Sunday, 23 July 2017

Cambridge punting

Nathan has been at a wedding all day today where he's been playing, of all things, a Jewish rabbi. We went into Golders Green yesterday to buy him a kippa. I'm sure he looks the part with his enormous beard!

I've been in a very rainy Cambridge all day with Helen and Michael today. We arranged the trip about a month ago when a glorious hot day seemed likely. To make matters worse, the weather forecast was entirely off. The suggestion was that there would be a lengthy period of dry weather in the middle of the afternoon, so we duly hired a punt and got ourselves a lovely picnic from Sainsbury's. We managed about half an hour's drifting down the river in relatively pleasant weather, before the skies opened and we were royally shafted by rain.

Actually, punting in the rain isn't the most miserable experience in the world. I had a raincoat, although it was more a rain conduit. Every time I lifted the pole into the air, river water went down the cuff and soaked into my shirt, and before long I realised that the coat itself was heavy with rain water, all of which had been sucked into my shirt.

The tourists on the river were in free fall. I've seldom seen a more inadequate set of punters. There were boats at all angles on the river. Some were creating almost impenetrable barricades. The difficulty with an amateur punter is that you can't predict what he or she might do. As you steer your punt away from the mayhem, he or she is as likely to start heading at high speed in the same direction, whilst some other lunatic ploughs into you from the left field!

At one stage I was attempting to get out of the way of a veritable caravan of mayhem, and found myself on the left hand side of the river. The normal rules of the water really don't apply when it comes to punting on the Cam. It's every man for himself as you negotiate the countless obstacles created by ineptitude. Anyway, I was forced to steer around one punt which was basically scraping against a wall on the bank of the river. The middle aged man punting was obviously out of control but plainly didn't want to lose face with his cargo of women. He shouted over to me, pointing angrily at the other bank, as I sailed by, "the right hand side of the river is over there..." I refrained from shouting back, "learn how to punt, and then we can discuss river etiquette!"

The rain got heavier and heavier. Because we were punting on a Trinity college punt, but had decided to go out into the countryside up stream to Grantchester, we were forced to haul our punt up a set of rollers to avoid a weir. It's actually a really difficult task when there's only three of you, and on the way back, in the sheeting rain, we were forced to wait whilst two other punts filled with witless people attempted to negotiate the rollers. It took some time. The task involves dragging the boat over the busy footpath which run alongside the river, which means passers are blocked from passing for a minute or two. Usually they join in and help to move the boat. When it came to our turn, a posh older woman on a bike was having none of it and actually prevented us from getting our punt on the rollers by sticking her bike wheel in the way. "Could you move your bike back a little?" I asked, politely. She huffed: "Well could you get on with it? It's raining, I'm getting wet, and you're holding me up." I called her a ghastly woman. To her face!

We got off the punts, soaking wet, and headed to a pub where I changed into a T-shirt I'd mercifully brought with me in case I fell in. Heaven knows why the pub people put up with us because we ordered one round of drinks and then proceeded to get our picnic out on the table and chow down on it in a somewhat brazen manner!

We went back to Helen's where I made a ghastly "posh cheese on toast" concoction based on a roux, which I managed to split horrifically, so the whole thing tasted like sand paper. We took a late train back, but when I got home, poor Nathan was still at his wedding. Still dressed as a rabbi!

Friday, 21 July 2017

Bond plays

I went last night to see a youth theatre production of an Edward Bond play yesterday night. It was a fairly eccentric choice of material for a youth theatre which caters predominantly to working class kids. I've never been a massive fan of Bond. The piece was written in the early 70s and was billed as a comedy, but the language was way too indulgent and whimsical to actually be funny. There's something about British theatre from that era which I find very difficult to stomach. It's rarely narrative driven, the characters are often unlikeable and there's always a sense that the language overrides the need for plot or anything that I actually look for in theatre. It's like nothing ever happens. There are none of the outbursts of passion and anger that young people do so well. If I were running a youth theatre in London, I would almost definitely stick to a diet of plays by modern London writers like Che Walker: dramas with roles and language which play to the strength of the kids. There were some really talented kids though, and they were really, really brave to tackle a piece so complicated and nuanced.

There was a fairly amusing scene beforehand. We were talking to the director of the piece outside the theatre when one of the actresses came out of a side door in full costume and make up. "What are you doing out here?" The director asked. "I just need to pop to the shops," said the girl. "You shouldn't be out here in costume. Go back inside." "I need some nuts. I haven't eaten anything since yesterday." "Well that's very silly of you! Go down to the bar and see if they've got some crisps." The girl, at that point, decided to play her trump card, blithely, or maybe triumphantly announcing, "I have bulimia." It's one of those announcements which the kids make these days which they know can't be ignored. It felt incredibly cynical and quite calculating. She didn't like being challenged by authority, so she dropped the b bomb. I've heard dyslexia being used in a similar way. And depression. And because, as a society, we pander to these things, they get away with if. There's a sense of entitlement amongst the young which is really quite grotesque. I think it's because they're paying for everything. If you have to pay £9k for tuition, you want to know exactly how you're going to get the qualification you've paid for with minimum effort.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Yank

We went to see Yank at the Charing Cross Theatre with Abbie yesterday. I was keen to see it, not just because it's a new musical - albeit from the States - but because it tells a gay love story set against the backdrop of war, which of course is the territory of Brass. In the case of Yank, as the title might suggest, it's Americans fighting in the Second World War, on the relatively unfamiliar Pacific front.

I enjoyed the piece enormously. There were some blistering central performances and the piece is really very moving towards the end. I had a few of caveats. I felt the music, though largely appropriate, was perhaps a little one-level, and also that a fair number of the songs did nothing to drive the narrative forward. I also felt the writing was perhaps a little casual when it came to exploring a gay relationship at that time. I often feel that. There's a massive balance which needs to be struck between what a 21st Century audience WANTS to see and what feels authentic for the time you're setting a piece in. Casual gay snogging just feels wrong. Scores of characters whom the audience are meant to like being endlessly tolerant and open-minded also feels wrong. I just didn't feel the stakes were quite high enough until right at the end. It also felt like the audience was being told rather constantly that the two central characters were in love, but actually we never witnessed two men in love. As a result of all of this I felt emotionally distant from the piece, which, because I'm the show's target audience, felt a slight shame.

