Saturday, 24 February 2018

And just like busses...

If your day’s routine involves reading one of my blog’s over breakfast, I feel I must apologise for my apparent inactivity of late. I’ve been wary of writing too many posts which say, “I was really busy, I had a cup of tea and I went to the gym.” And have, instead, tried only to blog when there’s something interesting to say, lest you all decide I’m a terribly dull person.

Over the last three days, I’ve worked on three quizzes. Last night’s was at a school in Guildford. I sat on the most uncomfortable chair. It was made of bendy plastic and leaned perilously so that my bottom was pushed to the back, whilst some awful ridge dug into my back. I couldn’t imagine being a student at the school and finding myself sitting, for long hours, on a chair like that.

I drove home in the dead of night, after dropping the quiz master off at the town’s train station. I had forgotten quite what a delight the Arts and Crafts, brick-built cathedral is, especially at night when it gets lit up in a fabulous, eerie manner. I just confused myself by calling Guildford a town and yet describing its iconic religious building as a cathedral. I thought the definition of a city was an urbanisation with a cathedral. Northampton’s lack of one has always been cited as the reason for that particular place not being granted city status. Apparently not. Guildford is defined as a large town. To make matters more confusing, it is sometimes described as the county town of Surrey, but this seems to be in dispute. Kingston Upon Thames also has some sort of claim to the title, but has been swallowed up by Greater London, which possibly means it’s no longer in Surrey. Curiouser and curiouser...

It has been hectic over the past few days. I sang in shul this morning, which seems like a lifetime ago. It was a very early start. It went well. The choir blended really well and we sang material which both excited and moved me. There is something rather special about singing in an all-male choir. It’s a very specific, rather gutsy sound. I think it must activate my Welshie roots.

There are posters everywhere on the tube for Mary Magdalene, a film which Philippa wrote. As I got off the tube at Highgate this evening, I walked through a tunnel of them and felt a burning sense of pride. I’m very excited to see it.

It’s blinking cold. I’m exhausted. I haven’t drunk enough water and my lips feel all chapped. That must mean it’s time for bed!


Tolerance is not a one way street

I avoid the news as often as I can these days. It’s always full of people getting outraged on other people’s behalves whilst shrilly demanding retribution: “Make him resign!” “Boycott his work!” “Cut their funding!” It’s just noise, and lots of it.

...And then there’s the BBC’s special approach to reporting which seems to involve being so terrified of being accused of bias that they go around the houses to express every side of an argument without actually giving a sense of what percentage of people ascribe to which view. Unless, that is, the powers-that-be view this view as potentially contentious, at which point it’s ruthlessly cast aside. Free speech, it seems, is defined merely as what what the BBC defines as acceptable, which, itself, is pinned to the well-tuned moral compasses of the liberal elite. And what would we do without patronising wealthy urbanites telling us how to live our lives?

I understand why it happens. We need to address the awful things which have happened in the past and the huge imbalances in society today, and, in fairness, the pendulum always has to swing in the other direction in order to find its equilibrium. And no one, of course, could be expected to turn a blind eye to prejudice and intolerance...

Or could they?

Last night, the BBC Radio 4 News led with the story that a group of men in Newcastle have been preying on “vulnerable” young women. It is, apparently, fairly likely that many other similar networks exist in towns and cities across the UK. So what do we know about these men? Well, according to the reporter, “the majority are of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian origin, but others come from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Albania and parts of Eastern Europe.” She was basically too terrified to say that they were all Muslims and, instead, spent thirty seconds of airtime going around the houses to imply this fact without offending the fragile sensitivities of the Liberal elite whom she could hear in the background sharpening their knives to accuse her of Islamophobia. We’re told that the men in question showed arrogantly little remorse for their actions, with most merely talking about Western women and their loose sexual morals. These men aren’t brutally misogynistic because they’re from Bangladesh. Where they’re from is actually irrelevant. The one thing which links all of these men is their religion. Regardless of whether they are misappropriating what they’re taught, religion has given them an excuse or a reason to dehumanise non-Muslim women.

Of course, by wanting to raise this fact, I’m not trying to argue that all Muslims hold these views. Far from it. We’re talking about a tiny minority. But we will never be able to solve a problem which has affected thousands of young women, without being able to find out what makes some young Muslim men behave like this. Shying away from identifying the single factor which links these men is putting more young people at risk.


Only when we identify the root of the issue can we take appropriate action, by which I mean careful education programmes assisted by religious leaders which attempt to reverse dangerously-ingrained views.

Tolerance is something which has to work both ways. If it doesn’t, we’re lost.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Luton

I went to Luton on Sunday night. It was a last-minute decision based on not wanting to get up at shite o’clock just to get stuck in rush hour traffic. I stayed in a Travelodge. A Luton Travelodge. I’m not sure it gets any more glamorous than that. I sat and watched the BAFTAs in my hotel room whilst children in the room across the corridor literally screamed their little lungs out. I think they were screaming out of excitement rather than because they were being slaughtered, but I’m no real expert, and it was Luton.

The BAFTAs felt self-conscious and a little arch. Everyone wore black and all the speakers felt obliged to distance themselves from anything that anyone might have found offensive in the last twelve months. Joanna Lumley, however, was, as you might expect, her usual charming, classy, glorious self, and made for a wonderful host. The list of dead people was nothing compared last year’s roll call, prompting me to think that 2016 was a particularly grim year.

It rained through the night and was raining heavily when I woke up. The rain added a certain something to my joyous experience. I bought my own breakfast. I didn’t fancy paying extra for a bowl of Shreddies. My only complaint was that the milk had warmed up through the night, in my excessively stuffy room. 

I was in Luton to speak to drama and music students at the Chalk Hill Academy, a secondary state school in the town. I listened to GCSE compositions and gave the students as much feedback as I thought constructive and inspiring, before being whisked into the school’s lecture hall to work with drama students on their upcoming assessed performances. I was asked to talk about my career for a few minutes, and the kids seemed particularly keen to discuss Our Gay Wedding: The Musical. I think they were genuinely interested in the project, although, for some reason, I felt a little gauche and self-conscious talking about it. I think all gay men have an in-built valve which makes them a little embarrassed about or wary of outing themselves to young people. Until Clause 28 was repealed in the early naughties, it would have been illegal for me to even mention it in a school, so I guess the roots of my reticence were fed by that particular dung heap. Of course, it’s vital that we usualise LGBT issues in schools. It is highly likely that at least one student in the group considers themselves to be sitting somewhere underneath the rainbow umbrella and I may have offered them a bit of hope or inspiration.

The students did incredibly well and there are one or two kids within them whom I think are super-talented. I was, however, really upset to learn that none of the composing students had computers at home, a fact which is plainly born out of poverty. How can a kid learn his craft if he doesn’t have the equipment to practice it at home? Yet again I find myself profoundly irritated that we’re not looking at location and social background as key reasons for why students are held back in their early lives.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Weddings and misty mountains

We’re currently on a rail replacement bus. Deeply irritating and relentlessly tinny music is playing over the sound system. It is climbing into my ears like a miniature pneumatic drill. It’s a little irritating that they always choose Sundays to disrupt the travel in this country. It strikes me that Sunday is the one day you want to get home speedily. They invariably try to pretend that the failure isn’t planned, but it invariably is, or else it wouldn’t always happen on a Sunday. I would far rather be told about this sort of nonsense when I buy my (hideously expensive) ticket, so I can make the decision whether or not to take another mode of transport. We’re told this bus ride is going to add an hour and a half to our overall journey. Can you imagine what a panic you’d be in if you had a plane to catch the other end?

We’re presently trundling through the outskirts of Glasgow, which turns out to be a very lovely city indeed. The architecture is wonderful. We were staying in the West End district, which is filled with long, red and blond sand stone, grand Victorian terraces. The shops in the area are a bit alternative and it’s full of cafes which seem to place an emphasis on vegetarian and vegan cuisine.

Our day yesterday started with a walk around the Botanic Gardens, which were handily just opposite our hotel. I’m sure, in the spring and summer, they’re absolutely stunning. They looked a little windswept yesterday, but the glasshouses were a treat to stroll around. One room was full of potted flowers. The scents were utterly over-powering.

We took Fiona’s advice and walked down Byres Road and along the charming Ashton Lane, with its retro cinema and hipster bars, before returning to the hotel to get our glad rags on.

We were in Glasgow to attend Nathan’s friend Jason’s wedding to his lovely fella, Gary. It was a charming occasion spent with very lovely people. It’s still rather special to see two blokes getting married. I haven’t been to enough same sex marriages yet for it to feel commonplace. And, of course, the older I get, the fewer marriages I get to attend in general.

There was a ceilidh in the evening. A three-piece folk band put guests through their paces. I was rather proud to have been part of an eight-man reel. It just so happened that all the people who stood up to take part in the dance were men. At first, it didn’t feel particularly strange, but it was so noteworthy to the leader of the band, that he asked if he could take our picture. We danced that reel with great gay pride, suddenly aware of how the eyes of the room were upon us! Society really has changed so much for the better in this respect.

