Thursday, 25 May 2017

You can't win!

I'm becoming increasingly exhausted, which means I'm alternately finding things hysterically funny and then really not funny at all! There is just no time off and it seemed yesterday that every time I put my headphones on to do another few bars of orchestration someone was nudging me or calling me over. It was all hugely important stuff, but it doesn't exactly help the writing process. I've woken up today with a hot face and a tickly cough which tells me it's eyes down for another bout of illness. Hurrah.

We're still hurtling our way through Em and yesterday we set another production number with choreographer, Matt, who is lightning quick. I think the cast are at a stage where they're panicking about the steady supply of new musical material they're being handed. Sadly, it's part and parcel of working on a new show. Nobody knows the nature of the beast. I was asked to write an ensemble-heavy piece so that everyone has plenty to do and, in a musical, having a busy show usually involves singing! At the same time I've got people coming up to me asking for more to do and complaining about periods of rehearsals where they're not being used. You just can't win with actors!

I overheard two older ladies on the tube talking about the Manchester attack and one of them uttered the quite outrageous comment that she felt the authorities should "lock these terror suspects up first and then find the evidence." Great to know that people have such a fabulously clear understanding of Western democracy! The bottom line is that everyone wants the justice system to suit their own purposes. The death penalty is bad! Except for dirty paedophiles. All immigrants should leave the UK! Except the nice man who does my dry cleaning. We hate the Muslims! Let's kick out the European people from our country...

It's very very hot in London at the moment. I just walked past a woman who was wearing an enormous pair of mirrored sunglasses. I can't imagine how irritating talking to her would be. You'd just end up looking at your own reflection. I bet she attracts a shed load of narcissists.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Trapped in an alley!

I was astonished to wake up this morning to the news that, in the wake of the dreadful events in Manchester, people are taking to twitter and inventing relatives who were in the MEN Arena last night simply to get social media hits. I'm somewhat ashamed to live in a society where people would value social media so much, that the truth of what they're writing becomes of less concern than the number of hits they're generating. What is the point of fake news? What makes someone want to make news up? It all seems very bizarre to me.

I tried to leave my house this morning, but, ever since the bastard at the other end of my terrace decided that one of the entrances to the alleyway we use to access our flats was his to fence off, we've had to deal with the fact that there's actually only one way out. I'd always imagined how awful it would be if one of the houses further up the hill caught fire, or if there was some sort of gas explosion, because if anything blocked off the very small entrance to our end of the alleyway, we'd be royally shafted.

And so, this morning, I came to understand quite how shafted that was, when, at 8.30am, I stumbled upon a set of comically awful builders who were trying to get some sort of heavy machinery down the footpath. The machinery had become stuck and access to the street was entirely blocked off. "How long will you be?" I asked. They shrugged, "ten minutes?" "But I have to get to work!" I said. Another shrug.

I stood, somewhat helplessly, for some time, until a man came sauntering up the alleyway behind me. "Do you want to come through my shop?" He asked. He then led me back down the alleyway and into the garden of our next door neighbour's house before ushering me though his shop, which, incidentally, sells baths.

The commute into rehearsals seems to be getting worse. I think perhaps I'm leaving later every day, and therefore making myself more and more likely to encounter the rush hour crush. It's hot, smelly and sweaty, and commuters are brutal to one another. There's rage just underneath the surface in all of them. And on the days after terrorist attacks it feels so profoundly counter-intuitive to be shoved in cattle trucks darting underground like that.

A homeless man passed through the carriage this morning. Begging in this manner has become quite the fashion in the last ten or so years. In the olden days it was passive, doe-eyed Romanian women with cardboard signs or curious little packets of tissues, but these days, people are far more confrontational. They get on the tube and make announcements, pleading for compassion, usually asking for a few pence for the cost of a hostel for the night. It's always incredibly sad but also such a regular occurrence that it becomes utterly impossible to engage with. I, like most of the other people on the train, bury myself in a newspaper or a computer and fundamentally reenforce the homeless person's lack of self worth. One of the dreadful things about living in a city is that you're often forced to leave your compassion at the front door because the energy you require simply to remain sane in the dog-eat-dog world requires every last drop of energy. Engage with those around you and you become furious, so most simply attempt to zone out.

I was, however, somewhat surprised to see today's homeless person attempting to beg in a carriage which was so full that he was physically having to push people aside in order to pass through. Surely, there are more productive times of the day to beg?

Rehearsals for Em took off big time this week after the arrival of our choreographer and our new musical director, Ben, who worked with me on the original production of Brass. It's been such a thrill to have him back in the space, and he's been making all the right noises about the score, which, I realised today, is such an important thing for a writer to hear. There's always the little voice in the back of one's head which tries to tell a writer that he's not very good.

It's a very happy rehearsal space. Hannah is a brilliant leader and the only tensions so far have been inconsequential and about silly things like photocopying. It turns out that our choreographer's partner actually knew my Grandmother. Rather well as it happens. They lived in the same tiny Warwickshire village. In fact, I vaguely remember him from my distant childhood. It's these sorts of coincidences which remind me that this is a project worth doing and a piece which will have great meaning to people.

Today I worked as an accent coach, teaching two of the cast how to speak in a Northants/ Warwickshire accent. Apparently the vocal coach had told them they could just speak with a posh "neutral" voice to represent Midlands-based characters, which made my blood boil so much, that I stepped in and delivered a little master class of my own. It struck me today quite how bizarre some of the vowel sounds are in that part of the world. They always seem so natural to me, but when you start trying to get someone saying the "u" in words like Rugby and funny or the "i" sound in "like", you realise there is nothing similar anywhere else in the UK. Unfortunately, once I start talking like that, I find it quite difficult to stop! I was hugely impressed by the ears of the girls working with me. Lizzie in particular, did a sterling job and we have a New Zealander called Niamh whom I think is also going to crack it. I keep meaning to tell them what good stead it will set them in when they audition for Kinky Boots. Which is set in Northampton, by the way. Not that you'd notice by listening the accents most of the cast choose to talk in!

Stay safe

I'm afraid I don't much feel like blogging tonight after hearing the news from Manchester. There really are no words to be said after an event like that other than that one day good will prevail over evil. 

My husband is in Manchester. He is safe. Many others will still be panicking about loved ones. I am yet to hear from my brother. I doubt he would have been at that concert but you just never know. I don't think I know much about the world any more.

Night night.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Chi

It's funny how our bodies have an innate sense of time isn't it? For the past week, I've been setting my alarm for 7.15am, and, every day so far, I've woken up naturally just before the alarm goes off. Yesterday morning, I was lucky enough to be able to sleep in until the ripe old time of 8.45am, but, when I woke up naturally, I glanced down at my phone and was not entirely surprised to see that it was exactly 7.15am. How does a brain do that? The implication here is that our subconscious always knows exactly what time it is. It's something I find utterly fascinating because it makes me wonder what other wisdom or instincts we're storing in there without actually realising.

I went to see a show at Chichester Festival Theatre yesterday. It was called Forty Years On, it starred Richard Wilson and it was written by Alan Bennett exactly fifty years ago. It's a funny old show which feels very didactic, somewhat agit-prop, formless, and, in short, quite 1960s. I'm not exactly sure there's a place for it in 2017, but it was certainly a fascinating piece, exquisitely performed, beautifully directed and hugely enhanced by brilliant music which had been adeptly arranged by Tom Brady whom I met beforehand.

I drove down with Matt Lucas. We got stuck in terrible traffic near Guildford so it all took rather longer than we'd hoped. We had lunch with, amongst others, the charming Daniel Evans (artistic director of the theatre) and actress Sam Spiro, whom I last saw at dear Arnold Wesker's memorial service.

The audience was full of the great and the good, as often happens towards the end of a run of theatre. At one point I was introduced to "another Ben" who turned out to be Ben Wishaw.

The play was set within a boys school and employed the somewhat tired formula of presenting itself as a play within the play. The theatre had opted to use an enormous ensemble of local lads who were probably aged from 11-18. There seemed to be an infinite number. Thirty perhaps. But I'm very proud to report that, often centre stage, and fed quite a number of lines, was our Spin from Brass. Obviously he shone brightly. It was wonderful to see him.

I drove Matt back to London and then spent the evening cocooned on my sofa in a sort of exhausted, yet blissful haze. My first bit of time off in what seems an age.

There's nothing to write about today. Nothing. I worked. I went into Muswell Hill for a walk because I was going stir crazy under headphones. Then I worked again. That was my day.





Saturday, 20 May 2017

Wonderful London Mozart Players

I read an article this morning about Miranda Hart, who is about to play Miss Hannigan in a new production of Annie. I'm actually quite a fan of Miranda's. I like her warm, bumbling, jovial, English energy. What I can't for the life of me imagine is her playing the brash, sardonic, belting, Bronxy Miss Hannigan. I'm not altogether sure she has the pipes to deliver a decent vocal performance, and the interview I read with her hardly put my mind at rest. If she turns out to be rubbish, she informs us, we're to blame the musical director, who assured her that he'd be able to get her singing well. That's okay then. As long as being shit is not her fault.

Look, I'm aware that this particular production of Annie is not about getting my particular bum on a seat in that particular theatre. I'm really not in the market for seeing that show... again. I've directed it. I've sat through a million amateur performances of it and seen both films. I'm equally aware that Hannigan has become one of those roles you stunt cast. Paul O'Grady, Kathy Bates and Craig Revel Horwood have all been there. It's one of those roles like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors which people mistakenly think they can reinterpret without paling into insignificance when compared to the original film interpretation.