But I am making it sound like it wasn't a hugely enjoyable, diverting and well-staged piece, which is was. It's well worth a watch. So get yourselves down to Charing Cross theatre to see it!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Flashing lights

There was a Mediterranean-style mega-storm in North London this evening. We arrived at Highgate tube from Central London and walked out into the mother of all rainstorms. For the next hour, lightning filled the sky around us, flashing every three seconds like a crazy 1990s rave.

A level of comedy was added to the proceedings when the lightning somehow managed to effect the speed camera just up the road from us, which decided to flash every car which drove down the road, regardless of the speed they were travelling at. At one stage lights were going off every were you looked!

We'd been in Central London to see the screening of the first episode of a rather moving BBC drama, beautifully written by Patrick Gale and called The Man in the Orange Shirt. The first episode is set in the late 1940s, which is a period that very few writers actually write about. Our knowledge of the decade is usually limited to stories about the war. I've often wondered what the period immediately after the war was all about. Pre "new look". Pre Festival of Britain. Pre rock 'n roll. I guess it was simply a time when people wandered about in the ruins of the war, trying to work out what on earth had just happened! The forgotten years.

The rest of the day has been spent trying to recover from Israel. I did some basic admin, formatted a pitch and pottered about a bit. We had lunch in the cafe - beans on toast - but the beans were obviously cooked in a pan which had had washing up liquid in it, because they tasted all perfumey and rank. Tomorrow the hard work begins again.

Returning a frum

It feels as though I've been in Israel for an age. We have packed so much into the few days we've been out here. There have been many late nights and many early mornings, and, as a result I am absolutely knackered, yet feeling alive. We now have a really decent pitch for what I think could be an absolutely brilliant documentary. All that remains now is to find someone who'll take a punt on it.

Our last day in Tel Aviv included a meeting with a hugely interesting drag performer. He is drag mother to a host of both drag queens and drag kings, who often get overlooked when it comes to celebrating the diversity of the wider LGBT community.

After the meeting, we walked down into central Tel Aviv. I wanted to see some of the Bauhaus buildings from the period when Europeans Jewish immigrants effectively created the city. There's something deeply alluring about early 20th Century architecture, which is always hugely enhanced by a well-proportioned palm tree. What is it about a palm tree which so effectively and elegantly screams the 1920s? No self-respecting Art Deco building would be complete without a palm tree, or at least some sort of architectural evocation of one!

Tel Aviv is full of stray cats, all of which look entirely feral and half dead. They rifle through the dustbins and chow down on grotesque bird carcasses. I hate cats. Quite a lot of the Tel Aviv residents seem to take pity on them and you often stumble across someone feeding a little group of the nasty bastards. 

From the Bauhaus street, we headed to one of Tel Aviv's markets. I got it into my head that I wanted a pair of cufflinks to remember the trip by, but very few Israeli's actually wear suits let alone double-cuffed shirts. The search for cufflinks in a market frequented by working class residents of Tel Aviv therefore was a somewhat hopeless one! One of the stall holders looked at us blankly when we asked if he had any, and seemed almost angry when we asked if he could recommend somewhere we could find some!

In the end I found a lovely pair from the 1960s in a little shop somewhere near our hotel. They are rather chunky and have the Star of David on them. I'd joked with Nathan that I was going to return from Israel all frummed-up, so they will amuse him!

...And that's that. A golden little four-day flash of light is over and, if I'm honest, I feel a little sad. Israel really is the most fascinating and beautiful country. It seems odd to think that, just four days ago, we arrived at the film festival to the news that there had been a shooting in the old town less than half a mile from where we were. It was a reminder that Israel is a complex issue and that the country has a very difficult journey ahead of it. I sincerely hope it's something which can be made to work and that the problems of the West Bank and Gaza Strip can be solved. I furthermore hope I'll have the opportunity to return in the very near future.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jaffa cakes

After checking in at the hotel at about midnight last night, we took ourselves on a walk around Tel Aviv. The Israeli culture favours late nights, largely, I assume, because only a mad Englishman would be out on the baking streets during the day. We went straight down to the floodlit beach, where children were still playing and swimming. Couples were siting by the water's edge on plastic deckchairs. It seemed so bizarre to think that it was so late at night. I think Jewish people tend to party hard at sunset on Shabbat, so I guess Saturday night is the big night.

We took our shoes and socks off and paddled in the sea, whilst the reflection of a perfect half moon danced on the surface. The sand was soft and cool, the water was surprisingly warm. There are all sorts of beach bars along the promenade which stay open late into the night. Their lights twinkle in the darkness. Tall Art Deco buildings watch over them. Further north, the sound of the sea echoes magically on the sandy cliffs, creating the curious sonic illusion that waves are crashing somewhere inland.

It strikes me that Tel Aviv dances to the rhythm of its own drum. We witnessed some fairly eccentric sights including night time metal detectors wading out into the waves. People sit by little fires along the water's edge. The gay beach here is right next door to the orthodox beach, where men and women are separated by giant fences. It was only around the Orthodox beach that we actually saw any of the hardcore religious folk who'd filled the streets of Jerusalem. This city is definitely far more secular than its inland neighbour. Its residents are younger, more self-assured and shiny. It's very rare to see a kippa, let alone a homburg.

This morning I took myself to a cafe opposite the National Theatre where the pavements are so lightly coloured that they actually hurt your eyes when the sun shines on them. Which is constantly! Without sunglasses I was forced to stumble along with my hands over my eyes. It was surreal. It took me rather a long time to recover!

