Sunday, 21 October 2018

Demos and Patti Lupone

Yesterday started, as Saturdays so often do these days, at 7am with an alarm which made me jump out of my skin. I am rather grateful to the days when I’m singing at shul because they stop me from a languishing start to my weekends.

I love the journey in. The tubes are always very quiet, and, I can sit, looking through my music, with a lovely cup of tea.

The ensemble yesterday was a good one, and featured young Jack Reitman, who, it happens, is also in the cast of Brass at the Union. Probably as a result of being engulfed by rehearsals for a 3 hour epic, he was a little underprepared for shul, and spent the service looking a little like a rabbit in headlights! I personally breezed through the material until the very last number, when a badly-written-out setting of the Adon Olam caught me entirely off guard. The words were a million miles away from the bass part and the moment I opened my mouth, I realised I didn’t have a chance of sight singing it effectively. The noises I was making were so awful that I instantly had a fit of hysterical laughter, the sort of uncontrollable, inappropriate giggling which is usually reserved for school assemblies and funerals!

Michael and I walked across Hyde Park in glorious sunshine after the service, carrying the wonderful anti-Brexit placard which Little Welsh Nathalie had painted for me so beautifully and left on the stairs up to my flat. She couldn’t make the march herself but wanted to do her bit, so asked me what slogan I’d most want written. I considered all sorts of angry, sweary phrases and puns based on the idea that EU sounds a bit like “you”, but in the end, shot from the heart and asked for it to merely say “musicians love Europe.” I don’t know any that don’t.

The march itself was a major event. We’re told some 800,000 people headed for central London, all, seemingly, with good-natured, kind, attractive faces. I very much felt as though we were marching with our tribe. Nathalie’s placard went down brilliantly. Scores of people came up to me to ask if they could take my picture. She’d painted it in appropriate blues, whites and yellows, so I wore my royal blue suit.

We met Brother Edward, Sasch, Sylvia and two of their Eurovision friends on the corner of Piccadilly. They all looked utterly resplendent in blue and yellow feather boas. I always feel particularly proud when marching alongside my brother. My parents also nearly joined us, but my father is ill with the flu. The four of us wouldn’t have marched together since CND marches in the early 1980s. I know Brother Tim would have been marching with us in spirit as well. Having an entirely pro-European family means so much to me.

The most moving sight on the march was an old woman staggering along on a pair of crutches. Even if it took her forever, she was going to show her solidarity.

We broke off the march at Jermyn Street. The rallies which follow these marches are always for the politicos. You can never hear anything which is being said.

Michael and I instead went window shopping. For a suit lover like me, Jermyn Street is something of a punishment. If I could, I would have bought something in every shop. But I’m not a millionaire. We can but dream.

We went to the Groucho club and sat in a pair of very comfortable leather arm chairs and both of us immediately fell asleep like a pair of old men. I don’t know how long we were asleep for. All I know is that I was awoken by someone gently tapping my leg and saying my name. It was Philippa. I think she was a little confused because people don’t usually go to the Groucho for a shluf, but it was delightful to see her. I always bump int someone I know at the Groucho Club. Usually Philip Sallon. Yesterday I also bumped into Richard Le Coq and the wonderful singing impressionist, Christine Bianco.

Less delightful was the phone-call I received from Little Welsh Nathalie telling me that her bedroom ceiling had caved in. That’ll be the bedroom ceiling directly below the floor of our bedroom. The photos looked dreadful. Huge chunks of plaster had fallen from the roof onto her bed. Had she been asleep in there, she could have been badly injured. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I had to spend the rest of the day wondering whether her ceiling had caved in as a result of something awful happening in our flat, but it turns out it was the product of a build up of water coming through our roof, seeping down the walls of our flat and being sucked into the floor boards. Our entire building is a mess. It’s a massive lesson for our landlord in the “stitch in time saves nine” philosophy.

The yo-yo went flying back up this evening with a trip to see Company in the West End, in the most amazing seats, curtesy of wonderful Felicity. It was so so exciting to be there, and see Patti LuPone singing Ladies Who Lunch: a treat I’m very unlikely to forget. This, of course, is the gender-bending production of Company where Bobby is being played by a woman. I saw the show with Adrian Lester playing the title role about twenty years ago, and have to say it works remarkably well done this new way.

The production is exquisite. The set is remarkable. The cast is brilliant. If it doesn’t transfer to Broadway, I’ll eat my hat. It’s not my favourite Sondheim musical. It’s somewhat flawed in my view, largely because you don’t really get much of a sense of Bobby going on a journey. The piece feels a touch vignettey, almost review-like. The songs are, of course, cracking. But some feel a tad crow-barred into the script. But these are small things in the light of such an epic production which I was pleased as punch to see.

Friday, 19 October 2018

The blue book

I had a fairly delightful day away from the intensity of the Brass rehearsal room yesterday. I left Simon, our wonderful choreographer, in charge, and headed to New West End synagogue to spend the day recording music.

The afternoon session was spent working on three pieces written by Trevor Toube, who is one of the stalwarts of the community there. He’s actually a very interesting composer and one of the pieces, dedicated to his grandson, Josh, was absolutely exquisite. It had an Eastern vibe, and yet it was somehow imbued with the expansiveness of Copland. Very impressive.

He didn’t half test us, though, in the piece he’d written for his grandson, Ben, which had a Microcosmos quality with octotonic runs alternating from tone to semi-tone. It took us a while to buffer that particular sequence up, but we got there, and I hope we’ve done him proud.

The evening session was spent recording four final tracks for our Blue Book album, one of which was a re-recording of a song we’d done in slightly too much haste in the studio in July. Was it July? It was very hot whenever it was!

It is an absolute joy to record in the synagogue. The acoustic there is second to none. If you stand in the middle of the space, performers can hear each other perfectly, and the sound wafts up into the ceiling, and then parachutes back down like a cascade of butterflies!

There is nothing like the sensation of performing with a group of top-notch singers. There are eight of us, and we sing two-per-part. My “desk partner” is James Mawson, who’s basically the fruitiest bass in the world. He thinks nothing of popping down to a bottom A - which I personally find deeply emasculating! Our voices blend together very well, however, largely because I am more than happy to play second fiddle and make it my primary objective to provide him with tonal re-enforcement!

I think it’s going to be a rather fine album.





Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Directing

I have to say, I am loving being at Mountview directing again. Directing theatre was always my great passion. It was what I wanted to do, and what I spent the first ten years of my career actually doing. At some point along the way, I fell into making films, and then the composing work slightly took over, but there’s something exciting and hugely meaningful about being in a rehearsal room, leading a team of people, all of whom have the same goal.

Obviously it helps that we’re breathing life into my own material. It is such a huge privilege to be able to enthuse young people with material I’ve crafted myself. And I have a joyously playful cast who are committing to every aspect of the process. We’ve done the majority of the technical work on the show. We’ve choreographed 95% of the dances, most know the music, the words and their characters, so we’re free now to play and work in minute detail. The girls, who, in fairness, probably have a slightly easier track in the show on account of having fewer massive production numbers, feel like they’re slightly further ahead. They are really enjoying the freedom that being on top of material brings. They almost feel like they’re beginning to think collectively. One of them bowls a googly into the group and the rest go with it. It’s massively gratifying to see them growing in confidence every day. I feel like a proud dad.

It’s a very emotional story, and not a day goes past when the entire room doesn’t get flooded by a swimming pool of tears. Catharsis is good, and as the cast commit more and more, I find myself increasingly emotionally effected. There is much of me in that show. Sometimes it feels like my soul will live on through it. There are so many lines which remind me of friends and family members, and transport me to different moments in my life. Today, as we dealt with the death of one of the characters, I remembered my Grandmother. In other scenes, I see the faces of previous Brassers. I’m frequently reminded of the magical day when we took the 2016 cast to the trenches in France. I remember the laughter we had in the boarding houses whilst rehearsing the NYMT productions, the dreadful sound of the fire alarm at 6am and the sight of choreographer, Matt Flint, wrapped in a duvet, waiting to be allowed back into the boarding house after a fire drill. I think of Sara Kestelman telling a cast member that he really was a wanker, and Hannah Chissick saying “that’s literally my favourite moment in the show” ...every five minutes! I think of the day that Ben Mabberley auditioned for the show by playing “Orange Juice” on the cornet, and feeling so profoundly moved that I wrote the song Brass especially for him and remember the day we went to Birmingham to see young Harrison conducting the show with exquisite precision.

At each stage of the journey, people feel like they’ve fallen deeply in love with the show. Only today, one of the actresses in the production tweeted “I've honestly never loved a show as much as I love Brass.”

Crumbs, I feel proud to have brought it to the world.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Solidarity

I hosted the MMD new writers’ cabaret last night, which is a monthly event for new writers of British musical theatre. The evening gives writers the chance to try out new material in front of a supportive audience. I attended every session for a full year whilst writing Em. It was a fabulous way to force myself not to write “also ran” music. I tried my hardest to write a song each month which topped the last one, and I would learn a great deal each time about what I’d written based on the audience’s collective response.

The evenings were always well-attended and very lively, and, although I haven’t attended myself for a year or so, I was thrilled to be asked to compere last night’s.

It was a bit of a flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants scenario, as I had no time to prepare any schtick, so was essentially merely saying, “this is x, who’s written a song called x, which comes from a show called x...” I decided to keep the writers on stage afterwards to ask them a little bit about themselves and what they were hoping for. Occasionally I’d try to throw in a bit of advice, as I was aware that I was perhaps a little bit further on in my career than most of the others... and I think we all have a duty in the industry to support each other where we can. Largely, my message was for them to keep on writing. There were lots of young writers there - and our industry’s future sits firmly in their hands.