There was a tinge of sadness underlying the day, however. Life can be cruel and unfair and I see a lot of people around me struggling to make sense of the cards they’re presently being dealt. A lot of people have loved ones who are getting ill. Others seem to be going through painful breakups which they can’t understand.






Bizarrely, as I write this sentence, and we charge over misty, snow-covered Southern Scottish mountains, the tinny radio is playing Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. There’s a message in there for us all...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Open? Or exposed?

We’re in Glasgow. This is only my third time in the city, and I’ve never been here for more than a couple of hours before. It’s raining. I suspect it may rain a fair amount in these parts. I’d like it to be snowing.

We came up by train. I love train journeys. We had our own table and were able to work and wander about, stretching our legs whilst buying cups of tasteless tea from the buffet car. I hate those little cups of UHT milk. And the splintery wooden stirrers you get instead of spoons.

I was similarly under-impressed by the Virgin loos. When you close the door, a ghastly little recorded voice pipes up: “Hello, it’s me, the toilet. I just wanted to ask you not to flush sanitary towels and nappies down me. The usual stuff’s totally cool. I knew what I was getting into...” And so it goes on, with a dreadful stand up routine which would make even the most confident kidney seize up. When she’d finally shut up, I had a wee, and tried to work out whose idea it was to have a talking loo. Which shocking ad agency was paid a massive wad of money to conceptualise and script that nonsense?

It wasn’t raining when we arrived, so we were able to see some of the city centre as we walked to the subway. The architecture is fairly reminiscent of the Wall Street area of New York. I like the colour of the stone. It’s sort of orangey.

The subway is super cool. It’s a circle of two tracks. The inner loop goes in one direction and the outer loop goes the other way, so you can decide which track will get you to your destination most speedily. The trains themselves are rather dinky. A tall person would definitely not be able to stand up inside. I did a little bit of reading about the Glasgow subway earlier and discovered that it was opened in 1896. It’s the third oldest underground network in the world after London and Budapest.

We’ve also been travelling on the busses. Based on two journeys, I feel equipped to make two sweeping statements. 1) Busses in Glasgow smell. 2) All Glaswegians are incredibly friendly. They’ll chat to anyone and seem to want to do nothing but help. The bus driver was a rude fella, however. Rude, or possibly simple. He greeted every question with a blank stare and refused to stop the bus when we pressed the bell.

We spent the evening with our friends Tanya and Paul, and their three kids, Tomas, Lily and Ivy. They live in a beautiful Edwardian house on the outskirts of the city, with glorious exposed wooden floorboards. We had tortilla wraps for tea and the kids kept us merrily entertained. We don’t see them nearly often enough. I’m ashamed to say that this is the first time we’ve ever visited them on their home turf. A lovely, relaxing evening.

We’re staying at the Hilton. I have an earache.

ps - I wrote “exposed” floorboards because Nathan told me that no one calls them “open” floorboards, which was my instinct. Have I gone mad? Is “open floorboards” a term? We had them when I was a kid, and Nathan had shag-pile carpets, so I’m hoping he’s wrong. Which is rare.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

The importance of unions

There’s very little to say about the last few days. I’ve been busy doing applications, writing songs and creating synopses for future projects. So much of my work is speculative. A noticeable proportion of my time is spent creating pitching documents and ball-park budgets for projects. It’s all horrifically dull, and there’s a continual sensation that you’re pissing into the wind. Björk expressed the sensation in a much more erudite way, with her song about the person standing at the top of a mountain throwing things into the void, watching them bouncing and smashing on rocks on the way down. That’s how pitching a project feels! And yet, you have to throw your heart and soul into it because if you don’t, the pitch will never be successful.

I read about an initiative today which made me feel a little angry. A dance company is planning to run a course which enables composers and choreographers to get together with dancers and musicians to explore contemporary dance. It sounds like a fabulous idea where lots of expertise and knowledge-sharing could ping around a space, although the images they used from last year’s project confirmed my belief that most contemporary dancers don’t dance TO the music, they dance IN SPITE of it!

Sadly, a little more digging revealed that only the musicians and the dancers were actually going to be paid to take part in the project. Choreographers and composers are expected to do it for the learning experience, and some expenses whilst they’re on the course. Despite this, the people running the initiative are saying that student composers cannot apply, and that only professionals are welcome. As far as I’m concerned the ONLY definition of professional is that you’re paid to write. I am not at all against the idea of doing something creative for free. I do that all the time, and many, many actors, singers and musicians have worked for me for nothing in the past. But I have never made money out of them. As far as I’m concerned, either nobody or everybody should make money out of an arts-based project. Even the tiniest budgets should be shared out equally amongst everyone taking part. That’s always been my philosophy.

I have slightly different views when it comes to paying people who are not members of unions. I’m a strong believer in unions. They are there to protect creative people and make sure they’re paid properly. If you can’t be bothered to join one, you can’t always expect to take advantage of the work they do. When I made A Symphony for Yorkshire, I actually decided to define professional musicians as those who were members of the MU. I was quite brutal about it, to the point where all the musicians who were featured in the film and were members of the MU were paid, and all those who weren’t, were not. And I feel no guilt about this fact!

So if you’re reading this, and you’re a performer, go out and join a union. Or quit whinging about pay!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Edge Hill

I reckon I spent much of yesterday enduring a terribly rainy car journey down the M6 from Edge Hill University where I was delivering a lecture to the students about my experiences working on Beyond The Fence. It’s still a little bizarre talking about that particular project, although Clare Chandler, who brought me up to do the same thing last year, commented on how much more comfortable I’d seemed this time. I certainly feel like I’ve finally accepted how damaging the experience was and gained an understanding about why things went the way they did, which implies I’m moving on! It was interesting to talk about how de-humanising the project had been and whether this particular aspect was caused or exasperated by the computers we were working with. I certainly think that people felt they could be a great deal crueller to us about our work than ever they would have been had there been no mention of artificial intelligence. It’s understandable. I think, deep down, people are genuinely terrified at the thought of computers taking over the world and walked into Beyond the Fence without a clear understanding of the actual processes we’d used and quite how much human beings need to cherry pick and curate “computer creativity” for anything meaningful to come out. It was almost tragic that most of the critics came out with a sense that the actors and director had somehow saved the day by breathing vitality and meaning into the facile nonsense which had come out of computers. The bottom line is that they saw a West End show which had been written, in a highly unorthodox manner, in five months, by an incredibly stressed married couple who were being pursued relentlessly by television cameras and bullied by lawyers and execs. Under normal circumstances a show wouldn’t have been ready even for workshopping by this stage. One of the greatest sadnesses in my life is that I think, given a proper amount of time, a good number of re-writes (and the ability to take out all the rubbish generated by computer systems which were plainly not yet good enough) Beyond the Fence could have been a very wonderful and successful show.

I do love being at Edge Hill University. Claire and the team have created such a wonderful learning environment up there. The students don’t know how lucky they are to have a tutor with such great knowledge of musical theatre and such a keen ear to the ground when it comes to what’s going on within the industry.

The news is full of this Oxfam scandal. It strikes me that we’re in a very odd place when it comes to the reporting of news. In this particular instance no one seems to be able to report what has actually happened. We’re apparently meant to feel entirely outraged that someone or some people who work or worked for a charity might have employed prostitutes whilst working in Haiti and that this information wasn’t dealt with very well by a woman called Penny who has now resigned. I’m sure it’s far more complicated than that, and that this is just the tip of the iceberg in yet another desperately worrying crisis which will cut to the heart of every charity which has ever been formed, but as we’re not actually being told the full story, it’s very hard to feel any form of emotion. And yet, at the same time, we’re being told that Oxfam might have its funding withdrawn so we’re all assuming that something terrible has happened and have gone into moral panic mode claiming Oxfam is the new Jimmy Savile. I wish we’d all just stop panicking, take a deep breath and allow those in power to work out what’s going on without being influenced by yet another media-whipped-up witch hunt.


Monday, 12 February 2018

Thaxted

Yesterday found us in Thaxted again where we experienced bright wintry sun, hail, snow and ice. I think everyone is ready for spring now. I got chatting to the lovely woman in the flower shop in Highgate village who told me she’d had a surprising run on tulips. “People are fed up with winter.” She explained.

We had a very lovely time in Thaxted. I hadn’t seen the parents since Christmas, so it was fabulous to be back in front of an open fire, putting the world to rights. At one point we were talking about my Dad’s work as a WEA lecturer. WEA stands for the Workers’ Educational Association, and it was set up so that older people could continue to challenge and educate themselves, within their own communities, by attending lectures on a smorgasbord of subjects by visiting specialists. My Dad is an historian and lectures on a variety of things including the hell-raising, Boudicca. His work takes him around Suffolk, Rural Essex and Cambridgeshire, and, therefore, those who attend his lectures tend to be old, white and middle class. Imagine his surprise, therefore, when he was sent on a course to spot the early warning signs of people who have been radicalised! I just love the idea of a 90 year old Grannie thinking “If I’m gonna go and blow up some infidels, I better learn terrorism Boudicca-style!”’