I ate the most delicious pesto and feta toasted sandwich served with a salad which had toasted nuts on top. It was so so delicious - particularly after a somewhat forced diet of pizza and chips in Jerusalem! I suddenly realised, with great relief, that I was on the Mediterranean again.

Tel Aviv is full of rainbow flags. Scores of buildings fly the flag from their windows and balconies. It's really very wonderful to see, because, in this country, that simple, life-affirming symbol also says "religion will not dictate our way of life."

Another thing there are a lot of in Tel Aviv is cyclists, all of whom seem to cycle on the pavements with a sense of great entitlement. I got bashed by one with such force that he managed to leave a bruise on my arm!

This afternoon we went up to Jaffa, which is the old part of Tel Aviv. It's still a largely Arabic district, and sits up on a hill over-looking the gleaming white buildings of the rest of the conurbation. We visited a very lovely flea market which was rammed-packed with useless little trinkets. Both of us wanted to buy something - anything - but all we could find were endless pairs of earrings, lengths of ethnic fabric and silly necklaces. It's the same with every market I've visited in Israel!

We walked down to Jaffa port where millions of tiny fish were feeding on a load of pitta bread which had been thrown into the harbour. At about this point we began to realise we'd walked five miles in blistering heat and were beginning to suffer the consequences. My hands and feet started to swell, I got a prickly heat rash and my knees started to feel like they were burning... We had no option but to continue because it's nigh on impossible to hail a taxi in these parts, so continued our odyssey in as much shade as we could!

The white Art Deco, often Bauhaus, buildings of Tel Aviv make really good canvasses for quite spectacular graffiti. Quite a lot of them are slowly being done up, but there are some curious contradictions. At one point we stumbled upon matching buildings on two sides of the street, one had been renovated and looked as fabulous and gleaming as the day it was built. The other looking like something from war torn Yugoslavia. Apparently it's the gay community who are gentrifying large parts of south Tel Aviv. You can tell. The whole area buzzes. Lime and pomegranate trees line the pavements. Scores of trendy little cafes and art shops pour onto the streets.

After a meeting with a young drag performer, we had dinner and then went down to the beach where we ate ice cream and swam in the dark waves whilst the moon rose. A group of frum women sat in the water on the edge of the beach. None had taken any of their clothes off. They didn't seem to care. It was a truly magical moment.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The First Station of the cross and a pissy bus

Today was a bit of a faffy day which found us roaming the streets of Jerusalem in 34 degree heat looking for somewhere which would serve us food. It's Shabbat and nowhere is open. This is what the Midlands used to be like on a Sunday before they relaxed the trading hours! I guess, if you lived here, you'd rather speedily get used to the fact that nothing is open and prepare accordingly. It was a little painful for us. We skipped breakfast, had a chocolate bar at about noon and only properly ate at 4pm, by which point we'd both gone low sugar and sunburned!

We had back-to-back meetings in the morning about the project we're trying to get off the ground before deciding to take ourselves up into the old city, assuming the Armenian quarter might have places where we could eat because, for Christians, a Saturday is a day like any other. Sadly, both of us had run out of cash, and nowhere accepted cards, so we felt a little like a couple of losing contestants on Bullseye being told "here's what you could have won!" We'd run out of cash because the pound is worth jack shit these days. Three or so years ago, a single pound would buy you 9 shekels. Today it will buy you just five. Actually, just under five. Another reason to thank all those wonderful people who voted Brexit. It's funny: I took my passport out at the airport in Tel Aviv, and, for the first time in my life, felt ashamed. I used to feel this great rush of pride when I took out my burgundy British-European passport. Now I simply feel embarrassed. People I've met here have all taken the mickey. They think Brexit's a joke. They think Theresa May is a joke.

As we staggered up the slippery, careworn steps towards the Old City, two Americans called over to us: "where's Bethlehem?" They asked. It was such a daft question that neither of us managed to get an answer out. I've seldom heard such nonsense since someone on a London bus asked me the way to Liverpool. "Liverpool Street Station?" I asked. "Is that where the Cavern Club is?"

The Old City was buzzing with its streets and streets of tiny cave-like shops. It's very difficult to explain how the geography of the area works. You couldn't get a car or even a bike down the alleyways, all of which are entirely covered over. Some are completely underground - dug straight into the rock. Others are under huge stone roofs. Periodically, there's some sort of skylight, or gap in the roof and one walks into a pool of direct sunlight everything else is in the cool shade. The shops sell tourist tat: kippas with the Star of David embroidered into them with silver thread, mini-menorahs, purses made of ethnic fabrics with the word Jerusalem emblazoned across. The shop keepers are mostly Arabic. They hassle and hustle the passers by. Many have songs birds over their doors which sit in tiny cages tweeting their distress to the world. It's all a little grotesque. The Christian Americans in their ludicrous sports caps feel savvy and wealthy, and spend hours bartering with the shop keepers, thinking they're getting bargains which have made the Arabs weep. The Arabs, however, rub their hands in glee. They know they're selling tat.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I think it's where Jesus died. It's possibly also where he was reborn because there's a big flat stone which people douse in perfumes and rub lengths of fabric against. I have a feeling that it's the supposed door to the tomb which Jesus emerged from, but I'm basically more up on the story of Robin Hood!

As a non-believer, I felt a little bit removed from everything if I'm entirely honest, but the architecture is stunning, and, what's fascinating is the sheer diversity of Christians who range from Americans in their shell suits, through nuns in habits all the way through to heavily-bearded Greek Orthodox chaps. Robes, dog collars, wimples, crucifixes of all shapes and sizes... I saw it all today.

We missed our 5.30 film. The organisers of the festival plainly haven't allocated enough seats in their screenings for delegates, so we were sent away, tails between our legs.