The set up in the UK is not geared towards the nurturing of musical theatre talent. There’s an amazing 18 year-old writer called Charli who would benefit enormously from studying on a high-quality musical theatre writing degree course. There are many such courses in the States, where amazing musical theatre writers like William Finn and Stephen Schwartz regularly teach. You literally learn from the best. The UK doesn’t have any such courses, however. The only option for a wannabe musical theatre composer is either to train as a performer and learn his or her craft by osmosis, or to study composing as part of a classical music degree, where musical theatre is often looked down on. There are song writing courses for pop music and jazz in some institutions, but, so far, in this country, the only courses specifically for musical theatre writers, I believe, are very part time or postgraduate courses, and you can count them on the fingers of one hand. There’s one at Goldsmiths, but, when I last discussed it with someone who’d been on it, I was somewhat horrified to learn that it wasn’t recognised by the music department, which meant the students couldn’t use equipment or university practise rooms. The musical theatre writers apparently wandered aimlessly from classroom to classroom, carrying the course keyboard on a trolley. It sounded bleak and undignified. I’m sure things will have improved. They have to have!

Anyway, my great sadness last night was that there weren’t more people in the audience. This was not the bustling event I remember from the past, where sometimes I’d worry that there might not be a slot left for me to perform my song in. I think perhaps only 8 people performed, and very few writers had turned up merely to support. It’s made me resolve to go more often because I feel it’s such an important event. And if any musical theatre writers are reading this blog. Go. Attend. Show solidarity. Us musical theatre writers need to raise our heads above the parapet.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Magic of the ancestors

There was an all-too-familiar, last-minute panic this morning as Nathan set sail for New York. His phone had somehow managed not to charge overnight, his 6.30am alarm hadn’t gone off, and he was woken instead by my 7.45am soothing iPhone arpeggios on a fake harp. The taxi he’d booked for the airport had come and gone, and there was much rushing about and cursing. This time last year, when heading off to the same Rhinebeck Yarn Festival, he left his passport at home and I had to drive like a maniac to Hangar Lane to get it to him.

I guess no one could be entirely blamed for messing up an alarm call after the night we’d had. We went to bed at about midnight. It was a muggy night as a result of a sort of misty, moisty mizzle in the air, so the window was open. I was drifting off to sleep to the sound of the Tallis Fantasia and rain trickling over the roof tops, when my ears tuned into a sickeningly familiar sound within our flat... namely the dull thud of water dripping onto our living room carpet.

We leapt out of bed and ran around in a mad whirl, moving furniture and sticking buckets underneath the places where the water was coming through - which, it turned out, was absolutely everywhere. We ran out of buckets and quickly moved on to dustbins, fruit bowls and towels. I’m not sure anyone should be expected to live in these conditions, let alone pay rent to do so.

I spent the weekend in Thaxted at another quiz. Did I ever mention in this blog that I’m quite partial to a quiz? This one happened in a village hall on the winding country road towards Great Dunmow where, on some nights, a strange optical illusion involving light and mist occurs, which makes drivers on the road think there are ghostly hares dancing on the tarmac.

One of the things I love most about Thaxted is the way that it wears its folklore on its sleeve: whether that’s its thriving Morris Dance and folk music scene, curious pentagrams scratched into the doors of local churches to ward off witches, or talk of strange, lingering fingers of smoke hovering over the lanes. Life would be very dull indeed without the promise of magic. I am a rationalist, but there are things which, in my view, shouldn’t be swept aside or undermined with brutal logic. I would not compose music, or write stories if I didn’t believe in certain myths or the all-encompassing power of nature. I certainly think there are skills and perceptions which human beings have lost as we’ve evolved. Apparently we used to be able to smell water from great distances. How we know this, I’ve no idea. I think we were probably able to sense different types of energy as well. I have nothing to back this theory up apart from the extraordinary pyramids, monoliths and perfect stone circles built by our ancestors.

...We came second in the quiz. By one-and-a-half points. Beaten by our mortal quizzing enemies. If Sally had been more certain that the song had been sung by Credence Clearwater Revival, and I’d have remembered that Carol Lee Scott had played Grotbags in the Pink Windmill, we’d have won. Actually, if Nathan had been on the team, we would have won, but he banged his head in the loo of a local yarn store, so was dispatched back to London for a much-needed night of r and r!

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Bullies

“This is your Northern Line via Bank train,” says the announcer at Highgate Station. As it happened it WAS the train I wanted to take, but that still didn’t make it MY train, and fifty per cent of people waiting on the platform were waiting for the Charing Cross branch. What’s wrong with “this is A Northern Line via Bank train?”

This sort of ghastly misappropriation of the English language is plainly part of an attempt to make official or formal language seem more cozy. Sadly, to my ears, it’s just as jolting as someone using “myself” to sound fancy when they simply mean “me.” “Who can I talk to about this problem?” “You can talk to myself.”

A rather unpleasant woman decided to squeeze herself into the tube carriage behind me as I made my hour-and-a-half commute to Peckham yesterday morning. She seemed entirely unaware that the space in front of me was being filled by my suitcase, but clearly felt I ought to be standing further forward, so kept thrusting her belly into my back and bum, which I found highly aggressive and, actually, a bit repulsive. I wondered how she would have responded to a man standing behind her doing what she was doing to me. Police have been contacted for lesser issues...

One of the things that #meToo has triggered in me is a desperate desire for parity in the way that we respond to issues relating to gender. These things have to work both ways. Yes, men CAN behave terribly, but, despite being pretty sure the woman’s motives yesterday morning were aggressive rather than sexual, I still felt a little violated by what she was doing.

Women can also be bullies and, in fact, throughout my career, I can pinpoint several times when I’ve been bullied by women, and actually fewer times where I’ve been bullied by men. I remember, on one occasion, a female executive producer literally screaming at me on the phone as I was trying to enter a recording session for the film we were working on. She shouted so viciously that I entered the studio shaking so much I had to sit down. The same person was thrown out of our sound edit for violently throwing books at the equipment when she didn’t get her way.

Strangely enough, I’m not sure I recognised that I was being bullied back then. I knew it was unreasonable behaviour and I knew it made me very distressed, but I don’t think it would have occurred to me that women even COULD have bullied men. In fact, I think many people, women included, still believe it’s impossible for a woman to bully a man. Men don’t have feelings, after all...

Within the last few months I experienced another dose of bullying from a woman, and, for the first time in my life, I called her out on it. She was utterly incensed, but, rather tellingly, instead of apologising, or asking what specifically she was doing which made me feel bullied, she instantly went on the attack and played the gender card: “if a man had said the same to you, would you have accused HIM of bullying?” Did my comments stop the bullying? No. They made it considerably worse.

And that’s how the viscous circle begins. A man is told that he can’t possibly feel bullied, and the bullying continues until he can bear it no more, and he puffs himself up to full size and growls like a lion. At which point he is instantly told he’s a bully!


Thursday, 11 October 2018

Brass, brass, still more brass

Peckham is a very Christian area. There are several shops in the area which blare out religious songs on tannoy systems and there’s a newsagent with a banner on it which says “Jesus is Lord, Phil. 2:1.” I’m not sure who Phil is, but, then again, I often feel that Christians talk in code to feel like part of an exclusive club. There’s all sort of stuff about the Lamb of God and phrases like “accepting Jesus into your life” which I find very bizarre.

That said, I quite like being able to travel across London and find myself in an area which feels so very other worldly. The deep, rich aromas of Caribbean and African cuisine fill the streets. People sit in little kiosks selling off-cuts of fabric, hair weaves and curious fruit and vegetables. I’m not sure the area is quite ready for the high octane energy of a musical theatre drama school! The Mountview students stand out. You can smell them a mile off!

The area is obviously changing rapidly, and it’s rather sad to think that, in a few years’ time, a lot of its quirkiness will have been swept aside by rising rents. They’re already building stacks of fancy-looking flats along the high road, and the area around Queens Road station is full of artisan bakeries and fancy bars selling micro brewery beer.

It’s probably about time. I remember going to Julie’s house on the train about fifteen years ago, and passing through Queens Road Peckham and being absolutely horrified by the state of the station, which was covered in graffiti and metal grills. It felt like something from the Bronx in the 1970s: the sort of thing which would periodically turn up on an episode of Cagney and Lacy when a homeless man gets murdered in a cardboard box.

The production of Brass at the Union Theatre was announced yesterday, which means I can now talk openly about something which has been brewing for the last month or so. I was in a production meeting for the Mountview version of the show when my publisher got in touch to say that the rights had been requested and, as ever with these things, you smile and wave, thinking that it’s entirely unlikely anything will ever get off the ground. Particularly with such a short lead time.

But in fairness to them, they’ve got it together, and rehearsals for their version started on Monday with, I’m rather pleased to say, young Jack Reitman in the cast.

It is entirely surreal to not have anything to do with this particular production. I just have to trust that they’ll get on with it, work hard, be truthful to the characters and play them with love, great affection and a huge dose of Yorkshire wit, grit and pride.

The fact that there are two productions running simultaneously in London is, of course, more than a little exciting. Add to this the news that a choir in Red Hill are singing three songs from the show in a major concert down there and it starts to feel like this precious child of mine, which I’ve nurtured for four years, is finally learning to walk unaided. The path I’ve chosen for myself in life has often felt like a brutal, uphill climb, but, just occasionally, it all seems worth it. Perhaps most gratifying of all is the sheer number of people who are coming forward to say what a profound effect Brass had on them when they saw it, or performed in it before.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Wounded soldier

I injured my head yesterday. We were part way through our customary Monday morning run of the show and I realised I was desperate for the loo, so bolted upstairs to the staff toilets. I’m not entirely sure I know what happened, but as I pushed the door to the staff corridor open, my forehead was greeted by something hard, sharp and wooden. I immediately realised I had done something silly because I could see blood on the doorpost. I did the thing they do on movies and brought my hand up to my face to realise I was, indeed, bleeding, just above my left eye.

It’s funny the things that go through your head when you injure yourself and go into slight shock. I took myself first to a loo cubical. I wanted to hide away whilst I worked out what was wrong. It’s an animal instinct. What you don’t want in these instances is someone fussing or panicking. I had my wee, but suddenly noticed I’d started to wee on my foot, which made me realise I wasn’t entirely firing on all cylinders! 

I remember pressing loo paper against my head and realising there was a fair amount of blood, but that it wasn’t gushing from me, so I decided the best thing to do was to make a cup of sweet tea whilst I formulated a plan which didn’t involve staggering into a rehearsal room and freaking out my cast.

As I walked away from the kitchen and into the giant fancy atrium at Mountview, I was hugely relieved to see our company manager. I pointed at my head and told him I’d hurt myself, and he instantly whisked me into the staff room to apply first aid. It turns out that he’s a designated first aider.