Of course, Miranda should be able to take her turn as the grotesque Madame of the orphanage without old theatre queens like me condemning her before she gets out onto the stage. I hope she's absolutely amazing and wins an Olivier. And if she does, I'll applaud her. I guess I simply feel that her casting is indicative of everything which is going wrong in the British musical theatre industry right now. Whether dealing with writers or actors, it seems the risk-averse money people are shying away from those who can actually do the job, in favour of those they think are more likely to put bums on seats. It's just not the same Stateside. There are scores of musical theatre stars on Broadway, who fill houses night after night based on the fact that they are genuine triple threat performers. If Annie were being performed over there, I can almost guarantee a producer would simply open the door to a huge stable of Broadway actresses who'd be able to sing and act the shit out of the role. Linda Eder. Bebe Neuwirth. Joanna Gleason. Bernadette. Patti. I could go on for days. And yet, in the UK, when it comes to musical theatre, we invariably settle for second best.

It's like that in no other UK art form.

We all know that Bucks Fizz star Cheryl Baker did ever so well when she trained her voice to sound operatic on Pop Star to Opera Star, but are they going to invite her to sing Tosca at the Royal Opera House? We know that Katie Derham plays the violin to an okay standard, but would they book her to play the Bruch at the Proms? Of course not. And yet my industry gets watered down in this fairly obscene manner on a daily basis. We don't allow specific musical theatre stars to emerge any more. And, I suppose, that just makes me feel a little sad.

Speaking of opera, we're sharing our rehearsal space with a professional opera company at the moment and the differences between our world and theirs are noticeable. We don't really have a budget for a set on our production of Em, but money doesn't seem to be an issue for the opera lot. We sat and listened to all sorts of bizarre conversations in the kitchen today, one of which involved someone refusing to play anything other than a harp which was made in Romania, and another which involved a man, perhaps the director, asking for an armourer to be brought into rehearsals!

We're meant to have the rehearsal rooms booked until 9pm, but, the young girl who works behind the counter regularly throws me out of the building if I'm the last one left inside. Usually I'm sitting at a table orchestrating music. It obviously doesn't look like work to her. It was particularly frustrating tonight as I had three hours to kill in the London Bridge area whilst waiting for a train to take me to Croydon. I thought how nice it would be to stay in the venue and write, but the woman had different ideas. I think it was when she appeared with a giant padlock on a chain and switched the burglar alarm on that I realised I was no longer welcome! I wouldn't mind if she'd come up to me and said, "you know what, if you leave now, I can be paid for two hours' extra work and get home nice and early." I tend to think if you've paid for exclusive use of a space from 9am until 9pm, you really ought to be able to use it as you wish. In the end I went to a cafe near the station where they were doing a promotion involving free coffee (which was no good for this tea drinker.) I sat down to write and discovered instantly, and to my great chagrin, that they were playing songs on the sound system which all mentioned coffee in some way. Turns out there aren't many decent songs about coffee. It was an excruciating wait!

I went to Croydon to see the world premiere of Fiona's composition, Relationships. It was being performed by the London Mozart Players who have literally just leapt to the top of my all-time favourite ensembles. I have seldom been to a gig which felt better suited to my taste in music. Shostakovich. Brice. Piazolla. I spent the night with a massive grin on my face, feeling proud of Fiona for writing such an epically wonderful piece and feeling the joy radiating from the players who included my friend Anna who played at my wedding and on the requiem. It was a twelve-piece string ensemble, but they made the sound of twenty players. Really brutal, aggressive, theatrical musicianship. The Piazolla Four Seasons is a supreme piece of music and it was so exquisitely performed that, at the end, the audience spontaneously jumped to their feet. There was such a brilliant interaction between the players and us. The concert took place in a bar. The ensemble want to get music out of the concert hall environment, so it meant there were no more than sixty lucky people crammed into the space. I felt genuinely privileged to have been there. It's the most fun I have EVER had watching classical music. Bravos all round.

Croydon's a bit of a mess isn't it? From what I could gather, most of the city centre is derelict or boarded over and filled with a tangled mesh of piss-stinking concrete underpasses and dodgy-looking shopping centres. It feels like a place in trouble. A place with no identity. A place where everyone feels a little on edge. A place which the world conveniently ignores. It is no surprise at all that it was the scene of such dreadful rioting five or so years ago.

But enough negativity. I've had a great night. And I go home a happy, yet shattered man.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Two day more

One mega day down, three more to go! Much as I'm having a fabulous time, my eyes are firmly planted on Saturday night when I have a date with the telly. No one and nothing is going to stop that from happening! Today's rehearsal started at 9am, as they have all week. I usually get up at about 9 o'clock, so waking up at 7 feels unnatural in the extreme. My eyes sting. I sort of stumble around, wondering what's hit me. I know people reading this will be queueing up to say how much earlier than 7am they get up, the implication being that I'm somehow lazy, but early risers hit the sack considerably earlier than I do. In fact, everything in my life starts and ends just that little bit later. I go to bed at 1am. I finish work at 8pm...

I've sat under headphones for much of the day, and still don't feel like I've made the slightest dent in the orchestration I need to do. Fiona is on a similar orchestration deadline, so we're in regular whinging contact by phone. The panic is definitely rising slightly.

I've been in a suit all day on account of the fact that I was booked in to run a quiz this evening. The venue for the quiz wasn't actually a million miles away from where we are rehearsing. It should have been a joyful thirty-minute walk, but the weather was so shocking that I was forced to take a bus instead, literally running like a loon to the stop and then to the quiz venue when I got to the other side of the river.

I was terrified about the quiz. I didn't get to prep any of the questions and was nervous at the prospect of making a fool of myself. I always become utterly dyspraxic when I get in front of a large crowd, and can get very tongue-tied as a result. As it happened I needn't have worried. The quiz was being run by the LGBT group within a major bank, and so I was very much amongst family. I could camp it up a bit. I could be a bit cheeky. I could crack gay jokes. At one point I actually got a round of applause for telling them about my experience of voting for the first time in a general election. It was 1997 and I was the partner of the person I was voting for. Obviously it was Stephen who actually took Michael Portillo's seat and in the process became the first openly gay man to be elected to Parliament, but I'm always rather proud to have played the tiniest part in that story. I think they really liked the anecdote and liked my honesty, and, really, it's easy to forget that there are industries in this country where it's not as possible to be honest and open about sexuality. I was perhaps quite refreshing in that regard. 

So the quiz went rather well, actually only marred slightly by the fact that, half way through the evening, the elastic went in my boxer shorts and they immediately dropped half way down my leg. Obviously I was wearing trousers, so no one would have noticed, but it was a very curious sensation! I kept subtly trying to pull them up again. Abbie went into hysterics when I told her what had been going on!


Wisdom

We're rehearsing in a really quiet corner of Borough. The area is full of old Victorian terraces and tenements but is some distance from any major road. It's almost eerily quiet out on the street. Cats sit silently in the open windows of ground floor flats. A squirrel was tottering about yesterday, despite there being no trees anywhere in the vicinity. The little fella seemed rather inquisitive. I've always entertained a little fantasy which features a random squirrel coming and sitting on my shoulder and being so tame and needy that I have to take him home with me, where he lives in the kitchen and hops out onto the tree outside the window whenever he feels the need to reconnect with nature. Is this maybe a little odd?

We're in full-time rehearsals for Em now. Hannah spent the day yesterday introducing the young cast to themes from the show and encouraging them to open up about their lives and feelings on various associated themes. In the meantime I'm trying to get cracking on the show's orchestrations, but over the next few days I'm dealing with a variety of social and quiz engagements which I arranged to do before realising quite how up against it I was going to be. None of them are things I can, or even want to cancel. In fact, the two social things are things I'm really excited about. The problem is that they're all adding to the growing stress levels. As the pressures sink down, what I'm finding myself entirely unable to deal with is anything even remotely resembling faff. More than two emails, texts or conversations about the same subject make me panic, particularly if there's nothing I can do about the situation.

At the same time I think one of my wisdom teeth is coming through! I actually thought I'd had all my wisdom teeth removed in my early twenties, but, over the last couple of years, it's become apparent that the top two have either grown back or were never actually removed. Though the latter is more likely, the former would make a cracking case study in Orthodontics Now! Whatever the case, I periodically get a sense that there's some activity going on, as the one on the left tries to introduce itself to the world, whilst simultaneously pushing all of his friends in curious directions. It's just what you want when you're over-worked. All I actually want to do is eat doughnuts and sleep.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Cathy Come Home

At the moment I'm exhausted. There are no other words to describe it. Rehearsals are in full flight, but, as a one-man-band writer and composer, this is the time at which I start to feel stretched like an old piece of knicker elastic. I have to orchestrate the show but I also need to be on hand to make changes to the script and score. Sometimes all I actually want to do is sit at the back of a rehearsal room and observe Hannah and the team adeptly overseeing the birth of my child. Instead, I suspect I'm going to be spending much of the coming week in the kitchen of our rehearsal space with headphones on. Beyond the Fence flashbacks!

We had a read-through of the script this morning with the full cast. If any of them were angry or sad not to get a particular role, they certainly didn't let it show. Thing is, there's no such thing as a small role in a Hannah Chissick show, and Em is a very ensemble-heavy show, so everyone's gonna have something they can get their teeth into.

This afternoon we watched the seminal 1966 BBC film, Cathy Come Home. Though essentially a piece about homelessness set in the south of England, there are story strands which link it to Em. Ken Loach, who directed the film, is actually a Midlander. In fact, he was one of my father's neighbours in Nuneaton.

Em is a great deal more lighthearted than Cathy Come Home, which, though a masterpiece, is a brutal and relentlessly bleak one. It must have had the most astounding impact when it was aired in the mid 1960s. Hannah and I spent the evening tonight texting each other about haunting images from the film. I learned today that the homeless charity, Shelter, was set up as a result of the film.