We had an early evening meeting with a young drag queen back at the rather lovely First Station, which is the old train station we've found ourselves visiting rather regularly over the last few days. We were booked in for another film at 9.30pm, but Michael realised he'd lost his credit card, so I went in search of it, and sent him into the screening without me. It felt far more important for the chief executive of the UK Jewish film festival to watch a Jewish film than it did for me, and we needed to jump on the bus for Tel Aviv at just gone 11. I found his card back at the First Station. (Not the First Station of the Cross, you understand...)

So between us we've seen four films at the festival, three of which were directed by women and all of which featured female protagonists. I'm not altogether sure how to interpret this particular piece of information, other than to say that, if there still is prejudice against women in the film industry, it's certainly not been in evidence at the Jerusalem film festival.

It felt a little premature to be leaving Jerusalem this evening. The bus smelt shockingly of piss and deposited us in a very different, far more secular world, which is possibly the most humid place I've ever visited. I'm drenched in sweat!

But more about Tel Aviv tomorrow...


Saturday, 15 July 2017

VideoPub and Joan of Fart

We immediately went to the cinema complex yesterday morning where the Jerusalem film festival is taking place. There are three screening rooms on site alongside cafes and restaurants and a lovely lawn which overlooks Mount Zion. We poured over the programme trying to work out which films we wanted to see and whether or not they were being screened at times which suited.

In the end we decided that three films would be plenty for a single day, the first of which, The Beguiled, was screened at 5pm, giving us enough time to potter into the German Colony district of Jerusalem, which has a somewhat bohemian vibe. The buildings there are mostly rambling nineteenth century properties and there are all sorts cafes spilling out into the street. It is, of course, Shabbat from sundown on a Friday, and in an increasingly orthodox city, this pretty much means everything closes down on both Friday and Saturday, thus making the weekend pursuit for food quite challenging.

The Beguiled was an awful film. I feel really sad to have to report this fact, because it was directed by the much-lauded female director Sofia Coppola and had a largely female cast. I was really hoping that she'd bring something to the table which surprised me, something which made me feel this particular story needed to be seen and, furthermore, needed to be told be a female director. Actually, what I came away thinking was how horrible everyone was in the film, particularly the women. The story was about a "Yankee" soldier in the American Civil War getting wounded in the Deep South, where his sort were very definitely not welcome. It started well enough with lots of indulgent, art-house shots of autumnal trees representing the pent-up frustration and burgeoning sexuality of a group of young girls in a boarding school presided over by a buttoned-up Nicole Kidman.

...Then it starts to unwind. They find the wounded soldier, patch him up a bit, and, as he recovers, one by one, throw themselves at him. On the eve of his departure, he gets to choose which of girls he's going to shag. Will he pick the older Kidman, or the innocent twenty year-old, or the sixteen year old slag who spent the first half of the movie coming onto him with an almost ghastly forwardness. I think we're meant to be both surprised and disgusted that he chooses the sixteen year old. Of course he does. The role is played by horn-pot Colin Farrell! The twenty year-old virgin walks in on the scene and gets so angry that she throws Farrell down a spiral staircase. Whilst he's unconscious, Kidman, also jealous, sores his leg off and the film swings from the heaving-breast world of a Merchant Ivory picture into a Texas Chain Saw massacre with corsets instead of bikinis. Farrell is naturally a bit pissed off when he wakes up to find he's had his leg chopped off and freaks out a bit, but then apologises to the girls and agrees to sit down to a formal dinner with them, not realising they've fed him poisoned mushrooms. He dies. The girls feel happy. End of film.

The audience has no idea who they're meant to like and genuinely wonders whether Sofia Coppola is trying to convey the message that all women are vindictive and sex mad. If a man had made the film, women would have boycotted it. End of!

We then went to see "Death of a Poetess", an Israeli film (again with a female director) which was far more thought-provoking, but a little too arch in its desire to be cutting edge and innovative. Shot in black and white. Lots of static shots of waves crashing. A "talking heads" style improvised interview running throughout. I would certainly recommend it more highly than the nonsense of the Coppola film.

The last of the trilogy of films we saw was called Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. And where to start with that one? We went because it was billed as a musical. "Creative giant Bruno Dumont presents Jeanne's childhood as a musical comedy. Singing nuns, dancing angels and adorable sheep." It was awful. It reminded me of the little improvised plays my Godson used to do, right down to the formless, tuneless songs with terrible, and I mean laughably bad, dance routines. Dialogue was right on the nose. Two little girls spent hours discussing Christian philosophy. There was no plot. No jeopardy. It was boring. It was amateur. We walked out of the screening after ten minutes, somewhat astounded that there wasn't a rush of fellow audients in our wake! I think people are more likely to sit through a French language film without questioning it, and the audience were probably really excited at the prospect of a musical film. Trouble is, if shit like this gets made, no one will want to make another musical film. It was truly pants. Worst than pants: it was a complete and utter shed collapse. I came away knowing exactly why they'd burned that woman at the stake!

We went out to VideoPub, Jerusalem's only gay bar last night. Jerusalem is travelling in a backwards direction when it comes to openness and tolerance. The Jewish community here are increasingly orthodox. Gay people, non religious people and those who are progressive are moving wholesale to Tel Aviv. It's a subtle and nuanced issue but, in short, many of the ultra Orthodox Jews don't or can't work because so much of what would be expected of them in a job is at odds with their religious beliefs. They can't even switch lights on or turn on computers on Shabbat, so they require an entire infrastructure around them simply to live. The state continues to fund/ indulge them, however, even to the extent that they're exempt from doing national service. So they just hang about. You see them everywhere, just hanging about. Ultimately, it's the less orthodox or non-religious Jewish people who are funding them. A tipping point has arrived in Jerusalem where, for every progressive person who leaves, an orthodox person arrives...

The gay scene, as a result of all of this, is going back underground and getting smaller and smaller. Add to this the rise of online apps and websites which allow gay men to meet and communicate without leaving their homes (which suits a more religiously oppressed person) and you have a crisis for the gay clubs in Jerusalem. VideoPub clings on by its fingernails.