It took about five minutes to clean me up and stick a couple of plasters on my face. The wounds are fairly superficial. I’ve taken a chunk of skin off in a few places but I didn’t feel woozy, so probably didn’t have concussion of any sort. As the adrenaline drained from my body, I started to feel a little shaky and the wounds started to sting a bit, but I consider myself to be rather lucky not to have taken a considerably bigger hit.

I took the plaster off this morning, and it’s not the most attractive sight. A flap of skin is hanging off which I don’t want to pull at. I equally feel the wound needs to dry out in the air rather than fester behind a plaster.

So, the wounded soldier limps on. And so I should. In a show with a body count as high as the one in Brass, I merely count my lucky stars not to have been born 100 years earlier.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Country air

The tubes were all broken when I reached the underground this morning. There’s a horrible moment, as the tube doors open, when you realise you’re in for a rough journey. A haze of sweat rolls out of the carriage and it becomes obvious that the group of individuals within have become an amorphous mass, with faces and arms crammed into every single corner. It’s a terribly depressing way to start the week.

The weekend was rather relaxing. It kicked off with a synagogue service. Michael is away in Italy at the moment, so we were without a conductor, but it was an experienced bunch of singers and we blended well. We always have such wonderfully erudite conversations whilst we’re on our tea break. We regularly talk about religion, culture, politics and the murky world of gender and sexuality. On Saturday, we discussed generational divides in the way that people perceive, and respond to, mental health issues. There is a Jewish tradition of debating in synagogues. We may not be discussing the finer points of the Torah, but we always do our bit when it comes to talking about the big issues.

I went home for a while and entered a sort of reverie, staring at the television, wondering if I should have a sleep. Nathan was due to arrive back from Northern Ireland on a late night flight into Stansted, so I called the parents to see if they were free to take a visitor whilst I waited to pick him up. As it happened, they weren’t, but they were planning to go to a quiz, and didn’t have enough people on their team, so I jumped into a car and joined them at the Thaxted bowls club, which is actually in the middle of a darkened field with no discernible front door.

The quiz itself was aimed at a different demographic, with the music round dedicated to songs from the 50s and 60s.

Despite not being a massively useful team member, it was hugely gratifying to look around and see that I was the youngest person in the room. That doesn’t happen very often these days! The quiz master was somewhat lacking in charisma, and showed such personal bias in his questions, that the team with his wife on ended up winning, but it’s easy to underestimate how difficult and thankless writing and running a quiz can be. Simply for getting off his harris and doing it, he deserved a hearty round of applause.

Nathan was kind enough to take an Uber from Stansted to the bowls club to enable me to keep quizzing, and when everything was over, and we’d come a miserable third out of five, we headed back to the parents’ house to watch Strictly. Obviously I’m still supporting the iconic Faye off of Steps, so it was pleasing to me that she did so well.

We ended up staying the night in Thaxted. I went out like a light and slept like the dead and we managed a Sunday pub lunch before heading back to London. I worked the entire afternoon and evening putting final touches to the new orchestrations for Brass, which I finally sent off at about midnight, feeling as relieved to have finished as I felt resentful that they’d taken so long!

Friday, 5 October 2018

Week two

It’s the end of the second week of rehearsals for Brass, and I am very pleased with the direction we’re heading in. There’s still a veritable mountain to climb, but we’ve put a lot of layers down. We’ve had a few little blips during the week, a few panics, a few people losing confidence, but I don’t think anyone is scared of the show any more, which, for a piece the size of Brass is fairly surprising. My task for next week is to slowly chip away at the unexplored edges, so, by the time we run the piece a week on Monday, everyone is aware of what they at least should be doing at every stage of their journey.

One of the slightly eccentric aspects of Brass is that most of the big production numbers are performed by the men, with the women baring the brunt of the solo work. Perhaps if I had my time again, I’d have shoved a big, upbeat showstopper into Act II for the girls to perform which mirrors Barnbow Lassies. And yes, I’m aware the show is plenty long enough already, so no one should feel the need to write in!

We have a dead rat in our kitchen. (There’s a rat in me kitchen what am I gonna do...) She is wrapped in a towel, bless her, and I basically need to work out how and where to bury her. She needs to have dignity in death, so I refuse to throw her casually into a dustbin. As a rat fancier, the irony hasn’t escaped me that we have chosen to kill this little lass, after sharing our lives very happily with similar-shaped creatures in the past.

This weekend, after shul, is all about a) relaxing and b) tackling a veritable mountain of admin relating to Brass. I have to invite industry types to see the show. I have to invite my friends to see it. If you’re reading this blog, and you don’t yet have the dates and such, here’s the science:

https://www.mountview.org.uk/whats-on/show/brass/

Shows are all at the Bernie Grant theatre in Tottenham and I urge you to book because it WILL sell out.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Murderer

The first mists of autumn were swirling this morning. It’s a strange old time of year. The evenings are closing in at a fast rate of knots. We get a little reprieve when the clocks go forward... or back... or whatever it is that happens in a few weeks’ time, and then it’s the slow march towards winter and we all wonder where on earth the year went and why we suddenly feel so cold. (Unless you’re a hairy old bear like me of course, when you start to feel an ordinary temperature!)

I find Autumn a very inspiring time, which almost certainly has its roots in going back to school and the fresh beginnings and opportunities a new term always promised.

But re-birth also carries the weight of death.

I had a rather distressing phone call from Nathan yesterday, who told me that he’d seen the rat. Actually, the news came in stages, over a series of phone calls. Firstly he’d seen a loaf of bread which looked like it had been gnawed at by a rat. Then he saw the rat scuttling about in the dustbins. Then he called to say that the rat wasn’t running away from him any more and that she’d started to get sluggish. It soon became clear that the rat had eaten the poison which the man from Rentakill had put down earlier in the week. 

It is hugely distressing to see an animal suffering, particularly when you know it’s something you’ve sanctioned. Nathan decided to wrap the creature in a towel to make her as comfortable as possible in her last few hours. When I got back from rehearsals, her little head was poking out of the towel. She plainly couldn’t move, but her eyes were alert, staring up at me. It was awful.

I don’t think she made it through the night. She’d disappeared into the towel by the time I woke up. I could see a patch of her back, a little flash of her grey, silky coat, but it didn’t seem to be moving.

I am officially a murderer.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Code 5!

I’ve really got too much going on at the moment. I should be coming home from rehearsals and getting on with an ever-growing list of non-Brass-related things, but life keeps getting in the way.

On Monday night, I just wanted to spend a bit of time with Nathan, watching Strictly and catching up on Bake Off. I feel everyone’s entitled to a night like that sometimes. We ordered pizza and I slowly drifted into a coma, truly knackered after my weekend in Belgium.

Last night I went for dinner with Michael in Liverpool Street. We caught up on everything relating to the world of 100 Faces, and I realised, with great horror, how many terrible clashes I have coming up in the next month or so. You know what they say about busses? Well, it’s that and some!

Rehearsals for Brass are ticking along nicely. For shits and giggles, I did a run of the show on Monday morning. We haven’t done any blocking, really, or very much choreography, but I wanted to stand the show on its feet to see how everything felt. They’ve done all the character work now, so the opportunity to put everything into context turned out to be rewarding for everyone, including me. I, personally, was able to see the areas of the show where energy starts to sag, and therefore where we’re going to need to work that bit harder to keep the audience engaged.

Six of the roles in the show are double cast so that everyone gets a fair crack at the Bosch (to use an appropriate metaphor.) For some time they’ve known which dates “cast 1” and “cast 2” are performing, they just haven’t know who is in which cast, which means their family and potential agents can’t book tickets. I’ve been watching them over the last week to see where the chemistry sits and have spent a long time thinking about the combinations which would best allow individual actors to shine. I hope I’ve got it right. I think I have.

A double-cast show is incredibly tiring to rehearse. You crack it with one cast, and then the work starts all over again with the other, just as you let your guard down and start to think you’re motoring forward.

The commute to Peckham is pretty full-on, and involves quite a lot of rush hour shenanigans, including a change from underground to overground at a highly-crowded London Bridge, which is the part I hate. They’ve obviously updated the “Mr Sloane” language they use over the tannoys to describe suspicious packages, suspected fires and the like. This morning I heard talk of one “Norman Gates” reporting to such-and-such a location “urgently.” Until the word urgently was used, I didn’t think anything of it, but the announcer sealed the deal by calmly adding, “this is a code 5.” Hysterical. I wonder how serious code 5 actually is...








Monday, 1 October 2018

Broken infrastructure

As predicted, we arrived in the UK last night and were instantly subjected to the sort of travel chaos in which the Brits seem to absolutely specialise.

The plan had been for Fiona to drop me off, where she picked me up, at Maidstone East, but when I started looking into train times, it immediately became apparent that rail replacement services were being operated, that there didn’t seem much hope of my reaching the capital before 1am, and that I would be arriving at Victoria Station at said time, which isn’t exactly a breeze to get to Highgate from at shit o’clock in the morning. Yawn.

Anyway, one of the reasons that the rail replacement service was destined to take so long was that the busses were taking passengers in the opposite direction from London so that they could pick up Eurostar connections from Ashfield International.

Fiona and I therefore decided that the best option was to drop me off at Ashfield, in the process circumventing the need for a rail replacement bus and an extra two hours on my journey. Our Chunnel train got into Folkestone at 9.50pm, the last train to Kings Cross from Ashfield left at 10.43pm, the estimated journey time was 20 minutes. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll tell you what could go wrong. The UK’s astoundingly shitty roads, and our government’s complete inability to outsource repair work to private companies who actually give a stuff about ordinary people.

So, about two miles shy of the M20 turn off for Ashfield, we got stuck in completely stationary traffic, and watched helplessly as the sat nav’s estimated time of arrival got later and later, and eventually went spinning off into the world of “ain’t never gonna happen.”

We investigated half a dozen plan Bs. Fiona could drive me to Croydon, perhaps? That journey would take 1 hour and 48 minutes, which would mean taking the last train from Croydon to Blackfriars, where I would find myself at 1am without any other option than to walk half an hour to a 43 night bus, or an Uber back to Highgate. 

