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...

Friday, 21 April 2017


I sat in the cafe yesterday writing music and trying to get my head around this ludicrous general election, which I'm beginning to feel is testing the very concept of democracy because it's clear that May (having promised there wouldn't be a general election until 2020) is only calling an election because she thinks she's going to win it, rather than because the country actually needs one. She's a megalomaniac. And a tragedy. I bet she smells weird as well. Like cloying perfume and farts.

Anyway, whilst sitting in the cafe, I realised they were playing Wuthering Heights on the sound system. They play music mercifully quietly in Costa Highgate, and the seat I usually opt for is as far away from speakers as it's possible to get. The glorious tones of La Bush, however, are unmistakable, and made me very happy, particularly when a woman on the next door table started joining in. Rather convincingly, as it happens. And in full belt!

Imagine my extreme further joy when I suddenly heard a short snippet of the iconic opening piano notes of The Winner Takes It All by ABBA, superimposed on top of the Kate Bush song. Pretty much my two favourite songs vying for attention! It turned out that the bloke wearing the kippah on the other side of me had set the ABBA song as his text message alert. Throughout the morning I heard those glorious bars of piano music several times. Each time they caught me off guard and I found myself getting a little emotional. There's something about that particular musical phrase which cuts straight to my heart. Every time. Like the smell of wood smoke in Thaxted, the taste of potatoes roasted in flour, or the very mention of Wales! Is it a bit weird that I cry whenever someone talks about Wales?!

Johnny Vaughan engaged me in conversation on the tube a couple of nights ago. I'd been in town for a meeting and I was in a filthy mood, so flung open my laptop and immersed myself in a song from Em. I could sense the bloke next to me looking over my shoulder with great interest. Just as he stood up to get off the tube at Camden, he asked the name of the music writing programme I was using and engaged me in a brief conversation about the merits of Finale vs Sibelius. It was only as he left the carriage that I realised who I'd been talking to. I'm not altogether sure why I think this story is worthy of this blog, but I guess there may be Jonny Vaughan fans out there who might be vaguely titillated. Obviously Jonny Ball would have excited me slightly more. And a conversation with Jonny Morris would have been a proper story. I loved Jonny Morris. I've just read on Wikipedia that he left his house to Terry Nutkins when he died. I've also just read that Terry Nutkins is also dead. I guess you reach an age where you have to expect that all your childhood heroes are no longer with us! Terry Nutkins had eight children. However did he find space for that sea lion?!

I am still on target to deliver a song from Em every day, although I haven't quite managed to finish today's offering. I was adding quite a large amount of new material, so it feels really important to sleep on what I've done today. For the last week, on and off, during in my spare time (as it were), I've been working on a song from the show called A Little Balance, which I can't quite manage to put to bed. It's right off the radar in terms of my usual musical theatre offering, which might mean it's blinking brilliant or it will fall flat on its face. I'm working incredibly hard to make sure the latter option isn't the case, and, in the process, am finding myself simplifying and simplifying. Stripping chord after chord, note after note, so there's more and more space. It's actually a really good exercise because it means you lobby only for what's absolutely necessary in terms of the spacing and density of chords. I've decided to run a drone all the way through the song, which I'd like to realise as a man's voice, loosely on a single pitch, reading the news. I think it could prove to be an extremely atmospheric and quirky device.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

My thoughts on Tim Farren's perceived homophobia

I woke up yesterday morning to a text from Philippa which informed me that a snap general election had been called by the ghastly Theresa May. It is, I suspect, being done as punishment to her fellow MPs in a sort of "you won't get behind me in these troubling times, so I'm going to prove to you all that I'm the most popular girl in the school and get you put in detention whilst I take the rest of my class down the local park to be mugged." She's recently made a number of statements about how she can feel the country uniting again after Brexit. So, now she's throwing the country back into instability again? Getting neighbours and family members fighting about politics again? Divide and rule. Margaret Thatcher anyone?

So here's the dilemma. I am a natural left-leaning voter. For many years, I voted Labour by default, but got very disillusioned by Blair, so swung across to the Lib Dems because my constituency MP, Lynne Featherstone was a brilliant, brilliant politician, both on a local level and globally. She was almost single-handedly responsible for the same sex marriage bill. Lynne lost her seat in the last election to Labour, and, in fairness, her replacement has proved to be vehemently pro-Europe, rebelling against her party on every Brexit vote.

...But the Labour party supports Brexit. So there's very little point in giving my vote to someone who represents them. And, furthermore, the Labour Party is utterly divided and disillusioned. As the country shifts from classic left/ right divisions based on wealth, to a place where political views are more likely to be defined by how cosmopolitan and liberal our values are, the Labour Party's traditional voters find themselves standing two sides of a massive chasm. More than that, the Old Labour guard have proved themselves time and time again to be antisemites. I can't vote for antisemites.

So I'm left with the Lib Dems. And the largest part of me thinks that it's their time. The party has been anti-Brexit throughout. They are fabulous on climate change and social issues. Yes, their getting into bed with the Tories during the coalition felt a little grotesque, but I'm not sure I would have done anything differently under the same circumstances. The tuition fee u-turn was a catastrophe, but I've always firmly believed the Lib Dems tempered the Tories, and, as evidenced by our being able to get married on March 29th 2014, they made good things happen.

A massive shift towards support for the Lib Dems could prove incredibly embarrassing for Theresa May and make it clear that the country isn't as united behind Brexit as she was hitherto assuming. If young people get off their arses and vote, extraordinary things could happen.

...But then there's Tim Farren, the Lib Dem leader. I like the fact that he's Northern, and speaks with a light Lancashire accent. He appears to be state school educated, which, for me, is a massive plus. He's not the most charismatic figure in the world, but these things take time to develop. He is, however, an evangelical Christian. Now, my very close friendship with Abbie has taught me over the last few years that you can't tar all Christians with the same brush. Just because someone believes in him upstairs doesn't necessary mean they're going to be evil or judgemental, or interpret the bible in ways which condemn people like me. Abbie is, in fact, a passionate and deeply vocal supporter of gay rights and shares, I'd say, almost exactly the same set of values as me.

The issue I have with Farren is that he's been interviewed on the subject and refuses not to define homosexuality as a sin. Furthermore, he abstained in one of the votes on same sex marriage and there was a curious tweet which he claimed was a hack, which suggested gay people could be cured: "they can be," the tweet read, "most sexual disorientation is caused by chemical leaching. Check out fish and frogs." All of this makes me a little uncomfortable. Particularly the phrase sexual DISorientation.