What worries me greatly, however, is that I can sense this country heading back to those brutal days. We still have a major housing crisis, and, with the government intent on destroying the NHS and our benefits system, we could well end up with an underclass of people who are helpless to pick themselves up out of the mire. Frankly, there but for the grace of God go we all. I actually spend a lot of time worrying about my old age for this very reason. I just don't think the state will look after me when I've stopped being able to look after myself.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Em tickets are now on sale

We had our first official day of rehearsals on Em today. It was a somewhat unorthodox rehearsal because, immediately after our "meet and greet" with all the technical department, we went into another round of recalls. I think the powers that be just wanted to make sure that all the students had had a chance to properly shine before decisions were made. It seemed wholly inappropriate to cast the show and then immediately dive into a read-through of the script, so we spent the afternoon learning ensemble music.

The cast lists have gone up tonight. Finally. The whole casting process has been utterly exhausting, so Hannah and I are absolutely thrilled at the concept of finally being able to get cracking with rehearsals. The cast are such an extraordinarily talented bunch of people.

Here's a thing. Tickets have gone on sale. They will sell out, and they will sell out fast, so please, please book to avoid disappointment. They cost £10 each, or a fiver for concessions, which seems almost unbelievably good value.

The shows run from June 14th-17th. I think there are matinees on the Friday and Saturday. Book them here. And please book as soon as you read this, or else I can pretty much guarantee you'll miss out.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/em-tickets-34369556268

BAFTAS and EUROVISH

Eurovision never ceases to amaze me. There must be some crazy-assed formula at work which is defined by musical tastes and crazy diasporas across Europe, because it always ends up roughly the same way. There's always a firm favourite before voting begins. It's usually from the old West of Europe and more often than not a perky pop song with a strong gimmick. Last year it was Australia. This year it was Italy. Then suddenly, on the night, a song comes charging down the inside lane which is quirky. Different. Off-the-wall in a way that British people don't necessarily understand. It might be ethno-pop. It might be a veiled protest song. It might just be the most simplistic, honest tune which everyone overlooks until they see the performer in action and fall in love. And this is what happened with Portugal last night. Salvador Sobral is a highly charming performer. He seems to feels the music in his finger tips, and takes himself into a different world whilst performing. Portugal have never won the contest despite entering almost every year since it started. The fans always like it when a country like this has success. Sobral endeared himself to even more viewers by seeming humble and gracious when he won, and then delivering an impassioned speech about the importance of real music. As if that wasn't enough, he then brought his sister onto the stage, who had written the song, giving her the nod which she absolutely deserved in a way that I suspect no other performer in that contest would have done, perhaps with the exception of our Lucie Jones, who was, in short absolutely brilliant. Sobral proceeded to encore his song, sharing the lines with his beautiful sister, who, we then found out, had sung in for him during many rehearsals because the poor guy had a heart defect. You really can't make these stories up. I haven't cried as much at Eurovision since Conshita bellowed, "we are unity and we are unstoppable." Be still my beating heart.

We had a fabulous party. There were, I think, fourteen of us, which is about as perfect a number as you could hope for. I made nachos and potatoes, a salad and some pizzas, and we sat around happily watching the show whilst drinking wine and nibbling on the food. A giant scoreboard was made and decorated by Abbie, Nathan and Tash in the afternoon, and the rest of the guests came from about 7.  I had two godchildren there, three university friends, two Rebel Chorus members, one MD, three actors, a Jewish film specialist, a bass-playing mate from back home in Northamptonshire and a lovely knitter called Tina. Almost everyone was a musician or singer of some description, so the howls of laughter and screeches of horror when some of the acts went for notes they couldn't reach were almost hysterical.

I watched the TV BAFTAs this evening, and I think the cat is now out of the bag and I can reveal that I was one of the judges this year. I was given the task of judging the specialist factual category, which is where Nathan and I were nominated for the wedding. Our shortlist included two films by David Attenborough, a piece about the extraordinary playwright Alan Bennett, and Grayson Perry's All Man. We voted secretly, so none of us knew who had actually won until tonight. It turns out it was the turn of David Attenborough. I actually think all four films were incredibly strong and voting wasn't easy at all. It was a real honour to be asked. I was slightly confused by Sue Perkin's almost obsessive desire to point out what a difficult industry TV is for women. She opened with a statement which appeared to bristle with irony, which confused me enormously; "how strange" she said, "to have a woman presenting an awards ceremony." I genuinely didn't know if she was serious or not. Sue Perkins actually handed me my Grierson award two years ago because she presented those awards as well. I'm sure there are still areas of TV which are very male-heavy (certainly the technical side) but in the fifteen or so films I've made in British television, I've only ever had three male commissioners, one of whom answered to a woman, so my personal experience of TV is that it's actually really strongly female-heavy. That may just be me. Yes, the very top echelons are still very male-heavy, but I think, within a generation this will no longer be the case. I should point out that I adore Sue Perkins. She is a wonderful comedian, and a brilliant person. She is also one of the nicest celebrities I have ever met in the flesh. She presented the BAFTAs with great aplomb, and if she is the first female presenter of the BAFTAs, then this is something we genuinely need to applaud. On the equality front, it was good to see two of the four main acting awards going to BAME actors and I was deeply proud to hear my old boss Shaheen Baig being thanked by one of them. Casting directors so rarely get mentioned in award ceremonies.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Turning on a knife edge

People were actually wearing cagoules as I walked down to the tube yesterday morning. Who wears cagoules these days? I even had to google how to spell the word! I was instantly taken back to childhood trips to teddy bear picnics. The slightly muggy air. The sense that it shouldn't be raining. The firm English belief that the rain would clear and leave us with a very jolly sunny day. Cagoules can be ripped off and shoved in a bag and the rainy morning can be forgotten. All very British.

Rain water came in through our roof last night. It was highly annoying in light of the fact that someone came around to fix our broken guttering just a few months ago. It adds to the somewhat bohemian garret vibe of our flat, I guess. But is it cool to be a boho at the age of 42?

On my way into work yesterday I got obscenely irritated by a young girl with one of those husky, damaged voices, who was pouring herself all over her boyfriend whilst, every twenty seconds or so, making an incredibly loud, desperately/irritating, sea lion-like honk of laughter, plainly to show what a wonderful time she was having sucking on her fella's ear. She couldn't have been drunk at 9am, but was behaving in a way you might expect someone to behave on a night bus at two in the morning. It was the sort of laughter which could easily have turned to tears at any moment. One moment she's all lovey-dovey, the next, she's turned on a knife-edge and is telling him he's a bastard. There was something deeply troubling about the scene in my eyes, because the woman seemed to actively want to paint herself as a sort of silly, pathetic, needy, weak creature. Feminism and decorum be damned. "I've bagged this man and the world needs to know about it."

Speaking of turning on a knife edge. I sat next to a bloke on the tube who was texting someone obsessively. Message after message was being fired off. He dropped the c bomb in the first message I saw him typing, and the messages seemed to get worse from that point onwards. He was on a rant: "Don't lie to me you filthy ho." "Don't f**k guys in cars at your sister's wedding." On and on the pithy little poisoned arrows went. One after the next. He seemed fairly impassive about what he was doing. I looked at his face, expecting to see the eyes of a maniac, but he seemed quite calm. People are strange aren't they?

We had a very busy day on Em today. A morning of music calls followed by recalls to decide who plays what. To me it's always interesting to see how much prep actors put into auditions. Some were brilliantly on the ball. Others felt like they hadn't taken the task as seriously. The big wide world isn't as forgiving as we perhaps were!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Day two, Em

Day two of Em rehearsals found us back in Southwark doing a full, and highly-exhausting day of music rehearsals. We nailed the first number in some pretty good detail and almost got to the end of another. We have a music call tomorrow morning which ought to mean we'll have the second number pretty much in the bag as well, and that feels like a very good place to be in before official rehearsals begin.

We had a different musical director today. Our Christopher was away on another gig so dep'd the rehearsal out to a friend, who turned out to be an affable and very talented young chap, who did an amazing job, effectively sight-reading the music whilst teaching the cast their material.

The cold continues. I've been overdosing on cups of tea all day but feel an almost crushing sense of tiredness. I sweated through the night and kept waking up in states of increasing confusion. I always feel a little better after eating, however. What is it that they say? Feed a cold, starve a fever?

I learned a very lovely fact earlier, namely that Em means mother in Hebrew. Em, therefore, really couldn't be more perfect a title for a story about a young mother. If I'd have known earlier, I could well have been tempted to make the central character officially Jewish. I've always felt as though she had some sort of Jewish connection...

It's funny how show titles work. I've always been a massive fan of one-word titles, particularly if the word chosen feels like it says something meaningful about the piece. One-word, easily-spelt titles are far more memorable and can become an important part of a show's brand. People remember the word "Brass," for example, far more than they ever do "Beyond The Fence", a title which was thrust upon us by the show's producers, who wouldn't allow us to use the catchier working title, "Green Gate." It turns out that prepositions are hopeless in show titles, a fact we learned after people variously started calling our show "Over The Fence", "Across the Fence" or "On The Wall!" No one ever called Brass "Tin" or "Copper!"

I'm actually hoping Em will get the record for the shortest title for a work of musical theatre. There are some numerical titles which might offer stiff competition, but I believe Yestin's, Nine is only ever written in letters. Jason Robert Brown's 13, however, is usually written numerically, so that would offer a two-figure title. (It takes longer to say however.) I can't think of a one-letter musical title. Can anyone reading this?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Em journey begins

We had our first proper rehearsal for Em today and it came in the shape of a music call. Em is a tricky old score and having a few days of vocal calls before proper rehearsals begin is a real godsend. It introduces the cast to the landscape of the music and gives them a sense of the task ahead in terms of how much work they'll need to put into learning harmonies. It's a little unorthodox to do all of this before we know who is playing what in the show, but we're only working our way through ensemble material and I'm pretty sure none of the actors will mind being taken out of singing a harmony line because they've got a major solo in the song instead!

They're definitely a talented and very friendly bunch and they're doing immensely well despite looking a little like rabbits in headlights for much of today. At one point the MD Chris caused mass hysteria by telling them to do the number one more time before allowing them to go outside "so that their brains could fart!"