All the other potential options led us into a similar cul-de-sac of frustration. Our only option, genuinely, was for me to go back home to Hove with Fiona, and take an early train into London for rehearsals.


With all other options taken away, we hit that sort of calm space where you just have to accept the situation, so we stopped at a Motorway Service Station on the M25 for some late night food. Sadly the only food available was at MacDonalds.

We sat, eating our cardboard libations to multinationalism, trying to comprehend the ineptitude of the British transport network, wondering how the Brexiteers could blame this shit on Europe, and whether making Britain “great” again would include ploughing any extra money into transport, and furthermore, whether any of said extra money would be spent on anything other than lining the pockets of hopeless fat cats who run the ludicrous companies who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.

MacDonald’s decided to add an extra layer of hideousness to the proceedings. I don’t know whether anyone reading this has ever sat in a MacDonald’s late at night, when the bustle of life subsides into relative silence, but behind the counters in a MacDonald’s all you can hear is beeping. One assumes the different beeps inform staff that various bits of inedible shite have finished “cooking.” Or maybe they’re designed simply to keep the members of staff awake, but the beeping never ends. High pitched beeps. Low pitched beeps. Beeps which change in pitch. Long beeps. Short beeps. Loud beeps. Quiet beeps. Beeps in rhythmical patterns. Fast. Slow. Fast again. It was, without a shadow of doubt, the most stressful attempt at unwinding I have ever embarked on. All because of the beeps...

We reached Hove at about 12.30, I assume. The moment my head hit the pillow, I fell asleep. Deep sleep.

And actually, this morning, my journey into London was good. I had a seat. I did some work. I made my connections. Perhaps there is a travel God after all!

I did, however, have to jump the barriers at Queens Road Peckham, on account of my ticket not working and no members of staff being around to talk to. I felt a rush of adrenaline. I rather liked it. I might become the sort of old man who shop lifts for shits and giggles! 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

The monastery

We had an amazing breakfast this morning, which was lucky because the beds in our hotel rooms were not great. I don’t quite know why mainland Europeans seem to think that two single beds pushed together, sliding about on the floor, with silly little thin duvets on the top, constitute anything worth sleeping on! Fiona pulled her duvet off the bed and slept on the floor!

But the breakfast... Oh, the joy of a European breakfast with its crusty baguettes, freshly-baked pastries, racks of preserves, curious plates of meat and cheese, and amazing herb-crusted baked tomatoes. We ate keenly, and without control!

A post-prandial constitutional took us back into the old town, to see, by day, what had made us so happy by night. The sky was deep blue, and the moon, which had been enormous and low in the sky as we turned in yesterday, was still visible. 

The city was just waking up. We’re told it’s a very socialist part of Belgium, but that it’s also quite catholic, so none of the shops were open, apart from the odd bakery or tabac. There were a few confused-looking people milling around who, one assumes, had been drinking through the night. We were stopped by an Irish fella who told us that he DID have a house to go back to, but wasn’t sure which direction it was in. He then quizzed us about Brexit and seemed very confused when we said that neither of us had voted for it.

The rest of the day was spent in a monastery in the middle of Leuven, where Fiona was doing two sets of material from her album, Postcards. She’s found a way to interpret the tracks by using loops and samples, which means she can perform them live. Each one of her postcards is inspired by another place in the world. Moscow, Brighton, Antwerp, Denton, Dallas, Paris... they’re amazingly trance-like, and, in places, somewhat soporific. I drifted off into a rather glorious dream-world during one number!

It was a little strange to be in a room filled to the brim with images of Jesus. Neither of us are friends with that particular chap and Fiona was forced to perform right underneath a crucifix, complete with the big fella screaming in agony. Nice.

There was an extended break between sets, which gave us time to chill in the cloisters and I had a lovely nap by a lavender bush. I’m not sure there’s a monastery in the world which doesn’t have lavender in it. Or mead.

Fiona’s second set went down a storm. It was standing room only, and many of the people who had seen her first set returned. She played beautifully.

I was particularly proud when she apologised to the audience for Brexit: “I promise you that no musician voted for it.” Her voice cracked with emotion as she said the words, and I felt her pain. In fact, my eyes began to prickle with the shame. In a post-Brexit world, will Fiona and I be able to pop over to mainland Europe to play at a music festival? Like hell will we. Will Nathan be able to pop over to mainland Europe and be paid to run knitting classes? Like hell will he. He already can’t be paid to work in the USA. It makes me feel so sad.

Returning to the UK this evening I have no idea if I am able to get from Kent back to London because of various train lines being closed down for “planned engineering works.” So we cut ourselves off from Europe, yet we can’t even get around our own country? We’re such desperate twats.

Belgium!

I am in Belgium! I don’t really feel like I’m here. We came on the Chunnel, so I have neither flown, nor been on a ferry.

We’re in a beautiful medieval city called Leuven, which is west of Brussels, very much in the middle of the country. I’m here to accompany Fiona who is playing in a festival. It’s actually a violin festival, which I find almost too intriguing. Will the majority of the music be classical? Will Fiona’s esoteric electric violin set be considered avant guarde?

The journey here was incredibly speedy. I took the train from Victoria to Maidstone where Fiona picked me up in the car.

The Chunnel is a surreal experience. You effectively drive onto a train, and sit there, in the car itself, as the train hurtles underneath the sea. You know you’re stationary, but at the same time, you’re also aware that you’re moving, so it can be quite bewildering when you actually start driving again.

The north of France is a fairly underwhelming place. It’s essentially flat and full of factories and farms. The motorway hugs the coast, passing between places with deep military significance, like Dunkirk and Ypres. I’ve never been to either. One day I will. It strikes me that you can’t call yourself a true First World War nut until you’ve experienced the Last Post at the Menin Gate.

Our journey to Leuven took us around the edge of various Belgian cities, which I suddenly realised I wanted to visit: Bruges, Ghent, Brussels... We were apparently within a stone’s throw of the famous Atomium, which I would have liked to have seen again for old time’s sake. I remember going there as a child and being really rather impressed. It’s a giant metal stainless steel structure shaped like some sort of atom. A quick google reveals it’s actually “the unit cell of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times.” Because I don’t know what any of those words mean in context, I’m gonna have to take Wikipedia’s word for it.

Upon arriving at our hotel, we were informed by the man behind the counter that there had been a computer system malfunction and that the hotel was over-booked. He was way too chirpy as he told us that the solution was going to be for one of us to stay in his hotel and the other to stay in another hotel which they would organise for us. Obviously we kicked off and explained that we would both be staying in the SAME hotel, that they should have told us in advance that there was a problem, that this new hotel would have to be comparable and that they were basically very stupid if they expected us to schlep across town and check into another hotel without any form of reimbursement.

So, five minutes later, we were back in the car looking for the new hotel, which, it turned out, was next to the train station. Leuven, it seems, is fairly ethnically diverse. I don’t know why it surprised me to discover this fact. I think I’d always thought of Belgium as being one of those whiter-than-white places. I think I may well have assumed that the Walloon-Flemish dichotomy would deter wide-scale immigration, which is, of course, a fairly spurious argument.

Our new hotel turned out to be rather lovely, with a fabulous woman at reception who spoke very good English, which is somewhat atypical in these parts. 50 miles north, in Holland, English is practically an official language.

We dropped our bags off and headed into the historic city centre, which is charming. There’s a glorious, ancient town hall with some of the most ornate stone carving I think I’ve seen since visiting Notre Dame.

Leuven was “sacked” by the Germans at the start of the First World War. Buildings were damaged and destroyed and 200 people were killed. The university library was burned down, and hundreds of thousands of precious books were lost. One wonders what the point was. Did orders come down from above telling the troops to behave as appallingly as possible? It’s strange, I’ve always felt that the German invasion of Belgium was rather “hammed up” by the British powers-that-be to get the people behind the war effort. When you start to read about 200 people being murdered in one city alone and the mindless destruction of art and books, the stories of priests being strung up and used as bell clappers start to sound more plausible.

We had some food in an Italian restaurant on a street the lady at the hotel reception recommended. It was pleasant enough although it took me a long time before the waiter understood that I was asking for vinegar. I managed the word in three languages, which I thought ought to have been plenty. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when he went away and returned with a napkin!

There was a slightly surreal encounter at the end of the meal as well, when the waitress came up to us, smiling sweetly, handed us the bill and said “I hope you don’t need a receipt.” “Actually, yes I do” answered Fiona. She looked a bit non-plussed, disappeared and, seconds later, returned with a receipt. We couldn’t work out whether we’d just had a lost-in-translation moment, or whether she was telling us that she couldn’t be bothered to press the receipt button, or walk across the restaurant to the till!

Meanwhile, three English women had appeared in the place. “Ooh it’s a bit quiet”, said one, “never mind” said another, “we can make it louder!” As I left the restaurant, I could hear them shouting at one another, and, once again, I felt ashamed to be British. It’s a sleepy little Belgian city. What on Earth were they expecting? And frankly, on mainland Europe, us Brits have got a duty to keep quiet and be charming.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Award ceremonies

I’ll tell you what I hate... those awards that are nothing more than popularity contests. A couple of years ago now, Beyond The Fence was nominated for an award in the category of “best underrated musical.” I was rather pleased to discover that such a category existed. There are so many pieces of art which, through lack of publicity or due to a critical mauling, don’t get to raise their heads above the parapet. As a result, I was rather chuffed with the nomination... until I realised that the winner was being decided by public vote. So, in short, the most over-rated of the under-rated shows was going to get the award! In order to win, we’d need to get all of our friends to tell all of their friends to vote for us - regardless of whether they’d actually seen the show! Our production had a limited run of just two weeks. Even if everyone who’d seen it voted for us, we still wouldn’t have been able to win. The entire thing instantly felt ludicrous, so I politely declined my invitation to attend the ceremony. I’m too old for the footle of pretending to be pleased for a winner who’s done nothing more than play a PR game more effectively than I have.

I now see these sorts of silly awards, particularly in theatre, all over the place. An email arrives, asking me to vote for such-and-such in the category of best something-or-other, because whoever-it-is needs the validation of winning an award. And of course we all know that the shows with the big followings, like Wicked, will always win hands down, although I remember, on one occasion, an actor in an NYMT production almost winning a fairly major award because he’d galvanised the fabulously loyal community associated with that particular organisation.

