Sunday, 22 April 2018

The mini heatwave

It’s been very hot in the South East over the last fee days. We went to Aylesbury on Thursday to speak to an LGBT group in a girls’ school where our friend Iain teaches. Being LGBT in 2018 is, thankfully, a million miles away from how it was in my day, when Clause 28 meant that a teacher like Iain would actually have risked being arrested for running a group like that.

The issues affecting LGBT kids are also rather different. Yes, some of the students had had those age-old, somewhat traumatising experiences of trying to discuss issues of “otherness” with their parents, but the debate on Thursday was much more focussed around gender and the use of personal pronouns. Each of the young people we met had a badge with their name on it, followed by the pronoun they wanted everyone to use when talking about them. Some were he. Some were she. Some were they. I was slightly confused by the person whose pronoun was written down as “she” followed by a question mark. I wondered whether I needed to make sure all of my conversations with her had upward inflections!

It made me realise that the concept of gender fluidity is one of the ways that the young generation are presently rebelling against old duffers. It’s their equivalent of “oh my God, you don’t know who Duran Duran are!” Of course, it is everyone’s absolute right to be as fluid as they like with the way they feel or present themselves, but it remains to be seen what percentage of these youngsters are still demanding they’re referred to as “they” whilst breastfeeding at the age of 35. It’s therefore their generation’s task to teach people like me that being gender fluid is more than just a transient, young person’s indulgence. I am certainly open minded about the subject because I’d love to think we could live in a world where there was far less difference between men and women, both in the way that we dress and the way that we feel the need to behave. I’m just not sure we’re quite in the space yet where young people can angrily tell the older generation that they’re “wrong” for simply having more binary views on gender.

We watched a film which showed clips of LGBT and gender queer people throughout the twentieth century, and something which really stuck out was a rather elderly, very charming psychiatrist in the 1970s who specialised in gender dysphoria. She summed everything up for me by saying “to be a transsexual, you need to have courage, integrity... and a sense of humour.” 

It suddenly struck me that the sense of humour has been the missing ingredient in much of the noise which has been radiating from social networking sites of late on all issues of gender and sexuality. And it’s this lack of humour which is actually having the effect of making me disengage from the plight of those who yell the loudest and angriest - particularly when they do so anonymously. If we can bring a bit of humour back into the debate, then I think we’re golden.

On Friday, I visited a Jewish community centre for old people in Stepney where I met some delightful women whom I could have talked to for years. It turned out that one of them knew my old mate Joan Rose, who had provided me with an ever-lasting supply of wonderful East End memories when I made Oranges and Lemons. Joan, and my new bezzie, Miriam, had been best friends and next-door-neighbours in Arnold Circus in the 1920s and 30s, despite one being Jewish and one being Huguenot. Miriam, it seemed, had just as many memories of that somewhat golden interwar period. She’s also the sister of the man who wrote Save All Your Kisses for Me, so she was Eurovision royalty to boot!

In the afternoon, I bought myself some beigels from Brick Lane and went to Philippa’s house to work, which is a stone’s throw away from the area I’d been talking to Miriam about. We were joined by Julie Clare and ended up sitting out on Jesus Green with a whole group of their neighbours. The area where Philippa, Dylan and the kids live is a sort of glorious, peaceful oasis within the aggression and fumes of Hackney. There are very few cars, so the kids play out on the streets, chalking hopscotch pitches on the pavements. There are lots of areas of green, and lots of initiatives for the kids, including a city farm within a ten minute walk and places where you can go scrumping for plums and have all sorts of wonderful childhood adventures. The whole area feels like it’s been suspended in time. The streets are cobbled, and the houses are all beautifully kept Victorian terraces which regularly end up being used for filming. All of that community’s children will surely look back on their childhoods as particularly golden.

Yesterday found me in Finsbury Park attending the shul there, which was quite the experience. I’m rather interested in that particular shul’s community because of its unbelievable diversity. However, as soon as I arrived, I realised how I’ve become incredibly used to the formal ways of the New West End synagogue, so found the Finsbury Park service bewildering, fascinating and wonderful in equal measure. I also had my first experience of being “called up” during the Torah reading, which was heart-stopping. Feel free to call me Benyamin Ben Ro’i from now on!!

