oldest school friend has just had a stroke. 2016: what a flippin' awful year. In twenty years time people will simply say, "oh was that a 2016 occurrence?" And then they'll nod knowingly. They used to do that about my form at school when they saw our exam results in science. We'd had an entire year where we'd been banned from doing experiments on account of our having set fire to the lab, and then another year where we'd had nothing but supply teachers because our main teacher had been the one whose name the gunman was shouting when he came into our school to do the shooting. By the time we reached the fourth year, all bets were off. I didn't know a Bunsen burner from a blancmange.

The supply teachers were fun, though. We once saw how many crocodile clips we could attach to one poor woman's skirt, and, on another occasion, when watching a video in class (we saw the film Threads about nineteen times in instalments) the lights went off, there was a scream, and when the lights came back on again everyone in the class was covered in flour.

Quite what triggered that memory I'm not sure! 

(I think we attached 29 crocodile clips to the supply teachers' skirt.)

Friday, 18 November 2016

Walking the Nene

Don't listen to me today. It's been one of those days when I wish hibernation was a human prerogative. It's been grey and miserable, but for a very brief moment when it pissed it down with rain before the sun started shining, making the slate roofs outside shimmer like liquid metal.

Despite feeling shitty, I managed to write two songs for Em... or at least I made a start on them. I'm always slightly suspicious when people talk about writing a song in ten minutes. The Bee Gees claim to have written most of Saturday Night Fever in one night. That first little shot of inspiration always comes quickly, but the crafting of a song - its shaping, its development, its refinement and the creation of an accompaniment - takes a huge amount of time. If you're the Bee Gees, then you have talented minions to do this... but let's be under no illusion: they're the people who are actually writing your songs! Theatre music takes more time than most because you have to think all the time about character, drama and the constant musical variation which makes a theatre song worthy of the stage. It can take me months to take a song from that first shot of inspiration through to something which is worth performing. There's choral harmonies to think about, vocal ranges, orchestrations - and don't even get me started on dance breaks!! Today I was obsessing about the lyrics needing to feel like they're the words of the characters who are singing them.

I have decided to walk the length of the River Nene on five consecutive days starting on the 1st December. I shall walk about twenty miles every day and stay in travel lodges. As I walk, I shall make field recordings of the river, and hope to be inspired for the big composition. The river is exactly 100 miles long.

Now obviously I'm expecting to walk alone. I'm sure the weather will be ghastly beyond words, and I'll probably fall in and smell a lot, but if anyone, particularly Northamptonian friends, fancies joining me for a section, I shall be working out a schedule over the next couple of days. The 3rd and 4th December is a weekend, and I guess I'll be somewhere between Higham Ferrers and Peterborough in that leg of the trip.

Anyway. That's me! I need sleep.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Youth Proms, quizzes and colds

You see and hear the strangest things whilst walking about in London. Bonkers people don't usually migrate as far North as Highgate, but this morning, I was treated to a proper display of eccentricity! As I walked down to the tube, I passed a young Asian man, who’d managed to contort his body to fit inside one of the metal railings which prevent people from stacking it as they go down the steep footpath there. He was sitting astride a metal pole, with his back pushed up against the bar above him, and he was talking incessantly. At first I assumed he was on the telephone, but I quickly realised he was delivering what can only be described as his internal dialogue, which I couldn't help but tune into: "my prostate's on fire. Repeat. My prostate's on fire.” Very strange.

As I took the tube into town, I glanced down at the woman sitting below me and noticed she was reading the Daily Mail. I wondered what went through her head when she reads the bile which that particular paper prints. Is she taken in by it all? Does she take it with a pinch of salt and skip over the vile editorial because she likes the cookery pages or the horoscopes? I was genuinely interested. She looked a bit pinched and angry, so I wondered if she had a heart of stone…

Victoria station was a joke. It was abnormally crowded, so they diverted those of us changing lines out of the tube station and back in again instead of allowing us to make the two-minute underground walk, which prompted me to wonder why doesn't London work

I had a meeting at the Natural History Museum this morning. We thought it might be fun to discuss the Nene project underneath a giant fibre glass brontosaurus! The Northamptonshire Youth Orchestra are in town, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to hook up with Peter and Beth to kick some ideas about... and let me tell you: it's going to be epic!

I did some work in a Soho cafe around lunchtime before heading off towards The City to help out with a quiz, which was a deeply distressing experience. My cold was doing its best to make me feel like I was high on drugs, and the quiz was for 150 fourteen-year olds who essentially had no interest in being there, and weren't being controlled by any of the adults present. There was a constant squeal of high-pitched noise, which certainly wasn't the sound of young people trying to work out the answer to questions. After they'd been fed, most got up from their tables and started walking around the room, talking to their friends. The teams gradually got larger and larger as the kids brought their tables together to chat more. I had seven fewer teams at the end of the quiz than I'd had at the beginning. It was almost impossible to keep up. Cans of drink burst, kids were lobbing paper aeroplanes and crisps at each other, most were blatantly using their mobile phones to cheat, and I was slightly left wondering why we were there because child minding isn't one of my skills. I just wanted it all to end so that I could get on with the next part of my epic day.

This evening I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the Music for Youth junior prom concerts at the Albert Hall. I was there in a very glamorous box, being hosted by NMPAT, the Northamptonshire Music School. There were twelve or so ensembles performing from across the UK, representing every conceivable musical genre from jazz orchestras and African choirs to pop bands and koto-drumming groups. The crowning glory was plainly the Northamptonshire Youth Orchestra who played a fiendish suite of music with dexterity and panache. Yet again, I felt a great rush of pride to be associated with them. I was also touched to see that Northamptonshire has finally had its own flag designed, which some of the dignitaries in the box were proudly waving. I’m going to try and get hold of one to display in my attic with my flags from Wales and Yorkshire. We still fly the rainbow flag from our window. I like flags.