We had a lengthy discussion about the amazing recent advances in medical science. Apparently there’s work being done in the field of cancer which could save my generation. That would be nice. We’ve been forgotten by everyone else! We talked about other diseases. They’re kicking HIV to touch. The conversation, however, ended in hysterical laughter when my Mum chipped in with: “and there was something about Alzheimer’s... but I can’t remember what it was...”

We were visited by my cousin Simon’s daughter and step daughter in the late evening. They were taking a very early flight to Badapest from Stansted, so came to stay the night with my parents because they live so close to the airport. I’ve always been highly fond of both girls. They’re such witty, well-mannered, well-bought up people, and their relationship with each other is inspiring. They are so close. They’re now 22 and 23. How many step sisters would be so fond of each other that they decide to go on holiday together as adults?

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Shabbas

I went to a delightful Shabbat meal on Friday night in Notting Hill. The host was fairly orthodox, so there were all sorts of rules and rituals which needed to be observed, including washing our hands with a jug of water three times and not talking until the bread was broken. I, of course, felt like a hick from the sticks: I forgot to put my kippah into my jacket pocket and, upon arriving at the house, immediately rang the doorbell, rather than knocking. I also came with both a bag, and flowers for the host. Carrying anything on the sabbath is frowned upon.

It got me thinking about the day of rest and wondering when and why Christian people started opting for Sunday instead of Saturday? Jesus was, after all, Jewish, and very keen that people observed the sabbath. His tantrum in the temple was surely about this very subject: “My temple should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves. Get out. Get out.” He was so passionate about the subject that he sang the last phrase in rock-setto.

(Never let it be said that my only knowledge of the bible comes from Jesus Christ Superstar!)

Sticking to the Jewish theme, Saturday morning was spent singing in synagogue. The choir was a little ropey. Some had colds. Some were deps. Some were underprepared. When things start to go badly, the fear takes over and the house of cards comes tumbling down. I had a little solo in one of the numbers and was aware that everything around me was unraveling at a fairy fast pace. It was a terrible shame. We’re usually an astounding choir.

We took Michael (our choir leader) for some food afterwards to drown our sorrows (and apologise) before heading, in the driving rain, to Portobello Road where we’ve discovered a little vintage shop with a massive selection of cufflinks. I’ve now started to collect vintage cufflinks. They’re a great thing to collect because they don’t take up any room, and what with the quizzing and the singing, I’m rarely out of a suit these days. It’s rather nice to make a point of trying to find a decent pair of cufflinks whenever you’re somewhere you want to remember. I have pairs from San Francisco, Florence and Tel Aviv and a pair which once belonged to my Grandfather.

I woke up this morning to an email which made me feel incredibly sad. It came from the mother of one of the kids who sang in Nene at the Albert Hall. Her daughter, who is apparently very bright, had done well in the entrance exam for a local public school and been offered a music scholarship. Unfortunately, even with a scholarship, the fees were beyond anything which the mother could afford. She wrote to me in something of a state: “I feel I’m begging as I’m a person who’s never asked anyone ever for help before. I’m desperate as seeing my daughter’s dreams fade away in her eyes and it’s heartbreaking to watch her cry. I feel guilty I cant give her the start she needs but we just cant find another way but to ask for help.”

The tragedy is multi-layered. State schools just aren’t offering musical and creative kids the education they need, so kids who can’t afford to go to private schools are just not going to have the opportunity to develop as well-rounded people. The other upsetting aspect is that there’s an assumption that someone who’s done relatively well in the arts like me would have the kind of money needed to help someone in despair. I only wish I could. If I had money, I would immediately set up a fund to help young kids from the Midlands realise their dreams. But I don’t. And this makes me so sad.


Thursday, 8 February 2018

Mealy

I’ve been working very hard in the gym of late, and am feeling the benefit. I feel lighter. I bounce again as I walk. I don’t get tired or breathless. I think all people who are actively losing weight should be encouraged to hold bags of sugar representing the weight they have lost, and wonder how amazing it must be not to carry that around any more.

My indoor plants have mealy bugs. A horrible white sticky, fluffy substance has attached itself to the bits where the leaves meet the stalks. I noticed the first infestation some months ago and left it. I thought it was a spider’s egg sack, and because I love spiders, I was quite pleased. Now I feel like a bad dad because one of the plants has plainly been damaged. This must be what it feels like when you get a phone call from the school saying “little Walter is coming to school dirty and we’re concerned.”

I went to the garden centre first thing, showed a lovely bloke a photograph of the hideousness and he confirmed the diagnosis, prescribing me a spray which he said would get rid of them fairly quickly. “I assume they’re not eating the leaves yet?” I looked at him guiltily as I remembered a leaf falling off in my hand. He looked at me like a bad dad and said I might need to use the spray a few times.

The plants have now been sprayed and I await to see whether I’ve managed to save them.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The ghosts of ‘95

It’s freezing cold. It’s actually really rare for me to get cold, but sometimes, once I’ve started feeling the sensation, I can get quite obsessive about it. Today I actually wished I had a coat. I might have a look in my wardrobe to see if there’s one in there. I should look for a jumper as well. There’s never really a point in my having either of these garments because I only ever need them for about four days a year and when I do wear them, I instantly over heat and end up leaving them at people’s houses and in cafes and things. I also think that coats can look quite horrible. Especially those big puffy modern things made of shiny man-made fabrics with logos all over them.

I went into Spitalfields yesterday evening to meet Philippa for tea. For some reason, as I walked from Moorgate, through Liverpool Street Station, I found myself transported to that same area in the 1990s when I first moved London. It was a very different place in those days. Once out of the station, the further East you walked, the darker and emptier the world became. These are the streets where Jack the Ripper once roamed, and, in those days, his ghost seemed very apparent. The area around Brick Lane, which is now a swanky haven for wannabe hipsters, was a complete no-go zone back then.

At the time, I was living even further East, near Mile End, in an equally shabby district which these days hums with yummy mummies.

Spitalfields Market was just an empty barn of a building with a leaky roof. It had a few indoor football courts on Astro turf, but was largely a deserted brick shell. At one point, when they started to understand the resource they were sitting on, they built a pop-up mini opera house within the space. It was a giant, white fabric cube. I think they were trying to attract a few city workers off the beaten track, because it was never going to be popular with the local Bengali kids.

We performed Berio’s A Ronne there in 1995. It was my first paid gig as a performer. We had to learn the highly complex piece off by heart, which was quite a feat. It was all weird shrieks, extended vocal techniques and strings of made-up words sung at unfathomable pitches. There were five performers, two of whom were my tutors at university. We did a tour of some very unusual Northern Towns and I loved every minute.

Anyway, perhaps because it was so cold, and a Monday night, there were very few people hanging about in the market yesterday evening. In fact, it seemed eerily quiet, which is possibly why the ghosts of 1995 were out in force.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Being social

Blimey, it’s turned cold! I have just walked from my house down to the tube. The air feels like little daggers. Surely snow is forecast?

It’s been a weekend of work for me. Bank holidays, evenings and weekends cease to have any form of meaning for a freelancer. We can try to force ourselves into 9 to 5 regimes, but at the end of the day, we tend to work when everyone else is at play! (Often because we’re generating the play for others.)

On Saturday, I spent the morning singing in shul. It was a last-minute booking: sadly one of the other basses has a dad who is ill. It was rather good practice for me because it meant I couldn’t obsess about the material and had to rely a little more on my sight-singing skills, which I guess I’ve never really trusted before. I genuinely recommend regular singing for everyone. It’s such a joyous experience to sing in harmony, really one of life’s great pleasures. It all went very smoothly and I think the quartet blended particularly well and made a very nice sound. 

Saturday evening found me quiz mastering at a very charming tennis club in Holland Park. I deduced from the clientele that it must be a fairly exclusive club, and I was really thrilled that its members were so cosmopolitan. I doubt there were more than a handful of native Brits in the room. Fortunately, I’d been given this information before setting the quiz, so I was able to choose questions with an international flavour. Scores were very high, and very close. There was just one point between the winners and the two teams who came joint second. Everyone seemed to have a very jolly time. 

I had a meeting at lunchtime today with a charming chap from Leeds. I love chatting to creative Yorkshire folk. They never seem to have the jadedness of arts professionals in London. There’s always a can-do attitude and a sense of wanting to get in there to get their hands dirty.

