Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy new year

I tried to do some work today, but got pulled into watching television, initially by Gordon Buchanan's deeply moving documentary about elephants. The sight and sound of a herd of elephants joyously welcoming a new born calf - weeping and trumpeting - was one of the most uplifting pieces of television I've ever seen. The elephant programme was followed by Grease Live, the script for which was adapted by our friend Carey. It was really rather good. There was a lot of schtick, particularly from the woman playing Blanche, and I'm not sure any of the actors playing the lead characters had the same degree of star quality as, well, almost anyone in the original film, but the programme was an absolute feat of televisual stamina and planning. The end sequence was unbelievable, right down to the moment when one of the golf carts almost ran off the road as a result of its driver getting a little over-adrenalised! It was very easy to forget that it had originally been screened live. There is such a high degree of jeopardy in a project like that!

The adverts between the segments were truly irritating, however, particularly the one for swim wear which introduced me to a ghastly new word: tankini. Part tank top, part bikini. Inexcusable.

I guess it's on this day that we all feel obliged to sum up the past year, which I think, for almost everyone reading this blog, will have been testing in the extreme. It's been a year of death, misery, war and divisions. It's been the year I realised that I didn't understand people as well as I thought I did, and further more, the year I realised that almost my entire network of friends had been farmed from a mere 48% of the population. On a personal level, I've had a somewhat testing year. Beyond The Fence was an astonishingly destructive experience, which I had to fight hard to move on from, and, although I've kept myself incredibly busy, I didn't earn a penny of money from March through to December and have felt exhausted, burned out and like I've been generally treading water.

I guess it's been a good year for Andy Murray. World number one tennis player, Olympic gold medalist, Wimbledon champion, knighted in the New Year's Honours list and winner of the BBC sports personality of the year for a record third time. I was also pleased to read that Mo Farrah has become a Sir. I must try not to call him Mo Molam!

So, Happy New Year to you all! I'm off to my friend Matt's house and am very much looking forward to welcoming 2017. A new start. A new burst of energy. A new me.

Fog and fast dialogue

The fog in Highgate today has been intense. I met Llio for coffee in Muswell Hill and walking back was like being an extra in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Bicycles loomed out of the gloom, silhouetted in front of the giant lights of busses. The roads glistened with melted frost. My moustache tingled with condensation!

Lli and I had a wonderful catch up in the cafe. As we chatted, Philip Sallon's sister, Ruth trotted past the window, spotted me and spend a good minute waving and showing her appreciation of my moustache... in mime.

The woman at the next door table was plainly listening in to our conversation in a way which felt really inappropriate. Things got quite intense at one point. Llio has, after all, just lost her brother. But the woman almost seemed like she was trying to join in, as though, at any moment, we were going to hear her take on grief. At one point I mentioned echolalia and I thought she was going to burst!

There's not much else to say about the day. I've been working on Em, with one hand attempting to up the levels of humour in the piece, and, with the other, attempting to raise the dramatic stakes and imbue the show with a bit more grit. Those things seem utterly contradictory, but, for the first time, I understand the tone of the piece I'm writing and this is making a lot of things slot into place. Dialogue is probably the fastest I've ever written and needs to rattle by at top speed in the style of some of those American TV shows like Moonlighting and Gilmore Girls. In fact, I've nicked a joke from Gilmore Girls. Shh, don't tell anyone!

Friday, 30 December 2016

The objectification of Ariana Grande

I've been reading this morning about someone called Ariana Grande. I'm afraid I had to Google her because I had no idea who she is, or what she does, but it turns out she sang Bang Bang with Jessie J and that other "who-the-hell-are-you?" person, Nicky Minaj. Anyway, it seems Ms Grande is making an online stand about the objectification of women. Hers is very specifically an online stand, of course, because God forbid anyone from that generation should get their hands dirty in the real world when Twitter means you can say it all in 140 characters without leaving your poolside.

Now obviously the objectification of women is an awful thing, and it's something which happens a great deal in this backward world of ours. My worry, however, is that objectification sometimes happens as a result of certain women presenting themselves in a certain kind of way. It would appear that Ms Grande knows that sex sells. In the first fifty or so images of her on google there are two fully naked shots and heaps of pictures of her semi-dressed, wearing cutesy cat ears and sucking on a lollipop.

You're never going to get me to criticise her for choosing to sell records using this tactic, but I'm afraid the "look-at-me-don't-look-at-me" thing doesn't wash. If you opt to present yourself as a helpless fuck-fawn, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that your fans might begin to objectify you. Celebrities put themselves out there, make a lot of money and in doing so sell their souls to the devil. I'm beginning to get really fed up with the constant desire these days to feel moral indignation without any sense of personal responsibility.

When I write this blog I'm aware that I occasionally ruffle feathers. Periodically someone leaves a really horrible, utterly anonymous message, which can make me wince, but I have to tell myself that by publishing this blog, I'm opening myself up to the bottom half of the internet or those who might get irritated by the way I choose to present myself. It's not particularly appropriate to beckon with one hand before slapping those who have come closer with the other.

It was Christmas Jim's wedding tonight and we drove down to a misty Winchester Cathedral for a glorious party filled with the odd-ball assortment of politicos and theatricals who Jim and Matthew have collected during their lives. I got a chance to spend some time with the highly charming composer, Craig Adams. We're like two sides of the same coin. We both studied at Mountview. We both write musical theatre. We both met our partners on West End shows.

I think it's really important for composers to hang out together. We all spend our time struggling with the same inner daemons. Many of us suffer from the double catastrophe of being both white and male. It's nice to support each other. Whinge. Share stories. Laugh...

It was wonderful to see Jim and Matthew doing their first dance and looking so loved-up and happy together. A beautiful evening.

We drove home in thick mist which ebbed and flowed. At one stage visibility went down to about ten meters and then suddenly the fog lifted.

Feeling peckish, we stopped at Winchester Services on the M3 and decided to get a couple of toasties from the Costa there. The counter had been left unattended. We waited for ten minutes, seriously tempted to grab a few sarnies and make a dash for it. When the old man finally arrived there was no word of apology for keeping us waiting. I handed him the two toasties. He sighed and moved to the cash register, pulling out the cash tray and taking it across to some scales where he proceeded to weigh all of the coins... I called over to him, "is there any chance you could start heating these toasties whilst you're doing that?" He looked at me with deep scorn, "I am not allowed to serve you until I have weighed all these coins...." At that point we left.

There was a poster at the door which informed us that the good folk of Winchester Services were "passionate about good service." A mobile phone number was displayed underneath which purported to be for the customer service manager. I thought I might as well give it a shot to register my problem with the treatment I'd had at Costa. Imagine my horror, therefore, when the phone was answered by the old man behind the Costa counter! Stunning!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

My new friend

The air smelt like ash trays and electricity this evening, melded with whatever cooking aromas the various cafes and restaurants I passed were launching into the ether. The cause was almost certainly the heavy and somewhat romantic mist which descended on London today, trapping all smells in a thick blanket which prevented them from escaping into the air. There was a haze everywhere, which had even swept its way into the ticket hall at Highgate tube. People talk about smogs in the 1950s creeping like smoke into buildings - cinemas and things - and until today I had no concept of how that might be physically possible. Perhaps there was a lot of smoky pollution in today's fog. Campaigners say that the quality of air in London is really poor at the moment. I've even heard talk of it being partially the fault of Parisians. Apparently their bad air floats up to London... or something. Never let actual facts get in the way of a sweeping statement! 
Many readers of yesterday's blog managed to identify the curious seed pods I was writing about in the Chilterns. Wild clematis. And apparently it does grow in the Midlands. We actually had a clematis in our back garden. When it was in full bloom, we'd stand next to it for a family picture. I don't remember the seeds ever looking like that in winter, but our plant was never backlit, and I'm told the clematis we grow in gardens is an altogether more refined creature, which doesn't grow like wild fire along hedgerows. Mystery solved. Many thanks to everyone who entered the debate so knowledgeably. 

I have started working again. I figure working between now and New Year is found time, so I took myself off to Old Street to sit in a couple of cafes whilst working on the script for Em. I went to Starbucks and then a swanky, independent cafe where I nearly fainted to hear that a little pot of tea was going to set me back an astonishing £3.15! Almost twice the cost of a pot of tea at Costa. It's water and a tea bag. Enough said. 

Shoreditch looked rather charming in the fog, however. There was a hint of sun in the sky which made everything glow in a soft, impressionist sort of way. That part of London always reminds me of the village in New York, both visually and because of its "coolness." Graffiti in Shoreditch feels every bit a part of the vibe, as cafes, street sellers and junk shops. I think it's probably a result of the vitality an area gains after wave upon wave of immigration, but I'm not sure that argument would hold up in a court of law! 

We had a horrible night last night when it suddenly became clear that fraudsters had taken upwards of £7000 from Nathan's Paypal account and that the same rat bags were then attempting to clear his current account of funds. It was terrifying. We could see payments for huge sums marked as "pending" and the money was literally disappearing in front of our eyes. We phoned the non-emergency police who took everything very seriously but sadly Paypal don't offer round-the-clock fraud surveillance. A company that size absolutely should do. It's pathetic that they don't. I don't think anyone takes "virtual" money seriously enough. 

