Saturday, 30 September 2017

Yom Kippur

It's 11pm and I'm at Shepherd's Bush station. The platform is absolutely ram-packed with people, many of whom are doing some sort of tragic flash mob. They're playing Uptown Funk on impossibly loud speakers and the people around them are filming them on their mobile phones, whooping and cheering encouragingly. Without wanting to sound like a grumpy old fuddy-duddy, I could well do without it. I just don't think it's appropriate to clog up a tube station late at night, when people plainly just want to get home. By all means have your pop-up disco in a large space where those who want to join in are free to do so, but I'm tired and just not that into people making a racket like this. It feels a bit desperate if I'm honest, like all the noise is a product of them wanting the world to know how subversive and decadent they're being rather than a product of genuine fun. It's almost as though they need to make noise to convince themselves they're having fun. Horrible. It's raining, so everything is sticky and damp. I'm so claustrophobic I want to vomit...

... I am now on the tube train itself. The disco has followed me into the carriage, and loud, thumping music and the sounds of shrieking are destined to travel with me for the next half an hour. To make matters worse, the couple pressed up against me have just started snogging. It would be hard to imagine how much more horrifying this journey could get.

...At Tottenham Court Road I changed onto the Northern Line. Whilst standing in that station, they repeatedly made announcements quoting the somewhat ghastly attempt by Transport for London to urge us all to be vigilant in reporting suspicious packages and the like. It's all really "street" and plainly meant to get under the skin of young people, "see it, say it, sorted." My eyes hit the back of their sockets every time I read it or hear it being said.

I've spent the entire day today locked within the Victorian splendour of the New West End Synagogue. It's Yom Kippur, which means it's the final day of a series of religious festivals associated with the Jewish New Year. The service started at noon and finished at 8pm and we were singing almost constantly. It was an absolute roast. There was definitely an "in it together" war-time spirit vibe amongst my fellow singers, all of whom had also been singing at a marathon service for Kol Nidrei the night before. We sang well-over 300 pages of music.

I had a thoroughly lovely time. It is so nice to sing in a choir and be able to make music without the pressure of having had to organise everyone and deal with the high-maintenance behaviour of singers. I'm also thoroughly relieved to have done the gig. It's been hanging over my head for the last month and I've been terrified of learning so many pages of material. I am not unaware of the irony. Whinging to Michael about the difficulty of learning so much music in Hebrew is an example of the high-maintenance behaviour I find so difficult in others!

I am now home. My little canvas shoes are wet. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to wear leather or show dominance over animals on Kol Nidrei/ Yom Kippur, so we've been treated to the sight of men in suits all day, all of whom were wearing, trainers, deck shoes or slippers! It looks very comic.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Where oh where did my big choir go?

You know when you look out of the window early in the morning and witness a day which is struggling to wake up? The grey of the sky makes everything murky and bleak. The trees in the garden are fed up, and bent double with rainwater. I even dreamed about rain. Flood waters were so wide I was preparing to get in a boat to cross them. 

I drove through the rain to Maidenhead on Wednesday to run a quiz. I've always wanted to go to Maidenhead on account of it having a bridge over the Thames with a near perfect echo. Apparently, if you stand on the footpath which runs underneath it and sing, you get a very charming effect.

This may be a useless stub end of a fact, but I think Maidenhead is also the place where Edward Vii used to woo his mistresses, most notably Lillie Langtry. We may even be able to go as far as to say that he took the maidenheads of sundry maidens in Maidenhead! Never let the facts get in the way of a good pun!

Anyway, I didn't get to visit the town itself, and ended up running the quiz in a conference room, in a business park, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of the town. Ah! The glamour! The rancid glamour!

At 3.30pm yesterday, I left Highgate for Greenwich to do my teaching at Trinity. As I walked along the river, it struck me what a special location the conservatoire is situated in. It's right by the Thames in part of the magnificent 17th Century Royal Naval college, which, I read today, has been designated an UNESCO site of "outstanding universal value." The white buildings glow a magical peachy colour at sunset. One building looked so beautiful that I had to ask one of my students if it was being lit up by lamps. They filmed the end sequences of Les Mis there.

I had spent time in the week studying the CVs of my pupils, and pouring over them for spelling mistakes and inconsistencies. If you're going to have Rodgers and Hammerstein on your CV, you ought to spell their names properly. I also wanted to make sure that no one was filling out their biogs with skills they couldn't actually back up. One of my pet hates is people claiming to play musical instruments they can't actually play to a standard which would be useful in a show. Having basic flute skills is neither here nor there. There are high class musicians who would be able to get to a basic standard on pretty much any instrument in an afternoon! It was all very good natured. We had quite a laugh after the students began to realise that none of them were going to be spared my acid tongue!

The show choir was more challenging. Last week, 120 students attended. Tonight I'd be lucky to have had half of that number. The biggest hit was the lads. We had two tenors and one bass, which doth not a choir make! Of course I couldn't fail to take it a little personally. Choirs don't usually haemorrhage members like that. I'm told the problem is that the ensemble is not a compulsory thing within the college, so life takes over and the numbers diminish. A visitor isn't able to incentivise students who might think twice about appearing flaky in front of a member of staff. It seems a bit shortsighted of the students if I'm honest. When a visiting professional comes into a college, he, more than anyone else, has the power to give them employment in the future. Lack of men aside, we had a tremendous rehearsal. At the end, we sang I Miss the Music in complete darkness but for the light of mobile phone torches. Marvellous.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Just get back to people, okay?!

I applied for a job recently. The employer was looking for a composer with experience of creating large-scale, ambitious and site-specific community projects. It sounded so far up my street that three separate people sent me the link to it. I played the game. I called the organisers to ask for more information and ascertained that there wasn't a specific brief: they were just looking for interesting proposals. I spent a lot of time working up an idea which I was really excited about. I submitted it and got the "thank you for your interest in this post, we'll be in touch" email... and have heard nothing since. Zip. Zilch. No interview. No "Dear Mr Benjamin, we've decided on this occasion not to meet you, but good luck in your chosen career." No "the standard of applications was very high, but we'll keep you on our files for future opportunities" (which I've subsequently learned means we'll add you to our mailing list and inundate you with unwanted emails about arts projects which you haven't been invited to pitch for...)

So here's the thing: if you're an employer and you have a vacancy, it is hugely rude to expect people to jump through all the hoops that applying for your post requires them to do if you're not prepared to contact them to tell them that you're not taking things further. I don't know how it works in other employment sectors but it happens all the time in the arts. I once applied to work as a teacher. The application form was so involved, that it took me two days to fill in. After not hearing from them for two months, I contacted the bursar whose name was on the form and asked when I was likely to hear anything. Her tone was dismissive: "if you've not heard anything from us you have to assume you've not been successful. Lots of people applied. We can't be expected to get back to everyone." Common decency surely dictates that you should. I didn't have time to reply to close to a thousand messages of good will from strangers I received after my wedding, but I sure as hell replied to them. Nathan doesn't have the time to reply to all the people who contact him asking him questions about his knitting patterns, but he does. Top producer Danielle Tarento says she has a policy of responding to absolutely everyone who writes to her, and she's the busiest producer I know.

Over the past year, during some really bleak times, I have applied to close to fifty jobs on the Arts Council website. I only heard back from four. And I'm a BAFTA nominee!