It was very exciting to see one of the large ensemble performance slots which we’ll be doing this time next year. The group who had been chosen to do it this time came from Croydon, I think, and performed a piece by Howard Goodall. There was a bit of dancing, and they all wore sashes and wafted large pieces of fabric around, which looked quite Top-of-the-Pops-circa-1979. It was a stunningly beautiful piece of writing - as always with Goodall. I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the lyric content of the piece, however; “it doesn’t matter what you do, or what happens on earth, it’s how you go up to heaven that matters.” Blimey.

Edge Hill University

I woke up in a very rainy Lancashire this morning, and drove to Ormskirk in horrible murky, misty haze.

Edge Hill university used to be a teacher training college, and is based around a rather grand, H-shaped, 1920s arts and crafts building.

A recent building programme has seen all sorts of fancy new buildings popping up across the campus with shiny atriums, glossy hubs, glass lift shafts and amazing displays of wall-mounted plasma screens.

I'd been invited to talk to third year students on the musical theatre degree course about Beyond The Fence, and the concept of computer musicals. It was rather fun to be candid, and to tell the actual story behind the project rather than what they decided to show on the associated documentary. It was weird to talk in such depth about all that stuff again, and a little surreal, if I'm honest, because I was full of cold, and kept getting all light-headed and dry-mouthed.

It was a nice bunch of students, and we had a bit of fun learning the protest song from the show. If I'm honest, I think the students were a great deal more interested in learning about the Greenham women than they were hearing about computers, and, in my view, that's exactly as it should be. Today's young people need to know about those extraordinary women, and, actually, I'd far rather talk about 1980s protest movements to a group of kids from a generation who are used to registering their discontent by merely going online and clicking on a petition. It's vital that the youth of today (who are always surrounded by a slight whiff of entitlement) realise what previous generations have done, seemingly just to enable them to feel politically apathetic.

We had lunch in a very posh canteen where a cheffy bloke made me a bespoke omelette. University food has improved a great deal since the days when I was forced to eat potatoes, peas and a cheese and onion pasty every day in Vanbrugh dining hall.

After lunch, my new friend Clare, who is head of the musical theatre course, had assembled a charming group of students, from across the three years, to read through the current script of Em. It was a very interesting experience. As always with table readings, you get a bit of a mix of people who are natural readers and those who aren't at all. It was interesting to note that Clare had cast the show and sent all the scripts out a week before, which makes me wonder why some of the people who were continually tripping over words hadn't thought to prepare a little more thoroughly. It strikes me that, in this industry, you have to do everything possible to get noticed and raise yourself above those in competition with you. There's no space for laziness or people who don't take initiative, particularly when a working professional from London comes up to work with you!

The piece went down well, and the students made some astute comments about the piece afterwards. It was a genuine thrill to hear a Welshie playing the part of Bronwen in the show, and genuine Scousers playing Liverpudlians. There was a lot of conversation about linguistic authenticity afterwards, with particular reference to the use of the word "like" in Scouse dialogue. Lots of food for thought, and lots to be getting on with...

The drive home was horrible. I was tried and ill and everyone on the road seemed to want to kill me. I was slightly heartened by the appearance of the "super moon," which is apparently closer to the earth than I'm likely to see again in my lifetime. It was apparently at its largest as it rose in the sky at about 5pm, but at that time the entire country, as always happens in the UK during these big meteorological events, was bedecked in thick cloud. I was therefore rather pleased that the moon deigned to make an appearance for me for much of my journey home. It was definitely very bright, but it didn't look particularly big, sadly.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Sourcing the Nene

I have a tendency to not sleep very well in hotels. It's 3.30am, and my head is full of little stubs of conversation and snippets of music from the day. I'm dosed up to the nines with cold and 'flu medicine, which must have been full of caffeine, because, I feel a little hot and buzzy!

I'm presently in Lancashire. At least I think I'm in Lancashire. I'm in a place called St Helens, if that helps with the identification process, or at least I would be if I weren't in a Travelodge in some desperate trading estate on the fringes of the town.

I'm here because I'm talking to a group of students in a local university tomorrow. For much of the rest of the day, however, I was in Northamptonshire.

Our mini-odyssey stared with a car journey to a little West Northamptonshire village called Badby. It's a village which creeks with memories from my childhood. My school year stayed in a (now-closed) Youth Hostel there in the early 1980s. It was my first experience of being away from home, and it was hugely formative. We went bat watching and badger watching, and, a year or so later, my Dad and I returned to the village on a more official badger watch, which was quite extraordinary. I seem to remember seeing huge numbers of the beautiful creatures streaming out of a sett on a sandy hillside. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life up to that point.

Anyway, I was in Badby attempting to find the source of the River Nene. As with all rivers, there are a million sources, none of which are that exciting to look at, and most of which are in farmers' fields or down dangerously steep banks. Well that was our experience today in any case!

We did a fair amount of trespassing, but managed to find a few rather charming spots, including a genuine spring, where fresh water seemed to burst out of the ground. The surrealness of this particular location was aided by a pair of cockerels - one with a ludicrously high and ineffectual cock-a-doodle and the other with a low, somewhat meaty call. Neither would shut up and they seemed to take it in turns to screech. The weather was stunning. Crisp and autumnal. And, as the sun set, it created golden paths across the ridges in the fields and painted a pair of rainbow-like coronas in the sky. Rather magical.

I was at the source of the Nene because the good folk at Northamptonshire music school have commissioned me to write a major new work about this particular river. And before anyone asks how to pronounce its name, it's Nene to rhyme with Ben. This Neen business that they go in for in Cambridgeshire, and the Eastern reaches of the river, royally irritates me!

I pretty much grew up on the Nene. It ran through Higham Ferrers, and we must have walked down by the river most Sundays in my childhood. There couldn't be a project about a river which would excite me more, and I'm thrilled to report that the work will receive its premiere at the Albert Hall.