In the end I had the bright idea to phone PayPal in the US, who were able to help, and certainly put Nathan's mind at rest about being able to claim the money back, but we spent scores of minutes on hold and worked out afterwards that my mobile company would probably be charging me close to £80 for the call. Yes, it would have been cheaper from our landline, but Nathan was using that to call his bank, and, in high panic, you just don't think about these sorts of things...

We've just got back from Earlsfield where lovely Abbie was celebrating her birthday in the Wandle Pub. It was a charming evening. We played a board game called the London Game which my family played regularly in my childhood. The board is basically a giant tube map which players have to navigate to reach certain destinations.

What I would say about the Wandle pub is that it's absolutely not worth visiting if you're a vegetarian. There is just one vegetarian main meal on the menu (a burger) - and that was off today. I ended up with a minuscule starter-sized portion of macaroni cheese (described in the menu as "served as it should be - epic") and a portion of chips. Literally all I could eat. No soup. Nothing else. And staff didn't care two hoots. The manager blamed the chef for not ordering enough burgers in, and Greene King, the pub chain, were blamed for not putting enough veggie food on the menu in the first place. I have to say, I'm getting royally fed up with arriving in pubs to discover they're run by Greene King, and therefore that they have the same menu - often as the pub next door. I've never noticed before how awful these menus are for vegetarians. With up to 2 million Brits opting for vegetarian diets, this is utterly inexcusable. 

We went back to Abbie and Ian's house after the pub and marvelled at the size of their Christmas tree, which is, without a word of a lie, the most rotund tree I have ever seen! 

We caught the last tube home and were visited as we sat in the station by the cutest little baby mouse. I wondered if he was ill, because he seemed supremely inquisitive, which may have implied an element of docility. I fed him chocolate from my pocket and he ate it out of my hand. Happy Christmas little fella. I hope you make it to the end of 2016. I also hope that Debbie Reynolds pulls through. She seems to be the latest celebrity in trouble.

My new friend

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Stronger, happier people

I can safely say that the journey back from Dorset to London today was one of the worst I've ever experienced. Nathan, who had to work today, made the wise decision to travel back to London last night, and did the entire journey in about two hours.

It's my Mum's birthday today, however, so I stayed in the hotel so we that could all have breakfast together. I'd sort of assumed that we'd be hanging about in the New Forest for lunch, but my parents were keen to get on the road, so I cadged a lift with Brother Edward and Sascha and off we all went...

If only I'd known the madness that was in store for us. It turns out that December 27th was the day that everyone, and I mean everyone, decided to make their way in the direction of London. The parents, in their car, were trying to get back to Thaxted, Edward and Sascha needed to get to Canary Wharf. No road was better than any other. We were in regular touch with the parents who were crawling along and had barely made it to Oxford after three hours in the car. It eventually took us more than five hours to get to Canary Wharf. Motorways were like car parks. The North Circular was closed. Cars were overheating by the side of the road. Genuine mayhem.

We made the wise decision to do most of our journey cross country, which meant, until we hit the abject horrors of the M25, we were moving fairly consistently, albeit in a roundabout sort of way. It also meant we got to see some charming sights. We very much enjoyed travelling through Hampshire and Berkshire. There are so many charming villages down there. Sure, they all feel a touch unreal, like a sort of film set or theme park, but with a bit of a make-under they'd be genuinely lovely. I can imagine there's some pretty ghastly people living there, however - ex-Londoners playing at rural life - but I'm probably just a little envious!

I've seen a lot of hedgerows today and yesterday which seem to have cotton-like seed-pods hanging from the branches. We spotted them for the first time whilst driving through the Chilterns yesterday. The seeds look a little like large dandelion clocks dangling from the branches, and they glow magically when the low winter sun backlights them. I've obviously never driven through the Chilterns at this time of year before, because they're absolutely everywhere, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like them. Does anyone have an idea what they might be? They certainly didn't grow in the Midlands.

Highlight of the journey was almost certainly a place called Squirrel Hill, which I can safely say I've never visited before. It has the most extraordinary vista. You can see for miles from the summit of the hill. Today, pools of mist and frost were hovering above and clinging to the hollows. The hills stretched out into the distance in different shades of brown, grey and maroon.

But every time we were pleasantly surprised by a view, we were immediately jolted back into reality by yet another traffic jam.

Desperate for the loo, we stopped at a garage on the outskirts of Guildford. As we pulled into the forecourt, a frightened-looking, elderly lady was being hauled out of a car and dragged into the M and S shop attached to the garage. Sadly there was only one loo cubical in the building and the queue was incredibly long, filled with indulgent children who were being taken into the cubical for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone in the queue could tell the old lady was in trouble, and predictably, as one father-daughter combination went into their fifth minute inside the cubical, the poor woman weed herself. It was so undignified and tragic. She was obviously distressed. Her daughter was mortified and tried to wipe up the pee with tissues from her pocket. The garage staff were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of customers so could do nothing to help...

It's times like this, of course, that you realise your predicament isn't as bad as someone else's. I thought the same on Christmas Eve in Shrewsbury when we watched a car slamming into the back of another at traffic lights down by the English Bridge. All of our blood ran cold as we thought about how awful it would have been for the poor drivers who were no doubt rushing home to spend some much-needed time with their families. So awful.

"Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

So the Black Rabbit of Inlé finally came for Richard Adams and Carrie Fisher today. She didn't manage to pull through after all. Facebook messages are getting more and more flippant. People are simply shaking their heads and wondering who's next. I genuinely hope, when the dust has settled on this dreadful year, that we can all emerge as stronger, happier people.

Dorset Day

Today started in Cheshire and ended in Dorset. Surely no Boxing Day would be complete without an epic car journey and judging by the number of people at the M40 services, the world, his wife, and their angry children were also on the road today.

The weather was glorious. Boxing Day often seems to behave itself in that respect. According to my Mum, in the good old days, you could usually rely on Boxing Day snow. These days it's often sunny but cold. That was certainly the case today.

The drive down to Poole was a breeze. There was a delightful moment when we passed a field in Shropshire which was full of birds of prey, probably buzzards. It was a rather curious sight. They were all sitting down quite happily in a field right by the side of the road.

We listened to a Kate Bush album as we travelled. Passing through Warwickshire, I tried to get Nathan to notice the sudden change in the colour of the earth from brown to a pinky-red. "It's not as red as the earth in Devon," he said. We listened to the news: Lots of talk about George Michael, and a fair amount of discussion about the recent Russian plane crash, which has killed some of the world's most talented musicians. The Russian authorities are claiming that the crash was definitely not an act of terrorism. They're making bizarrely specific suggestions about what might have happened, including the notion that a "foreign object" might have got into the plane's engine. It all smacks of a cover up to me. A military aeroplane, whose passengers are a much-loved band, heading out to Syria to entertain Russian troops in a deeply controversial conflict, strikes me as a fairly legitimate terrorist target (if that's not an oxymoron.) You can certainly understand why the Russian government might baulk at their citizens realising quite how unpopular they are on the world stage. These sorts of events can be quite destabilising.

My entire extended family met in a hotel this afternoon somewhere near the town of Ringwood. There were 28 of us in total, and my cousin Boo had got us a staggering deal where each room only cost £28 for bed and breakfast. The only drawback to this amazing offer was that the special deal was called "Twixtmas," denoting its occurrence between Christmas and the New Year: An unacceptable portmanteau!

We ate a meal at three long tables. Cousin Matt did the seating plans and place most of the Tills on an all-male table. It's not difficult to find men in my family. It's an overwhelmingly male clan - particularly when you take into account all the gays and their partners.

Food was lovely, but I was too busy nattering to tell the chef. Cousin Simon ran a Secret Santa where we took it in turns to pull out a present worth up to £5. Each of us had brought something with us. I brought a Rubik's cube which I've subsequently discovered was invented in 1974, the year of my birth. The first to draw a present was the oldest family member (Uncle John), followed by the youngest (Ned), then the second oldest, the second youngest, and so on... It was actually rather interesting to discover who would be last to draw, thereby revealing the average age of our family. Turns out it was Sascha, who is 40. I reckon this denotes a degree of familial longevity! I was the second most average-aged person. I can't think when I stopped being the youngest...

We had a night cap. I had whiskey. It felt so important that all of us had made the effort to be there. Some branches of my family have had really rough years and it was vital to show them solidarity and a collective finger-up to the horrors of cancer. The older I get, the more I realise that blood is thicker than water.

As I settled down to sleep, I read the news that Liz Smith from the Royale Family has died, less than six months after her on-screen daughter, Caroline Aherne, shuffled off this mortal coil. And so it goes on. I reckon there's going to be one celebrity death a day between now and New Year's Eve.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Honey roast parsnips

Happy Christmas everyone! If you're on your own, or feeling sad, this blog post is dedicated to you. I hope you'll manage to push through the darkness. Christmas Day can be a very painful time.

I had an acid reflux incident in the night which was brought about by way too much rich food. I woke up with a shed load of bile in my throat and it was incredibly frightening to the extent that I was scared to go back to sleep. As a result I've been rather exhausted all day.

Christmas Day for me was spent at my sister-in-law, Sam's house. There were fourteen of us for lunch and Sam cooked another glorious rainbow of food. I helped out a little, putting myself in charge of potatoes, honey-roast parsnips and vegetarian gravy.