Lynne Featherstone has now personally assured me of his pro LGBT stance and that his religious beliefs will not get in the way of his Liberal values. Furthermore, the Pink Paper has published an interview with him where he actually vows to get rid of the ban on gay men giving blood (oh yes, we still can't give blood) and tighten some of the legislation which currently makes it easy to shaft trans people. He was also the first leader to respond to what's going on in Chechnya. I guess if he's one one those Christians who has grown up thinking homosexuality is a sin, we actually have to applaud him for not allowing those backward views into his work.

I'm sure there are scores and scores of other MPs who secretly think being gay is disgusting but feel they can't express the sentiment out loud. There are certainly many many Tory MPs with a far from perfect history when it comes to voting on matters of conscience like LGBT rights.

I find Theresa May's implied assertion that God would have voted Brexit much more worrying. Perhaps Farren is the first religious politician to understand that there is no place for religion in politics?

I have thought about the issue a great deal today and am veering towards giving my fully-fledged support towards his party. I'll sleep on it, and see what emerges out of the shit storm which seems to be surrounding this particular issue.

Of course May will win. The country is not presently in a position to look at the mess in education, the lack of NHS funding. So it's eyes down for five years of near dictatorship. Five years when public services go down the pan. Five years of strikes and terrorist attacks and horrible Brexit-related financial hardship where the Arts and sport simply drop off the curriculum in schools. In five years' time, however, she'll fail spectacularly, and I shall enjoy the look on her smug face as the shite drips off her chin!

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Home made pizza

It's been a long old day today which started with a visit from Nathan's father and step Mum. They've been having a somewhat dramatic time of it lately, with their back fence going up in a fireball as a result of a neighbours' barbecue. Said neighbours had actually dumped the remnants of their barbecue under a tree in the back garden some 24 hours before the inferno. I had no idea that a fire could smoulder inadequately for that long. It's a lesson to us all to make sure we pour water onto charcoal, however dead it looks.

It seemed to take forever to get down to Tooting where we were due to spend the afternoon and evening in the delightful company of Abbie and Ian. We decided to stop for a late lunch on the way and got as far as Wandsworth before deciding the best option was to grab a few sandwiches from the obscenely large Sainsbury's there. It's so large, in fact, that it has its own cafe, so we legged it up there and ordered hot food, before seemingly waiting forever as the staff pottered about in tempi which Mahler would have found most agreeable. In the end, they brought my food out first, and because I'm one of those people who gets food envy when they've finished their own meal and someone else is still going, I sat, waiting, like a tragic modern day Madam Butterfly, as my food went cold and Nathan's never arrived.

Obviously it eventually arrived. And we were only about an hour late to Abbie's.

We ate way too many chocolates.

Then we watched a version of Bake Off... for Tattoo artists. (It's very exciting, and VERY Channel 4 with the voice over man swearing like a trouper!)

Then we ate home made pizza, for which Abbie even made and proved the dough.

Then we ate home made raspberry profiteroles...

And then we played Uno and watched the news, somewhat horrified by the fact that Turkey has taken another step towards dictatorship and North Korea is threatening pre-emptive nuclear attacks against the US. It's amazing how Trump has managed but a few months in office and we're already on the brink of world war. In the midst of all this hideous news came the story that Prince Harry has finally admitted how sad he feels about the death of his mother twenty years ago, so much that he's gone into therapy about it. It must be awful for him, and I'm sure grieving in the public eye is not a great deal of fun, but it's not headline news. I'm glad he's getting the help he needs and am pleased if his acknowledging his own grief has led to other grieving people finding the strength to have counselling, but it's not headline news. In my experience, it's not really that people need to pluck up the courage to go into therapy, it's that they need to save up enough money to do so. That stuff can be really expensive. I think it can also get a little indulgent as well, but that's another story.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

No more eggs

It's Easter Day and we've been in Thaxted. Brother Edward and Sascha were there, and they'd invited Alex and Wiesiek up for lunch before the four of them disappeared to visit a pair of country queens somewhere in deeper, darker, more rural East Anglia. 

We ate at The Swan in the middle of the town. I think Thaxted is deemed a town rather than a large village, although I've no idea how these classifications are calculated. The pub is under new management, which, I'm told, could mean the locals deign to start drinking there again. They were, apparently, boycotting the place on account of its poor service and bad food. Local politics can be quite brutal in these parts!

There was nothing wrong with today's food. I had an enormous vegetarian roast dinner which was very tasty, thank you all the same.

After dinner, my mother and I took a stroll down to the little spot we call the magic place. It's actually the site of an ancient chapel and the little footpath down there was trodden by monks on a daily basis back in medieval times. The rest of the family are way to sceptical about matters of spirituality and mysticism, but my Mum and I are apt to pick up on the odd unusual atmosphere. It might be the susserating trees down in the dell where we assume the chapel was situated. It might simply be that we whip each other up into a sort of frenzy of belief, but every time we walk down that footpath my mother and I experience a sort of light-headedness which I can only compare to the feeling I get when I eat truffles! It's a warm, positive sensation, so we often go down there to have a quiet word with the universe. Today, is, of course a really important pagan festival (hijacked by Christians) so if there ever were a moment for communing with nature it's today and for some reason I felt very strongly that I wanted to take Llio and her Mum, Silvia down there for a bit of healing energy at some point soon. I paint the place as being the most amazing location and I'm sure everyone reading this blog must be imagining some sort of Constable Painting. Really it's just the edge of a field. But there's something there...

We came home for Easter Eggs. My mother had also created a camp Easter basket, so we were almost drowning in chocolate. My brother, ever the health freak, had bought some little sugar-free carob eggs which smelt like cheesy hay and tasted like rabbit droppings melded with liquorice. The most peculiar aspect to the experience of eating them was the fact that they sucked every last drop of moisture from the mouth. My Dad described them as "utterly boring for the mouth" which pretty much summed things up. Alex, for some reason, quite liked them. He's Latin American. He also likes coriander. By the way, on that note, scientists have apparently now identified the AR062 gene, which, if present in a body, makes coriander taste variously like old pennies, blood, soap, bleach or different combinations of the above. Coriander is, of course, everywhere these days. It even managed to make its way onto something I ate in the canteen when I went to visit the NYMT kids. Many of my friends tell me how wonderful it is. They plainly don't have the gene. My Mum thinks it tastes of sick. I've plainly inherited the gene from her.