The area we're rehearsing in is just around the corner from my osteopath in Borough, which makes it handy if everything gets highly stressful! I am a little disappointed we're not up at Swiss Cottage because I had all these wonderful plans to walk home across the Heath every night after rehearsals. Borough isn't exactly jam-packed with lunchtime food options either. Yesterday I couldn't even find a shop that would sell me a little notepad. It's quite a pleasing area on the eye, however, filled with railway arches and somewhat brooding Victorian warehouses. Very much my aesthetic.

Every inch or ounce of spare time now has to go into orchestrating the songs. It feels like an episode of Challenge Anneka!

Eurovision semi one!

I went to bed two nights ago with that all-too familiar sense that I was coming down with a cold. A slight sore throat. A bit of a sweat on. I don't think I can put it down to anything other than my body telling me to stop over-doing it with work. I finished and delivered both the script and the vocal/piano score of Em yesterday afternoon, and I think my body could see the end in sight and simply threw in the towel without realising that I've still got to orchestrate the soddin' show!

I did, however, take the morning off yesterday. I lay in bed for some time, then made myself a bowl of Shreddies and a cup of tea before going back under the covers. By the time I'd had my bath and done a bit of prepping on a manuscript, it was lunch time, although I did feel a great deal more chipper by then.

Nathan was rehearsing all morning and arrived home just as I was preparing to head into town. I felt a little guilty throwing my computer at him, and asking him to cast his eye over the final two songs of the show, but I had an overwhelming sense that I needed to deliver all the rehearsal material before Eurovision season kicked off at 8pm.

My meeting in town was with the incomparable, James Hadley, who is one of the guardians of new musical theatre in the U.K. He's always been a great sounding board for me, and is happy to listen when I feel the need to whinge or get on my soap box and rant. He is a hugely calming presence, and, moreover, one of those wonderful champions of musical theatre who live for the art form without actually seeming to want or need to simultaneously promote their own writing career. And in a world where all writers have been forced to become huge self-promoters, this is incredibly rare. He cheered me up no end. I was really pleased I went.

I travelled home via Sainsbury's, where I bought copious amounts of food for the evening. I got incredibly hot whilst wandering about the shop, and then spent the journey back to Highgate sweating profusely. No doubt as a result of the cold.

Young Ben Jones and Harrison came over this evening to watch the first semi-final for this year's Eurovision. It was a funny old show, presented by not two, but three men. The theme of Eurovision this year is diversity, so an all-male line up seemed like an odd choice, particularly in light of the fact that it's the first year since 1956 where there hasn't been some sort of female host. It was a typically embarrassing affair: loads of jokes delivered in broken English which didn't actually translate into English, and then we learned that the Ukrainian concept of diversity was merely that scores of performers from different countries across Europe were coming together to perform music. Slightly missing the point I'd say. That said, the interval act came courtesy of, Verka Seduchka, a much-loved Ukrainian drag performer who entered Eurovision in 2007. Keen Europhiles will remember her as the lass who wore a silver space suit and a three-dimensional star as a hat.

The entertainment started off with a shaky, nervy performance by Sweden, who are tipped to do very well in the show, followed by a load of really dull, tuneless songs, which, sadly, included the mush from Australia, which couldn't even hold a torch to last year's extraordinary entry. The night picked up with stellar performances from Finland, Moldova and Portugal. The Portuguese entry is an incredibly old-school, rather wistful and moving song performed by a somewhat quirky young man.

I was devastated when the Finnish entry didn't go through into the final. I even voted for the song. All the other results were pretty much as I'd expected. They showed a little clip of the UK entry, which, for the first time in years, looks like it's been rather classily staged. They've got Lucy Jones, a musical theatre singer, doing it, which means it's being performed by someone with the chops to do it justice, and, more crucially, someone who won't fall apart under pressure. And it's actually quite a good song. My only sadness is that it's written by a Danish person. Eurovision is a song contest, not a performer contest, and the idea that the BBC couldn't find a home-grown writer to represent one of the biggest exporters of music in the world is almost laughable. It's certainly shameful.

We ate nachos and chips... with salad (for health reasons) and laughed pretty much all night. Brother Edward was texting from the stadium in Ukraine where the action was taking place, and we FaceTimed each other at the end of the evening, whilst Nathan, Ben and Harrison danced to the Italian song, which will almost certainly win. I haven't heard so much buzz about a Eurovision song since Loreen.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Where's the music

Every morning I walk up into Highgate Village to work in a cafe. The walk involves passing the music block at Highgate School, which is a three-story building with scores of windows, each of which belongs to a separate practise room. A cacophony of beautiful music drifts down onto the street. Every time I walk past, it seems another instrument is playing. Today's cohort of musicians included a young male singer and a flautist. Highgate School plainly has a vibrant musical scene, and I'm often staggered to think that I'm listening to the pupils of just one school. Then I always feel a little sad. Highgate school is plainly one of the poshest and most expensive in the country. And, like all private schools, it values its expressive and performing arts in a way that comprehensive schools just aren't allowed to these days.

We watched Britain's Got Talent yesterday. The episode featured a young black lad playing the piano. Rather well as it happens. Afterwards, he explained that he'd come from a North London council estate and that the piano had saved him from a life of drugs and gang violence, citing his school's music teacher as his biggest influence. The joy about music, drama, art and sport - the very subjects that the government are starving in schools - is that you can be good at them without being conventionally academic. They are the empowering subjects which can give underprivileged kids confidence and hope for better lives. Stories have started to emerge of headteachers tendering their resignations because they no longer feel they can justify teaching the narrow curriculum which the government values. My friends with kids are bailing out of the state school system or paying through the nose to get their kids through their 11 plus exams. It's a horrible mess, and I can't believe that people seem to content to merely stand around and let it happen. Music must not become the terrain of the wealthy.

A woman stopped me outside Archway Tube Station today to ask me where the station was. Because we were standing right underneath the sign for the underground, I wondered if she was looking for one of the local overground stops. "Which station are you after?" I asked. She pointed at the entrance to the tube. "That one." I was immediately rendered speechless! "But you're pointing at it!" I said. "Yes" she said, "I suppose I am." She didn't seem to find anything particularly amusing about our exchange, so I made a hasty exit, in case she decided to ask any more bizarrely obvious questions like "who am I?" Or "what am I wearing?"

This afternoon I trekked down to Borough to run the first round of auditions for Em, and, in the process, met all but two of the third year students who will be performing Em. It's suddenly a reality! And a very exciting one. There are some genuinely talented young people in that year group and I very much enjoyed meeting them. There are some big casting challenges, many of which involve people who aren't from Liverpool, Ireland or Wales having to do those three accents. It's fairly unlucky that we have an entire year group performing this show, none of whom hail from any of the places where the characters are actually meant to come from! Except Ruby. She's a genuine Midlander. You don't get many of those in the entertainment industry. We're all too busy apologising for being any good!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Scansion Nazi

Nathan rushed off to Parson's Green this morning for an emergency ear syringing. He's always suffered from a build up of wax in his ears, and no one ever seems to be able to offer a definitive answer regarding whether syringing - or lavaging as they call it in the States - is good for the ears or not. Whether the procedure is good or bad, the emergency NHS walk-in clinic at Parson's Green is an undiscovered London gem. It's open every day, and doesn't seem to generate the ludicrous waiting times that you get in hospitals.

We had lunch in the greasy spoon when Nathan returned, before ploughing head-long into a mega session on songs from Em, which finally finished at around 11pm. Nathan has an astoundingly good eye/ ear for detail when it comes to music - particularly sung music - and has cutthroat, somewhat dogmatic views when it comes to scansion. The beats in music that words are placed on are of great importance to Nathan. In his view, it's a great sin to sing a word in a rhythm that you wouldn't naturally speak it in. And he's right. So often, in music - across the board from opera through to pop - composers place the wrong syllable on the wrong beat of the music, and this often either leads to misinterpretation of meaning, or the general sense that the character or artist singing the words is of limited intelligence! I'm personally pretty good at avoiding this particular misdemeanour, but every so often, a clanger pops into my writing, which Nathan expunges with alacrity. He's very good at rolling his eyes to the back of his head and giving me a look which says "really? You really think that's good enough?" It's good for me to be challenged.

So, essentially, we sat for eight hours today underneath headphones. And still we're not done. We'll get there, and actually, as a result of the work we did, I'm getting rather excited about Em, and the journey which lies ahead. I think I've written some belting music which will both move and excite the listener. There is, however, a deliberate, yet somewhat hidden double entendre lurking in one of the song's lyrics. It's so filthy that I'm actually not going to point it out to any of the cast in the hope that they'll innocently sing it for five shows, wondering why little pockets of the audience are in stitches! It's one of those double entendres that you have to have a certain kind of mind to notice. Brownie points to the first person who spots it!

We finished work and watched Ru Paul's Drag Race, which is one of my favourite TV shows in the world. It is quintessential cult viewing, ram-packed with catch-phrases which fans of the show will happily quote to one another whilst everyone else stands by and goes "what?!"

Nathan finished knitting a stunning cowl this evening which looks like some kind of primitive art sculpture from the 1970s. It's actually one of the best pieces of knitting he's ever done. It's really textured and three-dimensional and I'm sure it's going to be a very popular pattern. He's sewing the ends in whilst I write this.

Brother Edward face-timed me from Kiev. He's there for the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes. It's that time of the year again! The gay men's World Cup. I can feel my heart pounding at the thought!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Heathy

I spent much of the day working, having woken up rather early after another series of bizarre dreams. My subconscious and conscious need to have a little chat, I suspect, to work out the messages which are trying to get through. In one dream, my mother was telling me off for leaving footprints in soapy suds on a bathroom floor. In another, a random man was wearing a hedge for a hat. Where does that stuff come from?!

I continued to work on the two naughty songs from Em. I'm gradually whipping them into shape, but they're proving to be much wilder beasts than I'd ever imagined.