My Mum, Dad, Edward and Sascha appeared at about 1pm and we spent the day eating, belly laughing and playing games. We had a long game of categories before embarking on a hilarious bout of "Speak Out," the new parlour game which everyone's talking about (according to the adverts.) The aim of the game is to say various non-sensical phrases written on cards. The catch is that you have to do it whilst wearing one of those weird dental masks which keep your entire mouth frozen open like a ghastly Wallace and Gromit character. It's almost impossible to make yourself understood. Top marks go to my parents and Nathan's Dad for giving it a go. My Mum was particularly hysterical.

This evening we had a Harry Potter quiz. I was utterly useless. I realise the entire Harry Potter phenomenon has passed me by. I've never actually read a Potter book and only ever seen about two of the films. People seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the spells and all those bizarre names and customs, but it's all absolute gobbledygook to me.

I'm going to bed after hearing that George Michael has died. He was a Highgate resident. I didn't know him, but no one can doubt his importance in the world of pop music, or, actually, as a gay icon, even though he had a complicated relationship with his sexuality. I'm not quite sure what else this year wants to throw at us, but can we just get it over and done with now please before anyone else is taken from us? Carrie Fisher, my love, it's vital that you buck the trend and pull through...

Sunday, 25 December 2016


I was the first to wake up this morning. I believe this is the first time this has ever happened in the company of my family!

I spent the morning judging a composing composition for young people in Northampton, much perturbed to discover that, within the age group I was overseeing, only one entry had come from a lad. I should point out that the last competition I was asked to judge was specifically for female composers. There are quite a number of initiatives out there which are attempting to get more females composing, but I sometimes think we forget that male musicians also regularly have to deal with a large amount of prejudice. Certainly when I was young, it was highly uncool to be a male 'cellist, and I regularly had to deal with being thrown into bushes on my way into school every time I had to go in with my 'cello. My friend Tom, a violinist, used to tell his friends he had a tummy ache every time it was time for school orchestra so that he could attend without being ridiculed. Male musicians, particularly those who've been to comprehensive schools, have often had to put up with almost relentless abuse, leading them to develop thick skin, or be bloody committed to the cause! They once played my form group an "informative" film about careers in music. For some ungodly reason this film opted to list the musical instruments which were more associated with female players. These instruments included the harp, the flute and, you've guessed it... the 'cello. It took me at least a term to get the rest of my class to stop taking the piss about that! Without a large dollop of self belief, I would almost certainly have jacked it all in. My mate Tom ended up selling his violin to buy a motorbike...

We went into Shrewsbury this afternoon, which was a wonderful place to visit on Christmas Eve. The big question, of course, is how the hell to pronounce the "shrew" of Shrewsbury. Do you pronounce it to rhyme with blue or blow? I favour the former. The rest of my family side with the latter. "Shrovesbury" sounds very odd to me. Almost as odd as those who call the Nene "Neen."

Shrewsbury is a really bustling market town, which was brimming today with people doing last minute Christmas shopping. Some of the buildings in the town are stunningly beautiful. There are a huge number of timber-framed properties dotted around the city centre and a shed load more from Georgian times.

We had a lovely time shopping. My Mum was particularly taken with the clothes shops and vowed to return as soon as she has a bit of spare money.

Whilst the majority of the town centre is gloriously beautiful, one part is filled with far more unattractive shopping centres from the 60s and 70s, where the pound shops and Wilkinson's hang out. We joked about the concept of a Pound Store "post-Brexit" sale, where everything still costs £1... it's just far cheaper these days for anyone from outside the UK!

Nathan met us in Tanners, which has to be one of the finest wine establishments in the U.K. We lunched in a little vegetarian cafe tucked behind the Main Street, before heading up to St Chad's church near the spectacular Dingle Gardens where Nathan wanted to show us a bit of a curio in the form of a huge gravestone in the name of Ebenezer Scrooge. The story goes that the gravestone was badly-weathered and re-inscribed for use as a prop in the 1984 film of A Christmas Carol. After filming finished, the gravestone was left behind in the church yard. It's a very bizarre and somewhat eerie sight.

We left Shrewsbury to drive to Wrecsam, where Nathan's lot were meeting for their annual Christmas Eve Pizza Hut meal.

En route, we stopped off in Rhosllanerchrugog, the little Welsh mining village where my Nana was born. My Dad couldn't remember the actual number of the house where she'd lived, but we stopped off at the top of the road and soaked in the atmosphere. We filled the car with petrol at Tan-y-Clawdd, the garage up the hill in Johnstown which my uncle and aunt used to run. It felt rather lovely to be returning to my roots like that.

We came back to Sam's, where the house was dutifully prepared for Santa's visit tomorrow. I have to say, it didn't feel quite right to watch the mince pie and the carrot being chowed down on!

Saturday, 24 December 2016


I was up with the lark this morning. In fact, it was still dark when the alarm went off and I heard myself saying "oh, that's my alarm!"

I was on the tube before 8am, which meant I somehow managed to miss the rush hour. Come to think of it, I suspect not many Londoners were actually working today. Certainly not many of them seemed to be heading towards the City.

I managed to find a seat in the carriage and happily read my new book about the River Nene all the way to Moorgate, by which point I was so engrossed that I almost forgot to leave!

From Moorgate, I walked to Liverpool Street, wheeling a really heavy suitcase in my wake. When you're carrying something that unwieldy, you suddenly become aware of quite how many steps there are in London. In the tubes. In stations. I was going up and down like bicycle pump. I can't imagine how difficult life must be for those who use wheelchairs.

The train journey from Liverpool Street to Audley End in North Essex passed without incident. I read my book whilst listening to the man opposite's music which was spilling out of his headphones so successfully, that I could sing along to every song. And probably still be drowned out!

Audley End station by its name alone ought to be really quaint and quirky but it actually seems to be nothing but a giant concrete car park, designed to attract the commuters of that part of the world. My parents were waiting in their car for me when I arrived and we set off for Shropshire via the M11, the A14, the M6 and a shed-load of other roads whose names escape my mind.

We drove over the Nene at Thrapston. It felt very odd to be looking down at a field I'd walked through just a few weeks ago. I was there less than an hour after my accident and limping heavily. Bizarrely the area was entirely water-logged today which made me realise quite how lucky I was with the weather. Rain would have made my task utterly impossible.

We had an early lunch at Corley services, where I introduced my father to the concept of Subway sandwiches. He was utterly overwhelmed by the amount of choice. Bread? Salad? Cheese? Toasted? Sauces? Who knew a sandwich could have so many variables?!

My family are staying in an Air BnB house in a place called Myddle. I keep saying "middle for diddle" as a little joke, but I think that's a phrase only quizzers use! The owner of the house took great pains to tell us that she hadn't actually wanted to rent the house out over Christmas because she'd wanted to stay here herself, but that she hadn't had the heart to cancel our booking. At the rates she's being paid, my heart bleeds for her! In return we've been rewarded with a house which smells of dog and an oven which is so dirty that it set all the smoke alarms off when we tried to bake a Yuletide log!

Edward and Sascha arrived at about the same time as, us and Ted and I immediately went off to do an errand in Ellesmere - just as Storm Barbara tore through the area. I'm sure it was half the strength of the storm which is brutalising Scotland tonight, but it got a bit hairy driving through the sheets of rain in a car I'd never driven before. I couldn't find the back windscreen wipers and then the lights...

We had tea in a local gastro-pub which turned out to be a thoroughly charming experience. Great food. A lovely ambience. After eating, we came back to the house and lolled about in the very cosy sitting room, where I made a start on sticking pictures from the past year into one of my photo albums. I tired to do them chronologically and then suddenly found a packet full of random pictures which means the album now goes from January to June and then back to January!

Friday, 23 December 2016

At home

After spending the morning yesterday sorting out my tax for 2015-16, I took myself off to Thaxted, where my parents were staging an "at home". Guest of honour was Helen Acton, who'd driven down from Norwich to be with us, but Sally and Stuart and their clan were also there. We sat around a glorious open fire, gorged on vegetarian sausage rolls and a brilliant lasagne, and then played board games long into the night. And I mean long into the night. It was 1am before I finally left, at which point we were deep into a conversation about existential psychotherapy. It was about as perfect an evening as evenings get!

I drove home through deserted country lanes. Fog was hovering in all of the dells in a most sinister sort of manner. It was one of those mists where you half expect to see ghostly men on white horses hovering above the hedgerows, or Herne The Hunter in the middle of the road. I didn't pass a single car until I reached Stansted Airport. The whole experience rather put me on edge.

Today's been about finishing my tax return which is, of course, the most accursed and boring task in any year. This year I'm basing everything on bank statements rather than receipts. I'll miss out on everything I paid for in cash, but it's worth it for the relative ease of not having to pore over thousands of tiny pieces of rolled-up paper. As a result of all this, I'm actually going to try to go as cash free as possible in the future.

This evening, Nathan and I finally managed to sit down together in front of the Christmas tree to finally open all the lovely cards and a few of the presents we've been sent over the past month. As usual, Christmas has caught us entirely off-guard to the extent that we've decided to send New Year cards instead. These, of course, appeal more to our brutally atheist sensitivities.

It was lovely to read all the messages inside the cards which included a beautiful note from young Kitty in the cast of Brass who wanted me to know what an important part of her year Brass had played. Lovely.