If you're lucky enough to be an employer in the arts, please take heed. Creative people will often throw their hearts and souls into their work in a way that very few other people seem to be able to comprehend. There's often an almost pathetic lack of distinction between the work we do and the way we perceive ourselves. If, as an employer, you're not even prepared to respond to someone who has invested time and emotion trying to pitch something to you, regardless of the reason, you're sending out a very clear message that the person's idea (and his or her career to date) is so insignificant that it's not worthy of comment. And this can be brutally damaging. If you're in arts admin, the bottom line is that you're making money out of creative people, so there's a double responsibility to treat us with respect.

All creative people have those moments which stick with us for ever, where someone's throw-away remark destroyed our confidence. Whilst at university, a very close friend came to watch me rehearsing a production of Dangerous Liaisons. After the rehearsal she said "you're literally the most awful actor I've ever seen. Stick to directing." I was so mortified that I immediately pulled out of the production and haven't acted since. Fiona told me the other day that she'd been practising an almost impossible Tchaikovsky cadenza in her house in Kentish Town one day, with he window open, and someone passing in the street had shouted "you can't play it!" The fact that she's remembered this for the best part of twenty years is indicative of how fragile our egos are.

I'm not doing a "poor luvvies" rant here. You need a very thick skin to work in the arts, and over the years, those of us who are still working professionals have developed incredibly thick skins and coping mechanisms. But I'm writing this because I think it's something we can all think about in the future, whatever line of work we're in. If you're the person who gets back to everyone who looks like they've spent time in contacting you: Thank you. If you're reading this and feeling perhaps you could do better in this respect, maybe think about how you could implement a different policy. If you're reading this and thinking "I completely know how that feels", then you have my deepest sympathy. It's horrible. If you're an artist, please dust yourself off every time some passing dick tells you you can't play, make, create, write or act, however they tell you, whether it's vindictive or subconscious. Art is subjective. I've even heard there are people out there who don't like ABBA. The world needs you to keep on doing what you're doing. So please, keep going.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Don't cut off your nose...

I literally don't know if I'm coming or going at the moment. I have so much to achieve that I'm starting work at 7.30am and going through til 9 without stopping.

This evening, I decided that enough was enough, and threw in the towel at 7.30pm, made some pasta, and watched the Bake Off live, which I think has transferred to Channel 4 in the most excellent manner. I'm not even minding the ad breaks because it means I have time to make cups of tea and return plates to the kitchen. I may sound mercenary or a bit contrary when I say this, but I'm not missing any of the old guard. Noel and Sandy have really found their rhythm and I've even taken to Pru, who I think is rather witty, a bit naughty and very kindhearted. 

I had Countdown on in the background earlier, and, whilst watching the lovely Rachel Riley doing her sums, it suddenly struck me that there's never a point in walking out on something to prove how much the rest of the world will miss you. (Carol Vorderman.) It's one of those horrible facts of life. People will have a brief panic and then you'll be replaced by someone cheaper, younger and probably just as good.

Many years ago, I worked as the resident director on the West End production of Taboo. I was young, something like 26, and the producers never quite seemed to trust me to get on with my job. As audiences dwindled, they paid me less and less, which felt rather mean-spirited as I'd previously done six months pre-production on the show for the ludicrous fee of £500!

Anyway, I got more and more dispirited and finally said "fuck you very much. I'm amazing. Try steering this boat without me!" I was horrified when they accepted my resignation and immediately replaced me with a cast member. When the show did its UK tour, and then went to Broadway, I was, of course, nowhere in the mix. Lesson learned. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. If you want to leave a job, make sure you can put your hand on your heart and say you'll be happy for whoever is brought on board as your replacement. That, or that the job is just so genuinely awful that it's a relief to leave.

And, of course, the flip side of that argument is that, in the process of thinking we don't want our precious gig to go to someone else, we do often put up with relentless hideousness. My greatest regret in life is not walking out on Beyond The Fence when I was first compromised. I stuck at it and stuck at it because I needed the money and wanted the show on my CV. In retrospect I realise that it threatened my marriage and triggered a nervous breakdown which I took some time to recover from. I am still feeling the dark ripples of that awful period because it encompassed both of my fields of expertise: telly and theatre, and the worlds are very small. I know there are people out there who have heard that I'm impossible to work with and that fills me with great sadness. And when you get the reputation for being difficult, just being passionate about something starts to raise eyebrows. And then you really are in a no-win situation...

That's probably the most honest blog I've ever written. Apologies if it feels like I'm over-sharing!

Monday, 25 September 2017

Walking through Islington

After a day of working yesterday, which felt profoundly painful on a Sunday, I jumped on the 43 bus to Highbury to meet Fiona and Michael for a bite to eat. I realised, as we trundled down the Archway Road, that I usually have work with me when I'm on a bus, and that I don't tend to notice how ludicrously slowly they seem to travel! The twenty miles per hour speed limit we have in most of the North London boroughs feels desperately slow. Frankly, in London, you're lucky to be able to travel at half of that speed. There isn't a road which isn't congested in some way, but on those few occasions when you are able to travel at 30mph, like the times when you're returning home from a gig in the middle of the night, it's really nice to be able to do so.

That said, I've now got quite used to driving at twenty miles per hour in London. It can therefore get very confusing in the boroughs where the speed limit hasn't yet been lowered. Bizarrely, this includes the tourist haven of Westminster, where clueless people repeatedly step out in the road to take photographs without any warning. If there really were a place in London where it might be useful to slow the traffic, it's there. But then again, nothing feels consistent in London when it comes to road travel. Parking regulations differ from road to road. In Highgate, you can park on any street, and most single yellow lines, any time of the day or night except weekdays from 10am till noon. This is, of course, just enough to to deter commuters from driving here, dumping their cars and taking the tube into town. In Hackney, however, where, let's face it, you only visit if absolutely necessary, the regulations prevent people from parking six days a week from 8am til 10pm. I can't imagine how residents cope. What happens if you have the builders in? Or friends to visit? These kind of regulations smack of cynical money-making schemes. The most draconian parking regulations are often in the poorest parts of town where middle class lawyer residents don't threaten to take their councils to court!

My general confusion was aided by the fact that the 43 bus appears to have changed its southbound route and now goes along the Cally Road, bypassing Highbury Corner entirely, which meant I had to do an irritating schlep by Shanks' pony.

We had our tea in an Italianish cafe on Upper Street. The service was a little languid but the food was good. Michael disappeared to a party in Walthamstow and Fiona and I decided to go on one of our epic walks. It's one of the things we like to do when we're together. We talk and walk and do both things at an incredibly fast pace! We walked up through Highbury Fields, then along past Highbury Barn to Finsbury Park, where we did a loop past the Sobell Sports centre, up into Crouch End and back to Highgate. It was a walk which triggered many memories. Even though we're both Northamptonians and Fi now spends most of her time in Brighton and Glasgow, that particular part of London will always be special for us both. I can't count the number of times we've trudged along those pavements together, each time nattering about whatever was important to us at the time, which of course changes as you enter and exit different phases of your life. For me, what's incredibly special about my relationship with Fiona is that our lives have always worked in tandem. It's as though we've always been travelling at the same speed, right from the age of 14. During those 30 or so years we've constantly had each other's backs and only rowed, I think, three times. That's a proper friendship.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


This morning found me, once again, singing in a choir at New West End Synagogue. It was a four piece choir, one person per part, so there was a lot of pressure to get things right. I've actually worked really hard on the Shabbat repertoire, so very much felt on top of things. That said, there's still a sense that I've gatecrashed a party. There are all sorts of amens and little passages of text which everyone suddenly starts singing, none of which are written down. I think it's simply assumed that, as time goes on, I'll learn what's going on by some mystical oral folk-song-like tradition. I certainly wouldn't be allowed to sit and transcribe what's being sung, because I'm not allowed to use pen or pencils in the synagogue! I learn a new rule every week. Today I learned that, when making a cup of tea in shul, etiquette dictates that I pour water from the hot water vat into a little jug before I pour it into my cup. I haven't yet got to the bottom of why this intermediary receptacle is necessary, but it's something to do with mechanical devices and the preparation of food. Next weekend is Yom Kippur, which means I'm not allowed to wear leather shoes with my suit as it's deemed inappropriate to show dominance over an animal on this particular festival. Everyone therefore goes to synagogue wearing trainers. The more I learn about keeping kosher, the more I learn why so many Orthodox Jews are vegetarian!