But, as we all know, vanity comes with a price, and the companies and organisations running these awards can hardly be described as altruistic. Fairly regularly, when voting for your mate, you’re told you can’t register an opinion unless you sign up to be on a mailing list.

I find myself feeling even more irritated when these ludicrous competitions get played out on the telly: “And this category is special, because it’s voted for by you, the audience.” Special? My foot! Patronising? Deeply. Flawed? Not ‘arf! Live shows like This Morning will have made aggressive public appeals for people to vote for them, in a way that BBC shows aren’t allowed to do, so when the presenters appear on screen the day after the awards, looking as bleary-eyed as they are pleased with themselves, you wonder what they’re actually celebrating.

In my view, no one is qualified to vote for anything unless they can honestly say they’ve seen or heard everything else in the category. Eurovision is laced with voting bias, but at least everyone is subject to the same parameters (6 performers on stage, three minutes long etc...) and everyone who votes can be assumed to have watched all the other songs. In the majority cases, I much prefer a proper industry jury full of people with expert opinions. When I judged the TV BAFTAs, we really considered the merits of the nominated shows and spent hours, with a highly diverse panel, talking about them. We were forced to see everything on the shortlist, and the viewing figures and popularity of the show didn’t even get discussed in passing.

So, in the future, you can expect never to receive an email from me asking for your vote if I’m lucky enough to be nominated for a lovely award. I think the price is considerably too high.






Friday, 28 September 2018

Rehearsals

Nathan returns to London today, which means my shambolic life of late can calm down a little. I can go to bed at a decent hour. I won’t stay up late watching episodes of Eight Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown. I’ll eat at sensible hours. It’s all good.

Rehearsals are going brilliantly and some of the actors in my cohort are really quite remarkable; focussed, subtle, nuanced, well-researched. We’re mainly doing table readings and character work whilst the music gets learned in the main rehearsal space. It’s actually a very good show when it comes to maximising rehearsal time because the lads and lassies are rarely in the same scene. This means that whilst our MD, Andrew, is teaching harmonies with the girls in one space, I can be in another with the boys, and vice versa. As a result, I think we all feel quite on top of things, although I’m pretty sure the actors’ brains will quite swiftly start to drip out of their ears because they are being overloaded with so much information. We’ve done some amazing work. Our choreographer, Simon, even got a chance to dip his toe into the murky waters of Barnbow Lassies yesterday.

It’s a happy environment and I feel very well looked after. The building itself is wonderful and doesn’t seem to have any of the teething problems normally associated with new buildings - apart from the dust, of course, which gets everywhere. It’s absolutely enormous. There are four floors of studios and work rooms, all with enormous windows looking out over London. The atrium is a riot of noise - largely the sound of several hundred excited drama school students - but you can easily find a quiet little corner to have lunch in, or a chat about production. I feel very privileged to be there.














Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Rats

I was up most of the night, listening to the rat running about in my house. I kept thinking she was in my room, but the door was shut and I’m pretty sure she was actually behind the sofa in the living room. It’s most disconcerting. It really shouldn’t be - I had pet rats, I love the creatures - but that all-too-familiar pitter-patter of a rat lolloping along the floor is a little sinister when you don’t know the creature in question.

I saw her in the flesh last night, crawling about in the airing cupboard. She’s obviously made a nest for herself under the floorboards, using bits of carrier bag which she’s chewed up and pulled down there. I feel quite sorry for her. The man from Rentakill is coming today to ensure she had a lingering and painful death. Her only crime is trying to go about her life and I’m not altogether sure that I have the right to decide she has to die, purely because I don’t want to co-habit.

The tube was heaving on my way down to Peckham this morning, filled to the rafters with people who tut when you lose your balance, or, in my case, try to put a computer away in a suitcase. Londoners have this rather nasty habit of making you feel like you’re deliberately trying to be obstreperous when you get into a pickle on the tube. I’m sure I can be as guilty as the next man in this regard. How many times have I huffed at someone who stops in their tracks to read a tube map, or got irritable at someone talking too loudly?

I reckon the tubes themselves are getting louder. I wrote a blog post recently where I was beginning to wonder if my decrepitude was making me more sensitive to noise, but I spoke to a musician a couple of weeks ago who said that tests had been done and that underground trains regularly topped the decibel level where extended periods of exposure could lead to permanent damage. And they wonder why we’re all ratty down here.

Perhaps we all need to remember the quote I once found written on a gravestone, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

First day of Brass

This morning, I got up with the lark in order to take myself down to Peckham for the first day of rehearsals on Brass.

And what a double treat it is to be back at Mountview directing my (somewhat grown up) baby.

The new Mountview building is stunning. It feels like it belongs to a confident and classy institution with its eyes very firmly fixed on the future. It’s all industrial chic atriums and state-of-the-arc rehearsal studios.

Of course all the staff were rushing about like headless chickens. Today was the first time students had entered the space, and only last week the place was still a hard-hat-only zone. We had the obligatory fire alarm test, which meant we all had to traipse out into the square outside the school. I’m told we need to expect more of the same whilst those who care about these things are fully convinced that it’s a building which works.

The new cast of Brass are utterly fabulous. They’d all done a hell of a lot of research about the era and the show’s themes. I explained to them that they were entering an incredible family of people associated with the show. Protecting the memory of the Leeds Pals and the Barnbow Lassies feels like a responsibility that successive casts have taken really seriously, and I have no doubt that this new cohort will do their bit. I could feel the show getting under their skin more and more as the day went on and the great pride I feel to have written Brass came flooding back.

We didn’t do a great deal more than you might expect on a first day of rehearsals. I did a meet and greet, and spent an hour or so talking about the show. We had a read through of the script, had a Subway sandwich for lunch and then, in the afternoon, we talked in more depth about the show, before learning the song, Letters.

My creative and stage management teams are wonderful. They all feel like hard workers, yes people, kind people and very good at their jobs. So watch this space. Let the immersive experience begin!

Life can be a funny creature sometimes. I was in a bit of a miserable mood yesterday. I had a much-needed lie in, and finally hauled myself out of bed at about 11am. I could hear the rain throwing itself down outside. I probably should have stayed hidden for the whole day because, as I walked into the living room, I was confronted by a scene of absolute carnage. It seems the workmen who spent much of last month “fixing” the roof, were actually destroying it. Water was pouring through the ceiling. Literally flowing like a waterfall. The printer was submerged, as was the Little Victorian box piano we were given as a wedding present, three lamps and the whole area where the phone plugs in. I rushed about throwing buckets down, but not quickly enough, it seems, to stop the water sinking through our carpet and down into Little Welsh Natalie’s flat below. It was so horrifying that I actually ended up becoming quite zen. I kept telling myself that the mayhem was just for now, and, that, aside from trying to save the things that were being destroyed by water, there was nothing I could actually do. So, I sat for a day in the half of the room which didn’t have a soggy carpet and pretended that I lived in a functioning flat with a proper roof and no rats.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Kol Nidrei

I’m presently sitting in a MacDonalds after the Kol Nidrei service at the New West End Synagogue. It’s a big old sing! We started at six o’clock and basically didn’t stop until 10.30pm.

I am actually fasting. I’m not doing it for religious reasons. I’m doing it as an act of solidarity after experiencing my first dose of anti-semitism. On Sunday, as I came out of Highgate tube, someone on the A1 unwound his car window and shouted “yid” at me, simply because I was wearing my kippah after returning from a rehearsal at the shul. I wasn’t really upset. I was more confused. Had I been with children, or anyone who had been frightened by the incident, however, I would have been irate.

It felt like such a peculiarly old school thing to shout, and I was instantly transported back to the Midlands in the 1980s, when words like “poof” were casually thrown out of the windows of passing cars. In those days, those occurrences made me feel shame because being gay was my dirty little secret. I wondered how the people shouting knew. Was it my slight lisp? Was it my shambolic gait? I felt like a failure for not covering my tracks properly, almost as though I deserved the homophobic abuse because I wasn’t a proper man.

I feel no such shame about my sexuality these days, in fact, I am hugely grateful to be gay. I feel the same about my Jewish blood and have always worn my kippah proudly to and from services in the shul. My general ambivalence towards religion, of course, allows me the luxury of taking the kippah off as and when I choose, but I’ve always felt that the least I can do is wear it to and from the synagogue when I’m going there to facilitate worship. I feel uncomfortable when I see Jewish people guiltily (or out of fear) removing their kippahs as soon as they leave a synagogue to blend back into the community at large. There’s actually a school of thought which suggests antisemitism only happens when the community isn’t visible.

And of course we’re all reading a great deal about antisemitism at the moment. We’re told it’s seething beneath the surface on the far right and the far left. Perhaps Sunday’s incident proves that there’s still a fight to be fought, and if I’m supposed to be in the battle, I’m happy to report for action.

So why, if I’m fasting, am I in a MacDonalds? Well, I wanted somewhere quiet to sit for starters. The Kol Nidrei service was ever likely to be an emotional roller coaster for me. When I was a teenager, my theme tune, if you like, as a ‘cellist, was Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. I loved playing the piece. It engulfed me emotionally and touched my soul. What I didn’t realise is that Bruch’s composition was based on an ancient Jewish melody which was exclusively performed at Kol Nidrei, the eve of the day of atonement. So the first thing our choir sang tonight was that very melody and I was instantly transported into that seventeen-year-old self. Once again, I was that young lad who was so terrified of being gay. It was a curiously cyclic and highly emotional moment.

The other reason why I was sitting in a MacDonalds was that I needed a cup of tea. It would be damaging for me to sing for four hours today and seven hours tomorrow without taking on liquids, so, even though I’m fasting, I am drinking water and tea.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Kosher

There was a bar mitzvah at shul yesterday morning. The lad centre stage was a young chap called Todd who talked about the Holocaust during his speech to the congregation. He actually made me aware that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, regularly “twins” young Jewish people up with one of the 1.5m children who were killed in the concentration camps during the war. The idea is to give living people the responsibility of protecting the memory of the dead. So if the bar mitzvah boy from today takes his responsibility seriously, then the memory of at least one child gassed at Auschwitz, is cherished for another 80 years. In this case, a 13-year-old Romanian boy called Shalom Tesler.

