Sunday, 31 December 2017

Life expectancy dropping

I read a deeply worrying article today which suggested the life expectancy of British people has actually flatlined and is predicted to fall. The article suggests it climbed and climbed throughout the 20th Century in the UK but then suddenly reached a plateau during the 2010 coalition government. Things have not improved since May took over. Far from it! There are thought to be two main reasons for the problem:

The first is air pollution. The government seems to have no interest in doing anything about the shocking levels of pollution, particularly in our major cities.

The second problem is the austerity cuts which have affected people really dramatically. It is thought that the cuts are directly responsible for the deaths of 120,000 people between 2010 and 2017. And the government is trying to bury these results.

The great tragedy is that most of the other “First World” nations (apart from the US) are faring a great deal better than us. Life expectancy is still rising in EU countries, so we can’t even blame the UK’s drop on global factors beyond our control. Most of the EU is now way ahead of us; a fact I find greatly worrying as we sever ties and stop asking for their advice! Life expectancy for women in the UK is now lower than in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. It’s often much lower according to the report. They are predicting a million extra deaths in this country by the mid century. And people in their 40s and 50s at the moment will be most effected. Great!

On a vaguely related issue, I don’t know if anyone reading this blog has been watching the fascinating Christmas vignettes from Fanny Craddock on BBC iPlayer. They’re only fifteen minutes long, and they are absolutely wonderful. She’s terribly endearing in an old-school, stern sort of way, but I was really surprised to note how obsessed she is with the cost of everything. The inclusion of almost every ingredient needed to be be justified. There’s a real sense that she doesn’t want to be seen to be wasting anything. At one point she lines a tin with old butter wrappers and on another makes sure to clear every last drop of cake mixture out of the bowl, saying that if she doesn’t, she’s bound to get scores of letters of complaint and that, in the past, she’s left mixture in the bowl only because she has a director waving his arms, telling her to get on with it!

The astounding thing is that these films weren’t shot in the waste-not-want-not 1950s. The vignettes were actually made in the early 1970s. We forget what a terrible mess Britain had got itself into at this stage... just before we entered the EU as it happens. So when these ghastly Brexiteers talk about returning to the time when Britain was great, they’re actually talking about the shocking pre-1973 mess we’d made of things! How quickly we forget.

I urge you all to read this report.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Wogan House

My life can be incredibly surreal. This evening, Nathan and I found ourselves at the BBC’s Wogan House, talking about the computer musical, live, on a radio breakfast show in New Zealand! “Computer Says Show” is being broadcast on telly over there and they wanted us to talk about the experience. It struck me, as we walked from Oxford Street tube to the BBC, that I’d largely either forgotten about it or blocked out the experience. At one point, the interviewer mentioned the show’s finale and I genuinely couldn’t think how that particular song went. It’s so funny: I never think of Beyond the Fence as being part of my canon of work, which is probably a bit of a shame. There were some lovely songs in the show. In a couple months, I’ve been asked to do a sort of retrospective of my work at the BEAM festival of musical theatre, and I was planning to do a montage of songs from Brass and Em, but maybe I should sling in a little ode to Greenham?

It was rather surreal to exit Wogan House (which, I’m proud to report, is named after the late, great Sir Terry) at 9.30pm, to find many of the shops on Oxford Street still open. I would dearly love London to become more of a 24-hour city. The sight of shoppers still shopping at that hour instead of the usual drunk, edgy, half-wits stumbling about looking for a fight, warmed my heart and instantly reminded me of New York.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Lunch with an old friend

Transport for London was running what amounted to a Sunday service today, which essentially meant there were pitifully few tube trains available to take scores of families into Central London to shop in the sales. I went into town today and ended up with my nose pressed up against a tube train door with the woman behind me unwittingly (I hope) yet relentlessly pushing her bag into my bum.

And, of course, because the majority of people traveling today were out-of-towners, I had to endure several Northerners holding court about how grumpy Londoners are. Believe me: it doesn’t take many rides on the tube to realise that the only way to stay sane is to knuckle down and pretend you don’t exist. Small talk on public transport in London is actually traumatic rather than nice. One bloke got off the tube and shouted “love and joy” back into the carriage in a highly sarcastic manner. The man next to me mouthed a word back which sounded like banker.

Every time I get off the tube at Tottenham Court Road, I notice that they’ve pulled another building down. Today’s discovery was the demolition of the old Foyles building, no doubt to create luxury flats which will be bought-to-let by Russian oligarchs instead of the theatre performers who would probably benefit most from living in them. To compound the issue, the area around the tube has, yet again, become a Mecca for the homeless. Heaps of sleeping bags and cardboard boxes now surround the exit from the tube. The piles are so high that it’s impossible to know if there are people sleeping underneath. The network of underpasses around the Centre Point building were once so well known as a hang out for the homeless that they spawned a homeless charity. The designers of the tube were probably rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of getting rid of the problem by losing the underpasses, but homelessness is an issue we simply cannot paper over. It will just keep getting worse unless we learn to take responsibility for our own society. The sad truth is that we’re now all so entirely disconnected from one another that no one actually cares... As long as we’re not the ones in trouble.

I had lunch in Wagamama with my old mate, Matt today. It was lovely to see him but I can’t imagine how he deals with the attention he gets from his fans. We were given free puddings by someone who saw us in the restaurant and the groups sitting either side of us both asked to have their pictures taken with him. It felt a little intrusive, but it was actually a relief when they plucked up the courage to ask for a photo because they’d spent much of the meal trying to surreptitiously take pictures of him. There was a particularly tragic attempt at one point to take a “selfie” with Matt clearly in the background. At that point Matt leaned over and said, “would you like me to take a picture of the three of you?” Taking the picture gave us a temporary reprieve and them an anecdote to tweet. It was a good twenty minutes before we were hit with the “excuse me, can my friend have a picture with you?”

I tell you, if I’d have sat taking pictures of those girls as blatantly as they were taking pictures of Matt, a complaint would have been made and I’d have been thrown out of the restaurant. People get so protective of their own privacy, but forget all of their own boundaries when a famous person walks into a space.


I dreamed last night that I was invited to a dinner party at Theresa May’s house. She went off into the kitchen to prepare the food but no one wanted to follow her because we all loathed her with intensity. In the end I took pity on her and asked if there was anything I could help her with. “You can fillet these magpies,” she said. She was cooking magpies for tea. She proceeded to rip one, limb from limb, using a blunt knife, without showing any form of emotion. It was a fairly grotesque sight.

It was Boxing Day yesterday, and tradition dictates that we head down to the South coast for a shindig with my extended family. I think there were twenty six of us, all the offspring, or partners of the offspring of just two people, my Grannie and Grampa Garner. A fact I find quite moving.

We all stayed in a hotel in a town on the edge of the New Forest called Ringwood. The hotel was doing a really good deal on rooms booked between Christmas and New Year, a period of time they were laughably calling Twixtmas. We had a sit-down meal and a Secret Santa where I “won” nail polish and a little pink suitcase just big enough to store my nail scissors in. In the end I swapped it with my Mum for a couple of bath bombs but the nail varnish did a circuit of the table and all of us decided to paint a nail. That’s solidarity!

Today was my Mum’s birthday and she decided to take us all to a mysterious ruined village on the Dorset coast called Tyneham. It’s presently situated in land belonging to the Ministry of Defence, in fact, the village was forcefully seized by the MoD during the Second World War. I’m not altogether sure why they were so desperate for the land, but they only gave villagers fifteen days’ notice to leave. I can’t really imagine anything worse than being brought up in an intensely rural community, and suddenly having everything you know taken away from you. I’m sure they were rehoused, but equally sure they wouldn’t have ended up anywhere near their former neighbours.

After the people moved out, of course, the houses slowly went to rack and ruin. Roofs collapsed, woodwork rotted, but the stonework remained and has now been preserved as an eerie memory of what once was.

There’s a school house and a church, both of which have been renovated so that visitors can get a feel for how the place must have been. There’s also a rather charming barn where they’ve placed a little stage. The barn was apparently the place where villagers would stage little shows including a performance of Alice in Wonderland. Photographs of some of the productions lined the walls of the barn. 