Today witnessed the world premiere of my first ever musical setting of a religious Jewish text. It is now my ambition to become to Jewish sacred music what John Rutter is to Christmas carols! Michael commissioned me to write the piece back in June and has been waiting for the right moment to unleash it on the unsuspecting public. The choir themselves seemed to really like it. One of them, Joey, who sings tenor, and has basically sung in every synagogue in London, told me it was his favourite ever piece of synagogue music, which felt like high praise indeed. He has a fabulous voice.

I think we performed the piece really well. I got uncontrollably nervous half way through, which was a very strange sensation for me. I don't actually remember when I last went all trembly-voiced whilst singing. It was probably back in the days when I sang with the Northamptonshire Youth Choir... probably singing the Libera Me solo in the Faure Requiem. I suspect I suddenly became aware of the magnitude of the occasion: the fact that the congregation were listening intently and that most of them were standing because, never one to do things by halves, I'd chosen to set a text which takes place during the holiest moment of the service. I've also managed to write a really low bass line, which goes down to a bottom D, and, of course, when the nerves start to come in, the one thing you can't do is support the really low notes. There were a couple of moments when I realised I was beginning to sound like a distant nematic drill, so was forced to stop and take a deep breath!

Q: How do you get a viola player to play tremolando?
A: Write solo above the note.

Aside from a few moments of crashing nerves, I think the choir sang my piece very well. We certainly created a moment. It was an emotional and quite theatrical rendition, which didn't go down hugely well with the Rabbi, but a lot of key people in the synagogue were highly impressed and lavished praise on me and us afterwards. It's a shame that the Rabbi wasn't too keen, but when setting religious texts, you're always going to have the issue that some people don't want anything too fancy, or anything other than what they already know. Also, on first hearing, who can ever really know if a piece of music is going to get under their skin? My hope is that he'll have an epiphany next week. He's plainly a good and very learned man. He delivered a wonderful sermon today on the importance of failure. Recent psychological research suggests that people are more likely to succeed if they accept and, for a time, wallow in their failures. The feeling is that people who take failure to heart are more likely to learn from their mistakes and fight to succeed than those who allow it to be like water off a duck's back. Interesting philosophy.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


I am trolling home on the Northern Line from deepest, darkest Greenwich where I've been teaching at Trinity School. First up was a class with third year students where I heard twenty actors singing ninety seconds each of a song of their choice. My aim was to get to know them all as performers, so I asked them to prepare a passage which told me all I'd need to know about who they were. I also allowed them to tell me three sentences about themselves. It's fascinating to see what people choose to say and sing under these circumstances. By and large I think they all rose to the challenge. I was expecting all sorts of faffing, whinging and nervous behaviour, but I saw very little. They seemed very professional, highly unflappable, and when I started talking at the end, all the pads of paper came out and reams and reams of notes were taken. I hope I gave them good advice. I think they deserve it. There was a lot of talent in that room.

After the class I dashed across the courtyard to run the show choir. It was a tough old space to rehearse in. There's something like 150 singers in the choir who sit in a long, thin room, with the basses and tenors sitting at the back, which means the men are a good twenty meters away from where I'm standing. An additional issue was the last-minute loss of a pianist for the rehearsal. One of the singers, a young chap called Bobby, stepped in and saved the day, manfully sight-reading the accompaniments. Note-bashing rehearsals are never much fun, but I think the choir is going to make a very wonderful sound which I'm rather excited about. I actually wish the rehearsal was an hour longer and that I got to run the choir all year round. It could be something very special indeed. We're singing Mr Blue Sky, Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors and I Miss The Music from Brass.


I've just returned from marking a quiz in the City of London. It took place in an upstairs room at the Counting House on Cornhill, which has to be one of the most fabulous pubs in London, certainly in terms of its gaudy and opulent Victorian architecture. It was originally a banking hall and is lined with intriguing dark, wooden staircases and galleries. A huge domed atrium hovers over the bar.

The quiz went down very well. Abbie was quiz-mastering and got the teams feeling suitably competitive. There was a good level of knowledge in the room as well, which always makes for a nice atmosphere. There's nothing worse than running a quiz and having a drunken woman (and believe me, it's always a woman) kicking off because she thinks the questions (which she's not listening to) are too difficult. When men find something too hard they tend to fold their arms and go quiet, which can be equally challenging but fortunately less disruptive. The worst ones are the ones who say "who cares?" when you ask them a question they don't know the answer to. Like they are somehow the guardians of what makes for an interesting question. I personally know very little about sport or science but would certainly not dismiss a question about one of those subjects as being boring. Listen to the question and it's answer, and maybe, just maybe, the next time you go to a quiz you won't feel the need to kick off!

The quiz I ran two nights ago (also in the city) was designed to launch one particular legal firm's diversity week, and we were asked to pepper the quiz with a few appropriate questions. I was actually fairly horrified to discover that only one team knew which city the Stonewall riots had taken place in, that no one knew which country had been the first to give votes to women, and that very few people seemed to know who Rosa Parks was or which country Dana International was representing in Eurovision when she brought trans rights to the front of everyone's consciousness. I guess belonging to a minority group has made me more interested in knowing about equality and diversity right across the spectrum, but I'm all too aware that younger people don't seem to be that bothered about knowing how they got to where they are. There are huge numbers of young gay men who don't know a thing about the White Night Riots or Stonewall, and I think the concept of women's rights and the debts we owe to a whole host of pioneering females are entirely lost on many young women today. I think it's a terrible shame, and it worries me because it leads to a lack of respect for the older generation within our communities, and God knows, after Brexit, those blessed Baby Boomers aren't exactly riding high in their children and grand children's opinions!

Tuesday, 19 September 2017


I read today that Theresa May is waging war on modern slavery. "The world must act" she says, "to stamp it out." Lovely little smoke screen there to divert attention away from her government's catastrophic Brexit negotiations. Like any one is going to deny that modern day slavery doesn't need to be expunged. It's a bit like waging war on murder, and needs to be viewed as the cynical smoke screen that it is. What I also feel obliged to write is that, if the definition of modern day slavery is that a person's basic human rights have been removed, May needs to take a good hard look at her decision to get into bed with the DUP. She's such a ghastly, evil woman.

This evening we went to see Stockard Channing and Lady Edith from Downton Abbey in Apologia at the Trafalgar Studios. I don't actually know when I last went to see a piece of straight theatre, so it was quite a treat to get back into that particular saddle. So what can I say about the piece? The set design was exquisite. The lighting complimented the design perfectly. The writing was, in the main, good. I sometimes got a little tired of the somewhat transparent way in which monologue sequences were set up. The writing, in places was a little unconvincing, and I felt that one of the characters, a soap actress, had been handed a plethora of really dodgy lines. The writer had imbued that character with more cynicism and wisdom than her years would dictate, and a far fruitier vocabulary than I believe she would have had in real life. The result was a character with no redeeming features whatsoever, which felt lazy. The rest of the cast were lovely. Laura Carmichael had been handed the somewhat thankless task of playing a born again American Christian, but managed to make the character really very likeable, and Desmond Barrit played an ageing hippy homosexual with exquisite comic timing.