We had some very thoughtful presents as well, including a book about the River Nene from Abbie, which I'm ashamed to say I didn't know existed! There are pictures inside of the old Wharf at Higham Ferrers, which I hadn't realised was such an industrial area. There were all sorts of tall chimneys stretching into the mist. It's funny how you can think you know a place - and its history - so well. I'd built up a mental picture of the Wharf in Higham which revolved around it being a rural idyll with a charming pub where people swam. This picture has entirely shattered that illusion!

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Let's get talking about PMR

The trouble with my industry, is that those lucky enough to have full time jobs in the subsidised sector can often be part-timers. I sort of mean this in all senses of the word. You know the sort. They "work from home" several days a week, clear off for ludicrously lengthy holidays, and when you try to pin them down for a meeting, their next slot is in three months time. They know what they're entitled to, go sick at the drop of a hat and talk about work-life balance, getting hugely belligerent at the thought of working outside the hours of ten and six. Talk to them about the arts, and they instantly become jaded. They don't just take the Christmas week off. They vanish for at least a month from early December through to mid January. The same happens for the whole of August. It's the reason why so few industry figures come to see NYMT shows and why Brass, though described as the "theatrical highlight of the year" by critics who did see it, will never make it on to one of those "listicles" they publish at this time of year. Nothing can be done about it and I have to keep telling myself that it's just the way that the industry works, but it isn't half frustrating. It is one of the marked contrasts between the mentality of those who create and those who make their money out of those who create.

I once went to a painful forum where a group of industry figures were talking about the problems with musical theatre and the need to innovate the art form. On an on people went about how awful tradition book musicals were, and how we perhaps shouldn't even use the word "musical" because it puts people off. "Why do we need conventional narrative structures?" They all shouted. The biggest problem to me seemed to be that the majority of people in the room had only seen west end shows, and had no idea how much innovation was going on underneath that particular glass ceiling. The room was filled with literary managers, funding specialists, artistic directors and theatre managers, all of whom seemed hell bent on telling the writers and composers in the room what we needed to do to be of more interest to the industry. In summing up, the best advice seemed to be for us to change race if we were white and change gender if we were male. Brilliant! Anyway, it was when one of the writers dared to pipe up that the whole foundations of the forum began to collapse; "I would hazard a guess," she said, "that the only people in this room who can't make a living in the musical theatre industry are the writers." And at that stage, we suddenly realised the sad truth about our chosen profession!

Nathan received a wonderful email this morning from one of the ladies who regularly watches his podcast. Some of you reading this blog may remember that I have been vociferous in attempting to raise awareness of a syndrome called PMR (Polymyalgia Rhuenatica.)

This syndrome is far more common than you might expect, to the extent that both my mother and my mother-in-law have been sufferers. In its basic form, it leads to unbelievable stiffness and the inability to do the simplest things without great pain. Holding ones hands above ones head is often troublesome. The good news is that it's utterly treatable. A dose of steroids will make the sufferer start to feel better almost immediately. The bad news is that, left unchecked, the syndrome can develop into Giant Cell Arteritis, which is a whole heap less fun, and can lead to blindness and ultimately, death. It's still treatable, but steroid courses are longer, and the road to recovery is more twisting. The other bad news is that doctors don't seem to be able to spot the disease. My mother-in-law diagnosed herself. My Mum went to the doctor's over a period of about a year with classic symptoms which went unspotted. She has subsequently encouraged several women in her town with similar symptoms to go to the doctor and ask to be tested for PMR. All of them had the syndrome.

So anyway, Nathan and I are trying to raise awareness as much as we can. PMR tends to occur in post-menopausal women (although men can also get it), so, if you, or if someone you know have/has any of the symptoms listed above, do some research online and get checked out. Talk about PMR as often as you can. If doctors are routinely not diagnosing the syndrome, we have got to get the word out there.

Anyway, the email Nathan received came from one of his followers in Washington State, America. Nathan had done a piece on PMR on his podcast which had struck a chord with her, largely because her friend was suffering from the tell-tale signs and had been routinely sent packing by doctors. Anyway, her friend read up on the symptoms, went to a new doctor, was instantly diagnosed and, in the words of the woman, "given her back her life." In fact, more specifically, she told Nathan that he himself had given the woman her life back. The sign-off finished us both off, "she was thrilled to say she'd chopped the carrots for her favourite soup. Something she hadn't been able to do for years." Heartbreaking.

Let's get talking about PMR!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Am I a terrible racist?

There's an advert on the telly at the moment which features a baby carrot who appears to be utterly terrified at the thought of being chopped up and eaten as part of someone's Christmas dinner. The advert triggered a memory of having seen a trailer for a recent animation of some sort where anthropomorphised vegetables unite in an attempt to avoid being ruthlessly slaughtered by humans. The sequence I watched would have made me incredibly upset as a child. The vegetables were being minced into pieces by an enormous pair of human gnashers, screaming in agony.

Those who know me will no doubt be aware that I don't eat meat, and haven't since 1981. I became vegetarian, by choice, at the age of seven, long before it was fashionable to do so. If you were veggie in the Midlands, in the early 80s, your only option for food, if you went to a restaurant, was fried egg, chips and beans. People in my class at school were actually banned from playing with me because "all vegetarians die." (I was banned from playing with several other people because their Mums said I was a "bit gay.") The 80s were hard core!

Years later, when I was the partner of an MP, we'd often find ourselves eating Sunday dinners at constituents' houses. When we arrived at the houses I'd always ask my partner if he'd remembered to tell them I was vegetarian. The response was always the same: I'll just go and tell them now. On every occasion, I'd hear the host's voice in the kitchen saying, in as nonchalant a voice as she could muster, that it was absolutely fine. Minutes later I'd hear the sound of the front door opening and someone's panicked footsteps running down the street to the local shop! The most classic occasion was when I was served a fried egg with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and all the trimmings!

Anyway, I'm not a militant veggie by any stretch of the imagination. I'll happily stick a chicken pie in the oven for Nathan, and don't have any issues with other people eating meat. I do, however, start to draw the line when people tell me I don't "look" like a vegetarian, and I get a little embarrassed when people fetishise meat, by which I mean the weird spontaneous rounds of applause that joints of meat often get when they're proudly placed in the middle of a table, and all those ludicrous traditions associated with the alpha male being asked to carve... It's all a bit primordial for my taste.

There are various "witty" things that meat eaters like to say to vegetarians. Just as when I used to carry a 'cello about with me and people would say, "that's a big guitar", it's always assumed that a veggie is hearing the jokes they tell for the first time. "Why don't you eat lamb, mate? Sheep are vegetarian!" "Eggs are baby chickens" and, my favourite of all, "how do you justify killing all those vegetables just for food?" Ho titty ho ho ho!

Yeah, yeah, I know these things get said to parody the holier-than-thou attitude of many veggies, but I also I know, deep down, they're said to assuage the inherent guilt a meat eater feels about chowing down on the flesh of a (once) living thing. And, I think it's this guilt (masquerading as bravura) which makes a group of advertising execs humanise a carrot in an advert... for a laugh. Imagine the same advert with a little calf with giant terrified eyes peeking through the window at a table laid out with a big dish of roast beef? It's a ludicrous advert. 

...It's almost as ludicrous as Indian call centres. Woh horsey! What's with the quantum leap? And why are you making these obscenely racist remarks?

The two companies I have regular dealings with who expect me to talk to people in Mumbai are Talk Talk and Barclays Bank. The largest problem seems to be that Indian call centre staff working for both companies are never given the same problem solving rights as their fellow workers in the UK. Everything is done by script, and if your answers don't tick the necessary boxes, then there's nothing they can do. It is frustrating all round. The expectation of failure from the customer kicks off the moment the phone is answered and stalemate is almost immediately reached. The customer's heart sinks as the verification questions begin. His sub-conscious starts screaming that he's wasting his time and the stress levels start to bubble. Perhaps as a result of some form of self-fulfilling prophesy, the conversation always ends with the customer rudely demanding to speak to a supervisor.

And today was no exception... All I wanted was a duplicate bank statement. After an almost endless set of security questions, he suddenly announced that I wasn't eligible to do telephone banking until my bank account had been linked to my telephone banking account and that I needed to go into a branch to remedy the situation. So I asked to speak to his supervisor and when he told me that his supervisor was on the phone, I'm ashamed to say that I heard the following words falling out of my mouth; "then can I speak to someone in the UK?" I was astonished when he said that I could, and two minutes later, I was speaking to a lovely Geordie chap, who, without any fuss, and without any extra security questions, sorted me out with exactly what I was after!

So why is this not something the guy in Mumbai could have done for me? Something similar to this happens every time I call Barclays or Talk Talk. There's always a moment when the person in India runs out of boxes to tick and says he can't help, and the situation is only ever resolved (swiftly) when I speak to someone in the UK.

So what is the answer? And am I a terrible racist for saying this stuff?

Monday, 19 December 2016

Sofa surfing

I literally spent the day today doing an application for the Arts Council. Literally. The whole day. I worked from the sofa. I had some soup... On the sofa... I had tea... On the sofa. My only adventure was a trip to the corner shop, where they'd run out of Balsamic vinegar. Boo! The guys next door were smoking dope in the back garden. I walked through a great cloud of the stuff as I walked down our steps. They didn't seem at all embarrassed, or make any attempt to hide their joints. It's a good job I'm not a policeman! 