The boys left and my parents, Nathan and I lit an open fire, hunkered down in the glorious warmth and promptly all fell asleep, vowing never to eat another Easter Egg. 

We turned the telly on to discover a shed load of dick heads on Songs of Praise singing a hymn whilst waving their programmes in the air as though trying to swipe Jesus away like a swarm of midges in a Scottish field. Twats. It may be Jesus' birthday but there's no excuse for that sort of footle.

Sunday night is, of course, incomplete without the Antiques Roadshow. Whereas I think there's no place for a pathetic and divisive dinosaur like Songs of Praise on British telly, I would happily watch The Antiques Roadshow on a loop.


I'm afraid I'm being really dull at the moment. I'm trying to keep to the ludicrous deadline of delivering one song from Em per day to the musical director and it's sending me a little doolally tap. It's a relentless experience involving headphones and not moving my body unless I feel I have the time to go to the gym, which is a luxury, but I actually ought to do it more because it's good for both my body and mind. 

The day before yesterday, I sat in the same spot on my sofa for twelve solid hours. I put in five hours in the same spot yesterday before fleeing to Highgate Village for a change of scene. All this sitting down not good for me. I'm pretty sure I'm developing DVT!

I had a target to finish and deliver the sixth song from the show which I achieved at 10pm last night. To congratulate myself for getting through a third of the show in a week, I have hung up my computerised pen and am taking Easter Sunday and Easter Monday off. That Jesus geezer had a lot of birthdays didn't he? He's like the queen. Today he was regurgitated.

To celebrate fertility and the Pagan God Ēostre, I have made a really camp little basket which I have filled with chocolate eggs and little fluffy made-in-China chicks bought at the Tesco on Colney Hatch Lane, where, incidentally, the kosher food aisle is to die for. It's open 24 hours (even on bank holidays) and we went there in the middle of the night on Friday, having been stung before by trying to buy Easter eggs on the big day.

I'm generally quite worried about the political situation in the world at the moment. North Korea makes me nervous, as does Syria, which appears to be lining itself up as a modern day Vietnam. New Cold War? Delicious. Just what we all need.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Highgate eccentrics

Highgate Village attracts its fair share of eccentrics. Sometimes it's wonderful simply to take a break from working in the window of the cafe to stare out into the world. I'm aware that it's not the realist world in the world. But then again, what is real? Why is the middle class bustle of Highgate any less real than the grimy streets of Hackney? People are still living and working here. They feel pain. They fall in love. I think there's a bit of a rush to invalidate certain communities in the country because of a perception of wealth, class, or lack of diversity. Highgate Village definitely feels like a community. The same faces dart around on a daily basis.

There's the woman who knits very thin scarves. She pours over them for hours, using a pair of scissors to snip away the tiniest little yarn imperfections. But the scarves she knits are only about five centimetres wide and I always wonder why she knits them.

There's a bloke who wears enormous Jamiroquai-style hats. He shuffles around, somewhat nervously, and seems to argue bitterly with other villagers.

There's the tall, over-formal, incredibly posh, yet slightly autistic Chinese lad who stops and bows at you in the street if you smile at him.

There's "Fingers", the man who spends every day of his life walking around the neighbourhood taking things from dustbins, one assumes that he will later sell.

We occasionally get visits from a chap called Ben, who paints the most extraordinary miniature pictures on chewing gum attached to the pavements.

Then there's a couple who must be actors. They're probably in their sixties, but incredibly well-preserved. She's a bit like Liza Goddard with delicate Shirley Temple blonde ringlets tumbling down the side of her face. He's all angles: razor sharp cheek bones, D'Artagnan-style goatee beard.

I make up stories in my head, imagining where the people are heading to, and why they're in Highgate. I think the two actors are having as torrid an affair as 60 year olds can manage. If only the world were more interested in communities like mine. Highgate would form the basis of a tremendous film documentary musical.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sunday In The Park with NYMT

I worked through the morning on Em up in Highgate Village. I'm such a regular there now that they start to make my pot of tea as soon as they see me standing in the queue. I no longer need to ask for a glass a tap water with my order either. That's what I call service!

Nathan came up to join me in the early afternoon and sat knitting for an hour whilst I worked. His knitting created a huge stir with a group of Swedish people who were sitting at the next door table. I guess I'm used to it now, but the sight of a bearded bloke wearing a leather jacket, knitting almost inconceivably complicated and beautiful pieces of fabric, is probably quite trippy to your average Joe. He's presently knitting an exquisite scarf which is based on 16th Century Italian needlepoint designs. That's my husband! The Swedes immediately asked if he was a designer.

I drove down to Sevenoaks in the late afternoon to see this year's NYMT cohort rehearsing Sunday In The Park with George. I wanted to check in with Jeremy and see Hannah who's directing that particular production. Six or seven Brassers are also in the show, so I wanted to say hello to them as well.

We had tea in the canteen. Nothing ever changes at the NYMT camp, and that's part of its appeal. It's like a massive extended family. The two Jeremys are the father and grandfather. I remember Laura from the cast of Brass once telling me I was the weird Uncle. Cheers for that!

I ate with Ben Holder sitting on one side of me and Alex Aitken on the other. They were the MDs for the first two productions of Brass. I didn't know which one to give my attention to. It felt unfaithful turning my back on either!

I sat in on an hour of rehearsals for Sunday In The Park with George, which has the most delightful cast. Hugely talented. They sing and act beautifully. Sometimes it's hard to know how some of them possess the emotional maturity to deliver the lines with such authority and understanding. I definitely felt as though I were sitting with a group of very old souls.

I drove home listening to the live recording of Brass, which Alex has been working on for what must be ages because it sounds wonderful. I stuck the sat nav on and just relaxed into listening to the show. The memories came flooding back. The sat nav made me laugh when we reached Islington by pronouncing "St Paul's Road" as "Street Paul's Road." Obviously it's been programmed to recognise St as "street!" Bed time now. Night night.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Concentration camps in Chechnya?

I woke up yesterday to the almost mind-numbing news that gay men are being sent to modern day concentration camps in Chechnya. We're told by escapees that the men in these camps are often tortured, and in some cases beaten to death. The camps, apparently, represent a crack down on homosexuality led by the country's president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The stories, which were first published on April 1st, have been dismissed by Kadyrov's press secretary as an April Fools joke (yeah, really funny) and dismissed out of hand because, according to the president, "there are no gay men in Chechnya. If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn't need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning." It's also been claimed that some of the men have been released back to their families because it's assumed honour killings will take place which demonstrate the wrath of Allah.