I spent the afternoon yomping across Hampstead Heath with Michael. Everything in nature has suddenly burst to life and the whole of London has started dressing in shorts and skimpy tops in a desperate attempt to enjoy the sunshine. The place was rammed with little clusters of people having picnics. We took a walk around the less-popular West Heath and stumbled upon a large number of people in red T-shirts and bright orange hi-vis jackets standing in long a row. Assuming they were stewards for some sort of sporting event, I approached one of them and said “is there a race?” He looked at me sternly: “no. We’re searching for a missing person.” And, despite the glorious sunshine, a chill descended. Plainly this person was missing, presumed dead. How awful for their family.

Nathan returned from Holland last night just in time for a whopping thunderstorm. The curtains billowed like something from a Meat Loaf video and there were all manner of flashes in the sky above Ali Pali. I hope the hot weather stays a little longer.


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Drag-phobia

I read the terrible story yesterday that Eurovision winner, Conchita Wurst, has been forced to publicly reveal her HIV status as a result of a former partner threatening her with blackmail. It is a story which makes me feel incredibly angry. The fact that we still live in a world where an HIV positive person can be blackmailed makes me sick to my stomach. Can you imagine the outrage people would feel if someone with cancer was forced to out themselves because a wounded ex felt like earning a bit of Judas money?

When are we going to get a grip on the facts of HIV? Undetectable now means untransmittable. If someone is on effective HIV medication, the illness cannot affect them and they are physically unable to pass it on to someone else. As such, someone’s HIV status is not something which anyone else has the right or need to know. It is every HIV positive person’s right to declare themselves positive when or IF they feel ready.

What further horrified me, however, was the Terrence Higgins Trust’s Facebook page, which reported the story but was instantly hijacked by a load of trolls using emoticons of people vomiting and someone writing “Conchita: more like Godzilla,” which was so random, it wasn’t even worth an angry reply.

The thing which really bothered me, was the response of a trans man, who felt the need to ignore the sickening tragedy of the story, and, instead of showing compassion, chose to use the story as a platform for his own beef against what he perceives as a transphobic world. His issue, it seems, was with the Terrence Higgins Trust using feminine pronouns in relation to Conchita. Because Conchita Wurst identifies as a gay man when she’s not in drag, using “she” to describe “her” is apparently offensive (there’s that word again.)

Okay. Stop! Just stop with the assumption that the world is transphobic, and, furthermore, have a bit of sensitivity towards other people in this world who are suffering pain.

Point one: choose your moments and choose your targets. The Terrence Higgins Trust is a hugely well-respected organisation within the LGBT community, who entirely understand the plight of trans-people and have been working with the LGBT community for many, many years. To assume an organisation like that would wittingly or unwittingly slight the trans community is utterly preposterous.

Point two: Conchita Wurst uses the female pronoun to describe herself when she is in her drag persona. The man behind the character, Thomas Neuwirth, would use male pronouns to describe himself when he’s not in drag. If we’re to respect everyone’s right to choose the pronouns they think best describe themselves, then we have to accept Neuwirth’s wish to be referred to as a she when he’s dressed as Conchita.

Point three: there is an ancient tradition of drag and female impersonation in the world which must not be undermined or swept aside as a result of modern-day sensitivities about gender. Even Ru Paul, the world’s most famous drag queen, has caved into pressure to change his Drag Race show because words like “shemail” are suddenly deemed offensive.

Point Four: Please remember that gay rights would not have happened without drag queens. Drag queens were on the front row during the Stonewall Riots. They fought in their high heels. To do drag is one of the bravest things it’s possible to do. Conchita’s win at Eurovision was deeply significant to the LGBT community and I will not stand by and watch drag queens being described as the enemy.