The wait for employment was worth it!

...And just like busses, premieres come in larger numbers, because this evening, the Northamptonshire Youth Choir performed a four-part choral version of I Miss The Music from Brass at the Derngate Theatre and, in doing so, created a really very beautiful moment, which I shall remember for some time. The choir sings exquisitely, from memory, in a very classical style, which suits that particular song. They performed with piano and euphonium at a much slower pace than the show version. This new tempo gave the piece a stillness which I found hugely moving. They also added an element of theatre, which was incredibly simple, but highly effective. The women appeared wearing large poppies and decorated the male singers with flowers throughout the song, almost as though they were pinning medals on their chests. It somehow felt like the poppies were representing the deaths of the Leeds Pals, as one by one they were decorated in this manner.

The song ended and there was absolute silence in the audience. Total silence, for maybe five to ten seconds. It was unnerving and yet curiously beautiful. It felt like the audience was simply taking a moment to digest what they'd just experienced... almost as though applause might cheapen the moment. When the applause started, it didn't seem to want to end. It just carried on and on. Respectful, dignified applause.

The rest of the concert was brilliant. These November "Youth in Music" concerts at the Derngate have been happening for years. I used to play in them when I was a teenager. In fact, Brother Edward and I were founder members of the Northamptonshire Youth Choir and our first gig was at one such concert, all of which are there to promote the work of the senior county youth music ensembles. Northamptonshire remains at the forefront of youth music in the UK, and tonight's concert reminded me why. The quality of those young musicians is really quite remarkable. It's an amazing organisation, one which I feel deeply proud to be associated with.

At the end of the concert, Nathan and I went up to the upper circle to meet the choir, who were deeply charming and seemed really rather excited to meet me, telling me how much they'd enjoyed singing the song. It was such a lovely moment.

Hell, it's been a lovely day all round, and I reckon I was due one of those! Now all I need to do is lose this stinking cold and fall asleep!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Walnut the whippet

The rain this morning would have kept anyone in bed. A murky, grimy, rather sick light ineffectually crept its way through the bedroom window this morning, informing everyone who was contemplating starting their day that there wouldn't be much coming from nature to get them excited. I spent the morning writing music underneath a duvet.

I read a really charming story this afternoon about a dog owner who was being forced to have his beloved 18-year old whippet, Walnut, put down. He made an emotional appeal on social media asking people to join him, and the dog, for one final walk along a Devon beach. The appeal went viral, and hundreds of fellow dog walkers joined them. I'm not quite sure why the story moved me so much, it's a bit of a nonsense that newspapers make a big deal about these acts of kindness, yet regularly condemn so many human beings for the choices they make, but, right now, I'll take any story which makes me believe there's hope for the future.

I came to see Brother Edward and Sascha this afternoon and we walked around a rainy Canary Wharf following a remembrance trail which consisted of a series of seven thought-provoking pieces of public art, which commemorate fallen soldiers with the symbol of the poppy. By far the most powerful was in the little plaza outside the new Cross Rail station, which features a series of about 100 metal poles, each of which is marked with the name of a 20th Century battle. On the top of each of the poles sits a helmet - a genuine helmet - from the battle written on the pole. Some are bashed-up and rusting into little shards. I was so moved to see the helmet from the Battle of the Somme, which was really just a little husk of disintegrated metal, obviously dug up from the ground.

We went back to Edward and Sascha's house, ate lasagne and watched all the reality shows. For the record, off of the X Factor cohort, I have always supported Saara Aalto (who has too many a's in her name, but is a highly-talented vocalist) and that bloke called Matt, who I think is a little star with a massive career ahead of him. When it comes to Strictly, I like Louise, Ore and Danny Mac. My Mum says she used to wear Danny Macs in the 1960s. They're a type of coat.

War memorials and butterflies

I slept in late this morning. I have some kind of cold developing nicely in my lungs, and thought I'd give it a chance to bed itself in! 

Fortunately, at 10.30am, Nathan reminded me that it was the 11th November, so I instantly dragged him out of the house, and we jumped in our car with the idea of driving to the war memorial opposite Jack Straw's Castle on the Heath.

Sadly, we got snarled up in traffic along Spaniards Lane, and hadn't yet found a parking space at three minutes to the big moment. Nathan suggested I jump out of the car and leg it to the war memorial, and I made it, just as the young trumpeter from Highgate School was limbering up for the Last Post. At the same time, the police stopped all the traffic, leaving Nathan, behind the wheel of the car, trying his best to do silent contemplation in stationery traffic. The young lad played well. He was obviously a little nervous because his trumpet sounded a little like someone playing tracing paper over a comb, but he didn't crack any notes and God knows, it's a tough gig.

There were a surprisingly large number of people at the memorial. The crowd included several police superintendents, a couple of Jewish people in kippahs, a few local workmen, a rather decrepit-looking Henry Kelly, some sort of mayor, and a smattering of small children from a local school. There's always a smattering of local school children. A man of the cloth, in some sort of military uniform resplendent with medals, did some prayers into a microphone, which forced me to temporarily and politely turn my back. I pretended to stare out across North London and no one seemed to be too put out at my blasphemous behaviour. If someone had said something I might have been obliged to point out that God himself had turned his back on millions of soldiers, systematically, over the course of countless conflicts. I have no idea how religious people justify that nonsense.

During the two minutes of silence, I thought about the Leeds Pals, the Barnbow Lassies and the wonderful cast of Brass. I then hoped for some stability in the world after the double tragedy of Brexit and Trump. My Dad thinks a new world order is on its way, which could well be a positive one. I hope so.