We left Tyneham and headed for Corfe Castle, which towers over the landscape in these parts like a majestic ship rising from the mist. The village surrounding Corfe Castle is actually also called Corfe Castle, so one assumes the correct name for the Castle itself is actually Corfe Castle Castle!

The village is stunningly beautiful and full of ancient sandstone houses which seemed to almost glow in the wintry sunlight.

Lunch was in a pub on a hillside overlooking the village. My Auntie Glen had organised a surprise second family gathering for my Mum, involving my cousins Matt and Simon, Matt’s son, Harry and my Uncle John along with Nathan, me, Brother Edward and my Dad. We were very heavy on the men! In fact, my Aunt and my Mum were the only two women sitting around the table. I looked around the pub and it suddenly struck me how most family units are fairly equal when it comes to the ratio of men and women. I have often sat and watched groups sitting at tables wondering who fits with whom and why they’re all there. Anyone looking at us today would have been very confused!

Auntie Glen arranged a cake and Uncle John paid for everyone’s food, which was hugely generous.

The journey back to London was less thwarted by traffic jams as a similar journey had been this time last year. We listened to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. It’s quite good driving music!

Monday, 25 December 2017

Over sharing

One of my brother’s friends has just won the award for the most pathetic Christmas Day online post. In my mind what he’s written is indicative of the fact that we’ve entered an era where everyone over-shares. I do think there’s a lot to be said for holding one’s tongue and not using Facebook as a platform for endless vitriolic “pity me” venting. It invariably comes back to bite you on the arse. I think those who know you are as likely to judge you as they are ever to feel sorry for you. They might write “hugs babes” but deep inside they’re screaming “come off it mate!”

I am quoting the post in full here. As it’s effectively published on Facebook, I have no issues about doing so...

“Happy Christmas everyone! Sadly not having the best one myself, as Emily's mum has decided to go back on our agreement that she should visit me last weekend. So I'm posting a photo of an empty chair and an unwrapped present, together with our partially-opened Advent calendar. Emily has decorated it with some of her drawings, including a broken heart for her mum and me.”

I mean... come on.

Next time, how about leaving it at “Happy Christmas everyone!”? My suggestion: have a private word with Emily’s Mum to tell her how you feel!

Gluten free Jesus

Happy Christmas to all of my Christian friends. And to the pagans amongst us, Happy Winter Solstice for three days ago. For atheists reading this, “Christmas” is an anagram of “Mr Shit Sac.” Joy to the world.

I’m in Thaxted. It’s raining. We drove here from Shropshire last night and instantly took ourselves on a walk around the town to look at the glorious Christmas decorations. There’s a little estate on the outskirts where the residents compete for the most over-the-top Yuletide displays. There are dancing snowmen, epic projections, fit-inducing flashing lights, bows on doors, sleighs on roofs and illuminated icicles. Many would say it was tacky and ghastly but I believe that anything which brings excitement and happiness is well worth doing. I imagine there are children (of all ages) who would go to that estate and feel a sense of great joy. Something we all deserve.

More traditionally festive is the Main Street in Thaxted, which has been turned into a mega advent calendar with 24 houses displaying beautiful festive windows, each of which was unveiled on a different day in the run up to Christmas Day itself. Some windows are obviously better than others. I’m rather proud to say that the best (by far) belongs to our friends Sally and Stuart, who made a massive Christmas tree out of a wooden pallet which looks an absolute picture. It was really very lovely (and very festive) to rush from one side of the street to the other trying to find which houses had been chosen to make window displays.

The parents and Brother Edward went to Midnight Mass. Obviously as an atheist who now sings regularly in a synagogue, I would explode immediately on contact with a church, so Nathan and I stayed home, and I stuck photographs from the year into a giant album. I was very amused to find out that the vicar had made an announcement that gluten free wafers would be available for those who wanted to take communion. To my mind it makes an absolute mockery of the very concept of eating the flesh of Christ. As if it weren’t already creepy enough, we’ve now got people going “I’ll only eat Jesus if he’s gluten free!”

Sunday, 24 December 2017


I’m in Cheshire at Nathan’s sister’s house, which is in a little place called No Man’s Heath. As you enter the village, there are two sign posts on either side of the road. One displays the village name entirely in capitals, without an apostrophe. The other is in lower case letters and has one! It’s a charmingly eccentric anomaly.

I was in East Sussex all day yesterday running a quiz in a little seaside town near Hastings called Bexhill-on-Sea. I was lucky enough to be able to choose my own assistant, and asked Meriel because Lewes, where she lives, is only about half an hour’s drive away.

The quiz was happening in a charming seafront hotel, so, after setting up, we were able to take a wander along the windswept beach.

It was so lovey to see Meriel, and she was a brilliant assistant: terribly charming with everyone, and hugely assiduous and conscientious when it came to the scoring. She managed to sniff out two Brummies. I didn’t realise that people from Birmingham have a sixth sense for each other, but there was definitely some sort of psychic connection going on: Maybe it’s a smell thing!

The journey from Bexhill to No Man’s Heath was somewhat epic and took six hours. I had a little sleep in a service station somewhere near Banbury and made a disastrous wrong turn in Brighton which meant I ended up in Lancing by mistake. Other than that, it wasn’t the travel mayhem which had been predicted, or, indeed that I’d expected. I thought I was going to be sitting on stationary traffic on the M25 for hours.

We woke up this morning to the sound of Nathan’s great niece, Renée, excitedly rushing about the house. The one thing which always strikes me when I’m around families is how active children seem to be in the morning!

Today has been dubbed “Fake-mas” by Nathan’s family. Choosing this particular date meant that all of them could get together before disappearing off to other corners of the country for actual Christmas Day. It’s was a bit surreal because it felt 100% like Christmas, but emails were periodically buzzing in from people who were still working.

We had a big Christmas dinner, which was delicious. We got very silly and giggly, particularly when little Renée donned a pair of inflatable antlers and, with absolutely no sense of spatial awareness, managed to sweep everything off the side board onto the floor, seemingly without realising that she was the cause of the mayhem!

We went for a much-needed, all-too-brief walk as the sun set, before returning to Sam’s house to play games and laugh a great deal more. Ratfink, which seems to be having quite the renaissance in my life, went down particularly well. I found myself having the most vivid flash-back to a Christmas in the early 1980s where my entire family was sitting on a very long table in my Gran’s house in Warwickshire playing the game. Ratfink involves passing cards around the table. There’s a heap of spoons in the middle of everyone and when you’ve collected four cards of the same number, you take a spoon. This triggers a manic free-for-all where everyone grabs one of the other spoons. There’s one spoon too few on the table, so the loser is the one who doesn’t get a spoon. This particular memory from the 80s featured both my grandmothers sitting on a trestle table extension of the long table the rest of us were sitting on. One of them had got four cards and picked up a spoon. The other followed suit, but no one else noticed, so the game simply carried on with the two of them laughing like naughty school girls, waiting for everyone to cotton on! Happy times...

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Being a child again

We put up the tree this morning in a mad, scrambled rush. Everything has been a mad, scrambled rush lately. I was in Northampton for three hours at the start of the week, and barely had time to realise I was there before another mad, scrambled rush brought me back to London again.

Nathan got emotional. We’ve done the same thing at around this time of year for the past fifteen years, each time remembering where we were last year, whilst trying to imagine where we’d be in twelve months’ time. Those who know us well will certainly attest to the fact that this year has been a roller coaster ride. I don’t think either of us could have predicted the twists and turns we’ve had to negotiate, certainly since June. The tradition is usually to say “hasn’t this year flown by?” But not this year. Not for me in any case. 2017 has been jam-packed with adventure, exploration, sadness and worry, and, because of this, it feels more like a decade. Each of the days on our epic trip across the States alone felt like a week!

I have started a tradition of buying a good quality bauble every time I visit a place where I feel inspired in some way. This means, as we deck the tree, the memories come flooding in. One of this year’s new crop was bought in the Grand Canyon. Another came from Florence. Last year’s newbie was bought in Oundle during my epic walk along the Nene. It’s made of glass, but I proudly carried it in my back pack for at least another fifty miles. The only thing I insist is that none of the things which get hung on the tree carry an undue amount of Christian symbolism. It’s a horrible way to ruin what feels like a good, old-fashioned pagan ritual. We have creepy clowns on our tree instead of angels. 