I switched the news on at one point and wished I hadn't bothered. Even John Snow acknowledged that everything he'd read out had had distinctly gloomy overtones. From the dreadful attack in a Berlin Christmas market to the murder of the Russian ambassador in Turkey. The only bright side seemed to be that people were escaping Aleppo, but I'm not sure that they're escaping to anywhere a great deal better. The world seems throughly unstable at the moment. I keep having to rid myself of the thought that the First World War was started by an assassination - and I'm afraid I find myself thinking of this particular event as a political assassination rather than an act of terrorism. Feel free to disagree...

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Ear worms

After a fairly lengthy lie-in, I spent much of the day writing a synopsis for Brass. The huge issue with that particular show is that it can either be described in a couple of lines: "the story of a Leeds-based brass band who sign up to fight in the First World War. In their absence, their women folk decide to learn the instruments that have been left behind in the hope of playing for the men when they triumphantly return from war." Or the synopsis goes on for page after page as the reader is introduced to scores of characters and interweaving plot-lines which bubble away under the surface of the epic drama. I tried to get away with the two line version, but my agent felt a more detailed approach was appropriate. So anyway, the synopsis is eight pages long! I've filled it with lots of lovely pictures in case the reader gets bored!

I woke up this morning with the Devil's own ear worm ricocheting around in my head in the form of "I Just Don't Have the Heart" by Cliff Richard! It's not even vintage Cliff. It's Cliff does Stock Aitken and Waterman! To make matters worse, I couldn't actually bring the word "ear worm" to mind, so, as the song buzzed about, I was also getting frustrated on that score. The word which kept coming to mind was "leitmotif" which I knew was entirely wrong. In the end I texted Fiona, but the word came into my head before she got back... actually she offered me the word in German which added a whole new twist to the saga!

I went into Muswell Hill again this afternoon to pick up all of my pictures and do a bit more Christmas shopping. I feel slightly more on top of Christmas as a result, although I shall need to push myself over the next few days to achieve everything I've earmarked to do before the big day. I've got applications to get in, taxes to sort, a draft of Em to complete... The Christmas tree is at least up (which is one step further than last year) but we haven't read, opened, or sent any cards.

Nathan is working ludicrously hard at the South Bank centre at the moment. He's in every day and didn't have the time to even eat lunch yesterday. I rewarded him with a vegetarian roast dinner when he got home tonight. It felt like all I could do for him. The poor lamb was asleep by eleven.

I read today that Zsa Zsa Gobor has died. For the past few months I've been revelling in the fact that she's still alive. I shall keep the reference to her in Em now as a tribute!

NYMT Christmas

It was incredibly misty in North London today. I spent the morning writing a synopsis for Brass, which feels like a slightly pointless exercise, but I've been asked for one and one doesn't exist so needs must. 

I went into Muswell Hill this afternoon to develop my photos for the year. I've recently started a tradition where I print out a year's photos in one go and spend a pleasurably nostalgic day appraising the past years whilst sticking them into an album. I remembered, as I walked through a misty Highgate Woods, that I'd forgotten to prepare any of the pictures I've taken on my mobile phone for printing, so was forced to go through a lengthy process where I emailed the pics I wanted to my laptop, and then transferred them onto a memory stick. It was frustrating and it seemed to take forever. My lap top kept crashing and freezing. The time was ticking past.

I have to say, I find myself entirely unprepared for Christmas. I don't know why we put ourselves through the rigmarole of buying all these presents for each other that we're pretty sure are crummy and pointless. The guy next to me in the cafe was trying to order stuff on Amazon and was angrily stabbing at the computer, huffing and sighing every time something went wrong or he was asked to enter the long number on his credit card... yet again. I completely understood his frustration. I had my own melt down online yesterday when I received a shedload of emails telling me I'd mistakenly paid for everything with an old card.

There's a fabulous shop in Muswell Hill called W Martyn which has been in the same place since the Broadway shops were built in the late 19th Century. They roast coffee in the window and clouds of beautiful-scented smoke billow out into the street. They specialise in wonderful marmalades and chutneys and it's a pleasure to browse about in there.

Muswell Hill in general was putting on a very strong Christmassy display today. The place was full, but not unpleasantly so, there was a band playing carols and a lovely little street market was selling produce from France. It was a pleasure to simply drift about in the misty air.

This evening I made a somewhat last-minute decision to go to the NYMT Christmas carol concert, and found myself feeling ever so pleased that I'd made the effort. The concert, for the last few years, has been happening at the glorious church of St John's in the middle of Smith's Square, which is just around the corner from the Palace of Westminster. I'm not sure why, but I always tend to associate that little corner of London with Mrs Dalloway. I think perhaps she's meant to have lived in that sort of area. Or maybe I've imagined that to be the case. Is anyone reading this blog familiar enough with that book to know whether I'm talking rubbish?

Anyway, it was a lovely concert. A really nice balance between interesting readings (including Benjamin Zephaniah and e e cummings), some stonking brass music (played almost exclusively by players from the pit orchestra of Brass) and some beautiful settings of traditional carols, some of which were arranged by our illustrious leader, Jeremy Walker. There were surprisingly few Brassers in the massed choir. Laura, Anna, Frankie, Ben, Oscar, Harry and boy Robin seemed to be the sum total, which was disappointing, but it was lovely to see them all, and we had a drink in the pub afterwards with Ben's mum and the charming Stuart Matthew Price, who has been commissioned to write next year's new NYMT show. He sang a very moving Christmas song at the concert which he dedicated to his mum. He has a wonderful voice, which isn't really surprising. He's probably better known as a performer than he is as a writer.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Swirling mist

Little Michelle popped in this morning on her way to a singing lesson. The three of us went to the local spoon for breakfast, and had a lovely natter. She's had a very busy few weeks. She's bought a house and done lots of auditions for music colleges. Nathan went to work, I walked Michelle down the hill and we parted company near the entrance to Parkland Walk, which I strolled back up to the Boogaloo Pub.

I did some more work on Em today. I'm trying to really bring the script into focus and getting slightly paranoid that I'm not writing well enough. The perception of me in the industry seems to be that I should be left alone to write lovely music, but that my script-writing needs a little more attention. Because I lost a whole heap of confidence as a writer on Beyond The Fence, it's rather easy for me to fall into the trap of believing everything I write is substandard and not fighting for what I know to be good. Writers are deeply complicated, somewhat fragile creatures. It doesn't take many knock-backs before we start to derail.

This evening I drove to Milton Keynes to work on another quiz. Whilst driving I was listening to Radio 4, which reported the somewhat staggering statistic that English students are likely to leave university with twice the amount of debt of students from elsewhere in the U.K. Scottish students don't pay academic fees. Northern Irish students have their fees capped at £3k and Welsh students are offered an almost staggering amount of state bursaries, which they're not expected to pay back. There's something pretty awful about that. The English are forced to spend so much of their time apologising just for being English to the extent that we somehow put up with this yawning chasm of inequality. It's profoundly unacceptable.

I, like I'm sure most of the readers of this blog, continue to feel utterly helpless when I read and hear accounts of the mayhem in Syria. I know the UK seems utterly intent on navel-gazing at the moment but I worry that if we bury our heads in the sand for any longer, we're going to end up with an enormous amount of blood on our hands.

The quiz went well. In fact it was rather a lot of fun. The crowd was up for it. There were only a few teams, so everything felt relaxed. The food was sensational. The pudding I was given was a sort of dense chocolate mouse with a raspberry coulis and little shards of honeycomb. It was insane.

I drove the quiz master, Lesley, back to Windsor after the quiz. We drove through banks of thick, driving mist. It was unbelievably spooky. It seemed to swirl around street lamps, causing a curious helter-skelter illusion. Under halogen lamps, the mist looked like pipe smoke, or ghostly, beckoning nicotine-stained fingers. Clouds of the stuff would suddenly be dispersed by passing lorries. It was all rather hypnotic.

I dropped Lesley off and took myself for a little drive down the beautiful high street in Windsor. It really does look very lovely at this time of year, with glorious white Christmas lights which seem to drip onto the tarmac below.

I got home late to find Nathan asleep on the sofa underneath his enormous knitted hap. A hap, by the way, is a cross between a blanket and shawl, which, I think, originates in either the Highlands or Orkney.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Woo girls

The sky tonight was extraordinary. I went to Brent Cross this afternoon to panic buy some gifts for Christmas and emerged to find the sun poking out from behind a low bank of grey-ish clouds whilst wisps of orange, lilac and lavender stretched out towards the heavens. It was all rather Turneresque for a terrible shopping centre!

In an attempt to escape the horrors of Brent Cross, I found myself cruising up the A41 without any sense of how I'd managed to get there. I got stuck in Hendon, attempting to turn right at traffic lights where there was a right hand lane but no blessed filter arrow. This essentially meant that it was only actually possible to turn right after the lights had changed red. For the longest time, as I waited with the lights on green, I was aware of a Lionel Bart lookalike, with a walking stick, who was waiting to cross. Of course, as soon as the lights turned red, I put the car in gear and revved the engine for a speedy getaway. It was, however, as the lights turned red that the grumpy man decided to walk straight in front of me, smacking his walking stick into the bumper of my car in a sort of "watch out hooligan" kind of way. Obviously I flipped him the bird at this point, which caused him to stand in front of me yelling. I opened the window and tried to explain that, without a filter light, it was nigh on impossible to turn right whilst the light was on green. He called me a wanker. I called him a twat and offered him a two-fingered salute, and that was that!