It's almost too chilling to read, and part of me thinks it's almost too chilling to believe in an era where "fake news" is convincing everyone that news articles are merely there to titillate and reenforce political ideology. That said, no one in the UK was prepared to believe what Hitler was doing to Jewish people in the Second World War, so there's a firm precedent set here for people to blithely stick their heads in the sand.

Chechnya is a mess of a country which has been blighted by civil war, kid-napping, terrorism, assassinations and Russian invasion. In an attempt to understand the present situation, I've just spent a good half an hour reading up about the country and I'm afraid I'm none the wiser. It's no surprise to me that the country identifies as a Muslim state. That level of violence towards gay men could only come from African Christians or a Muslim regime. Faith thrives on persecution. Religious people get persecuted and persecute in return, as my good friend discovered just yesterday when she was turned down for a morning after pill by a British chemist who cited "religious reasons." It seems we're all programmed to keep at arms length anything done or said in the name of religious conviction, however grotesque it is.

I put a Stonewall petition up on Facebook about the camps which was pretty universally ignored by all but a few of my friends. Maybe they thought it was just gay people whinging about nothing in particular. The post was, however, responded to by some red neck in America. I have to say, I was a little confused: he's certainly not one of my friends, so I don't know how he managed to find, or attach himself to my post. Whatever the case, he single-handedly managed to reenforce the notion that I've been surrounded by freethinking, liberal people for long enough to be lured into a false sense of security about how the rest of the world views homosexuality. On and on this guy went, calling gay men "pedos" and God knows what else, in lengthy rants which made no grammatical sense and seemed to oscillate between his hatred of gay men and his desire for drugs to be legalised. Several of my friends waded into the argument before we all realised it was futile. When will I learn not to feed the trolls?!

Sadly, I'm not sure there's anything we can actually do about what's happening in Chechnya. To me it's indicative of the worrying growth of Islam in both popularity and severity and the West's desire to ignore what's happening because we don't know how to deal with it. When it comes to the camps, the only thing we can potentially do is lobby the Russians. But British politicians have traditionally shied away from criticising countries about their treatment of LGBT people, largely, I assume, because they're still not quite over their belief that being gay is a lifestyle choice. Besides, Britain has its hands full taunting Russia about its involvement in Syria.

We could, of course, help gay men to escape Chechnya and offer them asylum in the UK, but they'd only scrounge off the state and bring all their children with them... No wait...

So our hands are tied. And, like true Westerners, we stand by, signing petitions, and looking on hopelessly, whilst the world goes to hell in a handbag.

But ask yourself one thing. If your son, your brother or your best friend was one of the men being pulled into a concentration camp, would you stand by and let it happen? Or would you try to find a way of speaking up?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Brownies and Central showcases

I spent some time this morning looking at a poster which had been attached to a lamp post on the Archway Road. "Brownies!" the poster yelled. "Highgate Village." It was only when I read the small print which said "empowering girls aged 7-14," that I realised the poster wasn't advertising a bakery!

I had no idea that the Brownies still existed as an institution. I thought the tides of technology would have swept them into obsolescence. God, I was desperate to join the Brownies as a kid! All my friends were girls, so it felt like such a cruel thing that I couldn't go to Brownie meets. It was like a secret club to which I specifically hadn't been invited. I felt the same about netball. I longed to play netball. Actually, I learned on Friday that my godson also likes playing netball, but will be forced to give up the game when he goes up to secondary school. So much gets written about a woman's right to participate in various sports. Far less, if anything, is written about sports which don't accept men. And, of course, these days, girls get to join the scouts...

All the doors to inequality apparently only need to open one way! The same is true in music, but it will eventually back fire. Forcing music teachers to get more girls playing brass instruments is completely ignoring the fact that it's the brass sections in most youth orchestras which provide the semblance of gender equality in terms of overall orchestral numbers. The majority of youth orchestras (I learned on Tuesday) are 60% female, 40% men and many of these lads play brass instruments. Is there a drive to get more men playing violins or harps or flutes? Is there hell! And I'll tell you for why. Instead of whinging about gender inequality and lack of opportunity, male musicians with a desperate desire to play, are forced to fight the prejudice silently because acknowledging that anti-male prejudice exists doesn't suit the PC argument. Enter a comprehensive school and you will still find young lads being duffed up simply for carrying their instruments into school. These kids are fighting society's role model which suggests, as men, they have to drink beer, play football... and treat women like second-class citizens.

Actually, what I would say is that the only people I know from my days at the Northampton music school who have successfully built careers for themselves as professional musicians are simply the ones who knuckled down and worked hard. Regardless of gender.

If you're looking for genuine inequality, start looking into the sorts of schools that people went to. Look at the career trajectories of comprehensive school kids versus public school children...

I went into town today to see the Central School musical theatre students' third year show case, which was a glorious affair. Nathan was rehearsing with his choir, so I took my friend Michael with me, who runs UK Jewish Film. It was, without question, the best drama school showcase I've ever seen. Not because it was glitzy and show-bizzy (in actual fact it was un-mic'd and accompanied only by a piano) but because it was the first time I've ever left a showcase feeling like I had a clear sense of every single student in terms of their abilities and strengths as performers. It's a really very fine crop of students. I feel incredibly lucky that they'll be the ones performing Em. It's going to be a hugely exciting adventure...

Michael and I had pizza after the show in a little place on Drury Lane where the tables are made of plastic and the knives and forks are in a bucket on the counter. Very much my sort of place!

I've been working very hard for the rest of the day. In fact it's gone 10pm and I'm still at it. The deadline for Em spins ever-closer, so I've given myself the task of polishing one song a day. The opening song is an eight-minute epic, so I had my work cut out doing that today. Nathan gets back from the rehearsal very soon, so I better get going so that I'm not all weird and antisocial when he comes home!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Beauty and the Beast

We had a lovely, and much-needed lie-in this morning before pushing off up to Muswell Hill in the blazing hot sunshine where we had lunch in a greasy spoon before taking ourselves to the grounds of Ali Pally with a cup of tea and a lovely doughnut. We spent a good hour there, lying on the grass, soaking in the sun in the green light. It was rather idyllic. There's a little open air cafe there, run by Italians, which was serving ice cream, and everyone seemed both thrilled and tremendously surprised that it felt like the height of summer. Londoners always seem to go mad for the sun. And whenever I see a scene like that, I'm always reminded of Adele's Hometown Glory: "I like it in the city when the air is so thick and opaque. I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts and shades."