Actually, what I love most about Christmas trees is the weird blend of religious, folklore and random icons we hang on them. Many will hang stars of David with their angels alongside Santas, snow men, and miniature presents. And where on earth did the tradition of a fairy at the top of the tree come from? Is that a Walt Disney invention? That’s just bonkers! Philippa’s tree has a big gnarly squirrel at the top!

I’ve been watching trailers for a programme on C4 where a group of Scousers go from Liverpool to Bethlehem to cover the West Bank town in tacky Christmas lights. I can’t actually imagine doing anything more inappropriate or sinister. For me it’s right up there with Americans draping their flags over statues of Saddam Hussain during the invasion of Iraq. Yes I get it: Jesus is supposed to have been born in Bethlehem. But Bethlehem is in a war zone, in controversial territory which is bitterly fought over by Jewish and Muslim people. Going there and sprucing everything up in the name of Christianity feels ghastly.

I met up with Philippa and her brood today. We went ice skating in the pop-up open air rink next to the Tower of London. As ice rinks go, it’s got to be right up there with Central Park in terms of iconic locations. It’s essentially nestling in the former moat of the building and, as you’re wizzing around, wind rustling your hair, you’re able to look up at the walls of one of the world’s most famous buildings.

But how uncomfortable are ice skates? It’s actually almost not worth the pain they cause your ankles. There’s also the issue that, the older we get, the less acceptable it feels to potentially injure yourself by falling flat onto ice, simply so you can say you’ve perilously balanced on a pair of sharp blades for as long as it takes to sail around in pointless circles for twenty minutes. 

There were, however, a few glorious moments when I forgot all of that and allowed myself to fly. And then it was suddenly worth it.

Little Silver can’t yet skate, and Dylan and I took a hand each and essentially carried her about. She looked like a baby giraffe taking its first steps, but she was hugely determined. She’s actually one of the most determined children I know. I think it comes from having an older sister and seeing all the fun they’re having.

We had lunch in Pizza Express before heading back to Philippa’s via Spitalfields Market, where I was able to buy one final Christmas gift. It was also here that we sang ABBA’s Fernando repeatedly.

Back at Philippa’s, we did lots of cooking and crafting; threading oven-dried orange slices onto cotton to hang as decorations and painting little boxes which Phil and Dyl were using as a sort of Dutch-style advent calendar. We made flap jacks and ginger bread and decorated the latter with lemon icing and tiny little edible stars. Christmas is a very different experience with children around. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in them which I remember well.

As I left, the kids were knuckling down to watch a Christmas movie and it suddenly struck me how much I would like to be a child again!

Misty lanes

It’s a very misty, moisty evening. Driving through the country lanes around Thaxted is quite scary. The fog seems to be rolling in like waves. There was a particularly spooky moment which unfurled when Nathan suddenly asked what was flashing and, after a lot of bloody-hell-I’ve-no-idea-ing, we realised a plane landing at Stansted was passing over us. Its landing lights were being magnified by the mist. It felt like an alien landing!

We’ve been in Thaxted this evening at a little games party arranged for my friend Helen. It’s become a sort of annual tradition. We eat a cold collation, Helen brings a walnut roulade, Sally, Stuart and the kids come over and we have quizzes and play parlour games. The highlight of this evening was very much the resurrection of a high-energy game called Ratfink, which involves a pack of cards and a load of spoons. It was a massive part of my teenaged years. I have incredibly fond memories of groups of us sitting around the kitchen table, shrieking with adrenaline-fuelled laughter as we played it. The kids loved it. I come into my own when children reach their teenaged years, largely because I remember mine so vividly and, as a result, have a good sense of what’s cool and fun.

We came away with a pot of honey from Sally and Stuart’s very own hives, which, this year, were immensely successful, generating over 100 pots of the sticky stuff. It’s absolutely delicious.

Helen, as ever, was great company. The older I get, the more attached I become to my very oldest friends. After the year Helen’s had, which has involved two major operations and peritonitis, I’m genuinely surprised she’s still standing!

The rest of the day has been spent rushing about, trying to buy last-minute presents, and doing the bits of admin we kid ourselves won’t wait until after Christmas, like Christmas is this mega watershed moment which threatens the end of the world.

I don’t know why we do it. Everyone panics about the presents they’re buying. We all think what we’re giving is a pile of old crap, and largely it is. This year I have tried to steer away from the sort of Made-in-China nonsense tat which generates a five second laugh on Christmas Day before being tossed into a cardboard box and never seen again. My presents are therefore mostly either perishable (edible, dissolvable), hand-made or antique. But it really is all such a dreadful and expensive nonsense. Next year, if anyone feels the need to buy me anything at all, buy me a cheap pair of vintage or unusual cuff links which I can add to my collection. Easily stored, nice to look at, and practical.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Quiz masteristress

Another day. Another quiz. This one was at the Temple, that mysterious part of London sandwiched between Fleet Street and the river which only lawyers know. I’m always intrigued to know what goes on there. I view it as a giant gentlemen’s club. A massive Masonic temple!

As you might expect with a group of lawyers, it was a fairly high scoring quiz. The winning team got over 90% of questions correct. There were pizzas and mince pies. You eat a lot of pizza when you work on professional quizzes.

Abbie was the Quiz Master tonight. It’s quite interesting and a relief to me that no one ever tries to call her a quiz mistress. Or maybe they do. For some reason, I feel it would be highly patronising to call her a quiz mistress in the same way that I find the word headmistress horrible. For me, “head” is a perfectly reasonable and accurate term. I wonder why I don’t feel the same way about the word actress. Maybe I should? Does anyone reading this have a strong view on this subject?

That’s about all. I’ve finished a draft of Nene. I’ve had Em mastered. I’m in a pretty good place to start slightly winding down. I may need to sleep a lot between now and New Year. That may not be possible of course.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

In vino veritas

Tonight is the first time I’ve actually managed to sit down and relax for what seems like days. I’ve had a bath and am watching telly. The weekend has been mostly spent in the synagogue with a morning service on Saturday and a wedding this afternoon. It was actually my first ever Jewish wedding, which I find almost unbelievable. I didn’t really get a chance to see much of the action. They’d erected a little pergola in the synagogue and the choir were sat up on a platform from where our view was somewhat blocked but it all seemed to go smoothly enough.

So, apart from that, my weekend was all about learning music. I did manage a drink with Michael and one of his friends on Friday night where I actually drank a whiskey! I know! Hash tag alcoholic. I quite like whiskey, but tend to keep this fact to myself because, in my experience, drinkers often like to have other people around them drinking. If you announce that you quite like a certain tipple, people just keep on buying you glasses and I’m really not in the market for the expense or the affect it might have on me. It sometimes feels as though no one can enjoy themselves unless a) they’re drinking and b) everyone around them is drinking. I personally don’t believe I’ve ever been less fun as a result of not drinking. I can, however, name plenty of occasions when I’ve been less fun BECAUSE of drinking, and plenty more where people I know have become utter monsters as a result of getting drunk. Garrulous. Abusive. Boring. Inappropriately coquettish and flirty. Aggressively right wing.... I just don’t think the taste of alcohol can be that worthwhile! And very few people seem to know when to call it a day. Sometimes I think if “in vino vertitas” is true then I must know one or two prannies! There are very few people, if any, in my life who actually become nicer people when they’ve had one too many! 

Alcohol rant over!

Saturday, 16 December 2017


I was invited to attend a workshop today with Claude-Michel Schönberg, writer of Les Miserables. Six writing teams had been asked to prepare material for his feedback and I think we were all terrified because he’s rather famous for his Gallic bluntness! I’m actually all for bluntness, particularly in this business, because it makes a compliment all the more special. His opening statement to us all rather summed up his views: “these days everything is fabulous. You put a show on and everyone tells you it’s fabulous. But not everything is fabulous.” His view is that we’re all professionals, so ought to be able to take criticism (and he’s right). He also believes that being a successful writer is almost entirely dependent on your ability to deal with failure. “Our job is to deal with failure after failure, but always with great enthusiasm.” For some reason I found that particular statement greatly moving.