Watching Stockard Channing on stage was a deep, deep thrill. Of course the auditorium was full of gay men. She is unbelievably popular with my sort on account of having played Rizzo in Grease. Don't ask me what it is about sassy characters like Rizzo that the gays like so much, but I'm sure a great deal of it was due to the genius of Channing who was actually 33 when she played the teenaged role.

Her performance tonight was honest, understated, psychological, intelligent, and, right at the end, heart-breaking. From the moment she walked on stage you somehow knew you were in the presence of greatness. It was a mammoth role, but you instantly knew you were in a safe pair of hands. She played a highly complex character: a woman who had been engulfed by sixties radicalism to the extent that she had possibly chosen that world over the happiness of her children, who, as grown men, were taking pot shots at her left, right and centre. It was a testament to Channing's remarkable acting skills that the audience were able to remain on her side throughout. As she took her bow, obviously exhausted, I realised how lucky I was to have seen acting royalty in such a tiny theatre. It was a hugely thought-provoking and magical evening.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Jewish new year

I was back at the synagogue yesterday for another rehearsal. We're entering a really important and holy period in the Jewish calendar, namely the Jewish New Year, and there are myriad services of atonement and celebration, all of which require music. One of the big complications is that, although Jewish religious services are built on a foundation of song, on Shabbat, if you're orthodox, you're not actually allowed to play instruments, so everything has to be sung unaccompanied. Perhaps because of this, and because Judaism is a dwindling religion, very few composers and music makers have paid a great deal of attention to this issue and this means the music which IS there is often barely fit for purpose. There's the "Blue Book", which is a Victorian creation filled with psalms and such. It has not been updated, so all the music is written in ancient Hebrew which means a modern day singer is constantly having to change vowel sounds and exchange s's for t's. It's also written for mixed male and female voices, which means, in a modern day orthodox context where all choirs are male-only, singers are forced to change keys and octaves left right and centre, and this can lead to a fair amount of sonic muddiness. To make matters worse, the original compilers' desire to save paper, has meant that the music is a confusing mass of tonic-sol-fah notation with the lyrics to different verses, none of which have the same metre, crammed underneath the soprano line. All of this makes sight reading almost impossible. My heart sinks when I see something which has been photocopied from the Blue Book. What should be a walk in the park is destined to become a traumatic crawl across No Man's Land!

There was an open day going on at the synagogue when we arrived yesterday and a few people were milling about looking at the building's beautiful Victorian architecture. For me the greatest sadness is that every time I show up to a synagogue, a huge number of security people are standing outside, checking bags, asking questions and generally converting what should be a warm and inviting experience into something which is laced with suspicion. It's a reminder of how many people out there have issues with Jewish people and how unsafe the community has been made to feel in recent years. I could be wrong, but I'm really not sure I've ever seen security people outside a church, or indeed, a mosque. How awful that this very small, totally unthreatening community is forced to worship under such extreme circumstances.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Costwolds for five hours

Yesterday started very early indeed with a 8.45am rehearsal at shul. I bought a bottle of water from a corner shop en route and was asked by the man behind the counter if I wanted a bag. Surely the point of a bag is to carry more than one object? Water bottles aren't exactly hard objects to hold! In a different corner shop, on the same street, earlier in the week, under remarkably similar circumstances, I was asked if I wanted a "small bag." What? As opposed to a bin liner? Surely I can rely on a shop keeper's wisdom to offer a bag which is the right size for my purchase? He or she doesn't really need to bring me into the decision process about the size of bag I'm getting. Or perhaps she was trying to tell me that my purchase wasn't worthy of anything other than a small bag and therefore, if I was hankering for a bag which I'd also be able to put my music folder into, I was going to be sorely disappointed? These thoughts troubled me as I walked to the shul.

Yesterday was the first time I was due to sing as part of a quartet with only one person singing each line. There was therefore a lot of pressure on my shoulders. The last time I'd sung in shul there were two of us on each part so I was able to coast a bit and rely on the other bass, James, to pitch the odd crazy interval or sing the more tongue-twistery lyrics!

Singing in shul is a really lovely experience. I spend so much of my creative time in high-pressure environments, with one hand on a stop clock or frantically orchestrating under headphones whilst people are enjoying the bonding sensation of rehearsing and performing. It's a genuine pleasure to have no other task than simply to sing and to know you're well-prepared enough to be able to relax and have a cup of tea instead of panicking between numbers. The other singers are friendly and great fun to be around, and one of them, Gabriel, was an absolute godsend, keeping me on track and whispering things in my ear like "there's a perfect cadence sung to Amen coming up" and "now we all face the wall..." Gabriel and I know each other of old. He was the boyfriend of my dear friend Hilary back in the day.

I felt as though I held my own throughout the service and was secretly rather pleased with myself. A bar mitzvah was happening as part of the proceedings which meant we got to witness the curious and wonderful sight of the entire congregation lobbing hard-boiled sweets at the lad who was entering adulthood. It's quite a hard core moment. The lad was forced to duck and protect his head as the sweets flew at him, with force, in their hundreds.

After the service, Michael and I went along the Portobello Road. It was my brother's birthday yesterday and I wanted to get him something nice. Michael had spoken highly about a little boutique where they sell all sorts of quirky glass and ceramic statement pieces. My brother has a fabulous collection of colourful glass, and I found him a bright orange decanter to add to it. Portobello Road, as you might expect, was buzzing with excited tourists having their pictures taken in front of street signs and the colourful houses down there. I wondered how many of them were fans of Bedknobs and Broomsticks... or Notting Hill come to think of it. The whole place is highly chi-chi these days with artisan bakeries and coffee shops on every corner, a far cry from the grotty street market we visited as children where I bought a scarf with piano keys on it as an ode to Bruno from Fame, and my brother got mugged!

Hovering over the district, Grenfell Tower reminds us that there's more to the area than this new influx of yuppies and yummy mummy. My heart still sinks when it looms into view, particularly at night time, when it becomes a pitch black, bleak silhouette against the sky.

I jumped in a car in the early afternoon and drove to a little Oxfordshire town called Burford, or more specifically a tiny village on the outskirts of said town called Little Barrington, which I think is over the border in Gloucestershire. I haven't really spent a great deal of time in the Cotswolds although my mother tells me we went there often as children. It's a stunningly beautiful part of the world. The landscape undulates with little villages and towns sitting neatly in the dells. Little Barrington itself is very charming and rather ancient, and filled with rows of 18th Century stone cottages which surround a winter-born stream and a rather "moundy" village green.

The parents and Edward and Sascha had hired a little cottage with Sascha's parents, Hans and Joey, who were over from South Africa. It was lovely to finally meet them and they seemed incredibly charming. Hans had brought some very classy bottles of wine to England with him which everyone but Joey and me polished off with great alacrity, purring and cooing like fans of wine tend to. I was surprised to hear them describing the wine as "crisp" and "fruity" rather than as "stomach bile" which is how we all secretly know it tastes. We ate in a lovely gastro pub before returning to the little cottage for Dutch hot chocolate. By the end of the night my brother and my Mum were decidedly tipsy. My brother became obsessed with linguistics, which is his drunken default, and my Mum was telling stories about her own mother.