I’ve heard it said quite a lot recently that the trans movement is where the gay movement was in the 1980s, and I have a great deal of sympathy with this particular analogy. What I would say, however, is that, certainly in the UK, transpeople now have the law on their side. We live in an era where we know it is unacceptable to express transphobia and those who do can and should be punished. This doesn’t, of course, stop it from happening, and God knows it’s not easy to be trans, but in the 1980s, gay men were viewed as utterly toxic. Not only was the community dealing with HIV, and the absolute decimation of its people, but it was living in an era of state-sponsored homophobia. With Clause 28 gripping education, no marriage or pension rights, instant dismissal from the army and institutionalised homophobia in the press and the police, the LGBT community back then had to pick their battles because to stand up against homophobia often meant losing ones job, ones status or being outed by the press.

Successive governments were extremely slow to respond to our lobby, so, to change these draconian anti-gay laws, we were forced to win the hearts and minds of the UK public. We reached full equality by showing people that they couldn’t pigeon hole gay men, that we didn’t always conform to the stereotypes which scared people. That we weren’t scary at all. And it was a long fight.

Sometimes I wish people would take a breath, realise how lucky we all are to live in the West, and only pick the fights which feel genuine and significant. Trolling around on the internet for perceived slights will only serve to alienate your allies. A great deal has changed in the last few years. It takes a while for people to catch up and you cannot whip someone into open-mindedness.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Leighton House

It was an early start yesterday morning, as it is so often on a Saturday. I got into a suit and tie and sailed effortlessly down to Queensway in a way that it’s only possible to do in London on a weekend morning.

I have a lovely ritual. I buy myself a cup of tea from the stall outside Highgate Station, find myself a seat in an empty carriage, and then bury myself in the music I’m going to be singing. I rarely notice anyone around me, although I couldn’t help but notice the bloke, who got on the carriage with me yesterday, whose feet were speckled in a substance which looked a bit like sawdust. On closer inspection, I realised it was vomit. Another subtle glance ascertained that there was barf all over his trousers and shirt and that his face was the colour of a church candle, and equally waxy.

We both got off the train at Tottenham Court Road and, as the tube pulled into the station, I could feel him behind me, swaying and groaning. I tried to imagine what I’d have to say to the choir if I arrived with a chunder chevron on the back of my jacket!

The service went by without any real problems although I had a catastrophic fail at the start of one of the “amens”. I was too busy faffing with my prayer shawl to hear the starting note and merrily took off in an entirely different key, looking accusingly at the rest of the choir, convinced that they were all singing horribly out of tune!

We sang one of my own settings, which was a treat. It’s a pretty difficult piece which requires breath control and, for the bass and the first tenor, very low, and very high notes respectively. I think if you’re writing for the limited tessitura of a male voice choir, you have to try to eke out as much range as possible. I went to school with a girl called Tessie Tura...

We walked out of shul into bright, warm sunshine. Spring has finally arrived! You could see Londoners in T-shirts not being able to believe their luck that such a wonderful day had come on a weekend.

Michael and I went for lunch in a pub, and were astonished that we managed to grab ourselves a table outside, in a glorious sun trap. The portions were tiny. It was described as “tapas-sized” by the waitress, and she certainly wasn’t lying!

In the afternoon we walked to Leighton House in Kensington, the former home of the artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. He had the building built specially to reflect his artistic needs with huge floor-to-ceiling windows, and domed atriums letting light into his studios. He was obsessed with the orient, and the whole place has something of the Alhambra Palaces about it. I was particularly impressed by his ground floor, indoor fountain, and the tiles on the grand, winding staircase, were the most vivid shade of aquamarine.

The walls are lined with paintings by Leighton which are really very fine. His use of light was particularly inspired. One of his paintings depicted two lovers at dusk. The light behind them is a fiery orange, but they themselves are almost silhouetted in a glorious grey-purple shadow. Spectacular.

We took ourselves for a walk down Kensington High Street and then back to Shepherd’s Bush through Holland Park, which, I’ll admit, looks a whole lot better in the sunshine. Fiona told me to look out for a peacock, but the only one I saw today, was stuffed and in Leighton’s House! The world and his wife were in the park, crammed into all of its tiny little lawned areas, having their first picnics of the year.

I listened to Any Questions on the radio, which came from Oxford. I wasn’t sure who any of the people on the panel were apart from Caroline Lucas and Chris Patten, but there was a very disagreeable woman who kept angrily interrupting one of the male panellists to tell him he was talking too much, usually about five seconds after he’d started talking. It was, however, the answers to the question about anti-semitism which irritated me most. “Does the panel believe that you can criticise Israel without being antisemitic?”