We had a great night meeting all manner of interesting people including the DJ who runs all the Eurovision nights. It was 3am by the time we left and I'd consumed enough gin and tonic to make me feel somewhat tipsy!

Friday, 14 July 2017

Jerusalem

I would appear to be in Jerusalem! We spent much of yesterday getting here, leaving West Hampstead at just before 10 to travel to Luton Airport, which is a spectacular dump!

We flew with EasyJet. Who'd've thought they would run flights to Tel Aviv? It's a 4 1/2 flight, which actually seemed to go by in the blink of an eye, largely because we decided to watch the film of Brass at the Hackney Empire. One of the benefits of having written a rather lengthy show is that it makes a plane journey seem considerably shorter!

The flight was somewhat marred by a number of high-maintenance mothers who plainly didn't understand that the world didn't revolve around their children. The safety announcement had to be paused whilst their cloying offspring were cleared from playing in the aisles. The same thing happened on landing. The crew were forced to rush to the children to scoop them back into their seats. The mothers looked confused and angry as though no one had ever said no to them or their children before: "my child wants to play. If you stop my child from playing he will get angry and then it will be your fault if he cries." At a certain point I feel that parents need to take responsibility for the decision THEY made to have children.

We took a shared mini bus taxi to Jerusalem with a curious selection of ultra-Orthodox Jews and a ghost. We know she was a ghost because a) she was sitting on our train from West Hampstead, b) she was on the plane in front of us knitting and c) because neither of us saw her getting into the taxi. She literally just appeared in the shadows of the back seat. We'll see her again, I have no doubt, muttering prayers to herself in a soothing voice!

We were the last to be dropped off by the taxi, which passed through a series of frum neighbourhoods in the city. I find the sight of men in their Humburg hats, their prayer shawls dangling around their thighs, quite compelling. It feels like such a curious way to express religion.

My companion for the trip is Michael Etherton, who runs the UK Jewish film festival. He speaks Hebrew and lived in Israel for three years, so I feel I'm in a very safe pair of hands.

We took ourselves on a lengthy walk yesterday night. Israel is two hours behind the UK, so suddenly the day seemed rather short. The sun, in fact, was setting as we touched down, and by the time we'd left the airport, it was dark, although still immensely humid.

The walk started with street food, Israel style, at the Old Station: Jerusalem's first train station, which has been converted into a sort of cross between Covent Garden and Brighton pier. We had hummus and falafel, and chips covered in paprika.

The old walled city of Jerusalem is a deeply, deeply impressive place which carries the heavy weight of immense religious significance on its shoulders. We entered via the Jaffa gate, and instantly found ourselves walking down a series of underground alleyways which, during the day, would be filled with market stalls: a riot of life and noise. At night, it's deathly quiet. The silhouettes of Hasidic Jews glide through the shadows, making their way to the Western Wall. The odd shop keeper closes his shop, water flows down the alleyways...

We appeared at the Western Wall - perhaps better (and more offensively) known as the "wailing wall" - at about midnight. As the only bit remaining of the old temple (destroyed by the Romans) it stands as the most important holy site for Jewish people in the world. We donned kippa hats and took ourselves up to the wall itself, which I found a profound and deeply moving experience. There is definitely an incredibly strong atmosphere there. Who knows if it's spiritual or simply an atmosphere which has been created by religious, psychological fervour. Men daven: rocking and bobbing, facing the wall. Some weep openly. There's a hushed excitement. The wall itself is enormous and formed of huge blocks of gleaming cream-coloured stone. Rather large circular plants grow through the cracks, their greeny-yellow fronds create an interesting effect against the sand stone.

From the Western Wall, we took ourselves around the old city walls, past the Mount of Zion whose cliffs were lit up with huge floodlights of ever-changing colour, and back to the hotel in the soupy air. A wonderful night.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

TK Maxx

I'm going to Israel tomorrow and have literally just run around TK Maxx on Charing Cross Road, in a pool of sweaty fear, panic-buying anything I felt might be comfortable in boiling hot temperatures whilst at the same time looking at least a little bit smart. We're going to be having a series of meetings and it struck me this morning that my wardrobe is either really smart, but made of thick Edwardian fabric, or really scruffy like a bohemian homeless person. I believe there's a balance to be struck!

Today's been a bit of a nightmare as I rushed about trying to deliver the Nene composition. I am only going to Israel for four days, but I felt a sudden, almost uncontainable, sense that I needed to get the piece to Peter at the music school before going away. Obviously, in retrospect, I've decided that this is because the plane is going to crash, but I've expressed that now in writing, so it won't happen, and I'll simply come across as nutty rather than psychic. It's a better deal for me. Anyway, I managed to deliver the score at about 4pm, just as I legged it out of the house to run another quiz.

This one was in Central London in the offices of a rather trendy company where everyone looks cool and well-fed. They were right up my street in terms of demographic. I could let my hair down a bit and crack a few jokes. I'm afraid I'm one of the world's rather natural swearers and always feel a little bit stifled and uncomfortable if I have to steer away from the odd rude word. I think maybe I pitched the quiz a little hard for the participants. You want most of the teams to be getting about 70% of the questions right, but mine were polling in the 60s. They all went for broke on the last round where you lose a point for getting a question wrong. The highest score was 1! Everyone else scored minus points! But it was a lot of fun. Max, who was assisting me, heard someone describing the quiz as "awesome", and as I waited for a lift, I could hear a group of women around the corner saying that it was "so much better than they thought it would be." I was rather pleased they were saying nice things, because I knew they were going to suddenly see me, and it could have been very awkward had they been saying awful things!

So from the quiz I rushed to TK Maxx, knowing it would be the only shop likely to be open on at 9pm on a week day evening. And here I am, coming home on the tube, at 10pm, without having eaten or packed, or even discovered the Hebrew word for vegetarian!