As the trumpeter played some kind of reveille to signify the end of the two minutes silence, a butterfly flitted its way in circles around the memorial. Those who know Brass well will know that the white butterfly is a recurring motif in the show. Whenever I've visited the site of the trenches in France, I've been astonished by the number of butterflies which all seem to gravitate towards where No Man's Land once was. I've subsequently held the somewhat romantic belief that butterflies somehow represent the souls of the men who were killed. It therefore felt rather special to have a butterfly join us today. In November! I hope he or she has found somewhere warm to hibernate!

We had a lovely walk across the Heath afterwards; down past the tree with the hole in it and around the edge of the Vale of Health, before heading back to Highgate for lunch in the greasy spoon, where the man on the next door table was on the phone. I don't know who he was speaking to, but they'd obviously just asked him for his name, "yes" he said, "it's Robert... and I'm going to spell my surname: F.A.R.T.O.N." I genuinely didn't know where to look.

Thursday, 10 November 2016


I found myself entering Euston station today at 6.12pm. The situation I walked into can only be described as one bomb threat short of pandemonium. More and more people were blithely heading down the escalators from the main station into the tube, but hundreds more were being held down in the ticket hall to prevent the tube platforms from becoming dangerously swamped. A massive crush of people therefore started forming against the ticket barriers. It was all a little worrying, not least because I'm pretty sure it's something which happens at the same time every night. If someone had whipped out a machete, there would have been a stampede. 

I had that awful feeling this morning when you realise you don't have a great many reasons to get out of bed. It's a sensation which doesn't often engulf me and I know I just need a day or so to dust myself down and start moving forward again. I've had bigger set backs and more will come. As Nathan said, as we got into bed last night, there's seven people who were on a tram in Croydon this morning who are never coming home. Terrible. And texts from Llio this afternoon continued to put my first world problems into context.

Later on, I bumped into one of my neighbours in the local shop, who told me that his entire internal organs were messed up to the extent that he can't control when he vomits, so has to carry plastic bags around with him in case he has an incident. Classic overshare, but yet another reason to be cheerful...

I was cheered up enormously by going to see Jack Reitman performing at the first showcase by this year's cohort at the Royal Academy of Music's musical theatre course. They were performing an evening of music from American shows, and the whole thing started with a rendition of the Stars and Stripes, which I'm surprised nobody booed after yesterday's insanity.

There were about thirty in the year group and they tackled some incredibly complicated harmonies with great panache. I was rather pleased to see that the majority of arrangements had been done by two of the trainee musical directors who are learning their craft at the Academy. There was quite a lot of material, all arranged for a fairly sizeable band, and being thrown into the deep end like that is a really good way to learn your craft.

It was a hugely enjoyable night, although I would say that the year group as a whole tended towards having rather bad posture which is something they'll really need to look into if they're going to be successful in the industry. Posture is so important for performers. Some of them had such odd postures that I feel sure the way they were standing was affecting the vocal choices they were able to make. They need to learn to bring choreography into their bodies and give it back to the audience with seven times the energy. But they're right at the beginning of their training, and all that will come. I was hugely proud to see Jack on stage doing his thing, singing so beautifully and looking so handsome.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Hell day

I woke up this morning to "the" news. I wasn't at all surprised. If Brexit taught me nothing else, it was that people feel disenfranchised and angry, and are desperate to punish the establishment, even if that means cutting off their own noses to spite their faces.

Trump makes me feel sick. I can't look at him without feeling a rush of anger. Those prissy little hand gestures, the hair like candy floss and lips like tangerine segments make me wish his mother and father had never decided to have sex, but I'm afraid we, the Brits, have to take a degree of responsibility for what has happened Stateside. The shock of Brexit formed the foundations of Trump's campaign. If the Brits could overthrow the political elite, then so could America. Trump, as a result, talked about Brexit endlessly: "It'll be Brexit times ten," he promised in a typically American grandiose style.

I can't really watch the news. The BBC continues with its ridiculous desire to report everything without bias, so we were subjected to a series of jaunty packages, with upbeat music, featuring shots of ludicrous Republicans gurning like imbeciles, and a redneck, toothless tit, flushed with excitement screaming, "we gotta get back to the values of the United States: God, faith and country." Whatever that means. Personally I think God and faith are the same thing in this context, but what do I know? I had to watch the same package three times today, despite the fact that, in Croydon, there's been a terrible tram accident which has killed five people. This hugely important story was relegated to the "let's take a quick look at the other news" segment.

Frankly, the Trump news could have been covered in a few sentences: "unsurprisingly the Americans have monumentally cocked up, and brought a mentally unstable, misogynistic psychopath into the White House. Here's some somber music to listen to whilst we all consider the end of LGBT and immigrant rights, and worry about what this will mean for the stability of the world."

My American friends seem to be in shock. A spool through Facebook felt like reading some kind of book of condolence to the extent that I don't think there's anything else I can say about the situation that you won't have read a million times on your own timelines. I suppose there are but two consolations. Firstly, that insanity is not simply a bi-product of being British, and secondly that Trump is an English word for fart.

It's been a horrible day all round. I found out this afternoon that I haven't been given Arts Council funding for the recording of Em, which is utterly destabilising. I knew I was in trouble last week when I realised I'd started assuming the project was going to happen. Hope is not something which goes hand-in-hand with British musical theatre and I'm close to proving what I always felt was the case, namely that it's nigh on impossible to carve out an existence as a musical theatre writer in the UK.

Bleak, bleak, bleak.