This evening we went to see our dear friend Mark playing drums in a Philip Kane gig at the Elgar Rooms in the Albert Hall. It's such a lovely space. Performers stand on a stage underneath two giant and somewhat iconic photographs: one of Ella Fitzgerald and the other of George and John from the Beatles. Performing in that illustrious company could only ever make an artist raise his or her game!

Mark bashed his drums with great panache, and was supported in his endeavours by a Portuguese percussionist called Pedro who is literally one of the most engaging performers I've ever watched. He smiled happily through the gig. The musicianship was brilliant all round, with the possible exception of two slightly uncomfortable-looking backing vocalists who seemed to sing almost everything in unison.

A group of "woo girls" were in the crowd. Woo girls are those self-hating girls and gay men who turn up to gigs and attempt to make the whole thing about them by screaming "woo" and self-consciously dancing (in a vaguely sexualised manner) so that the lead singer - and the rest of the audience - will notice them. Their responses to the music are always somewhat surface. You never get the impression that they're whooping and dancing as a result of being lost in the music. They always throw their arms in the air, increasingly the space their body takes up, for maximum "look at me" impact. I find it desperately tragic.

I realised, whilst watching the woo girls tonight, that I've always taken issue with people who, instead of actually having a good time, make a conscious decision to show the world that they're having a good time. I think I have a tendency to do it slightly when I'm drunk: "look at me doing drunk, everyone. No one's ever had this much fun being drunk!" Other people take cocaine and suddenly turn into Chatty Cathys to show the world that they've done something a bit naughty. Some people scream loudly whilst having sex. No one needs to scream like a porn star whilst they're in bed. Sex is never that mind-blowing or painful. Unless you're a fox. In my view people only ever scream so that anyone in the vicinity who might be listening will know that they're lucky enough to be getting a shag. People do it with food as well. They make ludicrous orgasmic noises to demonstrate how amazing everything tastes rather than getting on with enjoying it in a dignified - and honest - manner. They're the woo girls!

And once you start spotting the woo girls, you'll see them everywhere!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Now with wings

It's been a somewhat bitty day today which has found me re-writing lyrics to an ancient English folk song, and then turning my attention to a scene from Em. There's very little energy and motivation left in me. I've never ground to a halt like this at the end of a year before. I hope this general malaise is a product of a difficult year rather than my age. I genuinely believe I'm still suffering the knock-on effects of Beyond The Fence. Last Christmas found Nathan and me in a state of ludicrous high stress. I can't actually remember anything about it other than not being able to sleep, and sitting, in the middle of the night, on a sofa at Nathan's sister's house, literally shaking with nerves. Thank God this Christmas will bring a different energy to the table. I may sleep a lot!

Writing words in the style of an English folk song is quite an interesting exercise. By and large, folk songs tend to have rather crummy lyrics, filled with what I call "for to do" rhymes, where verbs and random nouns are inexplicably thrown to the end of lines for the sake of a lazy rhyme. It may be stylistically appropriate, but I can't bring myself to do it!

Folk songs are, furthermore, often crammed to the rafters with story. They can go on for verse after verse offering all manner of detail without so much as a variation of melody. The only trouble is that, whilst one, often irrelevant, aspect of a tale can be painted with rich colours, other, perhaps more crucial, or interesting aspects will be dealt with in the broadest strokes. Personally, I'm a big fan of the more tragic stories, but often a folk song which purports to be about the death of a central character, will spend a great deal of time discussing the weather or the sense of foreboding felt by the protagonist's mother, whilst the death itself is dealt with in a swift, single line. This is certainly the case in the North Yorkshire folk song, Stowbrow, where the central character finds her lover, a sailor, a-drowned on a beach: "she kissed him, she caressed him, a thousand times all o'er, and said 'these awful billows have washed my love ashore,' but soon this pretty damson did lay down by his side (for to do) and in a few moments, she kissed him and died." End. We assume she died of a broken heart. It might have been a freak wave, however, or, frankly, because the folk song comes from the Scarborough area, it's possible that a cliff top hotel might have fallen on her head!

I ended up in London Bridge today, horrified to leave the station and instantly find myself being marshalled on the street by a series of men wearing hi-viz jackets. I started heading down Tooley Street but my way was blocked by a jobsworth, who said, "this is a one way system, Sir: if you want to head down that way, you'll have to walk in the opposite direction, cross the road over there and walk on the other side of the street." I looked at him blankly, "or I can just carry on walking along the pavement in the direction that I'm walking..." "You're not allowed to do that..." Said the man. I looked at him blankly again, "I'm gonna take the risk that you're not going to arrest me..." And with that, I set off in the direction I wanted to go in. I know I'm a shirty bugger who tends to do the opposite of things he's told to do, but the pavement I ended up walking down was entirely empty and I've never been one for simply obeying orders if I can't see why I'm obeying them!

I was in London Bridge helping out on a quiz which was being attended by the employees of a company who make a famous energy drink. I'm sure you can all guess which one. In the offices of said company, the energy drink is free. The postman popped in whilst we were setting up, and helped himself to a can of the stuff before leaving. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the employees of the company appear to be under the influence of the drink! I have seldom been in the company of so many pumped-up, alert, happy-looking people! It was like walking into a group of school children, with sweet-laden pockets, about to go on a trip to the local pantomime.

On the tube home, we were treated to a rendition of Jingle Bells by George the Busker who played the trumpet, accompanied by a backing track which played from a speaker in his back pack. It made everyone in the carriage smile and feel incredibly Christmassy. I reckon at least eight people popped a quid into his cup. Nice work if you can get it... or moreover, if you're brave enough to do it.

Ben of the Nene.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The dilemma of folk music

Watching the news today reminded me why I'm trying not to watch the news anymore. I find myself feeling a perpetual sense of helpless anger and sadness whenever I hear about something else going wrong with the world. Today, for example, I felt utterly incensed on behalf of the poor bastards who are presently putting up with the ludicrous shenanigans of South Eastern Rail. It is utterly unacceptable that, for so long, hundreds of thousands of people living in a First World country have been unable to rely on train travel.

As for the hell which is going on in Eastern Aleppo right now, I have absolutely no words. Seeing those poor people leaving "final" massages to loved ones on social media was more than I could bear. They feel let down, utterly deserted, by their leaders, by the UN, by the rest of the world. They are without hope. I don't know how we can stand by whilst this is happening. We are always too slow to act in these instances.

I don't know whether it was the awful news, or the murky weather, but as I walked back from the cafe at lunch time I found myself thinking about the time, in my early twenties, when I lived on the Fortess Road in Kentish Town. I suddenly felt a huge pang of desire to go back to those days, which seemed so filled with optimism. A Labour government had been brought into office with a once-in-lifetime landslide election. It didn't matter that we were all poor. We were all young. None of us had responsibilities. Everything could be spontaneous. We'd go for long walks and picnics on the Heath. We had big dreams. We felt invincible...

I guess I'm feeling rather conscious about my age at the moment, and all-too aware that, despite feeling no older than twenty, I'm suddenly perceived by most of the people around me as an older man. I went up to one of the younger writers at last night's cabaret to congratulate him on a job well done and was rather aware of being looked through. I genuinely got the impression that he took one look at me and thought, "old bloke. Bit irrelevant." That, or he was shy, overwhelmed or entirely socially inept. Frankly, anything is possible with a composer!

I came home and mapped out a loose structure for my Nene composition. I've finished my "broad strokes" research and today's document has helped to focus my thoughts in terms of what remains to be done. Composing in earnest will begin in January.

I discovered one folk melody today which made me weep because it was so beautiful. It was one of the ones collected by Vaughan Williams in Cambridgeshire. His tireless quest for folk melodies never really took him up as far as the Huntingdonshire-end of the county, which is where the Nene runs, but the melody in question was collected from someone who'd spent time in the north of the county and is all about the fens, so feels spot on. Folk melodies can travel hundreds of miles via oral transmission, but often develop very little as they go. I've already come across a melody I used in A Symphony for Yorkshire which purports to be Cambridgeshire through-and-through. The version I used in the Symphony was in a collection at Cecil Sharp House, which had very specifically been gathered in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Interestingly, the version I found from Cambridgeshire was essentially in a major key - with a somewhat bizarre "mixolydian" flattened 7th. The version which features in the second movement of A Symphony for Yorkshire is very definitely in a minor key, and I can't for the life of me remember if I converted the version I found into a minor key as a result of being a bit perplexed by the flattened sevenths, or whether the Fenland variation is unique in being in the mixolydian mode, or simply written up wrongly in the book I found!