At 4pm I met my mate Michael at Highgate tube and we went for a stroll on the Heath. It looks absolutely splendid at this time of year. The rhododendrons are in full bloom at Kenwood House. I think they were perhaps the most vivid colours I've ever seen in nature. Hot pinks. Bright reds. Peaches and oranges. Quite stunning.

We walked up towards the old quarry at Sandy Hill, where we were visited by a friendly robin, before heading across to the pergola. I was astonished to discover that Michael had never visited that particular Heath highlight. The wisteria was out and the air was ripe with the smell of the herbs from the garden below. It genuinely is a hidden gem. I wonder if someone would pay me to give tours of Hampstead Heath?

From the pergola we went to the tree with the hole in it. I take everyone there. You could probably find this exact blog post written at least twice a year for the last seven years!

London looked very dirty and smoggy from vantage points where you usually get very clear views. You could barely see the skyscrapers down in Canary Wharf. A thick mauve cloud seemed to be hovering over the city.

We bought picnic food in Marks and Spencer's down at Southend Green before returning to the Heath where we sat, as the sun set, in the field behind the Ladies' Pond, eating cheese and a raspberry trifle. Parakeets flashed through the sky, squawking in that familiar, yet vacuous style. The sun disappeared behind clouds and the air turned very cold, but as we headed back to the car, it reappeared again, through a gap in the cloud, like a giant shimmering milk bottle top.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Best new songs

I woke up to the news this morning that the song Brass, Brass off of Brass, has been nominated for the Stiles and Drewe award for best new song. There are twelve finalists. It's actually the only UK song competition for new musical theatre writing, so it's a huge honour to have made the shortlist. I shan't win. Stiles and Drewe tend to favour the wittier end of the spectrum when it comes to this award. Brass will almost certainly prove too worthy and gloomy for their tastes, but I am hugely grateful for the nod.

Brass is obviously the title track from the show, and title tracks are really important numbers because they often cement what or who the show is about. I am reminded of a somewhat amusing occurrence at a recent cabaret when a young girl stood up to introduce the "title" song from her show... which had an entirely different name!

Anyway, aside from my utter horror at the political situation in the U.K. right now, I genuinely have very little else to write about. The day has been about doing remedial work on two songs from Em, which, I discovered, needed considerable help when I reopened the files this morning. They're in a much better state as a result of what I've done today although I suspect they're still not quite ready for sign off.

I spent much of the day doing the unspeakable and watching and listening to football commentaries from the 1960s. I'm trying to recreate an authentic account of the 1965 Charity Shield between Manchester United and Liverpool. Sadly, I can't find a recording of that particular match. It was a draw, so I can't imagine that the commentary was hugely exciting, but for the purpose of Em, it needs to be. I'm so unfamiliar with football that I don't even know if fans would be happy with a draw. It strikes me as a rather honourable outcome. I don't think they played extra time in those days or did penalty shoot-outs, so perhaps it happened more regularly. Bobby Charlton seems to score goals in every clip I watch. He was plainly a very wonderful footballer... for someone who looks like the guy from the Hamlet advert!

I had the most vivid dreams last night. In one of them, I was in the Middle East somewhere, but as I walked around, I realised I was being coated with thin a layer of salt or sand. Now which part of my subconscious came up with that?!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Michelle's music

We had a day of absolute mayhem today. There was far too much to do and both of us had ridiculous expectations regarding what was achievable. I plough on through Em, continuously underestimating how much work remains to be done on each number. I drove down to Bexleyheath last night to see director Hannah and we had a lovely meal sitting at her kitchen table whilst reading the entire show out loud. Just the two of us. There was an unwritten understanding that she would try to read the girls' parts and I would read the boys' parts, but it's a fairly girl-heavy show, so I ended up reading my fair share of the fairer sex. There was one scene which has so many characters in it that we basically ended up reading anything we fancied. The first person to open their mouth got first dibs! It was a lot of fun. I adore Hannah and can't wait to get back in a rehearsal room with her again.

So anyway, after a day of panicking, which culminated in me having an hysterical laughing fit as Nathan and I tried to wind a shed load of wool into a manageable-sized cake, we jumped on a tube to Sloane Square and headed to the Pheasantry on the King's Road. At one stage it felt like the Pheasantry was a second home, I was there so often to watch cabarets being performed by friends, but I haven't been there for absolutely ages. I don't really think I go out that much any more!

Tonight's entertainment was really very lovely. It was essentially a night of songs from the golden age of film, interspersed with music by my very talented mate, Michelle. I can personally take or leave covers of songs written by Rogers and Hammerstein, and if I never hear "So Long, Fairwell" from the Sound of Music again I will die a happy man, but I'd travel a long way to hear songs by Michelle. She's been writing now for a sickeningly short period of time, but seems to have a musical theatre sonic landscape fully formed in the recesses of her mind. Her songs all bring out the best in their vocalists. They're very British with a hint of Hollywood glamour and always very still in an impressionist sort of way. Fleeting is perhaps a good word. Misty. Dreamlike. Timeless. I was very proud.

A man got on the tube as I was travelling home tonight. He had quite an impressive moustache, and, instinctively, I gave him the look that I've come to realise all moustachioed men give to one another. It's a look which says, "I approve, and I'm with you, brother." The look is, of course, fairly meaningless if you're no longer wearing a moustache! The bloke must have thought I was insane!


Shower of Scuts

I was very heartened yesterday, whilst sitting in the window of the cafe, to see a teenaged couple holding hands whilst waiting for a bus. They were probably around sixteen and, under normal circumstances, the sight of them together would have been wholly unremarkable. What made it very special was the fact that the "female" half of the couple was either in the early stages of transitioning or gender fluid. There was nothing furtive about their behaviour. They were simply holding hands in a way that suggested they were both incredibly comfortable with each other and the situation they were in. And I'm proud to say that no one was staring at them disapprovingly or even double-taking. And that made me feel very happy. It is astounding to think how far the LGBT community has travelled in the 42 years I've been living on this planet. Perhaps my desire to even write these sentiments down will seem unnecessary and old-fashioned to young people, but I think it's important to remember how far we've come because situations can reverse. History never repeats itself. Man always does.

Theresa May is a twat isn't she? All this "I'm going to be a really difficult woman" shite simply to show the ludicrous UKIP voters that she's more Thatcher than Thatcher. Meanwhile, she's royally titsing off Europe and blowing any chances we ever had of getting a good Brexit deal, whilst blithely and somewhat proudly telling us we've got a bumpy ride ahead with a sort of "you asked for this" smirk. "Mummy doesn't want to hit you, but you've forced her to." Poor Mummy.

As for the shower of inadequacy which faces her from the other side of the House of Commons, well, there really are no words. Dianne Abbott is like some sort of cartoon parody: the hopeless drudge who thought she'd never be loved, who finally bags herself a man, and then wants the world to watch her snogging him. Sadly the world simply watches the dreadful scene with a mixture of amusement and horror. The interview where she was trying to guess how much policemen cost was beyond excruciating.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

To moustache or not to moustache

We've finally reached the time of year where the ash tree in our back garden bursts into life. Since the hideous council forced four of the trees along our alleyway to be felled, in order to save a Victorian wall which was knocked down anyway and replaced with a fence, our tree has been the largest in the neighbourhood. Go tree!

Anyway, it eventually loses its leaves in December which is incredibly late, so I suppose it's only right that it bursts into life a little later than its friends. The window in our kitchen is enormous, and right now, all I can see through it are little tufts of fresh, minty green. Sadly they're not as reinvigorating this morning as they might ordinarily be. I am exhausted, and can barely keep my eyes open on account of having been awake through much of the night tossing and turning about the sheer amount of stuff I need to achieve on Em. I got up in the night and wrote from 3am to 5am. I'm not really complaining as it was quite a good, intense period of woke, and, anyway, who wrote the book which insists a writer keep the same working hours as a civil servant?

The problem I'm having is that the last song I have to write for the musical is bigger, fuller and longer than I'd hitherto imagined it needed to be. Because of this I need time for it to settle and I'm just not hugely time rich at the moment. What is it with deadlines that makes us always want a week more than we have? I don't think I've ever reached a deadline and thought "yep, that's hurtling towards me on the horizon and I feel good about the place I'm in!"

In other news, I've shaved off my moustache. It was an agonising decision which I took about a week trying to make. Ultimately, these curly moustaches are quite a faff to maintain, and I used to get incredibly frustrated with it, particularly towards the end when I kept mistakenly pulling out the hairs from the right hand wing, which had the effect of making the moustache even more unmanageable. I guess I'd also started to wonder whether people perceived it as a bit of a comedy or "try hard" statement. I saw a couple of pictures of myself looking like a cross between a basket ball and a walrus and ultimately wondered whether the look was working for me! Yes, of course, I'll miss people coming up to me in the street and complimenting me, and part of me thinks the moustache gave me back the somewhat bohemian vibe I'd lost when my hair lost the lustrous curls it had when I was a young man. But it was ageing. And it was bright orange. And even though I still keep raising my hand to my face to twirl and tweak it, I think it was the right decision to get rid of it. For now.

Those who knew me before the moustache will undoubtedly barely notice. Those, who have met me since, for whom the moustache is a defining feature, will find it very odd. The lady who served me in Costa yesterday said, "are you still drinking tea now that you're an entirely different person?!"

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Too much coffee?

The Highgate kids are back at school in force today, chirping and chattering in the cafes in their ludicrously plumby accents. This morning's topic of conversation was what syndromes and conditions you needed to claim you had in order to get a degree of lenience in exams. Top of their list of easy things to fake was ADHD "too much coffee and you're basically there" followed by dyslexia, "everyone knows you just need to say that the words are floating about on the page and you get all sorts of perks." They continued, "depression is a good one cus they can't really argue with that." On and on they went in those tidy little accents which told me that it doesn't actually matter what they get for their exams: their schooling up in the village is merely preparing them for a life of ease. I don't remember ever being able to afford to sit in a cafe during free periods when I was that age. Tammy and I used to go down Kwik Save to buy sweets to surreptitiously eat during A level geography, but sitting in a cafe would have seemed a considerable luxury. There might have been a kettle in the sixth form common room. That was about as decadent as it got!