I learned last night that Ali Pally had been a key location in the UK's answer to the Summer of Love. There was apparently some sort of iconic festival/ love-in up there, which lasted an entire night and featured thousands of wannabe hippies taking acid and dope and getting well-and-truly battered 1960s-style. The following morning, the revellers all traipsed out onto the hillside leading up to the building and stared in awe at the views of London. Far out, man...

We came home, and I did a little work, before heading back to Muswell Hill to watch Beauty and The Beast. The cinema there used to belong to the Odeon Chain. It's a wonderful Art Deco building with glorious original features, but they'd run it into the ground. The loos smelt of mildew and stale piss, the heating was always broken and the chairs were threadbare and uncomfortable. There had been rather too many cheap refurbishments, very much like the majority of British service stations, which, if left how they were designed to look in the early 60s would be style-statements to end all style statements these days. Anyway, about a year ago, the cinema was taken over by Everyman, and high-end restored to resemble some kind of 1930s glamour palace. You sit on sofas. Waiters serve drinks and food. It's a proper experience. Well worth a visit. And not ludicrously expensive.

The film itself was fabulously diverting. I'm not sure Emma Watson was particularly well-cast as Belle. She has such dreadful diction and I would have liked a better singer who didn't rely so much on vocal processing. Also, her pronunciation of the letter d at the ends of words left a great deal to be desired. Very ugly, splashy t sounds. It really doesn't take a lot to train that nonsense out of your voice, and it's so much more of a delicate, sophisticated sound when you do.

It was nice to see Luke Evans singing again. Luke and I worked together on Taboo in the West End about a thousand years ago. He'd recently left drama school at the time and I was in my mid-twenties. He always had a stonkingly good voice, but his career in Hollywood has taken him further and further away from his triple threat theatrical roots.

It was delightful to hear Emma Thompson playing the teapot. I've actually never seen the cartoon, or the stage show, but I am hugely familiar with Angela Lansbury's iconic vocal on the show's title song. I can think of few actresses who would have been able to step into those enormous shoes so comfortably.

The sequence where the (once living) household objects become inanimate was one of the most distressing I've ever witnessed in the cinema! Right up there with Sophie's Choice and ET! I wept like a small child reading The Happy Prince for the first time.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Finishing the draft

It felt hugely contradictory for me to be inside yesterday working whilst the whole of the outside world seemed to be enveloped in a beautiful lime green, sunny spring light. I hear temperatures climbed into the twenties and I wished I was, well, anywhere but on my sofa at home, in the Ben-shaped dent I've grown so accustomed to over the years. I felt quite noble to be working at the weekend, but I also had to keep telling myself that I'd taken Friday off. It's important for freelancers not to enjoy all the privileges of managing our own diaries whilst forgetting that it's vital to actually do some work as well!

Yesterday's task was completed at 6pm. I finished draft two of the script of Em, so can now return to the music side of the show. It's so bizarre writing the book, the lyrics and the music. Liberating, of course, because I get to call all the shots without having to check anything with anyone, but also somewhat stressful, lonely and paranoia-inducing. There's no one there to pull you back from the brink when you enter a cul-de-sac of whimsey!

I celebrated finishing the draft by taking a twilight stroll on the Heath. It's so beautiful up there at this time of year, especially as the light fades. The dry spell has led to the place getting a bit dusty, which instantly gives it an air of mystery and nostalgia. Owls hooted. Strange birds twittered. The moon turned everything a pallid silvery colour. Dark, mysterious shapes disappeared into the grainy, black trees. It was thrilling simply to be out and about.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Sunburn in April

I appear to be slightly sunburned, on account of having spent much of the day yesterday on Hampstead Heath. It always feels a little odd when it's this sunny so early in the year. Everyone gets caught off guard. Although, really, you'd think we'd learn because there's always a gloriously sunny patch of weather in March and April in the U.K., which is often, in retrospect, the best weather of the year.

My companions on the Heath were Tanya, Paul and their three, and Raily and her two: all delightful children who get on like a miniature Red Hand Gang. We had a picnic in a field between the Mixed Ponds and the Vale of Health. Paul couldn't believe that there are three freshwater swimming ponds on the Heath: one for men, one for women, and one for men and women. It's deliciously eccentric. The mixed ponds are only open to the public in the summer months, whereas the Men's and Women's ponds are open all year round for those with incredibly strong constitutions. When the ponds freeze over, they cut holes in the ice.

When I was at university, someone wrote a play about the Women's Pond and all the eccentric characters who hang out there. This was long before I had a concept of London, let alone Hampstead Heath, so it seemed like an alien world which I wasn't quite sure I believed. These days, as a fully-fledged Heath Person, who's seen the naked dog walkers at dawn and witnessed the curious pagan rituals on Boudicca's Mount, I fully understand that, in this glorious little corner of North London, almost anything goes.

I took the kids to the tree with the hole in it. I don't know what the record is for cramming people into that place, but, at one point, we managed three adults and four children, all inside the trunk of a single tree with plenty of room to spare.

From the tree we walked across to the pergola, a giant kilometre-long Edwardian wooden and brick structure on the top of a hill on the western side of the Heath. In a few weeks' time, it will hum with the smell of the wisteria which wraps itself around most of the wooden struts.

We lay on the grass in the hillside garden soaking up the sun with the kids rolling down the hill in freshly-mown grass. It was glorious.

Nathan joined us, and the day ended in a pub garden at the bottom of Downshire Hill towards Southend Green. Magical.

I've recently been listening to the music of the genius Wendy Carlos. If you don't know her ouve, check this out from the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange:

Friday, 7 April 2017


The most upsetting thing happened yesterday morning whilst I was sitting in my usual seat in Costa looking out onto the street. An elderly homeless man stopped for a while on the pavement, before very slowly sinking to the ground and lying on the pavement, cigarette still in hand. He lay there for some time, his icy blue eyes staring at the people passing by, all of whom ignored him. Eventually the cigarette fell from his hand and he fell asleep for a while, before hauling himself up again, the dribble dripping from his chin.

He started to cross the road but as he walked, his trousers fell down. He wasn't wearing pants. He tried desperately to pull the trousers back up, but he couldn't reach down far enough. He merely shuffled to the side of the road. People around him laughed. The sight was desperately upsetting. 

I worked until the early afternoon before hot-footing it down to Kensington. I'd been nursing a bruised ego all day, so figured the best thing to do to cheer myself up would be to spend a couple of hours with old friends at the Science Museum. Fortunately, like a chariot laden with beautiful chocolates, my university friend, Tanya had ridden into town with her brood, so all my wishes were granted.