This evening is about watching crappy telly at Julie’s house which I’m very much looking forward to. I’m not having a great time of it at the moment. I feel I just don’t understand the world any more. Every time I switch on the news these days it feels like someone’s being morally outraged on behalf of someone who we’re repeatedly told it’s really awful to be at the moment. The problem I have is that it doesn’t really feel very nice to be ME right now. I’m beginning to feel invisible, like I’m being sent to the back of every sodding queue I arrive at. I used to feel that way when I went to the shops as a child. I’d often be made to wait until there were no more adults left in the building before being served even if people came in after me! Sometimes this makes me want to hide. Sometimes it’s nice to be forced to be a bit social.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Car crash BBC interview

Hmm. I’ve just seen a rather disturbing interview on Newsnight with Kirsty Wark attempting to rip Tommy Robinson limb from limb. Now in my view, Robinson, who used to be the spokesman for the English Defence League, is a deeply unpleasant character. He comes across as a garrulous bully, and I think his views are ghastly, but, he royally spanked Wark’s arse this evening! It was hideous, car crash television. Wark obviously felt like some sort of moral champion with right on her side, and was therefore hideously under-prepared. She wanted Robinson to take responsibility for the attack on the mosque in Finsbury Park last year, because Darren Osbourne, who drove his white van into a group of innocent Muslims, had apparently googled speeches by Robinson countless times in the weeks running up to the attack. The online material which Wark was attempting to pin onto Robinson was factually flawed. She spoke obsessively about the “speedy radicalisation of the far right” but refused to see that three Muslim terrorist attacks in short succession (one in Manchester and two in London) had played any part in Osbourne’s growing anger. She quoted texts out of context for the sake of sensational telly, and then sat, mortified, as Robinson reminded her that it was actually watching a BBC documentary about Rochdale which had sewn the attack’s initial seed. He then was able to freely claim the the BBC had systematically refused to report any stories pertaining to right wing demonstrations. Wark, I’m afraid, came across as smug and then utterly flustered when her spurious line of questioning was entirely undermined. We deserve much better journalism than that - particularly in these deeply sensitive times.

The problem is that, in order to maintain a sense of democracy in this country, we actively need far right leaders and spokespeople, just as we need the so-called “loony left” and the myriad politicians whose views sit somewhere in between. Those are the uncomfortable facts. Or maybe they’re the facts we need to celebrate? Someone will alway stand up to express or fathom the inner thoughts of people in this county, and by attempting to silence anyone, you run the risk of turning them into martyrs. Unless you can, by law, prove that someone is practicing hate crime, there’s actually nothing you can do to silence his or her opinion. And there shouldn’t be. The joy about living in the UK is that we have freedom of speech. I don’t agree with a great deal of what I read in the Daily Mail, or watch on that ghastly Loose Women show (which I’m now boycotting). I regularly, and sometimes angrily challenge the nonsense which gets spouted, just as many people who read this blog will disagree with what I write, and may well contact me to tell me so. But we can’t and must not silence views that we simply don’t agree with, or else those views go underground where they seethe and expand. By all means attempt to change someone’s mind. By all means rail and rant about what they say, but do not hide behind the smug firewall which tells you that everything is black and white, and that anyone whose beliefs don’t fit into a narrow, Liberal viewpoint is evil and must be silenced. This is what, I fear, Wark was doing this evening. And because of this, she royally lost, and many people with far right views in this country did a little celebratory dance.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Not for the squeamish

Another day, another quiz, and I’m currently heading home from Central London on the Victoria Line, which is one of those epic tube lines which goes like the wind and cuts people’s journeys in half.

I’m sitting opposite a drunk man who is plainly trying very hard to stop himself from a) falling asleep and b) vomiting.

I’m quite convinced that, any moment now, a huge torrent of chunder is going to roar out of his gob and coat us all.

I once went to France in a cross channel ferry in very bad weather. The boat listed from side to side perilously and I ended up the only person in my class who didn’t vomit. I didn’t half feel queasy, however, so took myself onto deck and leaned over the railings into the soothing, drizzle-filled, salty air. I was aware that my face was suddenly much wetter than it had been a few seconds before, and turned around to see that the bloke standing on deck next to me had vommed over the side of the boat. Sadly, it also became clear that the wind had brought it all back into my face. The poor bloke was a shade of green. He looked at me, terribly ashamed. “Sorry. I’m really sorry.” With that, he vomited on his shoes. Under normal circumstances I would have laughed uncontrollably, but I was too shocked!

Horrified, I ran to the loos to wash my face, but the sinks were full of huge piles of sick. The place stank to high heaven. It was as though someone had thrown half eaten bowls of Weetabix against all of the walls. The floor was covered in the stuff as well, and, as I turned around to run out of the hell zone, I tripped, slid and then skated across the floor, landing on my bum in a big heap of boak.

And that’s my story about sick. Enjoy your breakfast!

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

No loo for me!

I did an interview tonight for the BBC’s Georgey show, a national programme which gets rolled out across the network of local radio stations of an evening. She’s a really lovely presenter, and the interview, which was about my Nene composition, went very well. I did it “down the line” which means, by the magic of technology, she was able to interview me from a studio in Leeds, whilst I sat in the swanky New Broadcasting House in London.

The problem with the BBC these days is that, unless you have a proper pass, it’s almost impossible to do any business within any of their buildings without being chaperoned like some sort of 18th Century virgin!

I arrived in plenty of time for my interview, got myself signed in at reception, and then sat, like a muppet, on one of the Beeb’s non-functioning sofas, waiting for someone to come and collect me. I waited. I waited. I huffed a bit. I chatted to the lovely lady who puts bags through the airport-style security barriers. Eventually, a man came rushing down; “we didn’t know you were here!” I explained that I’d watched the woman behind reception calling someone to say I was there. He seemed genuinely apologetic, but not apologetic enough to offer me a glass of water or a cup of tea, which would have been nice, but at least I was in the building.

By the time I got into the studio, I was receiving worried calls from the producer in Leeds. As it turned out, everything was okay. They shuffled the order of the show around. I got to listen to I’m So Excited by the Pointer Sisters as I waited my turn. I had a lovely chat with Georgey, who was witty and charming. And that, I thought, was that… 

As I left the studio, the man who’d shown me in came running over to take me out of the building again. As we reached the giant revolving doors which separate the special BBC employees from us hoi-polloi, I told my guardian that I needed the loo. “When you pass through the doors,” he said, “turn right, and then it’s the first door on the right…” He shook my hand, said goodbye and headed back into the fortress.

I went through the doors and the security man grabbed the temporary pass I’d been given. “Oh,” I said, “don’t I need that whilst I’m using the loo?” He gave me a somewhat smug look, “you can’t use the toilet here. You’re only allowed to use the toilet if you’re accompanied by a member of staff.” “Then can YOU take me to the loo?” I asked. “No. You cannot use the toilet.” I tried to explain that using a loo was a basic human right. What if I had a medical condition? What happens when my prostrate blows up like a balloon? What if I were a pregnant woman? He was having none of it. I genuinely felt like some sort of terrible criminal.

I went up to the reception and asked if there was anything they could do to help. “Sorry sir” (she was very polite) “you need to be escorted.” There was a fair amount of buck-passing and “don’t shoot the messenger”-ing. I let out an enormous, desperate for a wee sort of sigh and said, “okay, could you get on the phone to the man whose task it was to escort me around the building, and ask if he’d come back down here?” She picked up the phone. At this point, the security guard behind her took pity on me. “I’ll take you through…”

And so it came to pass. I was, of course, hugely grateful to the kindly security guard who deigned to take me to the loo, but absolutely furious with the one who’d made me feel like some sort of worthless animal for asking if I could go. In my view there is absolutely no way that this should have been allowed to happen; not to anyone, but particularly not to someone who's just given his time to speak as a guest!

Southampton

Gosh, what a busy day! I am presently in a train which is steaming its way through Hampshire. There’s the mother of all rows happening between the train guard and two passengers whose young person’s railcard is so worn down that they’re being charged a full-price ticket because the tickets they bought with the card are not considered valid. The argument seems to be whether the faded writing says January or not. The guard stood her ground and has won. The passengers are incredulous. And sad. I actually believe them because they’re still looking sad and anxious despite the guard being long since gone.

I’ve been in Southampton all day, chatting to people in a very splendid theatre down there, which I hope to have a chance to work in at some point. It was a lovely day: cold, but relentlessly sunny.

It was my first visit to the city. I’m not sure why I’ve never been there before. It might be something to do with being from Northampton and getting very bored of people asking me whether Northampton is “anywhere near Southampton?” Yawn.

I wasn’t there for long enough to get a sense of the place. I ended up in a ghastly shopping centre, with terrible floor tiles, looking for somewhere to have a healthy lunch. I failed, and ended up in a chippie, which plainly viewed itself as a cut above the rest, because it had a board on the wall which told customers where the potatoes and fish had been sourced. The fish came from the Faroe Islands, which struck me as a little tragic for a chippie in a sea port. Surely fish should be fresh and locally sourced?

I enjoyed listening to conversations in the shop. The local greeting seems to be “how are you doing, alright?” To which the appropriate response is “how are you doing, alright?!” I was desperately hoping the phrase was going to turn into some sort of crazy endless loop, but it seems once both people have asked the question, nothing more needs to be said!

I was immensely cheered up by the sound of a carrillon coming from a tall council building, which I assumed was some sort of town hall. I recognised the melody the bells were playing, but couldn’t for the life of me bring the tune’s name to mind.