A staggering and chilling fact, which was brought to our attention by the rabbi today, is that, if Todd lives until he’s 93, the 6 million Jewish people who were killed in the holocaust could be seen in context as 200 people being killed every day for the rest of his life.

There’s always a kiddish meal after the Shabbat service. Sometimes it’s a rather simple affair - a few crisps, some pickles, fruit, olives and pastries. On special occasions, however, like yesterday, they can be rather lavish affairs...

The interesting thing, of course, is that kosher food can only be either meat or dairy-based. It would be impossible for food to be prepared in a kitchen with both food types present. Kosher restaurants will therefore typically declare which of the two they are. Cafes, bakeries and Italian-inspired restaurants will tend towards being dairy-focussed, for obvious reasons. The rules for dealing with dairy are far less stringent, but, unless you’re happy to serve only vegetarian cuisine, you have to get really imaginative with fish. It’s why you often end up with somewhat bizarre-sounding things like salmon lasagne! The rules regarding meat are much more complicated, which is why someone who keeps kosher is most likely to eat vegetarian food if they can’t be sure how something has been prepared. I think I’m right in saying that someone who keeps kosher has to wait four hours if he or she wants to switch from meat to dairy.

As a result of all of this, our kiddishes are usually dairy-based, but yesterday’s was meat-based, and, as a result, the entire shul got turned upside down. All the kitchen surfaces had been carefully covered in tin foil and all milk had been removed from the building, which was a desperate nightmare because the choir is basically fuelled by lovely cups of tea!








Thursday, 13 September 2018

Relocation

Another hideous commute this morning. I thought leaving the house at 9am would mean I’d miss the rush hour, but actually, as I crossed the road to Highgate tube, I could see a backlog of people jostling at the top of the causeway which snakes down the dell to the station itself. I’ve made Highgate sound very un-London by talking about a dell. Highgate Station is actually situated at the bottom of a very charming wooded hillside which could be in the middle of the countryside. I remember coming to the station in 1993, and being terribly confused, but very charmed. There’s an abandoned overground station from the 1920s in the midst of all the trees which was part of a line which, for a few glorious inter-war years, linked Finsbury Park (and therefore the Piccadilly and Victoria Lines) to the Northern Line at Highgate via Crouch End. It went on up to Muswell Hill and Ally Pally, which, I think would have given those places a very different feel. Part of me wonders how much easier life would have been with that handy little line. The larger part of me is hugely grateful for the nature reserve, Parkland Walk, which runs the full length of the old line.

I have got to get used to this commute, as I will soon be starting rehearsals for Brass at Mountview School, which has been relocated from Haringey to Peckham of all places. Aside from being a little miffed that I can’t walk to work, as I was able to earlier in the year, I am also rather disappointed that North London has lost its drama school. Mountview was utterly synonymous with Crouch End and Wood Green and its students partially defined those areas. They bought energy, glamour and more than a whiff of Bohemianism to the borough. After graduating, they hung about because it was the bit of London they knew. Having studied there myself, I am more than aware that the drama school is the reason why I chose to make North London my home.

Mountview was forced to move to Peckham due to the short-sightedness and ineptitude of Haringey Council, who have to be one of the most self-serving and shambolic councils in the UK. On so many occasions, the drama school, lacking in space at its premises, attempted to purchase new buildings in Haringey. At one stage they wanted to take over a wing at Ally Pally, but this was blocked. Then, for the longest time, they were going to move into the iconic town hall in Crouch End. It happened with other premises as well. In all instances they were kept dangling on the end of a rope by Haringey Council, who would take them on a merry dance before announcing that the building was needed for housing stock and that they couldn’t justify a drama school being there. It’s a terrible shame.

So, Mountview has moved to Peckham, where the council welcomed them with friendly open arms. It’s very sad to think that London’s home of musical theatre is no longer on my doorstep.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Fenella Fielding

I was incredibly sad to read today that Fenella Fielding has died. As many of you will know, I had a very troubling and upsetting experience when we tried to film her for the 100 Faces project a month or so ago. I now realise that she wasn’t a well woman. I actually wonder whether she had a mini-stroke the day that we filmed her, because her mood changed so dramatically.

She remains, of course, an absolute legend and I was hugely excited to meet her and, despite the very difficult circumstances of our encounter, I am genuinely honoured to have met her.

We asked all those involved in the project what being Jewish meant to them. Fenella wanted to say, “it’s a pain in the arse from beginning to end. It really is.”

It’s very sad to think that the end has finally arrived, and that extraordinary light has gone out. RIP Fenella.

Rosh Hashanah

Shana Tova! A happy Jewish New Year to you all. The complete dearth of blog posts of late is partially due to this particular festival and the sheer amount of diary time that rehearsals and services have required from me. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated over two days in this country - as is so often the case with Jewish festivals, which are only celebrated on a single day in Israel. It may well have something to do with time zones. I’ve never really been sure. Perhaps someone reading this blog knows?

Anyway, the Rosh Hashanah service is something of a roast for singers. On Monday and Tuesday, we arrived at shul at 8.30am, and essentially didn’t stop singing until 1.30pm, without so much as a break for a cup of tea. In fact, I dashed out of the service to go to the loo and by the time I’d come back, the next number had started.

We sing a mixture of music including a large number of pieces from the Blue Book (amongst which is some of the repertoire from the album we’ve been recording) and a number of arrangements by Stephen Glass, who has cut out a successful career for himself scoring religious Jewish music for male voice choir. It was a niche which desperately needed to be filled as the majority of materiel hitherto out there was desperately awful. Fortunately, Glass writes stunningly beautiful arrangements, which are both challenging and well-conceived for vocalists, lovely to listen to and carefully written out (which makes all the difference.) He’s very much a legend within Jewish choral scholars. The reason he’s not a household name is that he’s dealing with such a small (and ever-dwindling) audience. 

Monday’s service was, as you might expect, not hugely brilliant. You never quite get enough rehearsal time when you’re singing three hours worth of material, and, however much careful prepping you do, there are always going to be issues. I sang like an old dog, which was partially due to my being utterly knackered. The first thing which goes with me is the Hebrew words, which can often prove to be quite a tongue-twister. If I’m not right on top of them, I can end up singing a load of old rubbish. It makes me feel quite self-conscious as the place is always filled with people who have been studying Hebrew since their childhoods! When I’m on top of the words, I’m able to utterly emotionally engage - and, more crucially, listen to - and blend with - the other performers.

Today’s service, as you might expect, was a much better one, but, as you might also expect, there were far fewer people in the congregation to actually enjoy what we were doing.

One of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar which is a ram’s horn - or at least was traditionally a ram’s horn. It makes a somewhat other-worldly sound which reverberates around the shul like the scream of a demented harpy. I learned today that the shofar is blown on a number of occasions to confuse the angel of death. It’s played in three patterns of varying lengths from ear-splitting, almost endless notes, to strings of short, sharp blasts.

There are all sorts of other strange and beautiful rituals including the moment when those with the surname Cohen (traditionally the priests) stand in front of the arc without shoes, their tallises over their heads, swaying like ghosts, singing a call-and-response with the cantor. If done well it can be quite moving. Unfortunately one of today’s Cohen’s was, how should I say, a little tonally challenged. That, or he’d been listening to a lot of medieval music. His use of parallel 4ths would have excited my good friend Sam Becker!

So I’m home now. I have to work. I don’t want to work. I might take the night off. I can feel my telly calling me.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Kickstarters and noxious gasses

And there was I yesterday morning all excited about getting a seat on the tube to do a bit of work whilst commuting to the UK Jewish film offices. I thought, if I started my journey after rush hour, I’d be able to have a lovely relaxing time. Maybe a nice cup of tea. An hour to format another score for Brass. A precious hour to stay on top of the game. 

How wrong I was! I’ve seldom seen a train so full. I genuinely don’t know what the solution is to London’s transport woes. Public transport into the city is becoming more and more expensive and less and less reliable. It’s now considerably cheaper to drive in, despite congestion charges and local councils making unfathomable parking laws to catch us all out! Meanwhile, pollution levels grow out of hand. In the summer, London feels like one of those cheffy meals, served up under a cloche filled with scented smoke. Except it’s not a nicely fragranced smoke. It’s a noxious, rancid, fume-filled haze, and we are all being slowly poisoned!

...And yet the tourists continue to fight their way into the city to see the sights. I changed trains at Kings Cross, hopeful that I’d be able to sit down on the far less popular Hammersmith and City Line, but was instantly engulfed on the platform by two of the largest groups of people I’ve ever seen. About seventy students from an American university were chewing gum and looking vaguely unimpressed. I waded my way through them only to find an even larger group of English old duffers who were on a lovely day out in the capital and probably on their way to visit Madam Tussauds.

Incidentally, I have launched another KickStarter campaign. As many of your reading this blog will already know, 100 Faces is now in the can, and it’s a film I feel incredibly proud of. I am working with a young producer called Max on an associated campaign which, all being well, will see us entering the film for festivals and competitions across the world. The only snag in all of this is that these things all cost to enter, never that much, but they all add up.

We have therefore set ourselves a target of £600. I put the fundraising page up on Facebook yesterday and, perhaps because it was in great competition with mothers posting pictures of their children going to school, I’m not altogether sure the post reached its full potential. Slightly humbling though, to see where art comes in the Facebook pecking order!

Anyway. I’m posting it here as well, so if any of you are flush enough to afford a tenner or so, please make a donation.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704041666/100-faces-0?ref=project_build














Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Self fulfilling prophecy

The weekend rolled into a bit of a blur. I spent a rather lovely afternoon with Philippa on Friday, working first in a hotel bar in Shoreditch, before going back to her house to walk the dogs. Yes, the dogs. Philippa has acquired a pair of dogs! They are rescue hounds from Cyprus. I can’t tell you what make and model they are, largely because they’re something I can neither spell nor pronounce nor had ever heard of before, but they are black, and look a little like a cross between a King Charles Spaniel and a dachshund.