I drove back to London late at night, stopping, as I love to do, at a service station which, as usual, made me feel very happy!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Flash fires

London appears to be quaking in the wake of yet another dreadful attack. This one, fortunately, has killed no one. We're told that the home-made bomb, planted on a District Line tube train, didn't detonate properly and caused a flash fire instead of an explosion, which means most of the victims have superficial burns. Had the bomb gone off as intended, many would have died. The police have defined it as a terrorist attack. I don't know how they can be so sure. It could simply be the work of some nut job jumping on the current bandwagon. For something to be defined as terrorism, an ideology needs to be established. Terrorism shouldn't be lazily defined as "that which causes terror." Until police can establish who did this, and why, they have no right to call it an act of terrorism.

London, of course, keeps calm and carries on. I don't get a sense of any degree of rising panic. The media are doing their best to whip us up, but I think we've all decided to be stoic instead. Stoic and a bit bored of it all. As Andy Hamilton said on the news quiz tonight, "I think we're all outraged-out."

I was rather touched to hear stories on the news about those who'd witnessed the attack providing support for one another. Strangers in London very rarely so much as acknowledge one another, let alone go out of their way to look after each other. I'm beginning to think that the terrorists are doing us a massive favour and bringing us all closer together. How ironic!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

TV musicals? What TV musicals?

These illnesses always go on just slightly longer than a man can endure don't they? Mine is following an almost identical pattern to Nathan's, who now seems better, so I'm hoping it will pass through my system soon enough. The high levels of stress continue, however. I drove to Oxford yesterday for a quiz and spent most of the night experiencing adrenaline bolts shooting through my upper chest, which is just ludicrous. I could, of course, go to see my GP, but the curse of the freelancer is that I'll simply be told I need to take some time off work and, of course, if I do that, my stress levels will rise further, largely because I won't be getting paid to do anything! It's all very dull. I wish I had the energy to knuckle down at the start of a day and just plough through. Maybe tomorrow...

There's nothing else to say for today. I heard from a TV exec this afternoon who tells me that no one wants to put any musical dramas on telly any more. There's a weird, and (in my view) somewhat arrogant, belief that there's not an audience for them. Largely, one assumes because the execs are all too cool for school. What upsets me is that you can only really say there's no audience for a specific genre of telly drama if there have been lots of examples of it which have flopped. Because musical dramas aren't actually put on the telly, no one knows if there would be an audience for them. My message to any TV commissioners reading this: Take a punt! But whatever you do, don't waste time on cynical projects where you're producing dramas you THINK might appeal to a specific demographic, or an audience you feel you ought to be trying to attract. Don't tell your writers they have to justify people bursting into song by using dream sequences. People sing in musicals. Get over it. Just let someone write something from the heart and it'll find its audience soon enough.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Shit day

I have to say that I'll be very pleased when today is over. It's been a fairly miserable one from start to finish, and to cap it all off, it's pissing down with rain.

I'm still not well. I've got a headache now on top of an upset stomach. I've spent the day learning music for Synagogue but still managed to feel like a hick from the sticks in rehearsal this evening. All the other vocalists seem to be hugely well-versed in both public singing, blagging it and singing in Hebrew. I just have to keep chipping away at it, but every second I spend learning music takes me away from this obscene list of things I have to achieve in other corners of my life. It's a horrible mess.

To make matters worse, my agent called today to tell me that the When The Wind Blows project was pretty much dead in the water on account of no one having the foggiest idea who own the rights. The situation is so complicated that people have simply started to wash their hands of it and are just waiting for me to go away! I guess the phone call was the universe telling me to throw in the towel.

The day ended with me locking myself out. I left my keys on the kitchen table. Nathan was out. I sat miserably underneath the awning of a local pub, going through my bag again and again in case the keys were hiding somewhere. Thank God for Fiona's perspicacity. I texted her to moan about my predicament and she instantly remembered that I'd given a set of keys to little Welsh Nathalie downstairs when we went away. Thankfully Nathalie was in and so the crisis was mercifully averted.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Asking the universe

I spent most of yesterday lying on the sofa wondering why on earth I was feeling so profoundly wiped out. To begin with I thought it was the weather. It was wet and cold. But then, as I stumbled to the kitchen to switch the heating on, I realised I was ill. Proper ill. There's something going round. Nathan's been ill. My brother's been ill. My dad's had something which has the same set of somewhat grim symptoms. It's a sort of stomach virus thing. Not very nice.

Today was all about chipping away at a list of things to do which covers two A4 pages. For an example of the magnitude of my task ahead, one of the points on the list reads "learn music for Yom Kippur." There are 200 pages! There are also 200 pages of music for Kol Nidrei, which is another service at the synagogue I'm singing in. Then there's quiz mastering, prepping for the Em album recording, general admin and sorting material for the show choir. It seems a portfolio existence requires a fair amount of delicate balancing!

That's really all there is to say. I had a meeting this afternoon and enjoyed walking back to the tube through Soho. There was a thunder storm this evening with lots of lightning and we had pizza for tea whilst watching episodes of the X Factor from the weekend. That's it.

Actually, that's not quite it. Five days ago, I realised I had lost the silver elephant which I have worn around my neck every day for the past fifteen years. One day, when I'm not feeling so ropey, I will offer readers of this blog the full story. The elephant, which is called Little Great Alne, has a huge amount of significance for me because it provides me with a link to my mother, my Auntie Gill and both of my brothers. When I'm feeling low, or when I am telling people about the story of finding my brother, Tim, I often realise I'm holding or touching the elephant.

I have been really very upset about losing her (or him - Little Great Alne is gender fluid!) I have looked everywhere. I even started pulling the washing machine apart when Tanya was staying. Anyway, I finally told my mother today that I'd lost him and I could sense that she was really upset on my behalf. My mother is a great believer in the power of the universe, so I was hoping she'd throw a bit of energy out there which might encourage Little Great Alne to come home.

Two hours after the conversation, Nathan appeared in the sitting room, asked me to close my eyes and hold out my hand, and promptly placed a very familiar silver object in my palm. Little Great Alne was apparently on our bedroom floor in a hugely obviously place where it's almost inconceivable we wouldn't have looked over the past five days. Plainly she'd been on an adventure. I hope she's had a fabulous time, but I'm not sure I want her to go gallivanting again any time soon.

Perhaps there really is something in this idea of putting it out there to the world. Seek and ye shall find?

...And if the universe is in a listening mood, there's something I would desperately like it to help me with. I mist prefix this by saying I normally try not to jinx creative projects by announcing them before they're signed, sealed and delivered, but this one is languishing and needs a jolt forward...

For the past two years I have been in conversations with the remarkable author, Raymond Briggs about the idea of turning his chilling and deeply moving graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, into a musical. The novel tells the story of a retired couple, Hilda and Jim Bloggs, and a nuclear bomb. It's a story which holds deep significance for me. My mother was a keen CND activist and I directed the play version as a student, with actor Richard Coyle playing Jim.

To cut a two-year story short, Raymond himself wants me to create the musical version, a theatre has offered to commission and premiere the piece, both Raymond's agent and my agent are working tirelessly to try to make it happen but Penguin, who hold the rights to the book, don't seem to be able to give us the go ahead. And so we sit and we wait...

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear war ricochets around the world. There has never been a more important time to revisit the show and I am devastated that we're being prevented from moving forward by what appears to be nothing but official paperwork. And I'm afraid I'm finally losing hope and this makes me incredibly sad.