The rest of the day has been spent doing radio and TV interviews. Some have been about Nene. They made a film about my walk along the river and the performance of the composition at the Albert Hall, which was aired in the Eastern Counties last night, so there’s a lot of interest all of a sudden. I’ve also been asked to talk about cuts in arts-related subjects at secondary state school level, which is happening with frightening regulatory these days. It makes me want to weep. Art mustn’t become the terrain of the posh and the wealthy. So much is being written about lack of opportunity for women and BAME people at the moment, but let me tell you, the massive injustices in this world come from where you’re born and the level of wealth you’re born into. Regardless of colour or gender. By and large, city people have far more access to arts initiatives because the major cultural institutions are based in urban centres and have public funding which is (rightly) reliant on their doing outreach work in the local community. The answer to our woes certainly isn’t solved by lazily handing out opportunities to women and BAME people from privileged backgrounds. In my view this simply exacerbates the problem and creates an ever-widening chasm between those who have and those who have not. Until someone has the guts to tackle this problem head-on, I think we’re going to continue to rush about in circles getting absolutely nowhere.

I’m meeting up with Fiona later on, which I’m very much looking forward to. I’m hoping for one of our epic walks across Central London.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Radio Three initiative

BBC Radio 3 are presently running an initiative to attract female composers. This particular drive is as old as the hills. There’s really nothing new about trying to get more women writing music. There were scores of similar initiatives when I was a student composer. Whether they’re ever more than gimmicks, however, I’m not sure and, already, the BBC seems to be heading at top speed down gimmick highway. 

It appears that the BBC is planning to spend a day patting itself on the back, playing music by female composers, which, in itself is wonderful, but, are they serious about finding and nurturing genuine talent? Are they planning to play material written by the composers they choose long into the future? Or will they choose a load of crap which merely reenforces the out-dated notion that women can’t compose?

Yes, it’s noble that they want to attract previously unheard composing voices, but there are so many reasons, beyond gender, why composers find themselves unable to break through. Social background, schooling, location, lack of confidence, being endlessly in the wrong place at the wrong time, or writing music in a style which doesn’t fit into the narrow box defined by Radio 3 (who are their own worse enemies in this respect.)

How about a call for unpublished composers? Or a call for writers who went to state schools? Or one for composers who write cross-genre music and haven’t had radio play as a result?

Anyway, the hideousness of the whole initiative is bailed out by the photograph they’ve used to promote it, which features a pair of headphones sitting on a piece of paper covered in a load of guitar tabs. It’s almost as though the organisers are assuming that women won’t be able read or write proper music scores, so need to be patronised by being shown that they can enter if all they know how to do is strum a bloody guitar.

No! This is Radio 3. If you can’t read or write music, you shouldn’t be having your music played by the station. And as a person who has spent thirty years honing my craft as a composer, I would even go as far as to say that if you can’t read or write music, you have no right to call yourself a blinkin’ composer at all. And there are certainly plenty enough brilliant undiscovered female composers out there who do NOT need to be patronised in this manner!

On a far happier note, my godson, Will, has another sibling. Raily gave birth to little Lola on Friday night, and sent us all the most fabulously Pre-Raphaelite image of her breastfeeding the little lass just minutes after birth. It was a home birth, entirely natural, with no pain relief whatsoever, and I am so very excited to meet her.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Success!

So, yesterday, I launched a crowd funding initiative to pay for a run of physical albums for Em. Having them all made up in advance means that every single sale of the album can go straight to charity, which, in this case, is CoramBAAF, who deal with issues relating to adoption. As Em tells the tale of a forced adoption in the mid 1960s, it felt appropriate to work with that particular organisation.

Anyway, we set what I thought would be the rather difficult target of £1500. Some years ago, Nathan and I tried to do the same thing with an EP of songs which we released for the Kaleidoscope Trust. Our target was lower, but it took us four weeks and a lot of hassling to reach. All of those panicky thoughts ravaged my brain as I hit send on the crowd funding site this time round. “What if no one donates?” “What if everyone hates me for going to them, cap in hand?” I became determined not to obsessively check the total, and got on with my day, pretending it wasn’t all going on in the background.

I am somewhat staggered to report that we reached our target in just 24 hours! In fact we were told that the campaign was “trending”, whatever that means in crowd funding circles. A large amount of thanks has to go to Nathan’s podcast followers and fans of all things knitty, who were responsible for a massive spike of donations during the night. Most of Nathan’s people are Stateside, so this explains why their activity was all apparently nocturnal.

We suggested various different levels of donation. £15 pre-ordered a copy of the album, £25 bought the album and a set of downloads of backing tracks and £40, our highest donation, included physical copies of my other albums. I was therefore stunned when people started putting £50 in. And then £100 from Philippa, Michael, Peter Smalley from NMPAT, and Nathan’s wonderful sister Sam. And then, early this morning, Lisa chipped £200 in, saying “I hate seeing your talent and spirit squashed by something so crass (but necessary) as money...” I am so so grateful to everyone. And thrilled at the outcome.

I am entirely in love with the album. It has been stupendously mastered by Denis at Skye Mastering, who actually mastered all of those great musical theatre albums in the 1980s like Cats and Phantom. He wrote to me, saying, “I hope you don’t mind me telling you this, but Em reminded me of those albums.” “Mind?”, I said, “I’m thrilled!”

Of course, if you still wish to donate or pre-order, we’re now at the stage where everything beyond the amount we needed will go direct to the charity. It’s rather exciting to think that I’ll be able to give CoramBAAF a donation before CDs have official gone on sale.

And if you want to read about the charity, here’s their website:
https://corambaaf.org.uk

I’m a happy and very relieved man, as I really didn’t know how I was going to afford to get those CDs made.

So now starts the lengthy process of working out what needs to be said in the album blurb. I actually want to keep the CDs very simple: probably in black and white in a classic, probably matt, cardboard sleeve, so it looks like one of the photos my Mum has from that period of time. I think this approach will lend it a classy, vintage quality.

If you fancy making a donation, or preordering, you still can, and please do. All the information you need (and a lovely little video of Ruby Ablett singing) can be found by going to:

https://www.gofundme.com/emalbum

Love you all.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Nene tickets go on sale

I discovered today that tickets for the full version of my Nene composition have gone on sale. Those who follow this blog will no doubt remember that the piece was performed at the Royal Albert Hall in November. The Northamptonshire Music School subsequently commissioned a new version of the piece which is twice as long as the first and has some hugely exciting new sections including the musical evocation of a ghostly hunt charging through Peterborough Abbey in the Middle Ages and a setting of the last poem that Mary Queen of Scots wrote before she was sent to the block at Fotheringhey on the banks of the river.

Performances of the piece are happening at Northampton Derngate Theatre on March 8th and at Peterborough Cathedral on March 17th.

THESE SHOWS WILL SELL OUT! There are more performers on the stage than there are spaces in the audience, so if you want to come, please book, and do so speedily.

http://www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk/143/section.aspx/142/nene

https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/whats-on/nmpat-big-sing-nene/

Over and out!

Monday, 22 January 2018

Mind the Gap

I walked through Soho this evening, winding my way through the streets from Old Compton Street to Oxford Circus. It’s such a wonderful part of London, hidden away from all the tourists who bustle and screech around its outer rim. It makes me very sad to see the gentrification: the “boutique” chains, the fancy pads, the shiny hetty bars, where once grubby all-night cafes and ramshackle gay bars stood.

There was still a vestige of the old Soho magic there this evening. The streets were dark. People were drifting at a country pace. Arriving at Oxford Circus was like descending into Dante’s Inferno. A massive swirl of people on the pavement was attempting to push its way down into the tube. It was such a horrifying sight that I simply kept on walking. There was no way I was ever going to willingly put myself into such a dangerous and claustrophobia-inducing crush of people. I certainly wasn’t prepared to PAY for the privilege.

Instead, I walked back to Tottenham Court Road and browsed around Foyles bookshop, which was a delightfully calming experience. I bought myself a copy of When the Wind Blows. I initially tried to find it in the children’s section but when I asked the woman behind the counter, she shuddered, and said, “it’s the saddest graphic novel in the world, I just don’t think it’s going to be in the children’s section!” She was right. It was up with the graphic novels for adults.

...And that was my little trip around Soho. There’s a memory there on every corner of every street, from outrageous nights out with Philip Sallon and the cast of Taboo, to midnight demonstrations and vigils against homophobia. I still remember the excitement I felt on seeing a row of gay bars for the first time in my life, and the terror I felt that spring afternoon in 1998 when the nail bomb went off at the Admiral Duncan, less than two hundred meters from where I was working.

Those streets certainly hold more than their fair share of memories.

Speaking of memories, I read a rather charming story yesterday about the “mind the gap” announcements they used to play on the Northern Line. They were recorded, some forty years ago, by an actor who recently died. His widow, missing him terribly, would often go to Embankment Station, and sit waiting for the trains to rush into the station, so she could hear her husband’s voice. One day she waited for the announcement to discover that it had been pensioned off. She was devastated.