I was cheered up immensely this evening by a meeting with the lovely Clare Chandler, who runs the musical theatre course at Edge Hill university. We periodically hook up in a cafe at Euston station to chew the fat (is that a phase?) and talk about musical theatre. It is always a privilege to talk to someone with so much genuine passion for the art form. One of the big hurdles that we have to overcome in the UK is our general apathy towards the genre. So often British musical theatre is reviewed by theatre specialists who are prejudiced against the art form. They value the stuff which musicals are incapable providing them with, and baulk at the very concept of someone expressing their feelings by bursting into song. This is just some of the nonsense we need to work through if British musical theatre is to rise from the ashes again.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

I suggest you keep your children in doors

I'm currently walking around the perimeter of Hampstead Heath, where an incredibly charming chap has been photographing me as part of a post-Brexit-this-is-the-UK-now sort of project. He confesses that he's still not found a great many people to photograph with, how should we put this sensitively, less Europhile tendencies, prompting me to further wonder how I too can have spent my entire life only rubbing shoulders with 48% of the population. To my knowledge, only nine people I know actually voted Brexit, including my aunt and uncle, who are almost eighty. We sat with Philip last night discussing the same topic. All I can think is that I live a very sheltered life, or that a lot of my friends are keeping what happened in the voting booth a secret to avoid confrontation! You don't get many people actually saying how proud they are to have voted Brexit. When the country goes down the drain, I'm sure many of them will swear they voted a different way! It's like all the people who say they were in the Olympic stadium on Super Saturday.

Anyway, for the photograph, I suggested we went down to the tree with the hole in it, which is basically my favourite of favourite places on the Heath. When we arrived, we could hear children shrieking and my heart slightly sank. The kids, who were maybe 6 or 8-year olds, were obviously part of a school group who'd come to the Heath for a bit of a run around in nature. They were sitting on a branch about fifty yards away, so I climbed inside the tree, and the photographer started lining up a shot.

I'm sure it won't be a surprise to learn that, within twenty seconds, one of the adults with the children came scurrying over. She looked at us as though we were a pair of criminals: "Can I ask who you are and why you're here..." Because I was hiding in the shadows of the tree, Jack, the photographer, spoke. She'd plainly made him feel the need to justify his existence, "this is my friend, and we're simply here to take some photographs." The woman smiled wryly, "ah, you ARE taking photographs. Well, I'm afraid for the safety of the children, I'm obliged to ask you to stop." "But the children are behind me, and I'm only planning to take photos of my friend, and this tree." Said Jack. Rather too politely for my liking. The woman was having none of it, "if I could ask you to take photographs elsewhere. Perhaps you can come back when we've finished?" She smiled, a little passive aggressively, a little embarrassed, like she'd just sharted. It was at this point that my angry face emerged from the tree: "This is a public space and we are entitled to be anywhere we choose and take photographs wherever we want. We've said we're not photographing the children and if you see us turning the lens on the children, I give you permission to come to us and ask (politely) if we'd mind stopping. You have chosen to bring these children into a public open space. Their safety is none of our concern. They're not in a designated play area. If we'd wandered into your school, you would have every right to ask us who we are and what we're doing, but as that's not the case, and I think we're simply going to carry on. Thank you." I probably wasn't quite that eloquent. I was too shocked. I do remember smiling sweetly like one of those people you get in HR departments, whom you want to throttle whilst screaming, "just because you're smiling, it doesn't mean you're saying something palatable!!"

I am intrigued to know when we're going to get over the paranoia we routinely feel regarding children, photography and men. I get it. I know all the arguments. I know all the reasons why children need to be protected in schools. I understand that some children are at risk and that men are more likely to be sex offenders, but let's look at the statistics before we start treating total strangers, who are trying to enjoy a day at their favourite open space, like criminals. We've reached an absolute impasse if we continue to view all men without children in public spaces with suspicion. What next? Lone men are banned from entering parks? It is brutally unhealthy for a man to need to spend all his time avoiding so much as glancing at a child. I have no idea how male teachers, youth workers, nannies, doctors and social workers actually cope. We are dangerously close to living in a world where men are only attentive to their own children, and vast swathes of children grow up without male role models or feeling that men are always aloof and over-formal with them.

Obviously, I don't care. I don't have children and, with the exception of my godchildren, a few relatives and the friends of a couple of mates, I don't much like kids. I'm more than happy to ignore them when they come over for a chat. But as long as children are inquisitive, and not inherently frightened of men, we need to find a way through this ludicrous maze. In my view, if you don't want your child to stumble into the background of one of my photographs (in the process totally wrecking the shot) then keep him or her on a lead.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Murder Ballads

We're returning from Central London where we've been watching the much-hyped Murder Ballads at the Arts Theatre. I didn't much like being in that particular theatre. It's the first time we've been there since Beyond the Fence, and upon entering, I was instantly bombarded with brutal and deeply painful memories. I'm almost relieved to report that the theatre is being pulled down.

...But enough about that...

Murder Ballads is one of those shows which feels like it's had a marketing campaign which targets the right sort of audience and promotes the type of show that it actually is. It has a ludicrously stellar cast which features some of the coolest, brightest stars in British musical theatre, including Kerry Ellis, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and Ramin Karimloo. It's a rock show, and the cast are going big on the growling pipes to the extent that they give the impression of dangerously shredded vocal cords! As Philip (who came with us) said afterwards, "have a salt-water gargle, dear."

It was a very classy production. The band is excellent. The set is simple but beautifully appointed. And all the performances are first-rate. The songs serve their purpose with some very interesting harmonic shifts. The choral writing is glorious, with crunchy chords up the wazoo...

The issue I had with the piece was that I genuinely didn't give a shit about the characters on the stage. It was one of those psychological, four-hander musicals like Next To Normal, that occasionally escape their off-Broadway prisons and hit wider audiences. This genre of musical routinely depicts unlikable people doing unlikable things in a world which isn't particularly high stakes. In this sort of piece, no one really cares if an unpleasant person kills an equally unpleasant person - which is basically the thrust of the Murder Ballad narrative - and the audience leave the theatre wondering what they were meant to have experienced.