There were a few slightly uncomfortable moments during the day when Claude-Michel was quite harsh with some of the writers. One girl in particular had written what I felt was a stonkingly beautiful melody, but was heavily criticised. The joy about Claude-Michel is that he comes entirely from the perspective that the music needs to serve the drama of a moment. There’s no point in writing a beautiful melody if it doesn’t land theatrically. Sometimes a beautiful melody actually destroys drama because it lulls an audience into a passive place.

His instincts are remarkable. Take, for example, my song, “Warwickshire.” He immediately, and very shrewdly, ascertained that the song came out of quite a dramatic scene and that its somewhat wistful beginning was at loggerheads with the drama of the dialogue immediately before. This was something which required clever acting in the Central production. Ruby Ablett was forced to take herself out of an angry place and will herself into a reverie fo suit the mood of the song. She did this impeccably well, but a performer should never need to use their craft simply to justify sloppy writing. Hannah the director struggled with the problem and I was hugely impressed with Claude-Michel for honing in on the issue so rapidly and succinctly. He also offered a fairly inspiring fix.

Laura Barnard and Nathan sang for me, and both did me utterly proud. Laura sang “Warwickshire” and the two of them did “You Will Be Loved” together. I had my head buried in the piano but there seemed to be a lot of warmth in the room. Everyone is always really moved to hear that the story of Em is based on truth and afterwards Claude Michel said “you have a good song and a very moving story because it’s true. The change of key is perfect, the melody is wonderful.”

I’d call that a job well done. A very lovely day.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Studio done

I’m in a haze of work at the moment. I literally haven’t stopped. I don’t even have the time I need to prep what I’m supposed to be doing the following day. It’s like someone’s chucked me out of a moving train and I haven’t stopped rolling down the siding for long enough to stand up.

Yesterday marked our last day mixing the Em album. By rights I should have been out last night painting the town, but I’m attending a workshop today where I’m playing the piano and because I’ve forgotten how to play, I had to prep, and prep hard. There still wasn’t enough time, so I shall officially be muddling through, which is really not my style because I’m a grafter, not a blagger. Some people thrive on being under-prepared. The key moment arrives and they instantly focus their brains and pull brilliance out of their arses. I just get nervous. One of the reasons that I’m a fanatical preparer is that I have to factor in a dose of crippling fear, which has the capacity to make my voice sound like a sheep when I’m singing and the piano keys ripple up and down when I look at them.

It was a bit of an anticlimax to finish in the recording studio. It didn’t feel triumphant or even a relief because we simply didn’t have enough time to truly deal with the more problematic tracks. There are certainly a number of songs which I’m not altogether happy with and two or three of the songs which we were tinkering with quite comprehensively yesterday will probably be need to be sent for mastering without any more work, which is a risk. I’m already way over budget and can’t afford to tinker any more. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you’ve done your best. My only real disappointment is that the first song on the album is the one it feels like we’ve struggled most with.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Cold Kitchen

I felt very sorry for myself as I sat in a cold kitchen at 7.30 this morning. It’s been some time since I had to get up before the sun, and the experience is always a little bewildering. The fact that it’s still dark at 7.30am is also surprisingly depressing. The good news is that, as of next week, the days begin to get longer again.

Even more depressing was the fact that the hot water tank hadn’t yet heated up, so I couldn’t even get warm. I can well understand why, in Pepys’ time, working days got longer and shorter depending on the time of year. Imagine being a servant back in those days, and having to wake up on a dark winter morning to get the fire on for your master?

I tried to run a bath on two separate occasions, neither successful, so was forced to walk to Julian’s studio feeling cold and a bit achey. It’s amazing how not being able to have a bath in the morning can affect your body!

As I walked along Parkland Walk, I was thinking how amazing it is that a little girl can be born with a heart on the outside of her body and manage to survive the experience. I wasn’t having a theoretical debate with myself. This is something which has genuinely happened in Leicester. I’m not altogether sure what to make of the fact that they’ve called the baby “Vanellope” or that the cardiologist who dealt with the child after her birth was called Frances Bu’lock (careful how you pronounce that name, folks) but it is extraordinary to think that a baby can fight the odds like that.Vanellope could grow up to be an entirely healthy little girl, although I tend to think that these miracle babies often grow up with a plethora of other health issues The astounding thing is that babies born with this abnormality in the future will be thought to have hope. The parents of Vanellope say they knew she was a fighter from the moment she was born, so perhaps naming their child after the feisty, unstoppable character from the Wreck It Ralph films is appropriate after all. Although, Vanellope...?!!!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


I’m going to Romford. ‘Nuff said, really!

Monday, 11 December 2017


We went to Thaxted yesterday to celebrate Sascha’s birthday with Brother Edward, Nathan’s sister, Sam and her little dog, Gini, who went down particularly well with the parents. I’ve long since felt it might be good for them to have a dog, and yesterday made me almost convinced of this fact. My dad in particular looked like a twenty year-old playing with her!

We had one of my Mum’s “cold collations” which went down very well whilst watching Strictly. For the record, I am still supporting Debbie McGee, who I think is just fabulous.

I took hand made chocolates from Tuscany with me and the European-style advent candles that Tammy had introduced me to in Florence.

It got colder and colder as the evening drew on. We were sitting in front of a fabulous open fire, so didn’t feel it until we left the house when our car’s thermometer informed us that it was actually minus 3 degrees, which rose to about minus 1 by the time we’d reached Highgate.

I woke up this morning to discover snow everywhere. Everywhere. I have seldom seen so much snow in London. Of course my initial reaction was one of great excitement. I love it when it snows...

...And snow is always very exciting when you don’t have anywhere to be. You can go for a walk in the woods and sit looking out of the window at cars skidding out of control on the road underneath, feeling snug and smug!

Sadly, I had a quizzing job to do today in Winchmore Hill, a suburb in outer London. It didn’t occur to me that Haringey Council would have neglected to grit the roads. I left the house in something of a blizzard and instantly realised that there was more of an issue than I’d originally thought.

The car was covered top to toe in three inches of snow to the extent that I couldn’t see any metal, just a big white blob. As I tried to find the door handle, a little girl on the other side of the road asked her grandfather what I was doing. “He’s trying to find his car,” said the Grandad!

I managed to clear the windscreen, and made the nutty decision to open the windows to clear the snow from them, which instantly backfired as heaps of the stuff piled onto the back seat.

Within a minute of leaving home, I’d ground to a halt in the middle of Muswell Hill road, surrounded by cars in varying degrees of trouble. Wheel-spinning, sliding, skidding. A row of busses had been abandoned. People were out of their vehicles, scratching their heads, telling other drivers not to bother going any further. One came up to me and told me I’d never make it up to Muswell Hill.

I instantly panicked and called Nathan, who came down, took to the wheel and suggested we snake our way via backroads to Finchley and down to the North Circular, which was utterly gridlocked. I was astounded to discover that they hadn’t even bothered to grit that road.

We chugged along, bumper to bumper, and turned off just before Palmer’s Green, which was when things started getting really hairy. Cars were spinning out of control all over the place and stopping suddenly in the middle of the road. And then, half way up a hill somewhere near Southgate, it was our car’s turn to break down. We got stuck on a patch of ice with the wheels spinning. I got out and tried to push, but there was no moving the car.

People are very good. Within five minutes we were surrounded by passers by, all trying to help. At one point, three people were using umbrellas from our boot to try to chip away at the ice under the car wheels, whilst someone else was trying to put black bin liners under the wheels in an attempt to give us some traction. But it was hopeless...

In the end, I had to phone the person who’d booked me to run the quiz, to ask if she or someone she knew had a 4 by 4 that could pick us up. Fortunately her husband did, and, ten minutes later, he came to our rescue and took us to Winchmore Hill.

The quiz and party went well. Nathan was able to step in as my assistant, which I was most grateful about, but we spent quite a lot of it panicking about how we were going to get home. All the tubes, buses and overground trains were down. One of the guests arrived at the party and said the Uber she’d taken there had crashed!