So what do you say, universe? Will you offer me a much-needed helping hand?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Truffle oil

I went to St John's Wood Synagogue yesterday! I was invited there by Philip Sallon to listen to the 16-strong male voice choir. This large choir is apparently a phenomenon which happens just once a month.

It's actually quite difficult to get into a shul these days. Sadly, a high amount of security is required outside, so you can't turn up without an official invitation. That said, saying we were friends of Philip's had us welcomed in with open arms.

Philip missed most of the service itself. He was preparing the hall for the kiddush, a food-based social which takes place after every service. Philip, in true Philip style, had decorated the hall top to bottom with Ivy and flowers. It looked an absolute picture. He was wearing a sailor suit!

The choir sang well, but it was actually the cantor who stole the show. Most of the Shabbat service is sung, and the singing is led by a cantor or "chazan" whose job it is to sing a bewildering amount of religious text. He will also perform various set pieces with the choir. This particular chazan is flown over from Israel to do the service, so he feels like the real deal. He's deeply authentic and performs with an infectious level of emotion, and all sorts of impressive runs full of flattened seconds and major sixths. His voice was incredibly high, much to the chagrin of the tenors in the choir who were having to sing stratospherically high to match him.

From the Shul I went to Wimbledon with Michael for a walk across the famous common followed by dinner with his cousin, Gillian. Sadly there were no wombles on the common, or maybe they were hiding. Wimbledon village is a very charming place, but I wasn't overly impressed by the common. It's rather flat and boring, and has none of the charm or magic which Hampstead Heath exudes in spades. It was also raining.

The food was lovely, as was Michael's cousin. I had a tagliatelle with mushroom and truffle oil. Truffle oil has always had quite a curious effect on me. It makes me a little light-headed. Gillian tells me that the oil is less popular with women than it is with men, and that it's particular popular with alpha males. She has a theory about the oil's smell, which I couldn't possibly put into writing! It's a fairly broad and spurious assertion but I would be very interested to know if certain foods appeal more to specific genders and why on earth that might be.

My brother called in the late evening to tell me that he and his friend Fiona had won the Eurovision Fan Club's "Stars In Their Eyes" competition. They went as Gemini, the infamous Liverpudlian duo who represented the UK at the contest in 2003 and, in the process, did worse than any act up to that point had ever done. You may remember the song, Cry Baby. Not for its melody but for how out of tune the performers sang!

Saturday, 9 September 2017


I got up at shit o'clock yesterday and drove to Northampton where I'd been booked to do a day of filming with BBC Look East about the Nene composition.

The day started at the music school, with an interview at a piano, where they asked me to play a few themes from the piece which I couldn't really get my fingers around! The thing about telly is that you always get told to do painfully embarrassing things which usually involve mocking up a scene to demonstrate something which the cameras weren't there to film when it actually happened. Yesterday's involved Beth coming into the room and our having the most painfully embarrassing conversation about red kite bird song! Egg sandwiches all over the place!

The thing is, as a maker of telly myself, I completely understand why these things have to happen. And Shaun from the BBC is so good-natured and fun to be around that it never stays eggy for that long. It was great to be at the music school. That building literally hums with memories. Every single corner has some significance attached to it and it never seems to change. I talked passionately about the importance of access to creativity and culture for young Midlanders. So much gets written about inner city kids but, in my view, that's not where the issue is. If you live in Elephant and Castle, for example, you've got all the Southbank London cultural institutions not just on your doorstep, but coming into your schools and running local initiatives to fulfil their funding criteria. This allows young people to aspire to be involved in the arts. You just don't get that level of initiative in the Midlands, where kids often can't get back to their homes by public transport after the theatres in Northampton have finished. If your nearest theatre or concert hall is 20 miles away, and your school has cut music and drama from its syllabus, how can you ever be expected to experience art, let alone participate in it?

From Northampton, we went to Hardwater Mill at Great Doddington. On my epic walk along the Nene last December, I stopped there for some time, listening to, and recording, the sound of a sluice gate, which actually turns out to be a hydro-electricity generator. It made a fabulous rhythmic boom which has become a feature of my composition and actually set the tempo for the first four minutes of the piece. In summer, however, the sonic experience created by the generator is entirely different and far less exciting than the sound I heard in December.

The filming day ended down by the Nene in Higham Ferrers, my childhood home. I was encouraged to talk about my past which was a little difficult at times. I don't really see myself in the lad who used to go down to the river on blustery winter days, or the teenager who sat doodling the initials of people he was in love with in a dusty area of soil underneath a bench down there. It all seems very distant now. There's a little plaque down there which talks about the nature reserve they created after my time. The plaque shows a photograph of an old, high-humped Victorian bridge, which I remember very clearly. There was a picture of it being pulled down in 1987. I'm sure the kids who walk past it now think 1987 was a million years ago.

I came home via Toddington Services on the M1, which are, without question the nastiest Services in this country. Every time I go there there's something awful happening in the loos. Yesterday it was floods. Pissy floods. Broken doors. A general lack of interest in making the place nice.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Friends Fest

Yesterday was a long old day. My dear friend Tanya is staying with us at the moment and we spent last night chewing the fat and putting the world to rights. By the time we were done, I was too knackered to write a blog. Yesterday afternoon found me with Llio, in darkest Essex, in the grounds of a country house somewhere near Chelmsford, laughing.

One of the benefits of being an impoverished freelancer is that I can say yes when a very close friend asks me to accompany her to the "Friends Fest" on a random midweek day in September. "Friends Fest?" You ask. "Absolutely!" I reply, "a celebration of that American sitcom which has managed to enter every single British person's brain by a process of osmosis brought about by being played on an almost constant loop on British television."

I'll confess to loving a bit of Friends. I think if you did a bit of digging, most people would say the same thing. Nathan and I watched the entire box set, beginning to end, about ten years ago. I think we all wish we were part of a mutually exclusive group of six perfectly beautiful, deeply witty mates who live in an impossibly cool set of flats on Bleecker Street. Fortunately Friends never made it into the 2010s, or else we'd have had "the one where Monica gets chucked out of her rent-controlled West Village flat to make way for a Hotel Chocolat."

So, we arrived at Hylands House just after lunch and immediately found ourselves in a world which resembled a tatty summer festival. I think I was expecting everything to take place inside the house itself, but instead we were ushered to patch of scrubby grass in a far corner of the estate, where a series of marquees had been erected. It looked a bit pathetic. The Friends theme tune played on a loop. It must have been almost mind-numbing for the event's staff, most of whom seemed to be Welsh. A smattering of carts were selling Friends-themed food. One marquee had been set up to look like "Central Perk", the cafe which features so prominently in the show, but you couldn't buy anything to eat or drink there. What you could do was queue for twenty minutes to look at it, and then queue for another ten minutes to have your picture taken on something resembling the famous orange sofa and then stand on a little platform by the window holding a guitar whilst pretending to be Phoebe playing Smelly Cat. On an hourly basis, a staff member, would grab the guitar and do a mini concert of Phoebe's greatest hits.

You could queue to put on a ghastly prom dress to look like Rachel, or queue to have your picture taken in a Vegas wedding chapel to look like... actually I don't know. Elsewhere, there was a queue to be photographed in a New York-style yellow cab. People seemed content to queue.

A giant screen in the middle played episodes of the show on a loop, whilst people sat watching on deckchairs. An abnormally high number of the people there were fat. Many wore T-shirts which said things like "Joey doesn't share his food" and "Regina Phalange."