I worked all day yesterday. As usual, it felt both virtuous and ludicrous to be working on a bank holiday.

In the evening, we went to dinner at Michelle and Ben's stunning new house in Hatfield. Abbie and Ian were also there which meant there were three couples: one in their twenties, one in their thirties and the old boys in their forties. The odd thing about being in my forties is that I don't feel any older than I was at 22. I feel wiser, maybe, and perhaps a little bit more cynical as I see variations of the same initiatives and moral panics coming back round on ten year cycles. Bizarrely, it was the youngest couple there who were the proper grown ups with a proper house and a proper mortgage.

Their house is built in the 1960s chalet style, a type of architecture based on bringing as much light into a space as possible. They have the most beautiful sitting room which takes up the whole of the first floor of the house. Stunning lime green light poured in from the outside through floor-to-ceiling windows.

The only drawback, it seems, to living in the commuter belt seems to be having busy-body neighbours who complain about the sound you make when you walk up and down flights of stairs, and the type of washing line you have in the garden. Apparently all this stuff needs to be "Street approved." I just don't think I'd be able to deal politely with that sort of thing. Life is definitely too short. I may have to stay in London for a few years yet. Mortgage or no mortgage!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Go slow

Yesterday was all about work. I sat in my favourite cafe on the seafront and hammered my way through the vocal piano score of the last song in Em. It felt like quite an achievement when I reached the end, although I have to keep reminding myself that an entire number remains unwritten! I shall take the day off today and get myself stuck into it on Monday. Hopefully I'll have a decent framework for the piece by the end of the day. It feels daunting. I don't really have much of a sense of what the piece needs to be. I worry that it might bring on a writers' block. That it might somehow become the straw that breaks this particular camel's back. I could really do with some help from someone at the moment because there's a whole sea of work which needs to be done formatting scores and things. It's funny: in theatre there are often all sorts of assistants knocking about. I don't think I've ever worked on a show without an assistant director or an assistant stage manager. I have never been offered an assistant composer. Perhaps it's because I've always been a one-man band. I do my own orchestrations where many other composers immediately expect their MDs or an independently paid orchestrator to take care of that side of things. There's usually a separate book writer and lyricist as well who can focus on rewrites in their specialist areas. On this show it's just me. Fortunately I've always been very lucky with MDs in the past who have been willing to muck in when things get a bit hairy...

It's been so nice to be by the sea. It's been dry and sunny every day, but with a strong sea breeze. Walking along the seafront this morning was a bracing experience to say the least. The kite surfer who was impressively leaping and twisting high above the yellow waves had exactly the right idea. 

Brighton Station has one of those "play me" public pianos. They're often in spaces like train stations and there's usually either some snotty kid bashing the shite out of it, or a wannabe hipster Harry sitting at it, playing some form of bad jazz on an endless loop. You know the one? He learned a piece by ear when he was fifteen and he plays it every time he gets near a piano because it impresses the ladies? That's the fella. Any way. No such luck in Brighton Station. The "play me" piano, which has "play me" written in giant letters all over it, has its lid very firmly padlocked shut. It's actually a "don't play me" piano. One assumes it just became that little bit too much for the people who have to work in the station. An inescapable noise.

Arriving back in London was unnecessarily stressful. Victoria Station on a bank holiday Sunday was filled with tourists in "go slow" mode. I just wanted to scream at them to make a blinkin' decision. I get that the London transport network is intimidatingly confusing, but stopping dead at ticket barriers to fish for a ticket at the bottom of one's handbag is unacceptable wherever you are in the world. I'm fairly used to London emptying out on Bank Holidays, but maybe that's in residential areas. The residents head out of the city, and the tourists arrive in droves to see Buckingham Palace. I shudder.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Liberal antisemitism

I must admit, the recent report about antisemitism within the Liberal Democrat party made my blood run cold. As many reading this blog will know, antisemitism is one of the things which makes me almost apoplectic with rage. I don't understand it on any level. I don't understand how anyone could feel threatened or wary of a group who don't even proselytise. And yet I hear casual antisemitism all the time, almost exclusively in relation to Palestine. Israel and Israelis, it seems, can do nothing right, and Jewish people around the world somehow have to take responsibility for what's going on over there. Obviously this is in no way a view that I share, but it's one which has become incredibly entrenched in certain arenas.

It was no surprise therefore to learn that the Lib Dem antisemitism row was born out of the subject of Israel. Former Bradford East MP, David Ward, apparently wrote in a blog that he was "saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians." Unacceptable. Clearly. He also, we're told, suggested that he would fire rockets into Israel himself if he lived on the Gaza Strip. Nice. Tim Farron moved quickly and sacked him, effectively ruining his chances of standing as a Liberal Democrat in the seat which he lost in 2015 and may well have won in this snap election.

So here's my worry. I'm not altogether sure that we get anywhere with these knee-jerk sackings. In my view they almost always back fire in some way. I, of all people, know that we are all capable of writing stuff which can be interpreted as offensive or bigoted, particularly when taken out of context. I'm pretty sure that David Ward is largely a good man, who would see himself very clearly as anti-Israel rather than antisemitic, and my worry is actually that if we go in heavy-handedly, we run the risk of turning figures like Ward into martyrs, shot down and silenced by the Liberal elite for citing arguments that many secretly agree with. People don't know what they're allowed to say any more because we're all in such a rush to be mortally offended - usually on someone else's behalf. My friend Tara wrote on Facebook today that she'd been criticised for describing the weather as "bikini-wearing weather." She was so non-plussed that she took to social media to find out what could possibly have been offensive about her remark.

Obviously, there's a big gulf between this, and the dreadful comments that David Ward made, but even they are nothing I haven't heard expressed a million times at dinner parties in Islington. The worrying thing is that these views exist at all and I think a large amount of education needs to be done to show people that using the Jewish holocaust to make a point about the behaviour of Israeli leaders is utterly and profoundly unacceptable, however angry you feel about the situation over there.

Yes, of course you could argue that by blanket sacking everyone who makes these sorts of statements you're educating people to stop doing it, but I've always believed in second chances and never believed that you can punish a view out of someone. Besides, surely, it's far more satisfying find someone who says "my views on this subject have changed. I was wrong. I made mistakes and I want others to learn from my mistakes." For this reason I'm often somewhat heartened when I see people I grew up with on Facebook, who brutalised me at school for being gay, proudly flying rainbow flags on their Facebook feeds after events like the Orlando shooting. People can change. That's the joy of people.

The problem these days is that we don't ALLOW politicians to change their views. Changing one's mind is seen as a sign of weakness rather than as an indication of seeing the light, because we're all somehow expected to be enlightened from birth. Yes, it may, of course, be true that Ward's views are entrenched, and that instead of learning from the incident, he'd puff himself up and become desperately arrogant and unrepentant on the subject as the ghastly Ken Livingstone so recently did. That, genuinely, is the time when you have to say goodbye.

I don't know if I'm being idealistic, over simplistic or over forgiving in my old age. Ward might simply be a tit who's had plenty of warnings, but in this media age, as we get used to the new order, people write all sorts of things that come into their heads which have the habit of following them around like a bad smell. And I think that's a shame.

I spent the day yesterday in Hove, writing. I went to my favourite little seafront cafe in the morning and then a Starbucks next to Palmeira Square in the afternoon, finishing up at about 5pm, thrilled to have completed yet another song.

I met up with Hilary and Mez in the evening who'd come across from Lewes. We walked down to the seafront and then to the end of the pier where we spent ages playing shove ha'penny, in an attempt to win ourselves a little key ring which, somewhat bizarrely, was attached to the plastic figure of a goat standing on a guitar. The goat was riding on the two pence pieces very close to the edge and we became obsessed with the notion of getting it out. We won! The little plastic-made-in-China key ring was ours.

Mezza wanted to go on a ride at the end of the pier and opted for some awful thing which went round in circles and then upside down. As the Polish bloke strapped me into the seat, my life flashed before me. What a terrible way to die, I thought: Thrown into the English Channel and unable to escape from the metal casing of the ride. The moment the ride kicked off I knew I was going to hate it. It was raining and we were the only two customers, so I worried it was going to last forever, as once happened to me on a waltzer in an empty fair. My keys, of course, fell out of my pocket whilst I was hanging upside down. Fortunately they dropped onto the metal floor of the ride, rather than, for example, the sea. The ride made me feel sick for the next two hours.

We ate at Bill's. Macaroni cheese. I refuse to call it Mac n cheese. That's too American. The girls ate halloumi burgers. I felt a little envious.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Ingrid Bergman eyes

The cheapest ticket I could find down to Brighton today was in First Class. I genuinely don't know how I managed to swing that one! I'm also somewhat bemused, however, as to why the experience I had was defined as "first class." First class in a Southern Rail train seems to involve sitting on a fairly uncomfortable chair, which is only different to the chairs in normal class by dint of its having a little doily where you might rest your head if you didn't think said doily was a Mecca for grease and hair lice. There was one other person in the little boxed-off, fish bowl style first class carriage. She appeared to have copper woven into her scarf. I decided that she was somewhat more accustomed to the high life than me! When the train pulled into the station, I learned that her sort don't rush to get up. They stand up when they choose and expect the other passengers merely to part like the Red Sea. Or was it the Dead Sea? Which sea parted? I've swum in the Dead Sea. I read Regeneration by Pat Barker whilst floating like a buoy.