As it happened, the whether warmed up a little bit through the early evening, and, by the time we were done, a very grumpy Uber driver was able to take us back to our car. The journey home was a little hairy, but nothing like as terrifying as the journey over

We got back at about 7pm, much relieved to finally be home, telling ourselves to always remind ourselves in future not to try to drive anywhere in a snow storm like that!!

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Old friends

St Pancras train station really is the one you want to arrive at if you’re coming to London for the first time. It’s a Pandora’s Box of delights. When I arrived there yesterday from Sheffield, there was a great big spinning propellor hanging from the ceiling and a thirty-foot high Christmas tree covered in beautiful flowers which people were staring up at with great joy in their faces.

I went to sleep last night with the knowledge that Coventry had been awarded the next city of culture status, which I’m obviously rather pleased about. Harry Hill has tweeted (tongue-in-cheek) to say that the decision was obviously something to do with his fond micky-taking of Coventry Market: The Musical!

Joking aside, what’s clear to me is that the city has very bad PR. I was with a group of people last night who rolled their eyes to heaven at the thought of it becoming the city of culture. One of them, a travel writer, said “how am I going to be able to find 800 words to write about that dump?” And actually, a city which is misunderstood like that is a perfect choice for the award. Cities with fabulous tourism and cultural institutions don’t need the honour. The multicultural nature of Coventry coupled with its young population and the relative affordability of its housing means it’s a city with a great deal of cultural potential.

Nathan’s sister, Sam, is staying with us at the moment, but as soon as she arrived yesterday afternoon, I was pretty much out of the door to head into central London to meet a very old school friend, Angela, who, barring a quick hello at the Albert Hall on the premiere of my Nene composition, I haven’t seen for twenty five years. And as if this wasn’t enough, to make me feel really old, she revealed that her daughter was playing viola in the youth orchestra and that she has a son who is 21!

Speaking of the Albert Hall gig, I had the most charming card through the post today which came from the kids at Higham Ferrers junior school. There was a lovely picture of them all in their Nene T-shirts, sitting outside the Albert Hall and, inside, they’d all written messages calling me a legend and thanking me for writing a song they could sing at the Albert Hall. It was really very touching. Bizarrely, their teacher, whom I got chatting to during one of the rehearsals, comes from Northampton and went to Roade School, which is where Fiona went. A little bit of “oh do you know such and such” revealed that she was best friends with the older sister of a very close friend of mine from music school, and a few seconds later we realised we’d attended the Northampton balloon festival together when I was 17. To add to the rolling ball of coincidence, she said she thought she still had a photograph she’d taken that day, which she sent to me in the card. And there I was; mop of floppy curly hair, 90s style jacket with weirdly sloping shoulders, pyjamas instead of trousers, clutching a vintage 1960s camera. I look a lot older than 17. My friend looks like my son. I realised with horror that Angela, whom I met yesterday evening, would have expected me to still be the lad in that photo.

As it happened, when I arrived in the restaurant, I was greeted by another school friend, Adrian. We were firm friends, probably best friends, for a period in the late 80s and it was astounding to see him after all those years. My first comment was that seeing him was like seeing a ghost. I instantly backed up this somewhat odd remark by asking if he’d always spoken with such a strong Northamptonshire accent. I bet he wondered why he bothered to turn up!

We caught up on twenty five years the way that you’re forced to in these circumstances. Headlines only. Work. Kids. Relationship status. He works in health and safety for the London fire brigade. He told me harrowing stories about Grenfell.

Angela was on good form as well. The three of us pulled every name we could out of our memory banks and shared whatever knowledge we had. Some of the people were dead, including, I was sorry to hear, a lovely lass we used to know called Ruth Turner who played the clarinet. One of my former rugby team mates had flipped out and murdered his girlfriend. Some were divorced. Many were moving back to Rushden after roaming the world a little. We shared hazy memories. We talked about the shooting at my school. We ate lovely Mediterranean food. I realised that that I’d only kept in touch with two people from my school and that both of them were called Tammy.

A lovely, nostalgic evening.

Friday, 8 December 2017


I woke up yesterday morning and was instantly greeted by the most hideous, dirty, sickly light. I hate to be one of those Italiaphiles who goes on about the glorious light in Tuscany, but I found it utterly inspiring and reinvigorating. I literally leapt out of bed to start working on the Nene piece. It was just so miserable to pull back the curtains and have all that new energy slapped back in my face by the sound of heavy London traffic and that grim, deathly light.

I worked through the morning, finally getting the sense that I’ve broken the back on the new version of Nene, before jumping on a train to Sheffield to assist on a quiz at Hallam University where there were actually three teams from the BBC, including people I knew, which was very lovely.

The journey up was a fantastic opportunity to write, and a chance to stare out of the window at highly familiar Midlands scenery. The trip from St Pancras to Sheffield takes you through Wellingborough and Kettering, and, for some time, snakes along the banks of the Nene. There’s many a childhood stomping ground in those there parts! 

A young man from Leicester with verbal diarrhoea was boring the pants off the poor girl sitting next to him. The talking literally didn’t stop from the moment he boarded the train to the moment he got off, by which point I’d managed to subconsciously filter out all sounds in the pitch at which he was speaking!

He was replaced by a man in his thirties who was wearing a suit and having very important-sounding business conversations on the telephone. At one stage he hastily opened his traveling bag to pull out an iPad and I was somewhat amazed, and quite impressed to see that the bag was full of fairly kinky leather gear!

I checked into the Premier Inn, which, in Sheffield, doesn’t have rooms with baths, a fact which made me somewhat anxious. One of my great joys when it comes to staying away from home is having a nice long bath after a busy day before watching telly in bed with a nice cup of tea. If the room doesn’t have a kettle, a telly or a bath, I become intensely emotional!

I was also asked to state my nationality as I arrived and sign a document to say I was telling the truth. It’s apparently not the most unusual thing to be asked when checking into a British hotel, but it was a first time for me and I found the question hugely intrusive, especially when the woman behind the counter told me that the hotel “works closely with the immigration department.” I’m just not sure I’m interested in any hotel working with anyone to build up a profile about their guests, particularly guests, like me, who already have Premier Inn accounts which are responsible for sending God knows how much junk. Not cool. I appreciate that we live in troubling times, but I don’t think asking everyone their nationality is going to stop terrorism, or immigration problems. Those with something to hide will simply lie.

And whilst I’m standing on my soap box, I’m not sure I understand my train guard’s almost obsessive announcements telling us to “be aware of any suspicious activity” before encouraging us to “remember the three s’s: see it, say it, sorted.” A phrase which doesn’t even make sense.

It was freezing cold in Sheffield and it snowed during the night. I was somewhat relieved to wake up to bright sunshine however, which has made me feel a little better about being back in Blighty! The snow on the peaks around Chesterfield was delightful.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Lucca by night

We drove up into the hills just above Lucca last night to a little Trattoria which was recommended by the guy that runs our B and B. It turns out that Monday and Tuesday nights are the quiet ones in Italy, and most of the places we wanted to visit were sadly closed. This one, he assured us, was always open! 

It’s quite scary travelling along the winding country lanes at night time, knowing there are deathly drops around every hairpin bend. Wildlife is also somewhat unpredictable in those parts, which is something we experienced when a deer rushed out in front of us, narrowly avoiding becoming road kill under our hire car wheels!

The Trattoria was very charming and very much a place frequented by locals. It’s commonplace for large groups of men to eat together in these parts. The Italians don’t have the same binge-drinking mentality as Brits, and, in fact, they don’t seem to drink without eating, so guys come out of work, head to the local Trattoria, sit in a back room around a giant table, drinking cheap plonk whilst eating plate-loads of food.