Llio and I queued up to have our photo taken on the opening credits set, with the fountain, the random Tiffany lamp and the sofa. I can't remember the fountain being made of polystyrene in the show, or any of the cast dancing on badly-fitted pieces of AstroTurf, but, as we reached the front of the queue, we were duly handed a couple of ghastly branded umbrellas and a member of staff grabbed Llio's iPhone telling us we could do two poses. Generous. The staff member proceeded to take about a million shots of us without once saying "ready?" or "smile." It actually made me feel rather anxious. There's definitely an etiquette to the art of taking a good photograph which most people don't seem to understand. Photographing by stealth never gets the most brilliant results! I watched a bloke later on taking photos of his wife holding Phoebe's guitar on the Central Perk set, and he kept pressing the button even as the poor woman was stepping down from the stage. I was standing behind him so could see what he was photographing. The final picture was a close-up of the poor woman's rather well-proportioned midriff, which will no doubt wreck her day!

The big draw of the fest was a "tour of the Friends' set" which you had to individually book for. Our allotted slot was 6.10 so there was slight panic in Llio's voice as she looked around the somewhat tawdry selection of attractions and said, "we'll have to look at every blade of grass."

After drinking some hot chocolate in the cafe tent next to Central Perk, and watching people shuffling around in semi comas, we realised it was going to be preferable to go away and come back for our set tour. We decided to go into Chelmsford, which threatened to take us from the proverbial frying pan into a pile of dung... As we left Friends Fest we asked the man on the door if we'd be able to come back. He looked confused before acquiescing, rushing to his table and grabbing a Sharpie. He then proceeded to draw a rather detailed little star shape on my hand which instantly looked like a blob as the blue ink sank into my pours like a badly done tattoo. It's still there now. Of course it is. It was drawn with a Sharpie!

We parked up in Chelmsford's Chelmer car park, which, for the record, is as badly signposted as it is impossible to pay for. Llio and I spent some time searching for payment stations and then minutes more trying to work out where to scan our ticket as we left the building. I tweeted Chelmsford Council to tell them how difficult we'd found the experience. It's difficult to know how they could have given less of a shite!

After drifting around the indoor market, which, according to publicity photographs on the outside, is full of smiling elderly people holding hands and buying cheese, we went to Queenie's, a highly charming little cafe, where Llio ate gluten free toast and I had poached eggs, because we know how to live.

We took ourselves for a post prandial walk around the city. Llio made the somewhat bizarre, yet accurate, observation that all the buildings in the centre looked a tiny bit smaller than you might expect them to look elsewhere. I don't know why this should be. Perhaps we've just got used to London where everything is maybe a little bigger?

Top of the list of things to do, in a city not blessed with a great list of things to do, is a visit to the suitably compact and bijou cathedral, which is a very calming place to be. Both of us were rather impressed by the pulpit. Is that what you call the place where old people mumble readings at carol services? Whatever it's called, it's a rather beautifully sculptured object made from organic ripples of leather-lined brass in the arts and crafts style.

We were lucky enough to be accompanied on our visit by an organist who played a wonderful Bach fugue which seemed to start when we entered the space and end as we walked out. The organist was highly skilled and played with great panache. It was a real treat. After the shallow impermanence of Friends Fest, it felt like a proper ascension from the ridiculous to the sublime, but, as Llio sagely pointed out, how lucky we are to know the difference.

We went back to the mayhem of the Friends event for our set tour, which, in fairness, was a huge improvement on everything else that was being served up, all of which had seemed somewhat shonky. We entered a marquee and immediately found ourselves greeted by glass cabinets filled with costumes worn by the central characters in the show, and various key props which had featured prominently, including Joey's huge cream dog. It was fascinating stuff but I got a bit irritated by the member of staff who showed us around, "have you had a good time so far?" She shrieked, to deafening silence which suggested everyone had had a rather similar experience to us. "Well I do hope you fans enjoy this part." And I realised at that point how much of an issue I have with the word "fan." It's a deeply dehumanising term which somehow turns a person into cattle. Fans behave in a weird way. They go to extremes. They make nuisances of themselves. Maybe you desire not to be a fan is the product of twenty years work in the entertainment industry!

From the room filled with props and things, we were ushered into the big draw of the fest, in the shape of a full-scale replica of the two main apartments featured in the show. I have to confess to being impressed. There are so many iconic aspects including that big sloping glass window in Monica's house and the little frame around the peephole in the door. Llio was in her element and it was a true pleasure to see her excitement and take her photograph in every corner. "I want to live in that world" she said, like a little child, as we left, "everyone's nice to each other and money never seems to be a problem." 

And as we pulled out of the Estate's grounds, a sparrow hawk landed on the grass next to the road. It was no more than three meters away from us. What a lovely end to a brilliant day out.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

How big?!

I've had another day jam-packed with formatting scores and creating this mega piano reduction of the Nene composition. On and on it seemed to go, and then the process of making it all look neat and tidy took another lifetime. There's always a quandary when it comes to creating a piano vocal score. Do you make the dots large and totally legible to even the oldest pair of eyes? Or do you try to limit the number of potential page turns and make the music a little smaller on the page. I spent at least half an hour today auditioning different sizes, printing out a page here and a page there. I went for safety in the end. I could hear the accompanist messing up and blaming the fact she couldn't see the music. Of course what will now happen is that there are so many pages of music that they'll all fall off the piano and everyone will blame me anyway.

These are the sorts of pathetic things which worry a composer on a daily basis. It's not all about sitting at a piano with a pencil behind your ear and a buff-coloured sheet of manuscript in front of you!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Never give up

September 4th always means we're going back to school. I am almost convinced that I started secondary school on September the 4th. It was the day I met my bestest school friend, Tammy, whose birthday it also is today. Imagine starting school on your birthday? I remember, on that first day, she was sent by the teacher to do an errand at the school office and said "if I'm not back in an hour, send out a search party" and I thought, "there's a sparky girl I could get along with." We were pretty much inseparable for seven years. Tammy, if you're reading this, happy birthday, chunkus!

Of course, having a September birthday has its benefits: You're the first in the year to learn to drive and you've had eleven months more to mature than people like me who are born in August. And, you get to vote in the 1992 general election. Still bitter? Too bloody right!

It's been another utterly brutalising day. I worked at the kitchen table for twelve hours straight, formatting scores for the Nene piece and then, horror of horrors, trying to create a piano reduction so that the choirs have something to rehearse to. The work is of epic proportions. It's scored for 600 musicians. Imagine trying to condense all that into one piano part?!

My computer software has a little button you can press for an automatic piano reduction, which I thought it might be worth trying. Alarm bells ought to have started ringing when the process took half an hour! I'm not lying when I say that every note in the composition was there, across two staves... every last demisemiquaver... including representations of snare drums and whips! It was the most bewildering and bizarre score I've ever seen - and I've performed Eight Songs for a Mad King! Five virtuoso pianists wouldn't be able to play it, there's so many notes. It would be like listening to a row of a pianolas on crack!