The Girls

I went for a somewhat glorious walk on the Heath last night. I'm going there increasingly at the moment. Rain was forecast for today (and boy has it rained) so I figured I'd take a stroll in the dusty grass before the pathways turned muddy. The moon rose whilst I was standing by Boudicca's Mount, the so-called burial site of the queen of the Iceni. She is, of course, rumoured to be buried everywhere, including at King's Cross station, and there's sod all evidence to back up any of the claims. What is true, however, is that Boudicca's Mount on the Heath is an intriguing man-made tumulus, which is plainly ancient. To make matters a little more exciting, it's surrounded by a fence. Whatever it is is off limits to members of the public. It attracts large numbers of pagans as a result of both of these facts!

The moon was full, enormous and bright orange. I guess you might describe it as a harvest moon. It was absolutely stunning and the Heath seemed to hum with magic as it ascended in the sky. I felt utterly privileged to be there.

After a morning of work, Nathan and I took ourselves into town to meet Julie and see the matinee of The Girls, which is the musical based on Calendar Girls. "A Tuesday matinee?" I hear you cry! "What?!!" We thought it would be empty, but it was actually rather busy, perhaps on account of the fact that the show is sadly in its last week. I half expected to hate it. I'm not a massive fan of Gary Barlow's sudden decision to go into musical theatre now that his pop career is over, and certainly resent the fact that he seems to be hoovering up opportunities which would probably be much better given to musical theatre specialists. That said, I rather enjoyed the experience. Sure, the music is a bit half-arsed, and somewhat badly orchestrated, but the story is such a good one. It's as moving as it is uplifting. It's deeply empowering for women, and the performances across the board were sensational. It's well worth a watch.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Doing nothing

There's really very little to be said for Sunday. It was one of those days you look back on and have to focus really hard to remember what you were doing. The sad truth is that I worked for most of it. I have been going through percussion parts for my Nene composition with a fine tooth comb. At the moment I'm "re-beaming", which means I'm trying to make sure that the stems which come out of all the notes look as logical and easy to follow as possible. Formatting is so important in music. Nicely spaced semi-quavers on a score are always, for some reason, easier to play than ones which look all bunched up. Unless you're a cellist, when of course you don't play semi-quavers, unless you're going for a rustling effect. The sound of a crisp packet being opened stylishly!

We went into Muswell Hill for lunch, and had a walk around the block in the evening, but apart from that, I sat, like a sad sack on the sofa writing all day. By about 10pm, I was ready to eat my own hand, and by 11, we were in bed.

That was my day. I should probably drift off into some kind of crazy fantasy story about doing something amazing, but I'm just not that interesting!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Pride and stuff

We had a wasps' nest in the rafters of our house until yesterday. Sadly I was out when the man came to deal with them, pumping a white dust into the brick work from our bedroom window. Abbie thinks that wasps must hold a cure for cancer, based on a belief that all creatures on this planet must have a purpose of some sort. It certainly seems that wasps don't bring a great deal to the table. I mean, they're alright at this time of year when they're quietly busy making nests and stuff, but then they turn into proper maniacs. I can't imagine how awful it would have been in the autumn when the queen wasp chucked all of the boys out of the home they'd built. No wonder wasps get so angry!

I took a trip into central London today to see what the gays were doing for Pride. The tube journey was rather pleasant. There were loads of young people bedecked in flags and wearing outrageous outfits. A pair of young girls with rainbows drawn with makeup on their cheeks were cuddling fondly.

Pride is very different these days. When I was in my early twenties, it was a political march which we all took incredibly seriously. The party afterwards, which was usually in a London Park was always a legendary and hugely decadent experience, but it was generally regarded as unacceptable to attend without marching first. Politics used to come before partying. The march was the bit which demonstrated to the world the huge diversity within our community. Being gay wasn't just about people like John Inman, or drag queens, or the lisping nellie clich├ęs which abounded in the media. Yes, they were all there, but they were rubbing shoulders with firemen and teachers and ordinary people that Joe Public would never have thought to be gay.

These days Pride is no longer a march. It's been rebranded as a carnival parade. A money-making scheme for which you have to pay to participate. These days the gays pay to show the world how fabulous we are. Those who turn up to march are turned away and told they need a permit. The parade is therefore filled with shiny floats and crowing people dancing to souped-up ABBA songs, wearing little glittery pants and blowing whistles. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with that. But, for me, that's just one part of my community. Only allowing the glitz and glamour to be seen in this parade does nothing but trivialise my community. It makes us all vapid, one-dimensional party animals. But unless we remember the journey we've been on for the last forty years, we'll forget that it can all be taken away from us with one brutally right wing government or a devastating sexually-transmitted disease.

I didn't particularly fancy being sucked into the revelry so we skirted around the outskirts of Soho, doing a tour of vintage shops in Seven Dials after eating at my favourite chippie in London. The "Rock and Sole Plaice" (see what they did there?) serves enormous chips, which are always fried to absolute perfection. They're cooked in vegetable fat as well, so it's a brilliant place to take any vegan friends you might have in town who fancy the British chippie experience. Obviously they'd have to avoid the fish...

Old Compton Street, unsurprisingly, was rammed. Standing at the end of the road was like looking down into the Castro in San Francisco. The searing heat gave everything a sort of nostalgic, hazy quality. Flags of many nationalities fluttered in the breeze. It made a change to see rainbow flags flying on that street again. In the '90s it was almost exclusively gay, until its success pushed the rental prices up and only the fancy brands like Hotel Chocolat could afford to move in. Another example of gay men being pushed out of a club which we popularised!

I went from Central London to Julie and Sam's house in Catford. They'd been with Nathan and Abbie all afternoon knitting in the back garden and when I arrived, I was instantly fed (Julie is Jewish) and then taken out into the allotments behind their house where we picked raspberries and gooseberries.