The restaurant is situated on a little bend in the road, by a fast-running stream, next to the crumbling arches of an ancient viaduct. The whole corner is invitingly lit-up like a Hopper painting. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the cured hams dangling from the roof, or the pig carcass stretched over the bar, but the food was fabulously rustic and they didn’t seem at all freaked out by my being vegetarian. I had a very hearty minestrone soup followed by a mushroom pasta dish and loved every mouthful to the extent that I used a piece of bread to mop up every last drop. No one in Italy makes a big deal about produce being locally sourced. Everything which is served is locally sourced. If you live by the sea, your local restaurants will be full of fish. If you live in the mountains, they’ll be more meat-heavy. No one really bothers to cook with ingredients which they can’t get on their doorstep. That’s just how things are. If you want honey, wine, olive oil, vinegar, cured ham, tomatoes, mushrooms, truffles, bread, lemons, even chocolate, you’ll be given the stuff which the locals grow or make. It’s just really honest like that. No one needs the gimmick of writing “farm fresh Cornish free range sausages served on a rustic bed of Northamptonshire cottage loaf.”

I was somewhat amused to note that the house plonk was served on tap, like beer in a British pub.

After dinner, we drove down the hill into a freezing cold Lucca to stroll around the icy streets and soak in the atmosphere of the place after dark on a cloudless full-mooned night. Perhaps it’s different in summer or at the weekend, but the place was eerily empty. We encountered the odd couple, wandering back to their hotels, enjoying the elegant Christmas lights twinkling blue and white over the pavements and the charmingly tacky seasonal displays in all of the shop windows. My favourite window featured disco lights dancing on the surface of a load of ceramic pots and vases! The juxtaposition was delicious! 

We discovered what appeared to be the only bar open within the city centre and I had a cup of tea... “con latte fredda.” You have to be so specific here about asking for cold milk, or you’re given a weird, sweet, hot, foamy nonsense, which tastes utterly rank with tea. There’s always a great deal of eyebrow raising to endure, which only stops when you announce that you’re English, and (in their eyes) eccentric to the extent that all bets are off.

On Monday Tammy told me about the Torre Guinigi, a tower in Lucca with an oak tree on its roof, which I’d somehow managed to miss on our visit at the weekend. It sounded too good to miss, so I found it on a map and we went for a gander. Obviously it was way too late to actually climb up there. I have a vague memory of possibly going up there twenty years ago when I last visited the city, but if I did, no clear pictures of it have lodged themselves in my mind.

It’s certainly rather impressive from below. The streets in Lucca are so narrow, and the houses, in the main, are so high, that you don’t really see it until you’re right underneath. It’s one of those medieval skyscrapers which the Tuscans built with great alacrity, and, at 44.5 metres tall, the fact that there’s a tree on the top seems all the more remarkable! Heaven knows how it manages to grow up there and whether its appearance was by design or the result of some kind of freak natural occurrence.

They light it very well. From below, it takes on the appearance of a tall, thin corn dolly with hair made of cress!

This morning was our last in Tuscany. Michael is actually rather interested in buying a property out here, so we went to a couple of viewings, both of which were rather stunning. It’s such a treat to be able to visit houses which are both beautiful and affordable. Even I could probably get a mortgage for the properties we were looking at. Both had large rooms, two bedrooms, and outdoor terrace space. One was built in the 1960s and was full of original features, which, ten years ago, I might have turned my nose up at, but now I think they’re deeply stylish. The other, which was too much of project, I suspect, actually made me cry. It was in the medieval main square and covered two floors. It was utterly ramshackle, with bits of rooms all over the place, but the views looked onto the cobbled market place and out onto the mountains behind.

The absolute piece de resistance was the Veronese roof terrace, which sat right on the top of the building. The terrace has a roof and walls but no glass in the large windows. That’s apparently the style. I have seldom felt so attached to a space. I imagined having breakfast up there every morning. Or writing music up there.

We drove back to the airport at Pisa (which one of the cabin staff on the way over pronounced as “pizza”). You can see the beautiful dome of the cathedral and the iconic leaning tower from the motorway. Today they were sort of looming out of the mist, which made them all the more impressive. You can also see them very clearly from the air as the plane takes off. The tower is so familiar that it actually starts to look like a sort of film set. You can’t quite believe that it’s actually there.

I arrived back in London during rush hour, wondering quite why it is that I call this city my home. I could literally feel the anxiety levels rising as people repeatedly crashed into me and the tube carriage filled up with more and more angry, sweaty people.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Torrente Pescia

There’s a mad Bengali man in our B and B with weird staring eyes. He cooks us breakfast in the morning and stands by the cooker whilst we eat it, making us feel deeply uncomfortable. He never smiles. I think he’s suspicious of my vegetarianism. Sometimes his face suddenly appears at a window or in a doorway. He watches us, almost as though he wants to kill us.

We opted for breakfast in Pescia this morning, which may have triggered some wrath from our Bengali friend who probably felt a little snubbed. I think we’re the only people staying here, so he may have stood by the cooker for a long time. We went to the cafe where they squeeze orange juice in front of you and sat on one of their communal tables eating croissants.

I worked for about an hour before we set off for a little walk along the river bank. The river is somewhat romantically called “Il Torrente Pescia” (the Torrent of Pescia) and it cuts a fine swathe through the middle of the town. Various bridges, some pedestrian-only, link the two halves of the town together. I’m told the area was badly bombed in the Second World War. One assumes that the paper factories along the river were a legitimate target, or maybe that they were converted for other, more sinister, uses during the war. Whatever the case, the charming town square in Pescia mercifully avoided being bombed, but the buildings by the river weren’t so lucky. Their replacements are lacking in old-worldly charm.

It’s obviously a river which goes nuts in the spring when the snow melts on the nearby mountains. There’s a large area of flood plain covered in scrubby grass and a few hardy-looking trees, and this is where we were walking. At one point a bird flew past which must have been some sort of kingfisher. It was almost entirely turquoise. Its feathers literally shimmered in the sun.

The “other” side of Pescia is a little more ramshackle, but all the more charming for it. Back from the river, the buildings are ancient. Inviting little roof terraces perch shambolically on the sides and tops of houses which look like they might fall down any moment. The idea of sitting with a cup of tea in the morning, staring out at the Apennines is a rather lovely one!

The sun was setting and winter mists were descending on the valley below us when we returned to the B and B, so we took ourselves for a walk through the olive groves and around the little streams which are all part of this estate. The colours around here are majestic. The trees have not yet shed their leaves so there are plenty of autumnal colours. Many are still bearing fruit as well. There are both orange and lemon trees outside the house where we’re staying, with piles of windfalls on the ground. The olive trees are a silvery sage colour which intensifies and darkens as the sun lowers in the sky.

And what a fine sunset we had. A bank of cloud was sitting on the mountains to the west of us, and, as the sun vanished behind it everything became rather murky and still. There was open sky below the cloud, however, so we knew there would be one last, glorious hurrah as the sun dropped towards the horizon. We could see an arc of orange light slowly moving towards us, glinting in the windows of the buildings of Luca, and then suddenly the sun was with us again, fiery orange and warming our faces. Smoke from chimneys in the mountains behind us was whisked into the thermals and corkscrewed its way up the mountain in white ribbons. And just like that, it was dark again. The sun, nothing but a memory for another twelve hours, off to wake someone else up in the world.

Monday, 4 December 2017


We’ve been in Florence all day today. It’s my first trip here for at least twenty years and I remembered very little. We weren’t really sight seeing. I was here to see my oldest friend in the world, Tammy. We met at the age of eleven and were inseparable all the way through secondary school. Because the two of us were behind the organisation of every inter-form competition or initiative, our friendship was seen as so important to the well-being of our class that, on the one occasion that we did fall out, the form tutor locked us in a room together and refused to allow us out until we were friends again!

It was so lovely to see her. I don’t think she’s changed to look at in all the years I’ve known her. She’s a true example of someone who decided to go out there and get life, and, in the process, beat the Northamptonshire malaise into a cocked hat. I was very moved to hear her saying today that she’d bought her seven-year old daughter, Evie, a little print which shows a baby bird sitting in a tree with a mummy bird on the ground underneath. The baby is saying “but Mummy, what if I fall?” to which the mother responds, “but darling, what if you FLY?!” Tammy wants her daughter to know that she can achieve anything in life. Tammy herself grew up in a little semi-detached house in Northamptonshire and now lives with a Ferrari engineer in Italy with two bi-lingual children. That’s what happens when you’re not afraid to look beyond the visible horizon.