When Transport for London heard about the sorry tale, they instantly changed their minds and decided to keep the actor’s voice, just at Embankment, until his widow had died and no longer needed to hear her husband’s voice. And if you don’t feel moved by that, you’re made of stone!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Green Belt

I’ve been very dormant for the last couple of days, but for a quiz in a golf club in the Green Belt around South Mimms last night. It’s always a bit odd to be in the Green Belt. It can be really very rural in those parts and yet you’re never far from a city view or that curious orange halogen glow which hangs from the clouds in London. I drove home with thick mists swirling around the car.

Lesley, who I was assisting, is the big boss of the company. I like and respect her enormously. QuizQuizQuiz is a large and successful operation which she’s built up from scratch. For one of the questions she played Wuthering Heights backwards and then astonished me by singing along to it, with every backward inflection observed perfectly! She also introduced me to The Shepherd Tone, which is a curious spiralling phenomenon in music where a descending chromatic run appears to get higher and higher or lower and lower without actually moving more than an octave in pitch. It’s all to do with the use of octaves and the volume at which the notes are being played at. I guess it’s the musical equivalent of a möbius cowl!

It snowed in Highgate all day today but the snow had turned to horrible, cold rain by the end of the night. I understand it’s been snowing fairly heavily elsewhere in the UK. But I want it to settle!






Friday, 19 January 2018

A gap too wide?

I washed myself with ‘Lynx Excite’ today which bills itself as “a body wash with a fragrance so tempting that even angels will sin for its heavenly masculinity.” What?! Now, those who know me well will know that I’m not averse to a bit of hyperbole, but I find myself wondering what on Earth went on during the branding meeting when they came up with that nonsense!

I personally think it’s best to keep away from religious iconography when trying to sell every day items. In fact, it’s best to stay away from religious iconography for anything other than religious purposes. Surely those of us who don’t believe in angels will consider the comment to be non-sensical, and those with Christian or New Age beliefs run the risk of being offended. The one thing we can all agree on is that the statement is a baffling lie. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Quite recently, I met a woman who’d written a musical about a fifteen-year old convent school girl who mysteriously falls pregnant. The girl is an atheist, but it turns out she’s actually given birth to the son of God. I felt compelled to ask the writer who she felt the show’s audience was. Atheists watching would, of course, be gunning for the central character, viewing her as one of them but if the show’s twist is that they’re all wrong and God exists after all, they’re going to be a little miffed. Similarly, I can’t really imagine Christian people being hugely impressed at the idea of God choosing a 15-year old atheist as the vessel from which the Second Coming springs. When it comes to religion, people can get quite touchy and if you’re going to use religion out of context, you really have to know your stuff. I still remember the Christian Union at York University demonstrating outside our production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

I went to Mountview School today for a meeting, and decided to walk there in what turned out to be the most stunning morning sunshine. It was icy under foot and the journey took me through all sorts of pocket parks and leafy causeways. Google Maps doesn’t have a “prettiest route” function, but if it did, and I’d selected it, I’d have felt pretty happy! The squirrels were out in force, digging up their carefully hidden stashes of winter food and lining their nests for another couple of months’ hibernation. They can make some rather peculiar noises, the most surreal of which is a bird-like squawk. I sometimes hear it coming from the tree in our back yard. It took me ages to realise the noise was coming from a squirrel.

The calmness of my walk was temporarily interrupted by two young teenagers sauntering along the path in front of me in a particularly quiet spot by the New River in Hornsey. They were all swag and juvenile aggression. I felt very uneasy as I passed them, particularly at the moment where I could see their long shadows stretching out on the pavement in front of me, despite my having overtaken them. I watched the silhouette of the taller of the two nonchalantly forming the shape of a gun with his hand and casually miming shooting me in the back of the head. It was genuinely quite shocking, to the extent that I immediately turned around to check if he was actually holding a real gun.

...And it struck me that, whatever initiatives we invest in, we still have a very long way to go when it comes to living in harmony with those who live around us. I’ll confess, I felt uneasy the moment I saw those lads. I didn’t like the fact that they weren’t at school. I didn’t like the language they were using or the way that they were walking. I found it threatening and suspect I would have felt the same way had the lads turned out to be the nicest kids in the world. That’s my prejudice. But similarly neither of them had any respect for me. If they had, they wouldn’t have tried to intimidate me and certainly wouldn’t have mimed shooting me in the head. So how do we bridge these gaps?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Gales

Was it me or was there a mega gale blowing in the night? Nathan got up in a bit of a trance to close the window and promptly fell asleep standing up. He made a proper clatter as he fell against the wall. The jolt woke him up again.

There was a beautiful clean, orange light across London this morning which made waking up quite a treat. I understand it’s been snowing up north again. Fiona sent me pictures from Glasgow which looks like a winter wonderland. I instantly felt a pang of envy. I love snow. It was impossible to enjoy the one day of it we had in London this winter because we were stuck in a car, panicking!

I’ve applied for a proper grown up job! It feels very strange because it will mean an end to my writing career, at least for now, but there comes a time in everyone’s life when the future has to be considered. I’m sure this job will have a pension, holidays and tax taken out at source, and these are basically the things that I crave. Of course I may not get it. I may not even be interviewed. Sometimes - possibly usually - these jobs have already been given to someone else and they’re only advertising because protocol insists on it. But I’ve opened up more options, and that feels like an important step.

I don’t think there’s a great deal more to say about the day. I’m helping out in a quiz at a school tonight and I have to take my passport to prove who I am. It makes me sad to think that we’re living in such times. And it’s not just schools. Our synagogue is crawling with security people who will regularly stop and question anyone who’s even passing on the street outside. Whilst waiting to get in one day, I was quizzed at length about my credentials.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Taxidermy

Is it really bad to say that one of my pet hates in this world is people who say “bless you” when you sneeze? By and large, I like to keep my sneezes fairly private. I’m not one of those sneezers who likes the world to notice their pleasure with great guffaws and shrieks. Actually, when I sneeze, I find it quite intrusive and more than a little embarrassing when a stranger says “bless you.” Why do we do it? Do young people still do it? It seems so Victorian! 

I’ve been doing my taxes over the last couple of days. It’s one of those hideous jobs you have to do at this time of year if you’re a freelancer. It can be really depressing when you start to look at your bank records and begin to feel the panic that you felt when you looked at them at the time and saw the money literally draining from your account like the sands of time in your life. I suppose the only benefit about doing taxes is that you’re looking into the past. However bad it got then, you know you’ve survived at least another eight months!

I am rather ashamed to say that 2016/17 was my lowest EVER earning year. I’m actually to embarrassed to say how low my earnings actually were, but the figure is considerably lower than £10k. I earned more the year I left drama school! And yet, during the year in question, I wrote Nene and Em, I had Brass performed at the Hackney Empire (to rave reviews), I released the Pepys album and wrote a composition for the Shame Chorus. All of this makes me want to question why. I guess the simple answer is that there’s been a shift away from people wanting to pay writers. There’s an assumption that we’re all hobbyists and writing for the joy of being performed. There is no other industry where people will so willingly work for nothing. To make matters worse, more and more creative people are undercutting each other these days. Someone’s always got a mate who says he’ll do it for less, which almost invariably means whoever does the undercutting will deliver something substandard which performers will need to justify cleverly.

In terms of other factors, Brexit, and a ten-year recession have not helped my industry. Money goes less far. Rents are out of control. My generation became experts in their fields just as no one could afford experts any more. There’s also been a shift towards needing to justify public arts funding by ticking boxes, which does mean that the white man has to fight that little bit harder for funding. That’s not sour grapes. It’s just the way it is. I can’t change the fact and I don’t think there’s an argument in the world which would change anyone’s views on positive discrimination, but it is an added factor. One which I have to consider.

So that’s my lot. It’s sobering, but also heartwarming because it makes me realise how well I’ve done when it comes to managing my finances. I can make a meal out of odds and ends. I don’t spend obscene amounts of money on clothing, alcohol or fancy holidays. And I’ve never been in debt.

I just wish I had a bit more money...

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Barnum and sausages

Hilary came to stay with us last night and we took ourselves on a charming walk up to Ally Pally and back home, via Marks and Spencer where I discovered quite how awful their range of veggie sausages are. I know they like their own brands and things, but no one wants sausages which look like blocks of Edinburgh rock!

So we trolled off to Planet Organic organic instead, where I had a very strong allergic reaction to the shoppers inside. They were all posh women dragging children called Tarquin around, saying things like “shall we get you some trail mix, darling?” Everything in that shop is deeply overpriced, largely, one assumes so that those inside can Lord it over the rest of us: “look at me affording all the best quality, organic products for my children. I’ve banned sugar from my house, you know, and we have a goji berry shake for breakfast every morning.” It all made me feel incredibly angry. Privilege like this is the red rag to my particular bull. And I guess I feel more strongly about this particular issue as I was brought up on whole foods when eating them wasn’t a status symbol. In fact, everyone thought my Mum was crazy for feeding them to us. She didn’t take us to Daily Bread in Northampton to show off. She took us there because buying in bulk was cheap and because it sold really healthy food at very low prices.