We sat on a hammock until the sun set. Nathan was knitting a pair of socks with fluorescent wool which started to glow magically as the light started to fade. Abbie has recently ditched all of her Mac products and largely returned to PCs. Nathan asked her at one point how she was coping "without Apple products" at which point Julie, bursting into the conversation, said "can't you eat apples either these days?"! Ah! The joys of miscommunication!


Friday, 7 July 2017

Hungarians and female composers

I worked on a quiz yesterday in another girls' school. I wasn't running this one. I was working as Abbie's little helper. I was, therefore, slightly perturbed to note that the teacher who had booked the quiz, saw us both setting up and immediately assumed that I was the quizmaster. It was a female teacher as well. It is moments like this when you realise there's still a way to go in the search for equality, and that, sadly, the problem is as much to do with women's perception of themselves.

On that front, a fair amount of articles are presently being written about the lack of female composers in musical theatre. As many as 9 out of 10 musicals, we're told, have male writers. Now obviously, if there are women musical theatre writers out there who fee their gender is preventing them somehow from getting their heads above the parapet, this is something we need to tackle. It's pretty clear, however, that a shockingly high percentage of the high percentage of male musical theatre writers are gay. And this opens up a can of worms which could legitimately lead to straight male writers of musical theatre screaming inequality. More than this, if you're going to try to readdress the balance of women working in musical theatre, you're essentially going to have to take work away from a minority group who are hugely under-represented in other fields of employment.

Gay men have traditionally been attracted to musical theatre, often as an escape from difficult and lonely childhoods. The "cheesiness" of the art form doesn't seem to bother us as much as it might a more aggressively heterosexual man. In fact, most of the female writers and composers I know would run a million miles from musical theatre. I just think it appeals more to gay men. We feel safe in its world. It's our world. It's where some of our biggest role models can be found.


I don't bang on about the under representation of gay men in sports, because I'm well aware that gay men don't tend to be drawn to that particular area. Yes, of course it's appropriate to ask why gay men aren't traditionally interested in sports, and there are many unanswered questions regarding why sports men don't tend to come out, but the fact remains that there are certain areas which simply attract people of a certain gender or sexuality and I'm struggling to understand why this is a bad thing. Trying to bash down the walls of equality in an area where one minority group is thriving feels a little bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul. No one, after all, tries to claim that gospel music should be the pursuit of fewer black people!

There's even a lobby which refuses to acknowledge the G in LGBT and now talks about "issues for the LBTQ+ community." So it's okay to be bisexual these days, but gay men are no longer allowed to be part of the community we fought so hard to build? We're apparently just too successful. So now, once again, I have to be ashamed of being gay, no longer because of the stigma it generates but because of the privilege being gay apparently now brings me. I could spit.

As far as I'm concerned we need to be promoting good writing, whether that's by women or men. And the problem with British musical theatre is that there's not enough funding regardless of your gender or sexuality.

I had a very pleasant evening last night with Michael, first at a do at the Hungarian Embassy, where my only topic of conversation was Eurovision, after it became embarrassingly obvious that I knew sod all else about Hungary. I kept imagining my brother being really ashamed of me, as I repeatedly said to one of the ambassadors, "I really loved Katy Wolf's song!" The alternative was telling her I'd once looked at Hungary on a map and thought how similar in shape and size it was to Austria. "Have you been to Hungary?" She asked. I giggled nervously and told her that I'd been to Poland. Like that was the same thing. At that point she either got bored or took pity and introduced me to someone from the Polish Embassy so I could be on slightly more familiar territory.

We had tea at the Groucho club where, once again, I bumped into Philip Sallon. He must think I'm always there. That or that he himself is always there! He was with our mutual friend Jo who was looking hugely glamorous in a beautiful pleated summer dress. Philip, as usual, talked the hind legs off our proverbial donkeys, and wanted to sing Jewish songs, Dona Dona and Jerusalem the Gold. He's never happier than when harmonising with someone. I don't blame him for that!

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Trompe L'Oeil


Sitting in the kitchen writing is such a joy at the moment. We have a giant sash window which I throw wide open, and the sounds and smells from outside drift in to keep me company. The buddleia in the garden is in full bloom, so great wafts of a honey-like scent make me almost giddy. I can hear a group of workmen chatting. Periodically they bang something or turn on a cutting machine, which for some reason isn't too irritating. It sounds a little like a lawn mower.

Bees occasionally fly into the kitchen. I don't understand why they can't sense where the air is, because they almost always immediately fly upwards and bash against the closed top half of the window. I spend quite a lot of time with a cup and a piece of paper rescuing them.

I took yesterday nice and slowly on account of coming down with this little coldy thing which is doing the rounds at the moment. It seems to be nothing more than a recurring sore throat and a general feeling of fuzziness. Julie has it, and we've nicknamed it "Theresa" because it won't go away and only an imbecile would want it.

Nathan and I went for a late afternoon walk on the Heath today and found ourselves in Kenwood House, which is the one part of the Heath I don't know that well. Kenwood has a charming tearoom which has the loveliest kitchen garden which you can sit in whilst eating a (slightly overpriced) cream tea. We walked down to the lake with its charming little bridge framed by dark green trees. It's such a glorious view which can be seen from the house at the top of the hill. Look how lovely it is!!



All is, however, not quite what it seems. We ended up taking a little stroll which took us into the woods to the rear of the lovely bridge, and were utterly bemused and surprised to see it from behind... 


Not only does the water barely extend beyond the "bridge"'s base, but the bridge itself is nothing but a painted fence! A wonderful example of trompe l'oeil! 