So, I've had to go old school and am writing it note-by-note which is like pulling teeth. By the end of the evening I'd managed half. In first draft. And I was so convinced this morning that there was light at the end of the tunnel. But then again, a composer without patience is a useless entity. A piece of music starts with a glorious pin prick of inspiration which can often lead to a veritable vomiting of pen on manuscript. An entire song, theme or leitmotif can be scribbled down in broad strokes on paper in seconds. Then the orchestration process begins and everything slows to a standstill. Notes are inputted at a ludicrously slow pace. Every note in every chord needs to be drawn in. Looking at the empty stave is deeply intimidating, but all you can do is sigh and make a start. One note at a time. Just as my epic walk along the Nene was one step at a time. People give up smoking one day at a time and deal with grief one week at a time. One day you'll look back and be astonished at the distance you've travelled. If you spend too long obsessing about how far you still have to go, you'll freak out and give up.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Charlie Birger

Note to self: the next time you're feeling a bit glum on a Sunday, whatever you do, do not spend the day formatting orchestral parts whilst sitting on the same spot on your sofa from 10am till 11pm. Just don't do it! You'll end the day with a terrible backache, and instead of a massive sense of achievement, you'll be climbing the walls in a dreadful panic and pacing about like a polar bear in a concrete cage. And next time, if you decide it might be fun not to eat anything all day, remember how shaky you feel right now... and learn.

The only interesting piece of news I learned today is that Carbondale, from where we watched the eclipse, is but a stone's throw away from where family on my father's side lived. My Great Grandmother went to stay with said relatives in Harrisburg, Illinois, in 1928. We know this because she witnessed the public hanging of Charlie Birger, a rather famous bootlegger and gangster, who was hanged in a placed called Benton, just north of Carbondale. Birger was quite an interesting character - a sort of anti-hero who waged war on the Ku Klux Clan. I'd like to say this was due to his proud Jewish heritage and his support of black people, but suspect it was more likely due to the organisation's support for prohibition. His hatred of the Clan meant he was hanged wearing a black hood, despite tradition dictating he be hanged wearing a white one. His last words are said to have been "it's a beautiful world."

I believe my Grandmother had a souvenir programme from the event which my father found in one of  her draws after she'd died. He said, rather wistfully, on the phone to me today that he couldn't quite believe that his grandmother had witnessed a public execution. It does seem strange.

I believe his grandparents used to play an old 78 record featuring a song about the hanging, which did the rounds after his death. A quick bit of research reveals that the words to the song are:

I heard of Charlie Birger way back when I was young
My daddy told me all about the day that Charlie hung.

I've heard so many stories, some of his ghastly deeds
Another tells how Charlie helped poor folks in their needs.

One said he was a kindly man who never told a lie
But when somebody crossed him, that man was sure to die

That Charlie had no Master you can tell from all the tales
He fought the system all the way, and stayed out of their jails

I've seen so many pictures, they're hanging on the walls
The pictures tell the story of Birger's rise and fall

And when they finally caught him he was sentenced to be hung
But they hadn't broke his spirit the day the trap was sprung

When the State had had its vengeance—When Charlie's life was done
It made one stop to wonder, Who had lost, and who had won.

Saturday, 2 September 2017


I spent another day yesterday in a state of utter bewilderment, trying to learn music in Hebrew. I'm now absolutely fine with all the slow stuff, but when the pace goes up a notch, I feel like a 'cellist playing semiquavers all over again. There's a lot of scuffing and my face blushes crimson! I just need time for it all to sink in... and to develop a set of skills to style it out when I can't get my teeth in quickly enough!

After my previous blog, I was half-expecting a load of "hugs babes" type posts on Facebook. You know the sort? Someone has a fragile moment, announces they're feeling down, and receives a load of emoticons and the word "hugs" from people who can't think of anything else to write, but don't want to appear callous to mutual friends. Fortunately my friends were a little more respectful! 

I actually sometimes think it works to throw something out there in the world, because yesterday morning, just hours after posting, I was offered a job! It's only a few hours over a five-week period, but because my employer has already announced the news on Twitter, I can confirm that I am soon to start leading the show choir at Trinity Laban. Students had better watch out! If there's one thing I love more than anything else, it's a good show choir! 

So, first thing this morning, somewhat terrified, I entered the St Petersburg Synagogue for a quick choir rehearsal prior to the service. It's an orthodox synagogue, so there are a huge number of regulations and rules which need to be adhered to on the Sabbath. You can't ring doorbells, kippahs are to be worn at all times, you can't even use a pencil to make changes to the scores, so you have to make a series of mental notes. 

The rehearsal slightly eased my mind about the music, as did the fact that we were singing today in an eight-voice choir, which meant another, hugely experienced, bass always had my back to prevent me from entering a state of perpetual panic. Most of the tunes went brilliantly, and the congregation heaped praise on us, saying we were the best choir they'd ever had in the building, and all the other platitudes and gushing superlatives you often get in these situations. There were, however, a few moments when I found myself corpsing because I couldn't believe the nonsense words which were dripping out of my mouth! 

The synagogue itself is a very fine Victorian brick built building which it felt like an honour to be singing in. A young lad was being bar mitzvahed and delivered the most astonishing speech. I have seen less wisdom in 40 year olds! 

After shul, and much relieved, Michael and I had a lengthy walk around North Kensington, which is an area I know very little. We explored Holland Park and the fringes of Shepherd's Bush, before making a sort of pilgrimage to the Grenfell Tower. It was my idea. I have been so profoundly haunted by that particular story, and seen the building from a distance on so many occasions that I felt it was appropriate to go and read some of the tributes and ad hoc memorials which have been scattered about on the streets in that part of the city. 

It's a very eerie spot. Although you can see the building on the skyline in countless locations, there's actually only one place you can get anywhere near close enough to see the horror in any kind of detail. And it is horrifying. Floor upon floor of twisted metal and charcoal. You can't imagine how anyone got out of the place alive and of course your mind forces you to look to the top floors, where we know large numbers of the building's residents, fleeing flames, gathered together in just one or two flats. It's unimaginable. 

The tributes on the streets are wonderful. One street off the main road is lined entirely with yellow ribbons and countless strings of hearts knitted and crocheted by I've no idea whom. It's a moving and curiously beautiful sight: a reminder that, even though the government and local council were sluggish at best when it came to responding, local people did everything they could, and have subsequently heaped piles of love into the area. On another street, local school children have painted scores of wooden stars, all of which have been attached to fences and lamp posts. 

We had a spot of late lunch in an Austrian cafe on Goldborne Road, which looked rather special bathed in late-summer, late-afternoon sun. And then it was home James and don't spare the horses...

Friday, 1 September 2017

Onwards and upwards

There's nothing really to say about today. I had jet lag in the night so was exhausted when I woke up, and, shockingly, I haven't left the house. I'm in hibernation mode. I applied for a scheme and then literally spent the rest of the day tying to get my head around the shedload of music I have to learn for shul on Saturday. Pages and pages. None of the words make any form of sense to me. I haven't been this stressed about learning material since I performed A Ronne by Berio in 1995!

In other news, I have started applying for jobs which will take me out of the world of writing musical theatre. It's been a decision I haven't particularly enjoyed making, and, until the end of the year, I'm slightly seeing where the wind blows me. If some writing work comes in, great. If some part-time teaching comes in, even better, but if a half-decent sounding, full-time job away from the creative arts pops up which would give me a pension and some security, I think I'd be foolish not to go for it. No one can say I haven't given musical theatre my absolute best shot, and, if I were ten years younger, I could probably do another five years without earning properly, but this year has not be kind to me financially, and, at a certain point, I have to start thinking about the future. And I have to be able to feel proud about what I do again. This industry has a horrible habit of making you feel like a beggar.

So, watch this space. And if anyone hears of any job opportunities which they think might suit me, please give me a shout. I suspect I may have to think a little out of the box to avoid working as a Saturday morning check out girl in Tescos. I suspect my qualifications and job experience are a little too specific to naturally open a huge number of doors.

Onwards and upwards!