I'm in Brighton to focus on writing and nothing else for a few days. There's something about the sea air which makes me feel quite inspired. Sitting in the cafes down here certainly beats writing in cafes in North London. Im sure I don't get any more work done, but I feel more refreshed. I got in a right pickle upon arriving here because EE's 4G network exploded just as I really needed to be sending a load of emails. I tried to tether my phone to my laptop and couldn't tell if it was my fault, or if there was bad reception in the cafe I was in. I finally got back to Fiona's and its glorious wifi, phoned EE and realised they were struggling with their networks.

I worked at Fiona's sitting room table all afternoon until about 8pm, when I decided it would be pathetic to be by the sea without actually being by the sea, so I took myself out along the hazy sea front. I think it must have rained. The pavements were entirely dry but there were large spots of rain on the cars. The sea was pitch black. Like a Northamptonshire gothic's velvet hooded dress. I think Dylan Thomas might have called it bible black. It was lovely to be out and about breathing in the chilly air.

Just before bed, I entered a YouTube cul-de-sac and watched a video of ABBA being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. It took until 2010 for them to be so appropriately honoured, which is somewhat shameful, but Benny and Frida made delightful speeches. Frida, I think is possibly the most beautiful and graceful woman on the planet, but it was Benny's speech which made me really think. He spoke for a while about the various influences on the ABBA sound which were all born out of the fact that Swedish radio in the 50s played a weird smorgasbord of Italian opera, crazy Swedish folk music, German Oom Pah Pah, and, very occasionally, a rock n roll song from America. Benny believes that the ABBA sound was furthermore hugely influenced by the Swedes tendency to be melancholic. It's something, he says, you can see in Ingrid Bergman's eyes. Many people who only know ABBA in a surface way will find that hard to believe, but actually melancholy is peppered throughout pretty much every ABBA song. It's in the writing. It's in the vocal delivery. And I actually feel very strongly that it's the single thing which raises ABBA songs out of the realm of great pop and into the zone of mini-masterpieces.





























Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Life

I'm currently working on the song Delusion from Em. It's always quite an intense experience when I put pen to paper on this particular song. The lyrics are incredibly personal to me, largely because I think the one thing that writers and artists are probably all united in is their fear of being thought of as deluded. In the song, the delusion refers to matters of the heart coupled with the idea that people from certain backgrounds don't ever really get to have ideas above their station. The great tragedy in my industry is that it's not a meritocracy, largely because everyone has a different concept of what good art actually is. As a result, it's so often only the most tenacious, the most confident, the prettiest, the wealthiest or the luckiest who get to have their voices heard by the mainstream. The rest of us are like beggars, competing viscously for the scraps of funding which get thrown our way. That's how it sometimes feels, in any case.

The weather today has been hysterical. I got royally attacked by hailstones as I ran, like a little girl under a water sprinkler, down Southwood Lane.

I travelled down to Southwark this evening to watch The Life at Southwark Playhouse. The evening was marred a little by seeing a bloke tearing into a woman on the street afterwards in a scene which was hugely reminiscent of the show, which is about New York hookers and their highly-violent pimps. Of course, the instinct is to go over to the woman and ask if she's okay. She seemed more passive than frightened, and I couldn't tell if this was perhaps even more worrying. We crossed the street to try to give her a sense of solidarity, but, obviously, the most dangerous person to be when a volatile man is on the rampage is actually another man. Sure enough, as we walked passed him, he caught my eye, and aggressively started shouting "what are you staring at?" before starting to kick something which made a terrible racket and scared the shite out of me. It's all very well having the instinct to be a Good Samaritan but it can actually make a situation a whole heap worse.

The Life was, however, remarkable. I think there are a few issues with the piece itself, which is one of the last shows Cy Coleman wrote. It's a very daring script. Very dark, edgy, and quite bleak in places. It actually feels very fresh. I was somewhat shocked to realise it was written when the composer was well into his 60s. My only major issue with the piece is that it has a somewhat mawkish American-style "you'll always be my friend" type number at the end which seems at absolute loggerheads to the darkness of the rest of the show. This sort of thing always seems to happen on Broadway. It's almost as though there's a feeling that a writer needs to apologise for daring to be dark. But this in itself has a jarring "but then we all woke up" quality, which I always find disappointing.

I don't want to focus on the one tiny negative, however, because it's an amazing show, and this was an amazing production with brilliant choreography and an exquisite band. The music rattles along in a world which inhabits smokey jazz, boogaloo and elements of funk. There were moments when I heard myself audibly congratulating the sax players, and saying things like "nice" at some of the guitarist's riffs. I don't know who arranged the music for that particular ensemble, but it was deftly done. I also don't know who the MD was, but she did a very very fine job. I only know it was a woman because I was watching her appreciatively in the monitors.

The cast were outstanding. I was very pleased to learn that the casting director was my old mate, Anne Vosser, whom I met the interval. We worked together for the best part of a year and a half on Taboo, and became thick as thieves during the process. I haven't seen her in the flesh for at least ten years and it took me a split second to recognise her. I'd love to work with her again. Some of the laughs we had in those auditions were close to legendary.

The stand out performer tonight (in a very very strong cast) was almost certainly Sharon D Clarke. Fans of our wedding will remember that she sang Love Conquers All just after we'd tied the knot. She is a remarkable performer. I very nearly gave her a standing ovation after her big number in Act One. Her voice is remarkable. She truly knows her craft. There isn't an inch of her vocal folds which she doesn't know to control. She makes brave and bold choices. She really is one of the best.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Why I won't reclaim the word "queer"

A baby was crying profusely in the cafe this morning. I felt very sorry for the mother, I really did, but there comes a moment when you have to cut your losses and take the child out of the confined space where he's profoundly irritating people who are trying to relax. Everyone was attempting to be really polite and understanding. Mummy was flustered, saying things like "now what's got into you all of a sudden?" like her baby had never pulled a stunt like this before. Other mothers looked over with patronising smiles. The staff, desperate not to lose custom, were cooing at the baby, largely out of deep embarrassment, but a workman standing in the queue behind was eventually the one that dared to say what we were all thinking, "maybe he needs some fresh air?" Message received and understood. The noise of the baby being whisked out of the cafe döpplered like a passing ambulance!

I rushed into town at lunch to see Rose Bruford School's graduation showcase, my fourth showcase in as many weeks. I was largely there to see their cohort of actor musicians, one of whom, the fabulously-named Tilly Mae Millbrook, sang I Make The Shells from Brass. She did an absolutely wonderful job. I was pleased to see that the young people did all of their own arrangements of the songs, and I felt my piece had been particularly sensitively handled by a young lad called Euan Wilson.

There's some sort of exhibition going on at Tate Britain at the moment which purports to be a celebration of "queer art," a term I absolutely hate. I get why the organisers have opted to use the word: It's really cool and edgy and quite shocking. It's the equivalent of Channel 4 peppering their show titles with swear words and provocative language. Some curator or artist will have argued that "queer art" is a movement and an acceptable term these days. They'll say they're simply reclaiming a word which was used against my generation as a horrible slur. I hate the word. In my opinion, it's right up there with "faggot" and "yid" andcertainly doesn't need to be "reclaimed" for a retrospective of the works of great artists like Hockney and Bacon. To make matters worse, the collection of paintings is there to celebrate the de-criminalisation of homosexuality fifty years ago, and I'm fairly sure that the artists featured wouldn't particularly want a controversial and highly negative word like queer to be used either to describe their work or as part of a celebration of something very positive. Perhaps I'm wrong.

The word queer struck fear into the heart of children growing up gay in the 80s. The word, for me, triggers self-loathing, and is wrapped up in a hopeless fear of HIV and the sense of helplessness we all felt when confronted by homophobia. It reminds me that I always thought being queer-bashed was an inevitability. Something I would have to experience if I "chose" to be gay.

I have noticed that gay women are more forthcoming when it comes to "reclaiming" the term queer, and I suspect this is because the word was historically not as often used so viciously against them. I felt very uncomfortable when I heard a woman talking about queer art on Radio 4 in relation to this exhibition. I'm not sure you can decide to reclaim a word unless you have had that word spat in your face.

Nathan has a slightly different view to me and believes the meaning of the word has shifted since the 80s. The word, to him, no longer refers exclusively to gay men, and has a much more global context for anybody who does not identify as heterosexual. There are, he says, many people who proudly, nay fiercely, assert their right to identify as queer, and feel that the term best describes who they are. It should, perhaps, also be remembered that the word was used extensively by gay people in the 1970s.

That aside, I'm not sure any self-respecting artist would actually want, or even allow, their sexuality to define their art. I am a composer who happens to be gay. Sometimes the characters I create are gay. Sometimes I'll even consider writing a piece which wears it gayness like a badge of honour, but I am not a queer artist. Or even a gay artist. I'm simply an artist.

When I wrote the London Requiem back in 2012, the work became the subject of ten films which explored the composition's various themes. I talked openly about my sexuality in the films, and admitted that it's definitely a factor which spurs me on to write. Without children, my one hope of a legacy on this planet is my work. I was mentored through the experience by a senior director of classical music at the BBC, who said, in his summing up meeting with me, that the films I'd made were "too gay." When asked to qualify, he said that the "gayness" might put my target audience off. I was too shocked at the time to question this somewhat bizarre statement. I wonder if Bacon's paintings will be described as "too gay" as a result of being featured in this exhibition?

I'm not offended. In order to be offended offence has to be meant. The organisers of this exhibition plainly didn't mean to cause offence. They were simply, in my view, careless. Some people might want to reclaim this word. Others, like me, still find it incredibly distasteful and don't like to see it plastered all over the tube. Perhaps, a little more research could have been done before hitting the button marked "trendy."