It's the first time, I think, that I've visited the science museum. I may have been as a child, although I think we used to save up Persil tokens and take the train from Bedford to London to visit the Natural History Museum... not that I was ever into museums. I was certainly bored rigid when it came to science. But it was a lot of fun to wander around with the kids, whilst catching up with Tanya and Paul. We realised that T and I have known each other for 25 years. That feels insane to me. We're so old!

The kids were on good form, and it's a great museum. My favourite part was a wall of classic cars all piled up on top of one another. They seemed curiously small. I think perhaps British cars were rather little in the 1950s and 60s.

There were a series of cabinets which were filled with all sorts of 20th Century curios including a load of stuff like cameras, fly-mos, early computers and Chopper bikes which I instantly recognised from my childhood. In a cabinet from the earlier part of the 20th Century, I was very moved to see a 'cello which had been made out of packing crates by First World War injured soldiers during the Battle of the Somme. So many of those soldiers were desperate for music. I've read many adverts placed in newspapers asking people to send instruments to the front line so that the lads could form ensembles. It's actually those sorts of stories which inspired my song, "I Miss The Music" which I understand the Northants Youth Choir are still performing.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

What being a writer is like (totally subjectively!)

I was having quite a productive day yesterday. I'd done all the re-writes on Em, been to the gym and was mid-way through a set of notes on Nene, when I received the bitterly unwelcome news that I'd been turned down for yet another grant from the Arts Council. Yet again, the only feedback they could offer was that they simply "preferred another applicant." I can only deduce that I'm personally unfundable in the present world of funded arts. This is the third application I've made to the Arts Council which has been turned down with no feedback offered.

These applications, of course, take the best part of a week to fill in properly, and there comes a point at which you have to acknowledge that you're wasting your time. Particularly if the only feedback you're getting is that you scored a full set of marks and that your application couldn't be improved.

At the moment I feel a bit numb. Numb, and a little bit scared about the future. Demotivated. Fragile. It was my last opportunity for some funding to keep me going through the process of rehearsals for Em.

Funnily enough, as I walked up to Highgate Village yesterday morning, I was thinking about what it means to be a writer and how we're constantly on this exhausting and somewhat unstable roller-coaster, which seems to become more exhausting and less thrilling the older we get.

There are, of course, many things that are wonderful about being a writer. Tuesday was a good day, and only yesterday, I heard from a wonderful woman who wanted me to know how important my music had been to her in a period of great flux.

I get a number of emails and letters like this. And I always respond to them because they mean so much. A writer doesn't usually crave fame or huge wealth. But he does crave the knowledge that what he does matters.

There is, however, a certain type of person who feels obliged to trot out a knee-jerk critical reaction to the work that the writer has often taken months, sometimes years to create. Sometimes this comes in the form of a review. Sometimes it comes from an online troll. Sometimes it's from the mouth of a friend immediately after a show who simply can't help themselves. Criticism is both the life blood of the writer and his greatest enemy. If a writer is not ready to hear criticism, usually because he's not in a position to do anything about, he can loose every ounce of confidence. A writer relies on confidence. He cannot write without it. I don't know a writer who doesn't have issues with confidence.

To me, it's really interesting that this particular understanding is more present in the way that people deal with performers. We know actors have fragile egos, so even if we think that they're deluded and talentless, in general, we (rightly) don't have the heart to say anything other than positive things. Unless we're online trolls of course.

A writer pours emotion, love, and a huge amount of small detail into what he does. Writing is, of course, utterly subjective. Some stuff lands for some people and catastrophically fails for others. All writers know this, but if they've spent every waking hour trying to make something which lands, what they don't want to hear is someone saying, "I just don't get it." It's the cruellest, and actually the dumbest critique of all.

One of the most stressful things in this industry is dealing with those who have pots of funds to divvy out to writers, who feel the need to force writers to jump through scores of hoops simply to get their hands on a share of the money. It's known as window shopping within the industry. They ask huge numbers of writers to write song after song on spec, for no payment. If you ask them to justify what they're doing, they'll more than likely say they're doing you a favour by giving you the opportunity to write a song which you might be able to use in the future. Lucky us!

The same people usually also claim to have the super-power ability to tell the worth of a piece of music from a rubbish recording with a piano in a room. We all know they don't, so we invest huge amounts of our own money creating the sorts of demos we feel best reflect our work, knowing that a bad recording of something in the wrong hands can be monumentally damaging.

A writer spends much of his or her day in a world of silence. He emerges from his cocoon, often without the ability to engage effectively with those around him. It often takes a few hours before he feels like a human again. On one hand, we are expected to write passionately and from the heart, but increasingly we are also expected to behave in a manner which has been deemed appropriate by the corporate world. If we cry, we're difficult (unless it's on camera) if we shout, we're difficult, if we panic, we're difficult, if we say no, we're difficult. It is very easy to describe a writer as difficult. The great skill in this industry is being the sort of director or producer who finds no one difficult. This is usually because they inherently know how to deal with the whims and needs of different types of people, so no one feels the need to be difficult around them!

A writer has to deal with rejection on an almost daily basis. He applies for jobs which have already been given to others but have needed to be posted on websites to make it look like rules are being followed. He doesn't hear back from 90% of the jobs he applies to, or the people he writes to. He enters competitions which are won by people who have been asked to apply and then is told too many people have entered the competition for feedback to be offered. He loses out on bursaries because his minority status is not the minority status du jour. 

Paranoia starts to creep in, but we're repeatedly told we shouldn't become jaded or bitter or whinging despite the fact that we feel all these things deeply.

"But you're doing so well," they say, and then the writer thinks about the bucket in his front room which collects the water coming through the ceiling and wonders what "doing well" actually means!

And then you get the people who tell the artist that he's lucky. Or a layabout. Or that the government shouldn't sponsor the Arts. Or that if the job's not paying enough, he shouldn't be doing the work. Or that the sort of work he does should happen in his free time. It's a hobby after all.

The writer doesn't posses the glamour of a performer. People don't really follow writers on twitter. When we try to raise money by crowdfunding, the amounts are desperately pitiful.