Folk music is a veritable can of worms just waiting to be opened. All too often it becomes impossible to know whether words or music have been altered, re-written or entirely reworked by a living composer, so you absolutely have to be sure of your sources to avoid someone suddenly claiming ownership and suing you for plagiarism! Quite an interesting quandary with the folk song I've fallen in love with is that RVW transcribed the song without lyrics, and though a version exists in a modern song book with (very beautiful) traditional folk lyrics attached, I can't ascertain whether these were the lyrics which originally went with the melody, and therefore can't really be sure whether the woman who published the book would retain a copyright for introducing the traditional melody to the traditional lyric. It's painstaking work trying to work out where the truth lies. It may well be simpler (and possibly more appropriate) to write my own lyrics based on one of the stories or myths I've uncovered.

I went into town this evening for a meeting with my agent and a producer friend. We were plotting. I won't reveal anything more. I don't want to jinx it, and we're just throwing ideas about. It would be hugely exciting, however. Hugely exciting.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Writers night

So, this morning I woke up with the distinct sensation that my sinuses were, once again, blocked. And so the cold continues to chug away in a really low-grade manner. Very shortly I'm simply going to declare it over. I'm planning that glorious announcement for the point at which my legs cease to cause me bother. The general swelling in the ankles has gone down and the hell zone cut on my shin is healing over nicely. All that remains is for the pain on the back of my calf to dissipate. The misty, murky, rainy, slightly-too-hot-for-December weather doesn't help. I've felt like I've been wrapped in dirty clingfilm all day.

I know it's not a very cool thing to say, but I've very much enjoyed watching X Factor this year. Readers relax: There'll be no spoilers here about who won, but I was more than happy to discover that the charming Saara Aalto is engaged to a woman. The way it was dealt with on the show was, in my view, exactly how these things ought to be dealt with. There was no grand "coming out", no weeping interview where we were told how difficult it was for her to grow up gay. We merely learned, in one package, that she lived with "her fiancé" and, in another, that her fiancé was a woman. This is all very much in keeping with the "normal visibility" for LGBT people which Nathan and I both crave.

This evening I met Llio for a tea on Denmark Street and then we went together to the Phoenix Artists' Club to see Nathan, Abbie, Laura, Rosie and our new friend, Chris performing the last number from Em. In typical me style, I set my phone to record it, but it ran out of storage before anyone had opened their mouths. I think they performed beautifully and I think the song went down well with the crowd. I was at the back of the room panicking about the backing track, trying to make sure it didn't get to loud (or too quiet) so I didn't have the luxury of sitting back and enjoying it, which was the very point of my using a backing track and not playing the piano!

The evening was joyous, however. Those writers' cabarets are such an important resource for my community. All the regulars have started to feel like a proper family. We support one another. Learn from each other. Buoy each other up. And ultimately compete with one another to write better music. All of these things are vital.

A number of the songs being performed tonight had a Christmassy feel and the organisers had laid on mince pies and mulled wine, so there was a really festive spirit. Tim Sutton played jazz versions of Christmas carols on the piano as we came in and left the space, and we all joined in with increasingly outrageous harmonies.

I didn't really want the night to end. I was surrounded by friends and I'd have been happy listening to more songs and drinking cups of tea late into the night.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

X Factor

We spent the day today tidying the house. I've rarely felt so bored doing housework, if I'm honest. It seemed to take forever. The place was an awful tip and needed cleaning from top to bottom, but I had no idea we'd be at it for so long.

We had Laura, Abbie, Chris and Rosie over tonight to rehearse for tomorrow's MMD cabaret at the Phoenix Artists' Club. We baked two cakes. Nathan made one of his speciality fruit loaves and I made a simple sponge which I coated with marmalade and chocolate to create a sort of Jaffa cake vibe.

The rehearsal went well. Everyone sounded really good singing together and we had a lovely time. I'm excited about tomorrow.

This evening was all about the X Factor. We binged watched this weekend's episodes. I was rooting for Saara Aalto. She makes me feel intensely proud to be European. The clips of her on the streets of Helsinki had a profound effect on me for some reason. She sang beautifully, and then one of the ones from One Direction did some singing and I felt a little embarrassed. I did feel a bit bad for him when I realised he was the one who'd just lost his Mum. I can't quite imagine how difficult it must be to perform under those circumstances. It must take a lot of guts. Mind you, if you want tragedy, take a look at Edith Piaf's life. I believe she had to go on stage to do a gig a few hours after hearing her lover, who was on his way to see her in New York, had died in a plane crash. So sad.

A band called "The Weeknd" [sic] performed. They were announced with all sorts of astonishing statistics about how many million records they'd sold and how many number one albums they'd had, and it turns out that the lead singer has a tremendous voice, but I can safely say I've never heard of them. Literally never! How old does that make me, please? And why doesn't this band know how to spell the word "weekend?"

Black Shuck

I drove down to Lewes this morning and stopped off at the beautifully-named Pease Pottage service station, where I realised that the sound I hate more than any other at this time of year is people souling-up traditional Christmas carols. Usually Silent Night. I do not want to hear gospel riffs in that particular tune. It's utterly grotesque.

It's been a lovely day in Lewes. Great food. Great companions. A lovely, hot, open fire. I've been sitting with my leg up on a little pouf and allowing everyone to come up to greet me like an old queen. It was Hilary's birthday. I was totally disorganised and forgot to take a birthday present or Christmas presents for anyone like Raily or Meriel that I knew I'd be seeing. What a useless friend I am.

Across the misty south east, in Catford, Craft and Cake was taking place, and Nathan was there, representing us both. I dropped him off at Woolwich, where one of his friends, a yarn dyer, has opened up a warehouse shop, bizarrely directly opposite Moira and Alex' Circus Space.

I continue to read about the Nene. Today I'm reading about the legend of Black Shuck, an enormous, diabolical dog with glowing red eyes which is said to roam the fens, causing mayhem and terrifying travellers. One of the most notorious reports of the creature comes from Suffolk (out of the region I'm covering, but nonetheless interesting.) Black Shuck is said to have burst into the Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh in August 1577. His appearance was accompanied by an enormous clap of thunder. The dog is said to have mauled two people to death and then caused the steeple of the church to collapse. Scorch marks on the church door still exist today and are said to have been created at the time of the incident.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Will O The Wisp

So, this evening I'm coming down with a sore throat! This virus we've both had is a total joke!

We're in Walton-on-Thames at the charming Riverhouse Barn theatre watching the lovely Kate doing her thing at an evening of swing music. It's been beautifully put together. All three performers are incredibly strong. Kate is amazing. Funny. Classy. A brilliant singer. I'm having a lovely time.

I've been trying to avoid people this evening as I'm finding loud noises very difficult to cope with, having spent much of the last seven days in total isolation. In a bar environment, there's a tendency for everyone to shout at each other, and that can be hugely bewildering if you're caught in the cross fire. I reminded myself of my Grannie after she'd gone deaf, sitting in the corner of a bar, looking a bit confused.

My feet have turned into trotters. My ankles still look like pillows - particularly by the end of the evening when I've been standing on my feet for a while. I can feel them swelling like a little old lady and am having to raise them up as often as I can! It's terribly undignified.

The whole day has been spent researching the Nene. I bought an online book which is introducing me to the myths and legends of Northamptonshire. I have ordered a similar one about Cambridgeshire. The Nene feels like quite a dark, mystical river, and although there needs to be a good dollop of joy, light and high energy in the music I write, I do feel I need to reflect what I actually experienced. I've been reading up on the "will-o'-the-wisp" phenomenon - the inexplicable appearance of strange, dancing firelights - which is a huge part of Fenland culture. These days, the occurrence is attributed to methane gases inherent in marshlands. Back in the 17th Century, people believed the sparks of light were creatures from the underworld attempting to lure unsuspecting travellers to their deaths.

I suspect the "peasant" poet John Clare will provide me with a rich seam of inspiring poetry. He was born just outside Peterborough and spent many years in an asylum on the banks of the Nene in Northampton.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Researching the Nene

Nathan seems a little better this evening. He spent much of the morning in bed and then ventured into the sitting room to do as much work as he could for the South Bank. He's determined that he's out of the woods. Mind you, this is one of those insane illnesses which keeps returning just when you think it's cleared off forever.

I've spent the day doing research for the Nene composition, going through reams and reams of documents. Doing online research is a sort of bottomless pit. You find yourself with window upon open window as each new lead takes you in a different direction. Sadly, information on the net is very rarely properly documented or backed-up, so in order to find source material, a great deal of digging needs to be done. I spent at least an hour today trying to track down a very specific piece of writing by Northamptonshire poet, John Clare. So many webpages alluded to it, but I think they were all copies of each other.

I was phoned around lunchtime by a charming man called Stan who comes from somewhere like Bugbrooke, just outside Northampton. Stan is in his late 70s and grew up playing on the river Nene. He has some wonderful memories of sailing underneath tree tunnels and swimming in the river near Beckett's Park, where cooling towers at the local power station made the water toasty! Even in the winter. Stan has subsequently made it his business to know everything there is to know about the river. His accent is old-school Northampton. It's such a beautiful sound. Long "ays," all "gooing" and "toosdy". Moosik to my ears!

Stan made a career for himself building ladders in the traditional way with wood farmed from the vicinity of the Nene. He encouraged me to look at a little film he featured in online, which you can see by following the enormous link below. I'd rather like you all to watch it, so that you can hear a true Northamptonshire accent. It's a really rare accent, which very few people have ever heard, and, as evidenced in Kinky Boots in the West End, even fewer can actually mimic. It's a connoisseur's accent. Have a listen and see if you can copy it!