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Cold cabaret

I plough on through Em, chiselling away at Act Two, periodically returning to a number from Act One, just to double check that everything still sounds okay whilst sprinkling yet another little layer of detail into the scores. Nathan gave me a set of notes at lunchtime, so it's very much been a day of fine tuning. I worked from home. It was the new writers' cabaret this evening, and I'd foolishly decided to sing a song myself, so knew I'd need to have a little warble in the kitchen periodically. I get so nervous about the idea of performing. I'm incredibly, almost painfully shy. I appreciate that I mask it pretty well, but in social situations I always feel very self-conscious, utterly inept and highly clumsy. I'm sure there's a recognised term for it. Social anxiety syndrome or something. There's a term for everything these days. Everyone, it seems, needs to be able to claim to be some special form of vulnerable or picked-on. It's the disease of the 2000s and it leads to heaps of excuses and, more upsettingly, people feeling the need to be utterly outraged all the time.

The cabaret went fairly well tonight. There were very few people in the crowd whom I recognised, and there wasn't a great deal of warmth coming off anyone. They were polite and listened with interest, but there wasn't any of the normal whooping or friendly banter. I was hoping that some of my friends like Michelle would be there. She'd have known what a big deal it was for me to be getting up and singing, and would have given me a bit of crucial moral support. I think I sang okay, despite being crashingly nervous, the backing track taking forever to come on, and not being able to get my mic to a height that I could sing into. As I walked off stage, I tripped on a cable.

I have more of a sense now that the song is a good one. It feels atmospheric. It feels right.

I've nothing else to say, really!


Monday, 24 April 2017

The thing about alcohol

There's so little to write about yesteday, largely because I opted not to set my alarm and managed to sleep until mid day. It was a late one the night before. I came home after the quiz and instantly felt the need to get on with some more writing. I still feel there's a massive hill to climb, and can't afford to take my foot off the accelerator for more than half a day at a time. I'm presently about eleven songs out of seventeen down, but have to keep telling myself that there's still a somewhat enormous song to compose from scratch. I am still hoping to have finished all of my piano vocal scores by the end of the month but I can feel myself tiring, and am wondering if I'm tending to get to a certain point before thinking "it'll do for now." I hope not.

My neighbours in the basement of the house a few doors up the road were being incredibly noisy last night. They were having some kind of party, and alcohol was plainly been consumed in large quantities because they were making the aggressive and intrusive noises which only young, drunk, people are capable of making. The women were screeching like fish wives at the tops of their lungs. The men were goading, their subconsciouses yelling to anyone who might have been passing: "listen to me, world... I'm drunk, and I'm feeling a bit edgy and angry as a result, and I want someone to try and judge me, or tell me to shut up, so that I can get aggressive with them and take this anger out on someone." I hate alcohol. It's the cause of so many problems in the world. People have such unhealthy relationships with it. They can get so upset at the concept of drinking alone, and then really belligerent when others don't want to drink at the same pace. There's this weird belief that people can't have fun without alcohol, or somehow that the non drinker, in the company of drinkers, is either judging them, or not having as much fun as everyone else, so therefore wrecking the ambience of a night. And, of course, if you're a non-drinker, the idea that you might just not like the taste, or hate the feeling of a hangover, is miles down the list of the reasons why people assume you're not drinking. Normally, you garner one of those condescending looks which assumes you've a drinking problem. Or someone will tell you repeatedly that you don't know what you're missing. You'll be having a lovely chat with them, and then they'll hit the point of no return, their eyes will narrow, and they'll turn from being utterly delightful into some sort of raving lunatic, who delights in saying the most astoundingly rude things. There was a girl at our university who would drink herself to this point and then turn into a monster. "It's just how she gets when she's drunk" people would say, "she's not really like that." Thing is, if that's how she gets when she lets her guard down, that's EXACTLY what she's like. In vino veritas.

I totally understand people who drink for the taste, although I think the world of wine can get a bit up its own arse with talk of chocolatey hints and "can you taste the strawberry?" I personally think sommeliers could find more appropriate ways of describing the taste of wine, like "cloying", "bitter", "nasty", or "so filled with tannin that it strips the moisture from your mouth." I quite like it when my friends get excited about real ales, and find the names of these locally brewed beers incredibly appealing. I often wish I could appreciate the taste of beer but, for me, it's like someone's smeared Marmite on a piece of brown bread, added water and then shoved the residue liquid into a Sodastream.

So there we have it...

I told you I had nothing to write about.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Let's Get Quizzical

I was back in Thaxted yesterday, attending a quiz in aid of the tennis club. Local quizzes up there tend to happen in two different village halls, one of which is in Thaxted itself, but yesterday's was out towards Dunmow in a tiny little village, by the Rolls Royce showrooms, on the same stretch of road where, at night time, strange optical illusions, triggered by car headlights, give the impression of ghostly white rabbits dancing in the middle of the road.

Sally and Stuart who are usually key members of our "Epicureans" team were ill, so there were only five of us: my parents, Helen, Michael and me.

It was Michael's first trip to Thaxted, so, whilst we waited for Helen to arrive from Cambridge, I took him on the grand tour, which basically involves the church, the windmill and a little jaunt down to the magic place. The village, which was bathed in glorious yellow sunlight, was putting on a very fine show. The bird song was particularly impressive. Michael brought my attention to the highly decorative nature of what we were hearing. He has a theory that London birds, particularly those away from the large parks who share their lives with humans, have incredibly limited singing ranges which, in his words, "often sound like lorries reversing." A fair amount of research has been done into the concept of bird dialects, which vary in different locations, but I'm convinced that birds also mimic what's around them. When you stay in one of the halls at Sevenoaks School for example, at about 7am, all the birds start to sound like alarm clocks going off - a sound which they must hear emerging from scores of windows and simply want to copy.

The quiz was a good one. It had a St George's Day theme. I was somewhat surprised to learn that it's actually St George's Day today. It makes me a little sad to think that the English don't tend to celebrate their patron saint's day, despite St Andrew's, St Patrick's and St David's Days being such a massive deal in our neighbouring lands. It's all part of the lack of identity thing and the fact that flying the English flag, or even the Union Jack, is considered a deeply right wing act which somehow signifies to the world that we still believe in the oppression of colonialism. Blah blah blah. It's hideously messed up. I genuinely feel that a lot of the problems that this country is presently facing stem from an ever-growing sense of needing to atone for the perceived collective sins of our forefathers.

It was a good quiz, however. We scored well on all but the history round, which ought to have been our forte. My Dad is an historian, I love history, and Helen is the daughter of a history don! But none of us knew the year that Thatcher ceased being this country's dictator, or where Marks And Spencer's came from. We weren't really dealing with what I would usually describe as history!

Because there were only five of us on our team, the quiz organisers asked if we could take an extra four people, which technically created an illegally-large team, but it was a family unit, with two somewhat droopy-looking teenagers, so I don't think anyone felt that they would be a significant or unfair addition to our team. Actually, it turned out that their knowledge base was thin, but highly effective when it came to popular knowledge. If you're only going to answer three questions, make sure they're the three questions which nobody else knows the answers to!

A very brave final "wipe out" round (where you lose all your points for the round if you get a question wrong, but you can opt not to answer a question) coupled with playing our joker and getting full marks on the musical theatre round, meant that we won, and won convincingly, but because the musical theatre round was really late in the quiz, we'd always appeared to be languishing in about fourth place, so our victory felt rather like we'd added a rocket to the back of our car and undertaken the traffic jam on the hard shoulder. As a result, our winning certificate had been filled in with name of the team who had been winning throughout, with their name scrubbed out and ours written in! It pays never to be too hasty as a quiz master!

We went home to the parents' for cups of tea and a post-quiz giggles and then drove back to London, highly disappointed that there was no ghostly smoke hovering above the road where the gibbet used to be on the outside of the town.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Running out of reasons

All the people who work in Costa up in Highgate Village are European. Every day they serve me with exquisite politeness and every day, I listen to them talking to one another. There's never a sense of moaning. They never bitch or whinge. They're always open, friendly, and interested. They talk about football and Eurovision and describe the regular customers as their friends. They encourage banter. They're always wonderfully presented. When customers complain, they are horrified and instantly try to help. Yesterday a man asked for a takeaway and the woman behind the counter gave him his drink in a glass. When he asked for a paper cup, she realised her mistake, and instead of just pouring the drink into a paper cup, as he suggested, she insisted on making him a fresh drink.

One of the staff members sits on the street and has a coffee whilst smoking a cigarette before his shift begins. He does it every day. I can't explain it, but there's something intensely European about the way he does it. There's something in the calmness. The fact that he's not in a rush. He simply sits. Occasionally he'll wave over at someone on the street opposite. The very act of him sitting there makes me want to go to Europe.

I've started to notice that English cafe staff always feel far more arch and surly by comparison. I always get the impression that they're wanting to move on. That somehow that feel what they're doing is beneath them. They're doing it for the money, maybe, whilst waiting for Simon Cowell to notice them. I notice these same traits time and time again.

I don't think it's going to be possible for me to live in a country from which these beautiful, sparky, friendly European people are sent away from. On a daily basis they remind me that I belong to Europe, that I'm part of the greatest continent on the planet. And don't patronisingly tell me that we'll still be in Europe post Brexit. That's like saying that your most irritating third cousin who has severed links with all his relatives through outrageously arrogant and selfish behaviour is still a family member. At the end of the day, it means jack shit.

I watched a very elegant older lady in the cafe at one stage. She was sitting at a table outside enjoying a coffee of some description. She was probably in her 50s and was stylish in a Parisian sort of way. Beautifully manicured nails. Very keen fashion sense. I watched as she opened her handbag to pull out a lipstick but instantly realised that she couldn't stop shaking. She was trying to apply the lipstick but it seemed to be taking forever because she couldn't quite get control of her hands. My heart absolutely broke for her.

I walked home through air which was dense with the smell of blossom. Everywhere in London seems to smell really rich and ripe at the moment. I think it's a result of the lack of rain we've been having. Last night there was a dusty smell in the air which was infused with wisteria. It was really quite delightful. I love it when you get those flowers like jasmine which really start to kick off their scents after dark. Right now, you might guess that I'm struggling to find reasons to stay in this country...