When a branch of the arts starts to collapse or stagnate, everyone tells the writers that they must innovate, but when it comes to it, they don't believe the writer they're telling to innovate actually has the ability to innovate, so they approach someone they think is more likely to be the type of person that will deliver what they think the industry will need (or, in real terms, what the industry will fund) but these people rarely want to commit to doing the work necessary to create something that's actually innovative. The truth of the matter is that if we promote good art, we won't need to set out to innovate. Innovation is only effective if it's good.

In short, being a writer is all about taking the hits, finding yourself on the floor, dusting yourself off and starting again. We're like little pieces of elastic. We bounce up and down, following our nebulous dreams. But elastic frays and eventually becomes so worn it simply snaps. Writers have to hope that their elastic is well-made! Ultimately hope is what all writers need.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

God love Thatcher

We spent the morning scrambling about. On one hand, I was trying to prepare sound files and scores which would enable Beth and Peter from the music school to hear my Nene composition for the first time, and on the other we were desperately trying to tidy the house so that our guests wouldn't know the sort of visual shambles we've been living in over the past few weeks. At one stage I was trying to wash up whilst listening to my headphones which were plugged into my laptop which was sitting in amongst the dirty plates! I think it was at that stage that I felt things had got out of hand!

Peter and Beth arrived at noon o'clock and, after listing about 97 caveats (in true composer style), I played them the composition. I was terribly nervous. Playing any new piece of music to a commissioner is fairly horrifying, particularly after my experience with the lunatic in Lincolnshire who booked me to write music for her choir before refusing to pay me because the songs I'd written "weren't soulful enough."

Anyway, I needn't have worried. Peter and Beth made all the right noises - very often and with great alacrity - and I'm pretty sure they're as excited about it as I am. As a result of all of this, today has felt a little like the end of term. I'd worked so bloody hard on that composition, that I decided to take the rest of the day off and pretend it was the weekend.

Peter wanted to take us out for lunch so we went to Highgate Woods, a spot which seems to surprise and delight all of the out-of-towners I know. There's a really lovely cafe in the middle of the wood which does a wide range of healthy food, the vast majority of which is suitable for vegetarians. The portions are large and delicious and it's a genuinely lovely place to sit and while away the hours whilst dog walkers and women with strollers mill around on the glade nearby.

I took myself off to Spitalfields in the late afternoon to meet my dear friend Ted for a quick drink. It was his birthday and I was keen to catch up with him and his partner, the delightful Gersende, who glows even more than usual now that she has a baby in her tummy. We sat in a little tapas bar and filled each other in on about six months of news. They're currently trying to decide on a name for their child, which they'd like to be French (like Gersende) without sounding horrible when pronounced by Brits. It's a fairly tall order!

I sat on the tube home and read a particularly graphic account of the awful events on the Leningrad Metro, horrified at myself for feeling a clench of unease when a Muslim man in full prayer regalia sat down opposite me and started muttering obsessively to himself. I'm sure he was praying rather than mad, although many would argue that one triggers the other. Praying leads to madness or madness leads to praying: take your pick. Whatever was going on in his head, I felt hugely angry for allowing myself to be frightened by him. I'm pretty sure many people reading this blog will take great issue with the fact that I'm being honest enough to write this stuff down, but you can't whip fear out of someone.

I have a feeling that the ghastly logo for Haringey Council (note they no longer call themselves Harringay 'cus that's like, gay) was designed by the same charlatans who did the London 2012 logo. There's a similar tragic cheapness about both logos with their angular writing which might have been done by a ten-year old child in a junior school exercise involving sellotape and poster paints. It cost £86,000 to design.

So, Theresa May is on a little tour of the countries we're going to have to trade with post-Brexit, many of which, of course, have terrible human rights records. You want immigration curbed? Let's chuck out the Europeans and replace them with essential workers from China and Saudi. But for a laugh let's not tell any of the Europeans over here that we're going to screw them over. It's their fault for smelling of garlic, goulash and, like, really nasty cheese. All hail the awesome Sun newspaper for showing a picture of the Rock of Gibraltar today, swathed, as it should be, in a British flag with the words "Up Yours Señor" written on it - obviously without the tilde. Why use a tilde? We're not in Europe any more, we can ignore all that tragic foreign shit and hopefully get their backs up so much that there'll be a lush war that we can win because we rule the waves now we have our sovereignty back. God save the Queen, yeah? I wanna go back to the 80s when Thatcher, god rest her beautiful soul, made this country great and got rid of class and shit by selling off all the council houses until only unmarried mothers could live in the few she'd left us with. She made us all get off our arses didn't she? She gave the Spice Girls their sense of entitlement. She proved you didn't need talent to be famous. That nice Theresa May bird's got cracking legs hasn't she? She reminds me of Thatcher. Tough on crime. Tough on the causes of crime (immigrants, Jews and gays.) Let's hope she's got some secret plans in place to send people with AIDS to concentration camps. Stoning the gays to death in Saudi? Not a problem. As long as they trade with us. So much better than straight bananas. Yeah yeah. Gibraltar, man. Makes me proud to be British. Where's Gibraltar again?

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Academy showcase

I'm working to a mega-deadline at the moment which involves finishing the Nene composition by noon today when I'm due to play it for the first time to Peter and Beth from the Northampton music school. I worked all day and night on it on Sunday and every second of yesterday similarly ensconced under a pair of headphones. It was not the greatest day, therefore, to wake up, half deaf, with my ears full of wax. Without wishing to go into too much gory detail, I spent a good ten minutes at the start of the day with a series of cotton buds attempting to alleviate the problem. The results were as satisfying as they were astounding! This morning I shall need to do something similar...

I've reached the point on Nene where it feels like I'm going mad. I'm working in such a level of detail that I've started to lose objectivity. This usually means it's time to put it away for a few weeks and throw myself back into the world of Liverpool in 1965. It's actually rather nice to be able to oscillate between projects for this very reason.

My one little non-Nene related activity yesterday was a trip down to Euston to see the graduation showcase for actors from the musical theatre course at the Royal Academy of music. It was a satisfying show, with songs beautifully orchestrated and performed by students at the school, under the more-than capable baton of Peter McCarthy (who actually conducted our wedding.) A rather large cohort of performers were doing their thing, bordering perhaps on slightly too many, so, unlike the Trinity showcase, I didn't get great a massive sense of their abilities across the performing spectrum. What I do know is that they're all wonderful singers, both individually and as an ensemble. In fact, as an ensemble, they make an incredibly exciting sound. They should form a choir! I'm pretty sure that the vocal training these kids are getting at the Academy is second to none. I rather liked the fact that many of them felt classically trained. None of them did any dialogue, however, so it was a little difficult to gage whether or not they'd be able to actually handle text. These showcases are such a lottery. If you end up with a dud song or you're off your game for that single hour, there's a high chance you'll be kissing your chances of finding an agent goodbye. It's really brutal. Mind you, it's a deeply brutal industry, so why sugar cote the shit sandwich?