The Duomo in Florence is one of the wonders of the world. It’s cream walls glow yellow in the Tuscan sun and it’s covered in the most ornate red and green geometric carvings. Of course it’s the giant dome which rightly attracts the most attention. I think it was only recently that they even worked out how they’d made it. Something to do with a false wooden wall within. I think they may have pedestrianised the roads around the cathedral in recent years because my memory of it was as beautiful building almost strangled by the cars speeding past. Or perhaps that’s another false memory...

It was rather lovely to arrive there today to find two men up a cherry picker, dressing an enormous Christmas tree. The Italians apparently don’t really start “doing” Christmas until the 8th of December which is apparently when Mary the Muv got fiddled with by some kind of angel, and if this crazy myth prevents the shops in Italy from playing carols at Hallowe’en, I’m massively in favour of it! But a three week gestation period? Come on! What was Jesus? A rabbit?

On Tammy’s advice we crossed over the iconic Ponte Vecchio (that’s the one lined with jewellery shops which gets name-checked in O Mio Babbino Caro) and walked up to a park on the north side of the city where the views are staggering. Whilst you’re in Florence itself, it’s impossible to get a sense of quite how beautiful those terracotta-tiled roofs can look. But standing on a hillside, looking down, you instantly become aware of how breathtaking they are. Seeing Florence from that hillside makes me understand why my mother cried when she saw the city for the first time.

We crossed the river and went for lunch in a fancy little cafe where plastic tubing was hanging from the roof in the style of some sort of trendy installation, which actually felt like the sitting underneath a deconstructed church organ. I briefly wondered if I would survive one of the pipes falling onto my head, and, after deciding I would, allowed myself to enjoy the pasta/Greek salad combination that all three of us opted for.

After eating we went to a shop which specialised in glassware. I got a little carried away and bought all manner of little trinkets, mostly for Christmas presents. I’ve always been quite a fan of colourful Italian glass.

We stumbled upon a Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce where all three of us, in an uncontrolled frenzy, bought large quantities of wooden and glass tat including a Christmas bauble in the shape of a tiny house, a glass angel and a fridge magnet which looked like a bumble bee. Tammy bought three packets of cheddar cheese from an English stall and I bought a pastry thing which was so dry it soaked up every inch of saliva in my mouth!

...We laughed as well. Tammy told Michael how, whenever she’s with me, within seconds she feels like a teenaged girl again, and I realised that I do exactly the same. Tammy was always a wonderfully receptive audience for my naughtiness and we have always laughed and laughed and laughed together. And then laughed a little more.

We snaked our way back through the big square where the replica of Michaelangelo’s David sits alongside all sorts of over-dramatic statues of people clubbing each other to death and things. We possibly should have taken more interest in the details. Maybe a trip to the Uffizi would have been appropriate, but actually I wanted to go to Tiger to buy more tat, largely because Tammy had bought an advent candle from there which I coveted. Walking around Tiger is such a strange experience, not dissimilar to Ikea. Once you enter, your only option is to keep going, passing all the weird little objects you never knew you needed so much.

Our magical trip ended with freshly squeezed orange juice in the glorious train station, which, “rebuilt” in 1934, is a quintessential and beautiful example of 1930s functional architecture. The Brits, of course, would have stripped out all the original features and replaced them with plastic and chip board, but the Italians have left all the original signage intact which is all in that wonderfully brutalist font which makes the train station a phenomenal deco time capsule which I would urge anyone to go and see.

As we bade our fond farewells to Tammy, we realised that a massive murmuration of starlings was happening in the sky above the station. And what a glorious sight that is. Genuinely one of the greatest gifts that nature can give. The patterns those birds created in the air, ebbing and flowing like coal dust in a lava lamp was awe-inspiring, particularly against a setting sun.

It was rather wonderful to be walking around Florence on a Monday in early December. The city was about as empty as you could ever expect it to be, and because the sun was shining, it was next to perfect. I remember the hoards of tourists during my last visit and fighting to get across the Ponte Vecchio. Like Cambridge, it’s a small city which struggles not to drown under the weight of its visitors. A rather plaintive piece of graffiti (in Italian) read, “the city is being stolen from us by tourists.” As Michael says, the interesting thing about graffiti is seeing the stuff that doesn’t get removed. For many years a star of David hanging from a noose was scrawled on a wall in the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and, in the village down the road from our B and B here in Tuscany there are two giant swastikas. Why would villagers not have that removed? And it strikes me that this particular piece of graffiti has been left in Florence either because the authorities agree with the sentiment, or, because the sentiment itself is true, namely that the money generated by bus loads of tourists descending on the city isn’t filtering down to those who clean the streets.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

le dieci castella

I was awoken by the arhythmic sound of Sunday bells calling people across the region to mass. It was like a glorious piece of minimalism. Just as I thought I was on top of the rhythmic pattern the two bells were creating, it changed. Italian bells, of course, are randomly jangled, so I was never going to be able to predict what pattern was coming next, unlike, of course, the highly complex English bell ringing tradition, which you could argue was minimalism in its truest form.

We drove into the foothills outside Pescia to visit a couple of the fortified medieval villages which cling perilously to the mountains in these parts. They’re known as the “le dieci castella” on account of there being ten of them. We parked up just outside Pietra Buona and followed an ancient, extremely steep track up the hill towards Medicina. The immediate thing which struck us both was the silence. You simply cannot hear the sound of either traffic or planes. It’s actually exactly a year since I walked the river Nene, and one of the things that struck, and disappointed, me about that walk was the fact that, even on the fens, I was always accompanied by the distant roar of traffic. In this part of Tuscany, you can’t hear any of those mechanical noises. You hear bird song, the rustle of trees and the odd barking dog from somewhere across the valley, but that’s about it. Sound really does travel in these mountain communities to the extent that I suddenly understood why yodelling and Alpen horns were used to communicate back in the day. When bells ring in another one of the villages, you hear magical harmonics echoing all around you. Like a sort of otherworldly drone. The singing of the spheres. 

As we wound our way ever further up the hill, we started to notice giant birds of prey riding the thermals beneath us. It was all rather Mrs Tiggywinkle!

The footpath was a little eerie in places. Periodically we’d stumble across a disused hut or bothy and there were gun cartridges scattered everywhere. This is plainly a place where the locals like to hunt.

Medicina is tiny and somewhat creepy. It’s apparently where ill people in the area were traditionally brought, which, one assumes, means it’s seen more than its fair share of death. It full of twisting walk ways and tunnels barely tall enough to stand in. Great protection, one assumes, from both the angry summer sun, and marauding invaders. It’s delightfully downtrodden and has all the trimmings of being a “local place for local people.” The village smells strongly of wood smoke.

We sat on a wall for half an hour eating crisps and drinking water whilst a terribly friendly and ludicrously fluffy cat wriggled around our ankles.

We followed the official road back down the hill and were passed by a father-son duo riding a miniature petrol-powered truck who were off to pick olives. It seems a little late in the year to be doing that kind of work, but perhaps there’s a type of olive which is better after the first frost. I know there are grapes like that, and, I vaguely recall, a certain type of apple...

On the way down the hill we also saw a burned out car in an entirely burned out car port right next to someone’s house. There’s plainly a story there, but it’s one we can only guess at. 

We drove back into Pescia, in the hope that we’d be able to find a cafe for a spot of lunch. It was a bit of a fool’s errand on a Sunday in Italy, but we managed to find a rather charming little spot where a woman was sitting behind the counter crocheting bags out of thick, string-like yarn. I ordered a doughnut which was delicious. It turns out she’d made it herself. I was glad I told her how much I’d enjoyed it.

We then drove up to another one of the dieci castella. This one is called Vellano, and it is the largest of the siblings. It’s also a great deal more picturesque. The views from up there are astounding. Look due east and you’ll be treated to a series of entirely snow-covered mountains which looked almost superimposed against the powder blue sky. Chilling winds whistle through the town’s snickleways and there’s an intoxicating smell of sweet, sweet woodsmoke up there.

We drove further up the mountain, astonished by the car’s thermometer which plummeted from 14 degrees to 2 during a ten minute upward climb.