We took them for a walk in Haggerston Park and, despite having foul breath, they are incredibly good-natured animals. It strikes me what a wonderful cure for loneliness having a dog must be. Dog owners always talk to one another - often in quite a lot of depth - whilst their dogs tear about in the fields. Of course, the great tragedy is that the dog owners you want to talk to are often the ones with dogs your own creature snarls at or tries to tear apart! Treacle and Cocoa latched onto the dog of an incredibly boring, somewhat loquacious and slightly clingy woman who we were forced to hide from in the end.

I was up early and in shul on Saturday morning. We had a six-voice choir on account of it being Trevor Toube’s birthday. He’s a stalwart of the synagogue and a great lover of music. We stood in the middle of the space, and it turns out that this has a very positive effect on both the acoustic and our ability to watch the conductor and listen to each other. Possibly as a result, we sang rather beautifully. My own setting of Eitz Haim Hi had been programmed, which is always a treat, and it was good to see how well it went down. The Rabbi even made a point of coming up to me afterwards and telling me how beautiful he thinks the piece is. I am now determined to become the John Rutter of the orthodox Jewish music world!

On the way home, a massive gust of wind, caused by a train coming into the tube platform, lifted my kippah clean off my head and sent it spiralling onto the tracks like a frisbee.

There, of course, has been a lot of talk about anti-semitism in the Labour Party of late. It’s quite interesting: I chatted to Julie last week about the issue and she firmly believes that Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. She feels that disillusioned people within the Labour Party, intent on discrediting their leader, have stirred up this particular hornets’ nest.

Personally speaking, I believe Corbyn IS an anti-Semite, not in a brutal, knowing way, but on a sort of subconscious level which has meant that his entrenched, and worthy desire to support the underdog has led him to see the Israel question in binary terms rather than as a very nuanced problem which certainly won’t be solved by viewing all Palestinians as inherently oppressed and all Israelis as aggressive colonialists. I shudder when this uniquely left-wing stance makes people say “I’m not anti Semitic, I’m just anti-Israel.” Be anti-Netanyahu by all means, but saying you’re anti-Israel is surely denying that Jewish people should have a homeland, and that, in my view, is profoundly anti-Semitic. Jewish people have been systematically chucked out of every Arab country (including Palestine, Israel, or whatever you want to call the ancient Kingdom of Judea). Deny them the relative safety of Israel, and there will surely be yet another pogrom. By simply being clumsy in the language we use to describe our feelings on the subject, we open ourselves up to cries of anti-Semitism. Just because it’s not meant, it doesn’t mean it’s not felt.

On a more subtle level, one of the reasons that I believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic is the way that he has handled this particular crisis and turned a molehill into a massive, unscaleable mountain. Better handling could have nipped this whole issue in the bud months ago, but for some reason he’s digging in, petulantly holding onto his principals to the point where I believe he’ll make himself entirely unelectable. If could well be that the anti-semitism row is the final nail in his coffin. I genuinely think his fear of Jewish people, and his dogged belief that the Jews are aggressors, is forcing him to subconsciously allow himself to be brought down by Jewish people in a sort of bizarre and ironic self-fulfilling prophecy.











Thursday, 30 August 2018

A nocturnal visitor

I have not been sleeping at all well recently, but last night, after watching Bake Off, I was in bed by 12.30, and, asleep soon after. 

What I wasn’t expecting was to be awoken in the night by the sound of tapping. Initially, I thought it was the open bedroom window rattling in the breeze, but I immediately established that it was a calm night and that the noises were coming from the other side of the room.

I lay awake, for some time, trying to work out whether I would be able to hear our next door neighbours that clearly, if, in the middle of the night, they started rattling about in close proximity to our common wall.

But the sound got louder - and more scratchy - and then it was definitely in the room, just behind my cello, which sits in the corner, in front of the wardrobe.

I got up, switched the light on, waited for a moment, and then saw the thing I was dreading the most: a grey female rat scuttling, at high speed, along the skirting board. Now, obviously, I am a great lover of rats, but even I draw the line at sharing a bedroom with a wild one. There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep again - particularly as she was now behind the piano, which meant every movement she made was amplified by the instrument’s inbuilt mechanisms. Wildly depressing.

So, I went into the sitting room and slept, very uncomfortably, folded up on the sofa like a broken accordion...

This morning, as I was eating breakfast, hoping the rat had become bored of my bedroom and gone back to wherever she’d come from, she wandered in, bold as brass, and stood staring up at me, for long enough for me to ascertain that she was indeed a pretty rat, definitely on the grey spectrum, rather than a more sinister black or brown, and not dissimilar to some of the rats that we used to keep as pets. “You shouldn’t be here!” I shouted, thinking, as I did so, what ludicrous things we tend to say when we’re stressed. As I stood up, she bolted, back into the bedroom, and behind the piano. 

And then it was time for me to leave the house to visit Bernard Kops...

What with the water pouring through the sitting room roof again, the damp walls and the broken draws and cupboards in the kitchen, sometimes I just want to close a door on my flat and run away as fast as I can. Being poor just isn’t fun any more!

A few days of summer

It’s back to the grind stone today after a pair of highly relaxing days. The grindstone seems to involve getting the car MOT’d and going into UK Jewish Film to officially deliver 100 Faces. Of course these things are always much more stressful than they ought to be. I’ve shelled out money for a device to copy all the various formatted films onto, but, despite clearly saying on the packet it’s large enough, every time I try to transfer materiel onto it, I’m told there’s not enough space. It is deeply frustrating. I am somewhat resigned to the fact that part of my mission in life is to make peace with the fact that I am simultaneously addicted to technology, yet destined to always be its slave rather than it, mine.

I had two away days on Monday and Tuesday after a very wonderful Saturday where I went walking on Hampstead Heath with Llio and Silvia, and then up to Thaxted for an evening of games with the family, Helen, Sally and Stuart.

It is always a treat to spend time with Llio and her mum, Silvia. They exude warmth, enthusiasm and openness. I took them to the pergola, and then on to Sandy Heath, that little triangle of land which no one tends to visit on account of it being sandwiched between the two roads which cut through Hampstead Heath. Sandy Heath, as the name suggests, is where they used to quarry for sand. It’s also the site of a pair of oak trees which are way over 300 years old and were probably saplings when Pepys was still alive.

There are a series of black ponds in the area which, due to the drought, were both bright green with chick weed and frighteningly low on water. Still, we enjoyed watching the ducks skimming the surface of the ponds, their bills wide open, chowing down on the surface vegetation.

We had tea in Highgate before I toddled off to Thaxted. The games night was being hosted by Sally and Stuart, a delightful couple of my age, who are almost certainly my parents’ closest friends in the village. They adopted two very charming girls about seven years ago and my parents have become their surrogate grandparents. Brother Edward and Sascha were also there. Sach and Helen brought delicious cakes.

We ate amazing food and played board games, including one where you have to guess the years when certain historical events took place. It obviously plays into the hands of those who have a “historical spine” - a rough sense of when certain things happened and how one event in history triggered another. Even with a fairly good sense of these sorts of things, it’s still possible to end up guessing a year which is hundreds of years out!
I drove home, watching a giant full moon in the sky.




Sunday was a wash-out both weather-wise and work-wise. My computer is very much on its last legs. Buttons keep freezing. Its inbuilt mouse stopped functioning. The good folk at the Apple Store were next to useless. I’m in a catch 22 as I can’t not have a computer, even for the 7-9 days it’s going to take to repair, but I equally can’t carry on with a computer which doesn’t function. A new computer will cost £1250. I can’t afford that. Even the Mac-approved “work arounds” - ie a slave keyboard and a tracking mouse pad - would cost £200.

To cut a long, and stressful story short, I’ve got myself a cheap mouse, and I think I can manage for a bit longer. Dull, dull, Mcdull.

On Monday, I went out for the day with Michael. We decided to head up the M40 to Warwickshire for a bit of country air, although I never need an excuse to be in Warwickshire. It was particularly lovely to have a chance to head to Stoneleigh and visit my grandmother’s grave. I was a little irritated when I got there to see that someone had had a tidy-up and removed all the stones I’d carefully placed there to say I’d visited in the past.

We walked up across the hill above Stoneleigh, and looked down at the little houses in the village in a scene somehow reminiscent of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle. Standing up there on the ridge, I often wonder if it would be possible to throw a stone and have it drop down the chimney of one of the houses. Preferably my Grandmother’s old house. It’s still very odd to walk past “High Beams” and realise it no longer belongs to her. It’s a stunningly beautiful house. I miss it greatly.

We walked back down the little tree-lined causeway which snakes up the side of the hill, and went along the river, pleased to note how well the oak tree was doing that we planted in memory of my grandparents. I was also rather pleased to see that they’d planted a community orchard in the water meadow down by the road bridge, next to the old shack where my Grannie used to go for her WI meetings.

We’d had lunch in a rather nice pub opposite Kenilworth Castle, where the staff were utterly charming, and after visiting Stoneleigh, we drove to Leamington for late afternoon tea. Most of the places were shut - it being a bank holiday and all that - but we found a tea shop, just behind the parade, where a family of Chinese people had created the quintessential English experience with a hotch-potch of mis-matched

crockery, chintzy decor and piles of home-baked cakes, scones and pastries. I had a cream tea. Michael had been craving a toasted tea cake with melted butter all day, but I know he was secretly envious of my scone.

Yesterday found us in East Sussex visiting Mezza, Hils and Jago with Sam Becker, whom I picked up in South London on my way down.




The journey down was easy enough. It’s not usually so effortless. There’s no easy journey from Highgate to Lewes. You essentially have three choices: East of London, West of London or through the centre of London, which, in fairness, is the shortest journey in terms of numbers of miles, but absolutely hopeless unless it’s the middle of the night, and even then, with these new 20 mph speed limits, everything takes forever.

We reached Lewes and pottered about the shops for a while, focusing on antiques. Sam was looking for a sewing box. Meriel was looking for a filing cabinet which was wooden rather than metal, but had a lock on it. As a therapist, she is apparently obliged to keep her clients’ records under lock and key.

The basement of one of the antique shops was almost certainly haunted. On walking down the steps, Sam and I were both somewhat knocked back by the heaviness of the atmosphere. My logical head suggests the heeby-jeeby vibes must have been something to do with the dampness in the air down there, but I’ve seldom felt such a curiously soupy air. It was, however, in that very basement where Sam found his sewing box, so perhaps the spirits were guiding us there!