The cast did a brilliant job of posturing their way around the stage, all too-cool-for-school, in their preposterously high-heeled shoes and leather trousers, but ultimately, though the experience was engulfing and ticked very many boxes, I just feel a bit, well... underwhelmed. Nothing moved me. Very little truly excited me. Hamilton-Barritt and Karimloo are true stars: deeply alluring creatures that you simply can't take your eyes off. But the story was just so... well, dull. Ultimately I don't know why anyone would bother setting that story to music. And there was so much snogging on stage that even that started to wear a bit thin. Yeah, I get it, these two characters have great sex. Now surprise me... please!

Middlesex New Synagogue

I got back from Lewes at 4am yesterday morning, so the day was something of a wipe out. I slept in until 11, and then simply stared at the television, wrapped in a blanket, trying to work out why the temperatures had plummeted so thoroughly and why I felt like I'd been boxed by a kangaroo. 

I helped out at another quiz in the evening. As I left the house, I took a tumble down the stairs leading down into the garden. The motion-sensor light has broken, and, in all the darkness, I misjudged where the first step was. Fortunately, I caught the railing and prevented myself from a full on fall, but felt quite shaken afterwards at the thought of what might have been. There are at least twenty steps. 

The quiz took place at the Middlesex New Synagogue in Harrow and I was fairly shocked by the amount of security outside. Great big locked metal gates. I simply can't imagine that happening outside a church, and find it thoroughly unacceptable that the Jewish community in our country feel so threatened. 

The event was utterly charming. It was a charity fundraiser and there were plates and bowls of delicious home made food. There were baskets of tangerines, boxes of chocolate, salads, poached salmon, pickles and the most amazing cucumber slices prepared with salt, sugar, vinegar and dill. They were so delicious that I asked the lady who'd made them for the recipe. When I announced that I was a vegetarian, the salmon was whipped away and replaced with a mushroom flan.

I hope we gave them a good quiz. It felt somehow really important to do so. They were such a lovely bunch of people and made us feel utterly at home. I looked around the tables as people tucked into their meals and wondered how anyone on earth could want to make the people in that building feel the need to barricade themselves inside whilst worshipping. I should point out that Reform Judaism is one of the only official British religions which condones gay marriage. I always feel incredibly at home in a reform synagogue.

I came home, late, and managed to watch a tiny bit of telly with Nathan, who'd been at a yarn festival all day. We're like ships in the night at the moment.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Lewes bonfires

Sam, Matt and I spent most of yesterday in the East Sussex town of Lewes, observing their famously anarchic bonfire night celebrations. They always celebrate on November the 5th itself, which yesterday fell on a Saturday.

We had brunch in Catford. We ordered the "Veggie breakfast - option four" which arrived on the biggest plates I've ever seen. Literally a whole heap of stodge.

We set off for the South Coast at just before midday. We tapped Meriel's address into the sat nav and were horrified when the predicted journey time flashed up as five hours. I immediately flew into a panic, wondering whether we ought to cancel our plans, and what kind of epic traffic jam was going to hold us up for that long. It turns out the sat nav had randomly decided to give us the journey time for a BIKE ride to Lewes! In that context, five hours felt like a surprisingly short period of time. We were, however, utterly relieved to discover it was only actually going to take an hour and a half.

We arrived in Lewes to find the town buzzing. I've seldom visited a place which seemed in such a state of high excitement. We had cups of tea with Hilary, Rupert and Jago before heading over to Meriel's for a lovely early supper of baked potatoes and grilled vegetables.

We walked into the town via a series of darkened alleyways. The whole town smelt of wood smoke and gunpowder, and we'd periodically find ourselves walking through little clouds of smoke created by be-costumed revellers lighting torches, stakes and wooden crosses in readiness for the processions.

The Lewes bonfire celebrations are organised by six separate societies, all of which represent a different area of town, and all of whom have different dress codes. The most controversial of the societies is called "Cliffe." The members of Cliffe seem to wear their hell-raising reputation as a veritable badge of honour. They're the people who famously burn an effigy of the pope every year and, because of this, are banned from parading in the grand procession. When they pass, the town goes a bit loopy. They walk, like rock stars, whilst those watching lob fire-crackers at their feet!

Meriel is a member of another society called "Southover," who, based on tonight, seem to have but one reputation, and that's for desperate tardiness! What the Southover posse have in their favour, however; is that they get to dress as pirates, monks or smugglers. And the pirates looked very fetching indeed. Meriel was incredibly sexy and sassy in her clobber, which was all plunging necklines and wench-like layered skirts. Fabulous!
To make matters slightly confusing, every society has its own procession (actually three processions), and all of them take place separately, on different routes and without any central document to let you know who is going to be where and at what time. As a result, the whole occasion sometimes feels a little like the performance of certain pieces of modern music, namely that those taking part are having a great deal more fun than those who have come to support them. "This is a local tradition for local people..."

The first processions of the night are subdued affairs, all linked to remembrance. We stopped for some time outside a church where a fabulous woman in a feather boa read a poem, and a gentleman delivered an impassioned speech about the war dead of two world wars which was brilliant, yet utterly undermined by a sudden gear-shift into the land of Jesus. "God knew sacrifice because he gave up his son for us etc." I don't buy it. Having spent much of the old testament demanding other fathers give up their children as sacrifice, he didn't have a leg to stand on. And if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, surely God, by handing him over to the braying mob was simply saying, "I want you to spend more time back home with me, son!" I think it's deeply insulting and somewhat grotesque to try to compare the deep sacrifice that a generation of innocent young men made for their countries in the First World War with a bible story! I struggle bitterly with the idea of remembrance being linked to religion. One could argue that an atheist giving up his life for his country is a far braver act than a religious person doing the same thing, safe in the knowledge that he's off to a better place. Furthermore, all evidence suggests that there was a dramatic decrease in religious activity in the First World War. The numbers attending front line services literally disintegrated. Sadly, young Tommy felt he was already living in hell, and hearing that God was on his side, simply rubbed salt into an already very open wound.