We ended up in Gorailo, which isn’t one of the hill towns. It’s not really a town. It’s merely a series of houses sitting on a very high ridge from where you can see as far as Florence and all the way to the sea, which was glowing bright orange in the setting sun. There was also snow on the ground up there, which felt a little exciting. It was too cold to hang around for long however, so we travelled back down to Vellano from where we watched the orange sun sinking beneath a mauve mountain.

The air in these parts is so fresh and clear. It makes me realise how dangerously polluted London is.

Saturday, 2 December 2017


It’s about 4.30pm, the light is fading and a mega gale is whipping up around the house we’re staying in. There’s a roar of sound coming from outside, trees are being buffeted left, right and centre, and, inside, things are creaking and groaning in a somewhat spooky manner. It’s a good night to be inside writing, wrapped up warm, with a nice cup of tea! The lights are coming on one by one across Lucca below us. It’s cozy, but this definitely has all the makings of a horror movie. To make matters worse, the paintings in this old house have eyes which follow you as you walk up and down stairs. One in particular, a woman with a long, Art Deco body covered in 1920s jewellery, has the wide-eyed grin of a lunatic!

We’ve been in Lucca all day, a rather fine medieval walled city, which I last visited with Stephen Twigg back in 1998. It turns out that my memories of the place were largely false. We were here during a massive holy festival and I remember standing in an enormous square watching an effigy of the Virgin Mary being carried proudly through the streets. We didn’t pass a single place which fitted any of the places I remember to the extent that I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m superimposing memories of Seville from a similar time!

We used our phone’s Sat Nav to get us there. The voice has obviously only been programmed to recognise English road names, so there were some hysterical mis-pronunciations of Italian street names, all executed in a plummy English accent. I particularly enjoyed her “Via Stradone Di Camigliano” with “via” as in “viaduct” and “Di” as in “Princess”! Via Lucchese gets announced as Vya Loo-cheese!

Within its city walls, Luca is largely pedestrianised. It’s not a city which possesses the staggering beauty of somewhere like Florence, but the lack of cars makes the winding, twisting lanes very pleasurable to get lost within. We wandered around the shops and stood at the bar in a cafe drinking coffee and tea. It’s considerably cheaper to stand with your coffee, I’m told, than it is to sit down with it. You learn something new every day!

We went into Pescia for a bite to eat this evening by which point the gales had died down. This is an intensely rural spot and there are very few main roads. On our way back, we got stuck in a traffic jam caused by a pylon brought down by the winds. The fire brigade were there and the electricity wires were duly lifted off the road and propped up on a makeshift structure. We were held up for about half an hour. It’s just as well they managed to get the road flowing again as there wouldn’t have been any other way through for us and we’d have been sleeping in the car!


I am in a grand, ancient, haunted house on a hill on the outskirts of Lucca in Italy. I have come here to write with Michael who knows the area well and suggested this crazy B and B. The ceiling is incredibly high. The floors are made of hexagonal polished tiles. The sitting room has an enormous window in it. It’s dark outside but I can see for miles across the valley towards the Appenine Mountains. The lights of the city are twinkling like sequins on Strictly!

The day started in the Aspire Lounge at Heathrow, which is the fancy British Airways hang out for people, like Michael, who are frequent fliers. It has free food. He could take a guest in with him. Why not?

It’s full of ghastly people. Of course it is. Anything which calls itself the “aspire” lounge is likely to attract people who consider themselves a cut above the rest. There were people in there drinking champagne at 9am, which felt embarrassingly ostentatious.

The plane journey wasn’t as hideous as these things often can be. I hate flying but have managed to get the abject terror I used to feel for 90% of my time in the air down to a thumping heart and sweaty palms for the first five minutes until the fasten seatbelt lights come off.

These days you don’t get anything more with BA than you do with the budget airlines. You have to pay for food and drink and it costs extra to put a bag in the hold, so everyone flies with an enormous quantity of “hand luggage” which spills out of the overhead lockers. One bloke had a suitcase and two large suit holders which he scattered liberally in overhead space around his seat. He got very angry and sarcastic with me when I crammed my case alongside his precious suit bag and tried to pick a fight until I made it abundantly clear I didn’t give a stuff!

We touched down in Pisa an hour later than expected, having sat on the runway in Heathrow for an age. It’s cold here but crisp and light, and the sun, low in the sky, had turned everything the colour of straw.

Tuscany is a very different place in the winter. It’s very green, completely unlike the tinder-dry, yellowy-brown, sunflower-filled landscapes you get here during the high summer.

This part of the region is heavily associated with the story of Pinocchio, whose writer was brought up in a small village around the corner from where we are. There are wooden statues of the character all over the place.

As the light faded, we stopped in a cafe in a charming market town called Pescia which smells of woodsmoke and is filled with the sound of bells chiming. I have respect for very few religions, but have always been rather grateful to Catholics for their tendency to jangle bells in ancient hillside towns! The Main Street looked incredibly Christmassy, with delicate white lights hovering over the road.

The cafe was filled to the brim with delicious-looking pastries and meringues. Michael had a sort of yum-yum stuffed with candied fruit and I opted for a biscuit coated in lustrous dark chocolate. We drank freshly squeezed orange juice which the man behind the counter prepared in front of us. The juice was deliciously tart. 

A little old lady was proudly hanging her paintings on the wall of the cafe. She explained that she had an exhibition of work the following week in the market place.

We drove through the winding roads in the foothills around Lucca to a spectacular restaurant where we gorged on delicious rustic pastas, salads, a local bean dish and roasted potatoes, all for an outrageously low cost. This part of the world doesn’t have the glamour of some of the other parts of Tuscany, which means it feels more real somehow. The towns and villages are a little more down-at-heel perhaps but that only adds to their charm. There are a lot of ruined and derelict buildings clinging to the river which runs through the valley. The fast-moving water made this area famous for the production of paper and, even now, you’ll be driving along a pitch black road, and suddenly see the bright lights and tall clouds of steam associated with a paper factory.

I slept like the dead last night and woke up this morning to discover the most stunning view from my bedroom window. I can literally see for miles across the whole of Lucca, which is a place I’m very much hoping to explore today.

Of course the joy is tinged with sadness. Being part of the EU brings this paradise to the finger tips of all Brits. A two hour plane journey and you’re in this magical little spot. Of course, regardless of what happens with Brexit, we’ll always only be a two hour flight away, but we will lose the right to call it part of our own community. Yet again, I find myself in mainland Europe filled with bitterness towards the people who have taken this utopia away from us.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Milo Yiannopoulos

I’ve just received a notification that prize prannie, Milo Yiannopoulos, has, for reasons I don’t understand, been invited to talk to the Australian Parliament next week, no doubt so that he can attempt to railroad the proposed legislation on same sex marriage. Those who know me well will know that Nathan and I were thrown into a debate with this prime piece of cock on the Channel 4 News around the time of our wedding. Yiannopoulos, who is gay, can always be relied on to say something utterly contentious, usually to draw attention to himself. He is a desperate and tragic self-publicist. It also became abundantly clear when we met him that he was possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, so picking a fight with him felt unnecessary: a little bit like bullying the kid wearing NHS spectacles in school.

In recent years his bigotry has increased and his tone has become more vicious and violent as his acolytes increase. He describes trans people as being mentally ill, and has been banned from Twitter for "inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others." He is a die-hard supporter of Trump and has aligned himself with white supremacists in the US.

I don’t think he believes half of what he says. I think the detritus tumbles out of his mouth like a sewerage outlet, but instead of having the decency to apologise, he tries to justify what he’s said. Intelligent people laugh at him. Stupid bigots think of him as an important voice of reason. The fact that he’s a self-hating gay man who is opposed to gay marriage makes him delicious for the media. He can say all the vile homophobic nonsense that no one else dares to say but many still think. Half way through the debate with us, he said how much more fun it had been when being gay was considered dirty and sordid.

This man doesn’t have the right to talk to the Australian Parliament. I believe wholeheartedly in free speech but Milo Yiannopoulos is, in my view, a hate preacher and that is a very different kettle of fish. Shut him up Australia, and send him home.