Link to video

I'm feeling majorly wiped out still. It's very hard to walk, I still have an open sore on my leg, and I'm in a perpetual state of absolute exhaustion. I slept a good ten hours last night and still want to go back to bed. I think I'm still suffering from the residue of the cold... I just want to feel like me again...

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Come down

Today's been one of those days that the phrase "coming back down to earth with a bump" was invented for. Nathan is very poorly. He got back from his aunt's funeral last night and faded very speedily. He ran a fever through the night. It was like lying next to a radiator. His breathing was shallow. I was incredibly worried. He has been in a darkened room all day. The fever broke in the afternoon and he instantly sweated buckets. He seems a little better tonight. I've installed him in front of the telly in a dressing gown.

I'm still limping. There's a large gash on my leg where the A and E doctor hacked off my blister and I've merely spent the day clearing the astonishing backlog of emails I managed accumulated whilst walking. 

I had a horrible dream last night. I was driving the car and the windscreen was dirty, so I squirted water on it. A huge jet of water came out from the bonnet and I couldn't find the windscreen wipers. I couldn't see a thing, but the car was getting faster and faster. Then I couldn't find the brakes. I woke up as the car crashed. Ghastly.

The highlight of the day was definitely a massage which has made me feel like my legs have the potential to work again! I've said it before, but there's suddenly a sense of what it might like to be old and infirm. The idea that I might suddenly have to change the way I do the simplest physical gestures because my body no longer does what I want it to rather frightens me. I can't go down flights of steps at the moment without looking like I've got a club foot. I can't sit down on the sofa in a normal way. I can't get into the bath properly. It's very weird. It will improve, of course. Well, at least I hope it does, but it is a frightening little window into the future.

London didn't seem as noisy as I assumed it would. I thought I'd be hit with the sort of wall of sound I often experience when I've been out of town for a longish time. I haven't yet been on the tubes in rush hour, so perhaps that shock is still to come!

Nothing else to say... apart from that I was fairly amused to see one of the law lords dealing with the whole Brexit business is called Lord Pannick! Nobody panic!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

I did it!

I'm currently on a high speed train which is hurtling its way through the misty fields and towns between Peterborough and London. It feels very odd to be being carried by something. I've become so accustomed to only being able to move as fast as my feet will take me, that this final part of my adventure feels ludicrously decadent.

I look like a tramp. I became very conscious of this fact when, getting on the train, I found myself surrounded by besuited city slickers. The bottoms of my trousers are caked in mud, and there's a split in the crotch as big as a tea cup!

The day started very early. I fell into a sort of soft hibernation at about 8pm last night in my haunted room in Wisbech, but kept waking up in a panic because I thought my toenails were falling off. I actually still think they might. There's a chronic amount of bruising going on. It's going to take a few days for me to work out if my body has taken any semi-permanent knocks as a result of this folly! I drifted in and out of consciousness until about 11pm. I remember hearing a group of Eastern European young people shouting at each other in the street outside. It wasn't the aggressive type of shouting you get with gangs of home-grown youths, it was all very good natured, but it did give credence to the theory that there are a lot of migrant workers in Wisbech. That they were communicating in English is absolutely indicative of the fact that they're here to fit in. Within a generation, that entire influx of Eastern Europeans will have been invisibly absorbed into the fabric of our society. I guarantee it. I'm sure their children will be card-carrying, nouveau-riche Brits with fabulous cut-glass accents (and wide Slavic faces!)

I left the hotel at 8am and was greeted by thick, somewhat Dickensian mist. Wisbech is full of churches which chime, and, at 8 they all started ringing their bells. There's even a little carillon which strikes up on the hour, every hour. I couldn't recognise the tune (which was being played in a somewhat arrhythmic manner) but the overall effect - particularly in the mist - was magical. Tintinnabulation.

Walking along the Nene out of Wisbech was thrilling. I passed one or two little ports where cargo boats were being unloaded by cranes. The clattering and chattering echoed into a sort of dome of sound under the canopy of mist.

Periodically a gun, or bird scarer would sound to my left, and then immediately, as an echo, on the right hand side of the river. I tried whistling and the same thing happened. Those fens have bizarre acoustics.
It was very difficult to make anything out in the general haze. I could see the river, which was a gruel-like colour, but things on the other bank were decidedly murky and impressionistic. It was almost like being in a little bubble. I felt very safe, oddly.

The weirdest experience was crossing underneath a set of pylons which were stretched over the river. You realise what a proper racket those things make when you're standing directly underneath. Tick ticker ticker tick, ticker ticker ticker tick. Frighteningly high levels of power. I completely understand why anyone would want to avoid living anywhere near one. You can literally smell the electricity. Fishing is banned in a largish radius from the pylons. One assumes that's because, in the past, some poor fisherman threw his line out into a river and caught it on the power lines overhead. I shudder. It's those 1970s public information films with the kites all over again!

For a while, the sun threatened to burn through, and, for about ten minutes, the sky directly above me was blue, whilst everything around me remained shrouded in mist.

At one point I got into a terrible panic. The river was flowing backwards! A group of birds were happily allowing the current to suck them inland. I suddenly wondered whether, in the confusion of leaving Wisbech in the mist, I'd started to walk back to Peterborough! It was with great relief that I realised that this is exactly what has to happen in the tidal section of a river. The tide comes in, the river flows backwards...

I walked for about two miles through long grass which was soaking wet and made my shoes almost unwearable. I could feel my feet squelching and slipping about within the trainers and called Nathan, feeling utterly inconsolable. Fortunately, moments later, the path became a road, and I could enjoy the walk again. "Enjoy" is perhaps an exaggeration. "Endure".

It was, however, on this road, that a car pulled up behind me, stopped and flashed its headlights. I turned around and to my great relief and joy, realised it was my parents. My Mum got out of the car and flung her arms around me and, at that moment, I knew the end was in sight and that everything was going to be okay. Seeing them was like having oxygen pumped into my body.

My Dad drove the car on to Sutton Bridge, (where he parked outside a burned-out hotel) whilst my Mum joined me in walking into the village. I was able to blurt out all sorts of stories and half stories about my adventure to that point. Just talking was a privilege. At Sutton Bridge, the parents went to find coffee, whilst I trudged on, crossing the river at the (surely) iconic swing bridge.

The last leg of my epic journey was a four-mile trek along the East side of the river, which, by this stage, was glowing white. Fronds of mist were hovering over it, but a watery sun was finally burning through.

Shaun from the BBC caught up with me at this point, and did some filming of me trudging, limping and crawling along the last couple of miles. Okay, so I didn't crawl, but I'd definitely developed a limp! The parents rejoined us and my dad became film crew, driving Shaun's car whilst Shaun sat in an open boot filming! My dad, the dolly grip!

And then suddenly we were there. The Nene Way ends (or starts) at a pair of light houses very close to where the estuary flows out into the sea, which, today, was entirely white. The sky was white. The river was white. The sea was white. So, there was simply a misty void marking what I'd come all that way to find. I rather liked this fact. Beyond that white square was someone else's nirvana: a port hole to a whole new world which it wasn't my job to explore.

I walked beyond the Nene Way on my own, out into the marshes, and, as far as I could along a ridge heading towards the sea itself. There was a moment, however, when the path ran out and I knew my walk was over. I stumbled down a little hill and stood, for a moment, at the river's edge, staring out to sea.

The river was putting on a dazzling display. It had become a shimmering blend of white and silver. The water was flowing back out to sea, but a coastal breeze was pushing half of the ripples in the opposite direction, creating a criss-cross pattern on the surface. It was mesmeric.

And, just like that, my adventure was over. I was an ordinary person again. I walked back to the parents and Shaun, and my Mum presented me with a little medal she'd had engraved with the words "I walked the Nene". I was touched beyond words.

We drove back to Peterborough, had some grub in the station and, well, that was that...

If you asked me what this journey has given me, apart from inspiration for a musical composition and the obvious sense of achievement which comes from walking 112 miles in five days, it's that it's given me my senses back. That sounds so peculiar doesn't it? As Londoners we spend so long blocking out noises, smells and unpleasant sights that we never end up truly experiencing our city. We get from A to B as quickly as we can, blocking out the journey with iPhones, newspapers and iPods. We never look up at the architecture above us. We never stop to think what China Town actually smells like.

My senses were all I had to entertain me on this trip. I couldn't switch the telly on when I got bored, or endlessly check emails. I had to notice and I had to feel. And that is a very special gift to rediscover.

On the tube home, a busker made me cry simply by playing the harmonica. I hate the harmonica. Or at least I used to. But he was playing it as a melodic instrument with a huge amount of vibrato - kind of Ronnie Hazelhurst style, but with guts. Larry Adler. Old school. Wistful. Stunning. He was playing Claire de Lune. His eyes were closed and the music was surging through his body. His soul had climbed into the music and he was oblivious to everything around him. I think the fact that he was young and black made the whole experience just that little bit more unexpected. I emptied my pockets into his bag and should have gone back to give him my number, but I was so keen to get home. Again, rushing from A to B... I hope I don't slip too quickly back into that angry world. A river doesn't rush. A river doesn't have anything to prove. It just is.

I hope I'm able to do the Nene, and the Northamptonshire music school proud.