Ex-Brasser, Jack Reitman, whom I was essentially there to cheer on, did a great job. I was very proud. I was also pleased to see another Brasser in the pit orchestra in the form of young Steve who has played French horn for pretty much every performance of the show. His playing is absolutely superb. I think there's very little which can beat the sound of a well-played French horn. Obviously apart from a well-played 'cello or violin. That sort of goes without saying...

So that was my day. I finally finished writing at midnight at which point I instantly fell asleep... Hence writing this this morning before going into overdrive on Nene to prep it for its unveiling at lunchtime. Wish me luck!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Gilbert Baker

I learned with great sadness yesterday that Gilbert Baker, the designer of the LGBT Rainbow flag, has died at the age of 65.

The rainbow flag has been an incredibly important symbol for me throughout my life. In the 1980s and '90s, it meant safety. If I saw the flag flying outside a bar, or displayed on a card or sticker in a coffee shop window, my heart leapt for joy, because it meant I could be myself. It meant I wouldn't have to modify my behaviour, or put up with judging looks and raised eyebrows. The beautiful thing about the flag is that it's used by my community the world over, so weather you're American or British or Chinese or Nigerian, if you're gay, and you see it, you know you've found your family.

One of my pet hates is the rampant homophobes who disguise their distaste for gay people by saying, "why should a rainbow be just about gay people? It's really unfair that the gays have hijacked it to mean something political, beyond the realm of peace and beauty." What few people seem to realise is that the LGBT rainbow flag only has six colours in it. Violet is missing. It therefore can't be confused with the peace symbol, or anything an old hippy might collect alongside unicorns and snow globes!

Baker designed his rainbow flag, in San Francisco, in 1978. Some say he was inspired by Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It was initially conceived as an eight-coloured flag, with a vibrant pink stripe and a turquoise one where blue would have been on a conventional rainbow. Each colour had a meaning. Pink represented sex. Red was for life. Orange was for healing. Yellow meant sunlight. Green meant nature. Turquoise represented art. Indigo represented harmony and violet was for the spirit.

The hot pink was almost immediately removed, due to fabric unavailability, and to prevent the centre stripe from becoming obscured by a flag pole when hung (which apparently happens to flags with an un-even number of vertical stripes - who knew?), the turquoise was dropped and violet was replaced by royal blue.

And there we have it: the potted story of our much-loved rainbow flag. Gilbert Baker, I salute you. Your flag has meant much to many. Your legacy is assured for years to come.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Eric Gill's Ditchling

It's been a really rather wonderful day. It started altogether too early with a car journey across London and down to Catford, where I met Sam, Julie, Matt and Bal for breakfast in a greasy spoon. Catford is definitely on the up. The spoon is sandwiched between a delicatessen and a hipster cafe. I have no doubt that these new, fancy places will be subconsciously doing their level best to push the rents up for the ordinary man! Greasy Spoons will soon be a thing of the past.

Sam, Matt and I jumped into the car and drove down to a little village in East Sussex called Ditchling, which, it turns out, is rather well-known as a centre for folk arts and calligraphy. The story of the village as a mecca for the arts goes back to the somewhat controversial sculptor, Eric Gill, who set up a sort of bohemian commune on a heath above the village, which attracted a set of acolyte artists, many of whom also converted to Roman Catholicism. They wore smocks and shared an interest in fonts (of the lettering variety rather than the churchy kind.) As usual, I'm brutally over-simplifying the facts. A great many people think that Gill's highly unorthodox and controversial lifestyle overshadows his genius as an artist. I personally think it's a little unfair to judge the man through a 21st Century moral lens. A great many early 20th Century bohemians were attempting to smash down the constraints of the prudish Victorians. We applaud them for breaking certain boundaries, which include experimenting with sexuality and drugs, but condemn them for other practices, which time has defined as unacceptable. The fact remains that his sculptures are remarkable.

We met Hilary, Jago, Rupert and Mez in the village, and paid a visit to the little museum which sits by a duck pond in the shadow of the flint-walled church. It's a wonderful little spot, filled with works of art by William Morris, Eric Gill and Edward Johnston, whom, I learned today, designed the iconic font used by London Underground. (I had hitherto thought that the font was the work of Gill, so I wasn't far off the mark!)

We has lunch in a pub in the middle of the village, where the food is overpriced and undersized. We were joined there by my cousin Matt and his wife Boo who live in the village. It was an absolute treat to see them both. The collision of several different worlds slightly blew my mind!

After eating, we took ourselves on a lovely walk along the valley on a path lined with stunning hawthorn blossom hedges which stretched into the distance like a snow-covered hillside and floated in the breeze like confetti.

There was a dirty cream tea at teatime in a tea shop, followed by a little walk around the artists' workshops on the northern edge of the village. I bought a pair of cufflinks to remind me of the day, and we had a lovely chat with a lonely painter whose wife, he told us, had taken her own life four years ago. The poor man hasn't really painted since her death, but says he keeps the workshop going because he loves talking to the customers.

On the way home we called in on Ellie, Allan and their two kids in their glorious new home in Hayward's Heath; a 1960s building in the Scandinavian style with an enormous window which looks out over their garden and the imposing Winnie-The-Pooh-style wood behind.

Ellie's daughters are prodigiously intelligent and wonderful company. The oldest, Rozina (10), is a voracious reader who will literally read anything to the extent that Ellie and Allan are sometimes forced to hide books. I believe she found out about the myth of Santa in some sort of book meant for adults. When asked what her favourite book is, she cited a self-help manual for the parents of 0-5 year olds before adding, "I think there's a gap in the market for a book about parenting 6-10 year-olds."

We drove back to London in a glorious sunset. I dropped the boys off and then headed to Bexleyheath for a meeting with Hannah Chissick about Em. We slowly worked our way through the second half of the show whilst eating biscuits and fancy crisps.

The journey home was a disaster. Just what you need at 11pm! The trouble with London is that if any of the tunnels which go under the Thames go down, or get blocked by accidents, the city goes into meltdown. My satnav was predicting 25-minute tailbacks, so I made an adrenaline-fuelled decision to drive West into town on the south of the river before crossing the river at Tower Bridge. An hour and a half later, I was home. And now it's time for bed!