That said, the Lewes celebrations, though seeming deeply Pagan, are actually there to commemorate the deaths of a set of Protestant Martyrs at the hands of Catholics. Setting fire to an effigy of the pope, therefore is an act of religious defiance and camaraderie, so my struggling with religious content was maybe a little churlish.

Furthermore, once the bloke has stopped shaking his metaphorical tambourine, the moment was able to return to being moving, especially when they set fire to a number of giant poppies whilst a band sputtered its way through Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. There were some very well-thought through, more surprising touches as well. The band played Auld Lang Sine whilst two of the marchers sang that famous World War One soldier chant, "we're 'ere because we're 'ere because we're 'ere..." encouraging us all to join in. There was something so left-field and cheeky, yet deeply connecting about the moment. I felt a genuine sense of one-ness with the Tommies we were honouring. Moving too was the cornet rendition of the Last Post, whilst in the distance, bagpipes, brass bands and screams and cries mixed with hundreds of fireworks, echoeing around the town like a ghostly battle on a not-so-distant front line.

The processions themselves are extraordinary. Scores of people hold huge flaming torches as they march, and others pull metal barrels along the ground which make a terrifying grinding sound whilst spraying embers onto the Tarmac of the streets which end up looking like mystical star constellations.

The processions are watched by scores of people. Even draconian street closures "until 2am" and the much-loathed South East rail's decision to cancel all trains into the town on this, its most important day, weren't able to stop people from attending. Many were crammed into windows overlooking the streets. More were balanced perilously on ledges, telephone boxes, the backs of benches, up trees and lampposts. It's a magical atmosphere. Pop-up stalls sell burgers, beer, chips, and all the other stuff you want to eat on a cold November night. And man was it cold!

I took a thermos flask of tea. I felt very smug. Sam had brought whiskey, which Meriel decanted into a bag which looked suspiciously like a catheter. It was whilst I poured my first cup of the golden nectar (tea, not whiskey) that the first fire cracker was thrown at my feet. When one lands, you get about two seconds before the most awful ear-splitting sound. Matt, standing next to me, saw the thing landing next to me, and started stammering, "Ben, there's a... there's a..." BANG! I'm proud to say that I didn't spill the tea, but Jesus Christ it shocked me! Fortunately Meriel, aware of the tradition, had found us some ear plugs, which immediately went in. A composer cannot mess about with anything which might effect his hearing. Even short term!

We left Meriel, who was preparing herself to march in the main procession and stationed ourselves at the bottom of the Main Street, somewhere near the river, to watch the various different societies marching past. Each society has its own "fire pit" where they burn their own giant effigy of someone - either in deference to them, or as an act of defiance. The effigies are enormous. Fifteen feet tall, perhaps bigger, and they are carried through the streets as part of the processions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two societies had chosen to burn Donald Trump, and, as he passed, boos rang out. I'm proud to say that Meriel's crew burned the ghastly Theresa May and the simperingly vulgar Boris Johnson as a finger up to Brexit. Let the Daily Mail call them the enemies of the people. I would have personally burned them on a bonfire consisting of every copy of that particular newspaper, and probably every one of its ghastly, fascist readers. If you're reading this blog and you read the Daily Mail and you're offended by these comments. Good.

It was whilst we waited for the various societies to pass that the evening started to wear a little thin, primarily because there was a genuine sense that no one had a clue what was going on. Anarchy is one thing, but it's surely exciting for those processing to have a crowd to cheer them on, and, at a certain point, when we still hadn't seen Meriel's society, the marching stopped, the crowds dispersed and all the stewards on the streets, when asked, told us "the main procession is over" (apparently the "main one" was Cliffe) and that they didn't know if any more processions were coming through. We instantly got into a panic. Perhaps Southover had changed their route? Perhaps we'd missed them and would therefore be missing their fireworks display. We only had the Southover programme, which had very vague timings, and no map to show us where the streets they said they were marching along actually were. To make matters worse, because each society randomly has its own programme, there was no sense of the order in which societies were marching.

At this point, two young Indian men came over to us and asked us what on earth was going on. "Are you celebrating winning the war?" They asked. (They know the Brits too well!) We floundered. Every thing we said sounded ludicrous. Try explaining all of the above to someone who isn't British!

We walked, at speed, up a seemingly deserted High Street trying to find Southover, but could find no sign of them, so immediately took ourselves to the field where Southover were due to have their bonfire and fireworks display. We joined a group of very cold, very confused and increasingly angry people. We could tell that all the other societies were already having their displays. We could see giant rockets exploding over the trees in different parts of town. Our feet froze, and collectively, five hundred or so people lost the will to live. I spoke to the woman whom I'd handed my ticket to and asked if the procession had arrived, "what procession?" She said. "The Southover procession." She looked blankly: "quite a lot of people have arrived." She said. "A big group arrived earlier." "Were they wearing costumes, and carrying a giant effigy and hundreds of burning crosses?" "No." It was very odd to discover that the officials knew almost less than we did!

It turns out that Southover, and one other society had been held up at the start of their march by the police who were arresting scores of people. If that happens, it's vital to let the police and stewards in other parts of town know what's going on, so that the crowds can be patient. It's about managing expectations...

Sadly what actually happened was that the crowd at the fire side turned sarcastic and then downright nasty. By the time members of the society turned up, there was booing, and jeering. We'd waited in the damp and cold for the best part of two hours, and noticed all the other displays taking place. One woman looked longingly at the fireworks bursting a mile away and said wistfully, "all those other people having fun..."

Instead of getting on with it, the Southover lot arrived and started throwing firecrackers into a dustbin. A middle aged woman turned to everyone around her, "all they're doing is lobbing things into that dustbin." A man shouted out, "you need to aim for the sky!"