In the end we bought veggie sausages at our local Sainsbury’s and had them, swimming in gravy, with mashed potato and peas in giant Yorkshire puddings.

After tea, we walked down the Holloway Road to the Odeon at Nag’s Head to see The Greatest Showman. It’s a wonderful film, which loosely tells the story of the famous 19th Century American circus entrepreneur, Barnum. It’s a strange choice for a musical film. The stage musical, Barnum was, after all, about the life of the very same man! I kept wanting Barnum’s wife to burst into a rendition of The Colours of my Life. (Do you remember when Torvill and Dean did Barnum on Ice?) They made the very brave decision to keep the music feeling highly contemporary, which, bizarrely, worked.

They opted to play Barnum himself as a relentlessly fabulous individual and papered over some of the less reputable aspects of his character. I’m not sure his Circus freaks were meant to have been treated hugely well and he had some pretty hard-core views. After going into politics, he actually became the legislative sponsor of the 1879 Connecticut anti-contraception law. That said, he was also an anti-slavery campaigner. The merging of fact and fiction led to a fairly confusing end card which said something along the lines of: “these characters are based on real people, but any similarity to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental.”

But it’s a fabulous film. It’s everything a musical film ought to be. Escapist. Great music. Energetic. Magical. It lacked a bit of an emotional core for me. I like to weep like a baby when I watch a film and would like to have cared more, and learned more about the assortment of oddballs he hired to work as performers. I think they missed a slight trick there. But ultimately that didn’t matter. I had a wonderful night.

The only trouble is that the cinema smelt of urine. Odeon cinemas always feel so uncared for, when compared to the somewhat fabulous Everyman Cinemas which are replacing them.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

False alarms

Ooh, this cold is a humdinger! Singing yesterday was a proper trial. I had absolutely no control over what my vocal cords were doing and felt like someone had packed a great big dollop of cotton wool behind my ears. The only enjoyable aspect was finding myself with the sudden addition of about a minor third at the bottom of my vocal range. I was popping out bottom Cs and Bs purely for the fun of it, like some sort of crazy Russian bass. The coughing, however, has not been fun at all, and neither has the constant hunger which often accompanies these sorts of head colds. I am trying to fight the urge to eat the stuff I’m craving, which is all high carb, high fat nonsense like chips. Surely my body ought to be forcing me to eat healthily and overdose on oranges? But instead, as I’m writing this, I’m craving a toasted sandwich from Sam’s lovely toasted sandwich maker.

I was horrified to hear about the ballistic missile false alarm texts which were sent out in Hawaii yesterday. It’s difficult to know how terrifying it must have been to receive a message which read, “ballistic missile threat. Inbound to Hawaii. Take immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” TV and radio broadcasts were even interrupted with the message. People went running for cover. Parents stuck their children in bath tubs. Students sent panicked messages to loved ones. It’s astonishing that something like this could have happened. It just shows how edgy we’re all feeling at the moment.

State governor, David Ige has apologised, saying it was mistake caused by an employee “pushing the wrong button.” To me it’s astonishing that a text with such wide-reaching and horrifying consequences could be sent out universally without a cascade of checks and balances. Surely there was a follow-up message which flashed up saying “are you sure you want to send this?” And what set of bizarre consequences leads to someone pushing the wrong button of this nature?

It apparently took eighteen minutes for the statement to be retracted, and then this only happened by email. It was another fifteen minutes before a follow-up text revealed it had been a false alarm.

I am reminded (in a much smaller way) of a recent train journey which took me through London Bridge Station. As we passed through, an eerie, echoing tannoy announcement was blaring out to all and sundry which said, “would Inspector Sands please report to the ticket office.” It was accompanied by a somewhat discordant electronic alarm. These days, we all know that Mr Sands indicates that there’s some sort of fire in the building, so it’s not a message that any of us likes hearing. My favourite part of the shenanigans, however, was the fact that after every announcement which instructed Inspector Sands to head to the ticket office, another tannoy announcement echoed trough the station saying, “this is a false alarm.” People in the station were looking considerably non-plussed!

Perhaps I’m being a bit simplistic here, but isn’t it time to deactivate the Inspector Sands message?


Saturday, 13 January 2018

Nightmare

I tell you something: waking up on a cold, winter Saturday morning at 7am, before it’s light outside, is not the most thrilling thing, especially when you have a raging cold.

As predicted, exactly a week and a half into my new health and fitness regime, I’ve come down with a cold. I wonder why it happens? It always happens... Singing at synagogue today is going to be a trial. Thank heavens I’m singing bass.

Donald Trump is all over the news. I keep wondering whether we’re all going to wake up and realise he was some sort of Hallowe’en joke that we all fell for.The latest double whammy, where he seems to have described about half the world as “shit hole countries” and then decided not to come to the UK later this year because he doesn’t like the American Embassy he was due to open, is absolutely bizarre. Not that I hugely blame him for not wanting to come to the UK. People would have thrown eggs. I would have thrown eggs. I’m totally with Sadiq Kahn when he says that Trump’s finally got the message that he’s not wanted in London, that he’s at complete loggerheads with the multy-culty spirit of Londoners. That other tit, the ludicrous engineer of Brexit, Boris Johnson, has, of course, leapt to Trump’s defence, by describing Kahn as a “pompous popinjay,” which basically tells us all I know about who’s more in touch with the British people. But then again, I sort of feel that we’re going to wake up and discover that Johnson and Brexit was all a joke.

But can we wake up from this nightmare soon please?

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Never again!

Please remind me never to do what I’ve done today again! I have not left the house. Instead I have sat, semi naked, on the sofa all day finishing parts for Nene. I haven’t eaten lunch, I’ve just hidden away from the world on this ludicrous mission. It’s a mission, I’m pleased to say, that I achieved. But I’m wondering at what cost to my sanity!

Our car has broken down. There is something very wrong with the back wheel. It has been making funny sounds for months and suddenly, two days ago, it entirely froze whilst we were trying to reverse. The tyre skidded across the gym car park like something from The Wacky Races. Our garage is permanently engaged, so we can’t have it fixed!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Forbidden fruit

I’ve been to the gym six days in the past seven and have eaten healthy food, low in fat, low in sugar and high in fibre, since New Year’s Day. My body is certainly thanking me. My skin feels really smooth and already I can feel that I am far less bloated. Hurrah.

I think the key to dieting is making nothing entirely off bounds. I am trying not to eat chocolate until Easter, for example, but if someone offers me a small amount or has gone to the trouble or baking a lovely chocolate cake, I’m not going to turn my nose up. Entirely forbidden fruit always tastes so much sweeter. Just as long as I can always tell myself, hand on heart, that I’m eating less and exercising more, I should be alright.

I’ve certainly had to hit the ground running this year with heaps and heaps of formatting to do on the new version of my Nene composition, which is being performed at Peterborough Cathedral and the Northampton Derngate in March. I’m currently trying to create a piano reduction for rehearsal purposes. It’s a real chore. A piano reduction is never actually ever performed, so there’s next to no point in writing an astounding and wondrous piece of music. It just needs to be enough for the choirs to find their notes and get a sense of the orchestral accompaniment. That said, pride usually kicks in and I work around the clock creating something which feels pianistic and appropriate.

There’s little else to say. I think we all turn into boring bastards in January, and with the weather like it is, I reckon I’m fairly happy staying indoors.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Hell, fire and toasted sandwiches!

Nathan and I went to Julie Clare’s house last night and played Cards Against Humanity till quite late. Sam, who lives with Julie, but only appeared right at the end of the evening, has recently purchased a vintage 1960s toasted sandwich maker which took me very fondly back to my childhood. At one point everyone had one of them, usually at the back of a cupboard caked entirely in sticky grease next to the soda stream and a potato ricer. We were obsessed with ours for at least a week. We tried most combinations of food inside. Cheese and baked beans. Mars bars. Actually that’s probably the long and the short of our imagination...

Sam’s sandwich maker was made by Boots. I had no idea that Boots had made electrical equipment like that. It certainly made delicious toasties. Back then, of course, things were built to last - even the things they sold in Boots. This one was made in stainless steel, so it’s probably no surprise that it was still in working order. I made a sandwich with cheddar, pesto and halloumi, and one with cheese and chutney. They felt decadent and exciting. I reckon I could open up a cafe selling them. If I referred to the sandwiches as “retro” and said they were filled with “Somerset aged cheddar” and “deluxe, wild basil pesto”, I’d be able to triple the cost and sell them to yummy mummies in Hackney for four times the amount. Making money in the world of food is all about the adjectives you use.