We went back to Hilary’s to drink banana and raspberry smoothies whilst watching 100 Faces. I wanted to play the film to them all and I was very touched and heartened by their responses as they’ve given me a sense that I’ve created a more universally moving film than perhaps I’d initially thought.

It’s funny: the friends of creative types, those who are amongst the first to see our work, carry such a weight of responsibility. A mis-timed, or heavy-handed remark can absolutely destroy the crucial self-belief and confidence an artist needs to offer his work to a wider world.

The day ended in Tide Mills - a wonderful spot on the coast which bears the ruins of an old village and hospital.

We sat on the shingle beach, eating an ad hoc picnic of hummus and tomato sandwiches with chips, as the sun slowly sank in the sky.





Saturday, 25 August 2018

Sleepy Hollow

I wasn’t feeling particularly chipper yesterday. I haven’t been sleeping very well: a combination of not having Nathan around, and the fact that we have builders in at the moment, who have a key to our flat. It’s most disconcerting to wake up to the sound of a bunch of men climbing up the ladder into the attic! As Fiona pointed out - who often sleeps up there - it would have been a little more disconcerting for her! 

I had a massage first thing as well, which may well have brought a few toxins to the surface. And then, of course, yesterday was also the day the rains finally came. There was a moment when it felt like some sort of monsoon was sweeping through central London. People were running for their lives! I nestled, for a time, under an awning in China Town, watching umbrellas being turned inside out, whilst great sheets of rain water surged along the tarmac.

I was in town to try to have my laptop fixed. My “genius” at the Apple Store was a charming Armenian girl called Maren. The news wasn’t good. My keyboard is screwed. It can be replaced - for £200 - but even if I had the money right now, I can’t be without a computer for the 5-7 days it will take to be mended as I have a whopping commission on the go in the shape of re-orchestrating Brass for the Mountview performances. So, I went away, hoping I’d be able to muddle through until such time as I can afford the time (and money) needed to remedy the situation. Ho hum. 

I did a lot of darting from location to location to avoid the rain. There’s a curious sense of camaraderie which comes from sheltering from inclement weather in a somewhat bizarre location. At one point I found myself in a doorway with a homeless person, a family of bizarrely tall Japanese tourists and a circus performer wearing nothing but a bunch of sequins and carrying a hoola-hoop!

Tonight was all about watching this year’s NYMT new commission. It was a long time ago that I passed on that particular baton on to Jake and Pippa, but I am always keen to support the other members of our ever-growing, highly-exclusive club.

The show was written by my mate Eamonn O’Dwyer who is a lovely writer. If you can imagine a blend of Sondheim and Vaughan Williams you probably won’t be far off the mark. The show was an atmospheric, brooding, ghostly retelling of the Sleepy Hollow myth, beautifully directed by another friend, Alex Sutton. As we’ve all come to expect from NYMT, the standard of musicianship and performance on stage was exquisite. What NYMT does brilliantly is these epic, large cast pieces where the commitment and energy of the entire cast becomes the star of the show. That said, I have to give mention to two individuals; Jade Oswald, playing a sort of Kate-Bush-esque weird woman of the woods character, whom I expect great things from in the future, and young Sophie Walker, who played double bass in the band. And yes, I am singling out a pit musician. My blog. My rules. People should do it more often in reviews. Bravo Sophie.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

To be a writer

Monday was day two of knitting widowity, and, in a continuation of my plan to see lots of people whilst Nathan achieves world domination, one stitch at a time, I met up with young Josh for a walk, a swim and a picnic on the Heath.

It has become my ambition to visit the men’s pond as often as I can whilst summer is still with us, and I found a pair of Nathan’s trunks which I lent to Josh, so that I could introduce him to the joys of that particular spot. For a Northerner, he didn’t half make a fuss about getting into the cold water, which was actually relatively warm.

He calmed down once he was actually in, and was soon saying how pleased he was to be there. That’s the spirit. I’m not sure he quite knew what to make of the naked sunbathing area, but part of the joy of Hampstead Heath is its anything-goes, somewhat-subversive vibe. Obviously its nocturnal gaybo activities are well-documented, but it also attracts fairly large number of pagans, naked dog walkers and people taking magic mushrooms! People swim in the ponds every day. In the winter, they break the ice and dive in. Soft Southerners? My foot!

After swimming, Josh and I walked across the Heath and had a mini-picnic sitting by the Victorian viaduct near the tree with the hole in it. Herons nest on strange orange floats in the little pond there. A pair of them flew right over our heads, no more than five meters above us. It was a glorious sight. Heaven knows what keeps those giant, gawky creatures in the air. Flying looks like a great deal of effort!

We walked back to the car, talking about everything and anything, but a great deal of the chatter was dedicated to attempting to work out why it is that writers these days are so often expected to work merely for the privilege of having our productions staged. Almost as if the gratitude we inevitably feel is payment enough. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to start directing theatre again is that a director is far far more likely to be paid in this industry than a writer. It seems bizarre, but them’s the facts.


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The glorious men’s pond

On Sunday morning, I got up at shite o’clock to drive Nathan and his sister, Sam to Heathrow Airport. The two of them are off on an antipodean adventure, which starts in New Zealand. Nathan is essentially on a knitting tour of the world, teaching and making special guest appearances at craft shops and yarn festivals down under and in San Francisco. He’ll be away for six weeks, which will be amazing for him, but distinctly odd from my perspective. 

I have a local friend, a Lib Dem activist called Matt, who suggested, some weeks ago, that I might like to join him one Sunday morning for a swim at the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. It’s curious: I think most people would describe me as a proper “Heath Person”, but, apart from a quick dip on my birthday this year at the mixed ponds, it’s been about fifteen years since I last swam there. I don’t really think you can call yourself a Heath Person unless you regularly take full advantage of all of its natural joys.

I think, perhaps, my problem was always the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of gender segregation. If I can’t share an experience with my female friends, it seems somehow less appealing. The unfortunate fact is that the Mixed Ponds is by far the least pleasant of the three natural swimming ponds. It’s also much more policed as a result of children and women being there. Woe-betide anyone trying to take a photograph there, for example...

It’s strange, one of the major societal shifts I’ve noticed in the last thirty years is the way that children are dealt with. When I was a lad, there were places children just weren’t allowed to visit (including all pubs) because they were considered inappropriate for young people. These days, the emphasis is on all of us to modify our behaviour IN CASE children are present. Hence a teacher, taking a group of school children for a wildlife walk on the Heath a year ago, feeling she had the right to come up to me, whilst I was having my photo taken as part of a professional shoot, to say “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask why you’re taking photographs.” “Because I’m in a public place, you silly woman, and it’s my absolute right to take photographs of whatever I chose to take photographs of - and I’m afraid that includes the children you’ve brought into this public space, who, by the way, are wrecking my photos, so could you take the little shits away?”

Anyway, this, and some of the ghastly shrill noises on the fringes of the #MeToo movement, have steadily started to make me realise that it’s sometimes rather nice to be in the company of just men. For a man who has routinely surrounded himself with women, this is a fairly seismic realisation, but as I’m so often told, everything which is going on at the moment is a pendulum which needs to swing in the other direction before it finds equilibrium, so, until it does, it’s rather nice to spend the odd hour here and there in an all-male environment, if not just to remind myself that we’re not all bad eggs.

I was certainly hugely pleased with the decision to go to the men’s pond with Matt. On a Sunday morning the place is stunningly calm and it is an absolute treat to bob up and down in the cooling, soft water, with 360 degree views of nothing but trees, hillsides and nature around you. Curious birds with long beaks share the water with you, and seem quite happy to swim right up to you as you make your way around the water. Parakeets squawk and fly over head in flashes of bright green. The water levels are obviously incredibly low at the moment. Little railings attached to the jetties, which are there to give respite to a tired swimmer, are plainly meant to be just above the water level, but these days, you have to stretch out of the water to grab one. It was at these ponds, and as a result of the drought, where the terrible accident happened two weeks ago, which everyone there was still discussing on Sunday. I mentioned it in my blog on my birthday. The fact seems to be that a bloke dived off the jetty, in a certain type of dive, which takes you deep and flat. Because of the level of the water, he went low enough to hit the bottom of the pond, and, in the process scraped against a pile of masonry rubble, which, one assumes, was left there when they built, or rebuilt the jetty. He managed to cut his entire stomach open, and was rushed to hospital for major surgery. The good news is that he has now been sent home, no doubt very relieved to be alive.

As a result of the accident, there are now signs up everywhere telling people how to safely dive. Fortunately, I’m not a diver!

I left the ponds wondering how on Earth it could be that I’ve not been there for so long, feeling massively grateful to Matt for reminding me what a stunning place it is.

In Nathan’s absence, I have realised that part of my task is to make sure I see lots of people. I am a fairly natural hermit who will quite happily go underground for days on end. That’s okay when you live with someone because, at the end of the day, they can jolt you back into the land of the living. So, I’ve decided, whilst Nathan is away, that no day must pass without some form of facial contact with someone I know.

Later in the day, I took myself off for lunch with Michael in Soho. We went to my favourite Mediterranean cafe on Berwick Street, which, judging by the sudden price hike, is everyone else’s favourite Mediterranean cafe. Or no-one’s... and is making a last-ditched attempt to make ends meet. It’s a lovely spot. You can sit outside and watch the good folk of Soho parading. Twenty years ago, everyone who passed by would have been a freak, an eccentric, a drug addict, a sex worker or some sort of fabulous club kid. These days they’re mostly tourists. 

From Soho, we went to Jermyn Street, the home of high-end Gentlemen’s fashion. It’s one of those places where you mostly only window shop. Everything is beautiful. Most things are desperately expensive. It’s where you’d go to buy all the things I aspire to wear. Beautiful, felt, button-down braces and bow ties in every colour of the rainbow. Glorious suits. Fabulous Loake shoes. Proper hats. Classic cufflinks. Smoking gowns. Brocade waistcoats. I mean, it’s probably rather good that I don’t have the money to shop there, because I’d end up looking like a tragic extra from a Merchant Ivory film! We can but dream. And what is life, then, but a dream?