The rest of the walk was idyllic and accompanied by the sound of crickets, which I'm not sure I've ever heard so loudly in the UK. We saw two sparrow hawks darting to the ground, no doubt to attack some sort of vole, but they were seen off by an angry crow, and then a magpie. Plainly sparrow hawks are not welcome in those parts. The avian Heath neighbourhood watch has made its feelings very clear!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Girls' school

I went out to the arse end of beyond today to do a quiz. I was up on the Metropolitan line. That's the burgundy coloured line. It's a line I have so little concept of that I didn't even know how to spell it when I wrote it down just now! There are huge geographical leaps between stations, traveling from Finchley Road to Wembley Park, you leapfrog zone three entirely. Then you end up in all these somewhat suburban places which are plainly home to many, but which have names you've never seen before: Northwood Hills, Preston Road...

I was in the area to run a quiz. It was my first job as a fully-fledged, all-singing-all-dancing quiz master. It was the first time I got to press all the buttons, decide which questions got asked and do all the other things I was secretly dreading! Abbie was on hand, of course, and has been a brick throughout the training experience. She actually only needed to step in once, when I inadvertently closed one of the programmes down and froze a bit whilst trying to remember how to open it up again!

Otherwise, it went pretty smoothly. It wasn't anything like as terrifying as I'd expected it to be although I probably didn't sparkle a great deal. My head was simply trying to make sure I didn't mess up any of the technical aspects. Sparkling requires confidence, and isn't helped by coming down with a blinking cold! All things considered, however, I don't think I could have done any better, and feel very proud of myself for overcoming my huge fear.

The quiz was in a girl's school. It astonishes me how different things are in schools these days. Abbie and I needed to be escorted everywhere by a teacher who couldn't even leave us alone in the hall to set things up. She literally had to watch us at all times. I had to provide photo ID just to be able to sign in. Of course it's inevitable and entirely understandable but part of me wonders where it all ends. There's now apparently a great emphasis being placed on the jeopardy of potential radicalisation. I sincerely hope this applies to Christian doctrine as well as anything Islamic. My personal worry is that it will also silence passion. We had some fairly radical left wing teachers at my school who set out to challenge the right-leaning tendencies of the kids. Being challenged not to accept everything you've been told at home by parents is a vital part of early education.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Weston Super Mare

We're trundling along the M4 on our way home from Weston Super Mare, where we've been for the weekend. Saturday found us at Fran and Rob's lovely house for a multi-birthday barbecue. I have seldom known a gathering of more people whose birthdays were coming up within the next few weeks. A rainbow birthday cake arrived at one point and everyone started singing Happy Birthday. When it came to singing the name, there was great confusion: "Happy Birthday dear Nathan, Philip, Derek, Fran, Rich..." (Various combinations of the aforementioned...)

We arrived in Weston as the sun burst out from behind fairly heavy cloud, and for some hours, we baked in its rays. We were joined for the day by many of Nathan's friends from his RAF drama group, a number of Fran and Ron's neighbours and four delightful Tonkinese cats of varying ages and shapes. One of them spent some time nestled on the inside of Nathan's elbow.

At the end of the evening, we headed off to Nathan's father and step mother's house, which, it so happens, is also in Weston Super Mare. We stayed the night and woke up this morning to a gloriously sunny day.

We had a wonderful walk this morning, up through a somewhat magical wood which wound down to a little cafe with stunning views over Sand Bay. The tide was out and mudflats stretched as far as the eye could see. Ocean liners drifted along the Bristol Channel in the far distance.

We walked with David and Liz' dog Barney, who bounced along with us, searching for squirrels. He likes squirrels. And hates flies!

We had dinner in the garden. Liz did a fine Mediterranean spread of a Caprese salad, tortilla, hummus, olives and halloumi and avocado. It felt highly appropriate to be eating that sort of food in the heat of the sun. It's probably my favourite kind of food.

The traffic was a little sticky on the way back to London. It seems that people who go out of London on a nice Sunny Sunday like to return for their tea at 5pm.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Nathan's birthday

It was Nathan's birthday yesterday and we went to Cambridge for the day with Abbie. It was somewhat overcast, so we didn't rush to get there, and actually only did about an hour punting on the river. I forget how quiet the river can be on a week day in the summer. I reckon we can only have passed five or six other punts and a couple of canoes. Punting uses a set of muscles which don't get a great amount of usage in everyday life, so there's always that feeling afterwards that you might be coming down with something! It was, nevertheless, hugely relaxing. The cool water lapping the underside of the boat, the trees rustling overhead, cows braying, birds chattering, the distant sound of children laughing...

We went to Thaxted afterwards, via an Aldi in Saffron Walden. Aldis never cease to amaze me. Everything is so cheap, but woe-betide anyone going in there in a search for something specific. Shopping in Aldi requires one to master the art of Zen. You have to clear your mind of any preconceptions and merely allow yourself to be carried through the aisles purchasing things you didn't realise you wanted and will never see again. 

We had a lovely time in Thaxted. My brother was there and the parents had invited our friends Sally and Stuart over with the kids, who were sporting home-made woollen beards in honour of Nathan. My mother had bought Nathan lots of little flavoured balls which you drop into glasses of Prosecco and the like. You're meant to suck them up through a straw, at which point they burst in your mouth. Great fun, although I'm not sure they tasted very nice. It was like having frogspawn in your mouth. It was also slightly off-putting to learn that the film on the outside of the balls was made of seaweed, which is no doubt why it doesn't burst or corrode whilst it's sitting at the bottom of a glass, but the moment I learned it was seaweed, I couldn't get the thought out of my mind.

We had tea in the Swan pub. I wanted macaroni cheese (or Mac 'n Cheese as everyone's suddenly and unacceptably calling it these days). They'd run out. I had a quinoa burger instead which was fairly heavy-going! Young Cate drew a picture of Nathan whilst sitting at the table, which she presented to him at the end of the meal. We all agreed that it was a very good likeness. Cate's older sister, Sky, who's about ten, has started knitting. Nathan was impressed by her technique.

We returned home to eat my mother's delicious chocolate and orange cake before Abbie and I took a little stroll down to the magic place, for a little top up of the universe's energy. It's been a fairly exhausting few weeks. I could do with all the help I can get at the moment.