We talked about the fact that there’s a school now charging its pupils to do GCSE music because funding for education from the disgraceful government is now reaching a crisis point. We talked about the fact that most people are now predicting a massive brain drain in this country post Brexit, and the fact that the bankers (who we seem so desperate to keep here) have already oiled their escape routes and added down to their nests in Ireland, France and Germany. There’s predicted to be a major flowering of the arts, in places like Berlin, caused by a huge exodus of British creatives with tragically no other option but to leave these shores. For the first time I wondered whether it might be quite an exciting adventure to go myself, leaving the hell of Brexit and endless Tory cuts behind. If Colman’s mustard can move to Germany, then maybe so can I!

I went to the village of West Wycombe on Saturday afternoon with Michael to visit the really spooky Hell Fire Caves: a series of long, underground tunnels which were dug in the mid 18th Century as a sort of subterranean pleasure garden. They were used as a meeting place for the shady “Hell Fire Club”, a group of society figures who met for bawdy parties which involved all sorts of curious pagan rituals and, probably, quite a lot of sex. Women were allowed to attend, although they wore masks and were only invited if they had a “cheery disposition.” Which probably meant loose morals. Women of the night dressed as nuns were also a feature of these gatherings.

There are all sorts of underground chambers down there, where revellers would gather, including a dining room with an impressive domed roof, maybe 30 feet high.

My favourite part was the inner temple, a much smaller chamber at the very deepest point in the complex, which is, apparently, directly underneath a church on the hillside 100 feet above. To gain access to the temple, you had to cross over the “River Styx”, a man made pool which looks like an eerie underground river. The attention to detail is astounding. The bloke who commissioned the building of the caves in the 1700s even asked the people who dug it out to create stalactites to hang over the water. 

The complex is said to be haunted by two ghosts, one called Suki. The “Most Haunted” team (Yvette Fielding’s lot) spent a night down there and were apparently greeted by orbs of light and the sound of children laughing. They also said that it was the darkest place they’d ever visited... whatever that means!





Sunday, 7 January 2018

Derry Girls

I tuned in to the much-trailed Channel 4 comedy drama, Derry Girls, last night. It is, I suspect, the finest first episode of a comedy show I have seen since Catastrophe.

The show is set in a girl’s convent school in Derry, in the 1990s, at the height of the troubles. I suspect I’m always going to be a fairly difficult audience member to win over when it comes to anything set in that particular part of the world because of my fundamental issues with Northern Ireland and its backward policies on abortion and gay marriage, but I was utterly entranced.

The joy about this piece is that the troubles rumble along in the background as more of a nuisance than the huge trauma that most of us in Britain probably imagine they must have been. I’m sure we all tend to forget that young Northern Irish people simply had to get on with living through that era. They went to school, had crushes on older boys and dealt with bullying, hard-core, humourless nuns as best they could.

It’s beautifully, and atmospherically shot, and the writing, by Lisa McGee, feels fresh and incredibly witty. There are some absolutely killer one-liners, many of which come from the school’s acerbic head teacher. There’s a wonderful little repeated device which occasionally happens where we’re led to believe we’re hearing the voiceover of the central character but it turns out to be her cousin who has got hold of her diary and is reading sections out to anyone who will listen!

The four main girls are naughty, but deeply likeable characters, exquisitely acted. They defend each other in a world where adults are, largely, imbecilic, over-religious dinosaurs. The show’s lead, Saoirse Jackson, is an absolute diamond with deeply funny bones who genuinely lights up the screen.

Dropped in amongst the Irish girls, like a pig in a slaughter house, is a young English boy called James, who appears to be the product of his mother going over to London for an abortion but changing her mind and bringing him up instead. She has now returned to Derry with her son, but there are such fears for the safety of an English boy at the local school for lads that he’s been sent to the girls’ school where no one can understand what he’s saying, and there’s nowhere for him to go to the loo!

This is a fresh, funny, fabulous show, which I urge you all to watch.


Friday, 5 January 2018

built to last

I was astounded to arrive at Tottenham Court Road this morning to discover buckets collecting water pouring through underground ceilings and little pieces of yellow and black tape marking trip hazards on the floor. If this were one of the old tube stations desperately in need of renovation, I might be inclined to feel sympathy, but this is the flag ship station in the new Cross Rail and it’s only been open for a couple of years! To me it’s a true indication of modern day style over substance. We live in an era where seemingly nothing is built to last. Apple have finally admitted to “planned obsolescence” with their iPhones, and I wish architects would follow suit. People literally had to fight to keep the iconic 80s Paolozzi mosaics in Tottenham Court Road which look as fresh today as they did there they were made, but many have been ripped out or covered over with shocking pieces of shiny plastic and untreated “industrial chic” concrete, which cost a fortune, look fabulous for a few weeks before becoming tragically tatty and gnarled.

When those beautifully-tiled, Art Nouveau tube stations were built in the 1880s and again when they built the fabulously futuristic buildings at the end of the Piccadilly Line in the 1930s, people wanted architecture that would still be there in a hundred years. And they got it... with style icons being created in the process. It’s almost as though modern day people don’t think the world has a future. And with Trump sitting with his finger on the nuclear button you can’t really blame them!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Sobering

After a glorious roast dinner at Lisa and Mark’s yesterday, which must have featured vegetables of every colour of the rainbow, we did something of an emergency dash to Aylesbury, where my godson, Will had been rushed into hospital. There’s not a great deal to say about why he’s there. Until the doctors have done the necessary tests, all we can do is wait. Besides, it hardly feels appropriate to be speculating here.

Knowing that no one knew what the problem was, and that tests were going to take a few days to happen, it struck us that it might be a good idea to simply turn up at the hospital yesterday, to create a cheery distraction for the family as they waited for news. Will is obviously very poorly, but he perked up considerably when he saw us. Because he’s already had some investigative keyhole surgery, he’s been banned from laughing, which, of course, makes laughter the forbidden fruit which you crave more than anything else. It’s like being in assembly as a kid. And I couldn’t help trying to make him laugh...

Raily and Iain are obviously a little anxious but they are being honest with Will and sharing news as it comes in so he doesn’t panic when he sees doctors talking in little huddles and hushed voices a few feet away from his bed. Will is an exceptionally bright lad so I think they’re exactly right to treat him like an adult in this respect.

After he’d been tucked up in bed in the hospital, we went back to Raily and Iain’s house and talked quite late into the night about anything and everything whilst drinking cups of tea, which, incidentally, spent the night working their way through my body. I must learn not to drink tea past about 8pm!

I’m sure Will’ll be absolutely fine, and that yesterday’s madness will slowly sink into some sort of dramatic anecdote, but it was certainly a sobering start to the year, one which reminds me of the importance of human contact and the well-being of one’s family and loved ones. Nothing else really matters does it?

Monday, 1 January 2018

And a happy new year to you all

And a Happy New Year to you all! I’m in Huntingdonshire at Lisa and Mark’s. I’ve just looked out of the window across a somewhat windswept countryside. The colours of nature in these parts feel terribly familiar. We’re actually only 11 miles away from Higham Ferrers where I grew up and the earth round here must have a similar clay content.

I have been chuckling to myself all morning about an article in the Standard about a fare dodger getting his penis caught in ticket barriers at Covent Garden tube station! A large crowd apparently gathered as London Underground staff and police tried to free him. A passer by was heard to say “butter him up, butter him up.”

We came here yesterday in the late afternoon after spending a lovely few hours with Llio and her Mum, Silvia; two women it would be difficult for me to adore any more thoroughly. We drank tea and shared music. Llio has written some blinking good pop songs lately, one of which, I’m quite sure is a bone fide hit. I have told her I will not stop nagging her until she gets it into the hands of a top producer.

It was a wonderfully quiet New Year. Just Lisa, Mark, Nathan and their charming kids, Poppy and Rosie. Rosie is only 5. There was a long period of time when she was sitting incredibly quietly in the sitting room whilst we were all in the kitchen. After a while the silence became concerning and Lisa popped her head next door to see if she was okay. We were all astounded to discover that Rosie had found the Mac computer, donned a pair of headphones, opened up a new project on Logic and somehow managed to input some sonic data. It was an incredible sight!

We played Articulate and wrote cards with our highlights and lowlights from 2017 and our hopes for 2018 which we then sealed. Lisa has suggested looking at them again in ten years’ time. I don’t really want to think about ten years’ time. Everything is so up in the air at the moment. Brexit. My career. The health of loved ones. For the first time in my life I have no concept of what the next ten years might bring. Right now, I’m quite certain I won’t still be writing music. It has become painfully clear to me this year that it is almost impossible for a writer to maintain a career in writing for theatre. And everyone I know in the Arts in general seems to be struggling bitterly. The odds are entirely stacked against us.

So, for the record, 2018 for me is about finding clarity and meaningful employment. I suspect none of this can start until I’ve lost weight, so if anyone reading this sees me stuffing my face with chocolate before Easter, gently remind me of the fact that I’ve made this particular resolution! And please don’t offer me cake... however much my eyes look at you pleadingly like hungry Bambi.

I hope everyone reading this has a hugely healthy 2018, filled with love, laughter and friendship. If you feel lonely, reach out to existing friends, or put yourself in different worlds where you can meet new people. Don’t rely on social media. We all need, and deserve human contact. Remember that.