Eventually, a somewhat bedraggled and sad-looking parade of people arrived. I think they'd had the love for the occasion kicked out of them by marching along empty streets, and were completely perplexed by the somewhat hostile response they were getting at this, the great climax to their year of planning. A group of drummers walked passed and the crowd angrily shouted "drum, you bastards" - desperate for them to give us a sense of the pageantry we'd come to witness. When they finally did start drumming (heaven knows why they weren't already) the crowd started shouting, "now drum faster..." It was a sorry affair.

At that point, a man dressed as the pope appeared with two people dressed as acolytes of some description and they stood on a scaffolding platform whilst all the members of the society throw firecrackers at them... Over an interminably long period of time. It was fun for a while. The stakes are high. The papal trio were literally sitting ducks, dodging balls of fire, but the crowd was damp and fed up and we just wanted to go home. And, yet again, it felt like we were watching something which was for the benefit of the members, and not for those of us who'd paid £5 to see something special. And then the fireworks happened. They were all coming from behind a set of trees, so quite a number were obscured by a darkened silhouette. They lasted all of five minutes, the crowd stood, waiting for more. None came. And then people headed home. A bit nonplussed, really.

It was a sad end to what, with a little more planning and communication could have been the most magical evening.

Saturday, 5 November 2016


I woke up this morning in Sutton Coldfield feeling a little nostalgic and emotional. It's something I often experience in the Midlands. I imagine my younger self, and that, inevitably, comes with a degree of self-evaluation. Would I recognise the person I've become? Would I consider myself successful? Would I believe I'd ever reach the tender age of 42? I guess it didn't help to discover that the hotel I was staying in was where my Auntie Winnie had had her 100th birthday party. Cut me open, and I bleed the blood of almost every location in the Midlands, and the older I get, the more important that blood becomes...

It struck me that, considering the mood I was in, the best thing I could do would be to take myself home via Stoneleigh, the little Warwickshire village where my Grandparents lived for the entire time I knew them. The place is ram-packed with memories and it's a place which, thankfully, changes very little as the years roll past. It's an ancient village which sits underneath a rather beautiful, terribly English hill. Between the hill and the village runs a river, which is so clear you can see every last lime green reed, glowing in the sunlight, being buffeted by the fast-flowing water. There's a little bridge which is perfect for Pooh Sticks. Weeping willows bow down to the river's edge.

A water meadow separates the river from most of the houses. Years ago, a consortium of residents purchased the land, thereby making it impossible to to build on.

The little (I think Norman) church sits in the middle of the field. And it's there where my Grandparents are buried. It's being renovated at the moment, so is surrounded by scaffolding, imposing fences and huge signs which inform passers by that trespassers will be prosecuted. I couldn't go in as a result. I'd like to have gone in. It would have reminded me of midnight masses, and the concert that me Ted Thornhill and our mate Tom did there when we were 17. We played string trios. I remember playing the Four Seasons. On one of the walls sits a war memorial with thirteen names on it from the Warwickshire Regiment. All killed in the First World War. Probably on the Somme. Thirteen names, from a village with no more than 100 houses. Do the maths.

An oak tree planted for my Grandparents is growing proudly in the meadow by the gate to the church. In a hundred years, no one will know who Girl and Harry Garner were, but the tree will keep growing. And the tree will know.

I visited the grave and had a chat with them. They weren't hugely talkative, but I think they were wearing ear plugs to muffle the sound of building work!

I took myself on a walk around the village. There's very little to it. A little lane scattered with timber-framed houses. The village club is still there, but there aren't any pubs. I walked past the old shop. Grannie used to give us a handful of 2-pence pieces from a copper jar hanging from her kitchen shelves, and we'd go to the shop to spend it on penny chews. A sign on the door of the house where the shop once was says "The Old Post Office." I still remember the way the place smelt inside. The aroma of sweeties, newspapers and past-their-sell-by-date-synthetic-cream-doughnuts.

I remember when the "Old Forge" (which now deals in stoves and fireplaces) was an actual blacksmiths. The building hasn't changed. It still sits underneath a large horse chestnut tree, which had shed most of its leaves into a big fiery semi-circular hearth rug. The old red phone box in the village now houses emergency life saving equipment, including an "automated external defibrillator." There's probably an interesting book to be written about the way that people have repurposed these quintessentially English, yet utterly obsolete objects to reflect the nature of the places in which they live. I've seen lending libraries, internet hubs and tourist information centres. A defibrillator is new on me, but probably says all you need to know about the population of Stoneleigh!

This afternoon I should have been at an award ceremony, but, despite being nominated for something, I didn't go. I didn't go for a number of reasons. The award was for Beyond The Fence, which I consider to have been such a damaging experience that any mention of it makes me recoil like a frightened animal. Believe it or not, Nathan and I still haven't watched the filmed version! The other reason why we ultimately decided to steer clear was that the award was voted for by the public, so essentially, it's a popularity contest. The award will go to the person with the most number of Twitter followers rather than the person who did the best job. Award ceremonies are awful enough without knowing you don't stand a hope in hell of winning an award! Besides, even if you do win, people are always far more interested in what Devina McCall is wearing to say well done or make you feel anything less than a terrible smell! If you genuinely want to feel like a nobody, get yourself nominated for an award! I'm still not sure I've ever forgiven Grayson Perry's wife for asking me if I wanted to be photographed holding one of the awards that her husband beat us to! Priceless!

So instead of going to the ceremony, which was this afternoon, I stopped off at Toddington Service Station and did some writing. Em is set in the 1960s, and I couldn't think of a more appropriate 60s location than a service station on the M1. Peel back the layers of plastic and tatty-looking fake chrome, and you'll find a building which epitomised the glamour of the motorway age. I sat in some sort of ghastly atrium and watched the clouds outside darken.

By the time I'd reached London, the rain had arrived and I might as well have swum my way from the car to the house. All this made the hour I spent in bright, beautiful Warwickshire sunshine seem all the more special.