Let’s get one thing straight. Of course it is. But being critical of Israel’s government is very different from being critical of Israel itself. What Netanyahu does is not automatically celebrated or supported by Israelis and very few people seem to want to make this important distinction. We criticise Trump. No one talks about criticising America for the decisions he makes.

Anyway, after Chris Patten and Caroline Lucas had given well-considered, someone from the audience screamed “what about Palestine?” And the debate descended into ten minutes of brutal Israel-bashing which didn’t even attempt to to answer the question, and, in my view sounded incredibly anti-Semitic. It was highly aggressive and very worrying listening.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Carnaby Street

I spent the morning in the East End, meeting a very charming rabbi, who showed me around the famous Sandy Row Synagogue. It’s a beautiful building. Victorian. Very compact. Nothing from the outside, but inside, it’s absolutely stunning. It actually reminded me of a Welsh chapel. There’s a balcony which runs around three sides, and tall windows which let in dusty, nostalgic light. I instantly felt a weight of tradition there. A genuine link to the old Jewish East End. I wondered if this had been Arnold Wesker’s family shul. It’s certainly very close to where he grew up. I also thought about the cousins that my Grandmother used to talk about who were costumers from Petticoat Lane, just a stone’s throw from that place. These are the slums that Jack the Ripper roamed and there’s a slightly foreboding darkness to them even now. I think some of his victims were found within a block or two of where we were.

The afternoon was spent learning music for shul tomorrow. One of the pieces we’re singing appears to be a print out of PDF of a photocopy of a photocopy and is almost impossible to read. It took me about an hour to decipher and I have a horrible feeling I’ve subsequently forgotten everything I learned! As I get older, things seem to rush through my brain without sticking.

This evening, Nathan and I went into Soho to meet our old friend Frank from New York. We had food in a Mediterranean cafe with his charming friend JJ and spent much of the evening in such deep conversation that we kept having to ask the waiter to turn the music down so that we could hear each other properly. We had a delicious three course set meal for about £15 each, which felt very reasonable. The woman sitting on the table opposite was staring at me, somewhat disapprovingly. I never got to the bottom of what her problem was. Years ago, her Paddington Bear hard stare would have been the snarl of a homophobe, but she was sitting with a woman whom I assume was her girlfriend. Who knows? Perhaps she was admiring my skin! I’ve been told several times recently how luminous my skin is looking. Oddly, this always happens when I lose weight! I guess it’s indicative of the fact that I’m eating healthily. I’m also taking regular vitamin D at the moment.

The night ended in a Pret A Manger on Carnaby Street, a road which finally seems to be finding its mojo again. It’s such an iconic place, and yet, its fame is really only associated with about two years’ of total coolness in the late 1960s. When I first moved to London, it was an absolute dump, filled with tatty souvenir shops and cheap clothing stores. In the last few years, they’ve started using it as a canvas for brilliant street lighting and giant art, and the boutiques have started moving in...

It was a relief to find a cafe which was open so late. One of the things I’ve never understood about London is how completely “un-24-hour” it is compared with New York. The cafes close at 10. The majority of pubs close at 11. There’s a weird funnelling effect as revellers shift into fewer and fewer locations. I’m way too old to sit in a noisy club at midnight on a Friday night because there are no other options for hanging out with my mates!

The joy about being up on Carnaby Street was that it meant we could meet Llio and Silvia out of the Palladium Theatre, where they’d been watching The Wizard of Oz with a live orchestra. It’s always been Llio’s favourite film and, as I sat down to eat this evening, I noticed that she’d posted a hugely excited Facebook message about going to see it, so instantly knew I wanted to see her afterwards to hear how it had gone. Llio also knows Frank, so that was an added bonus. I just love hanging out with Llio and her Mum. They’re genuinely two of my favourite people in the world. I always feel enriched after seeing them.














Thursday, 12 April 2018

Holland Park

I think I talk on behalf of all UK citizens when I say that I think we’re ready for spring now. This winter has lasted way too long, and there have been far too many days of drizzle and dank greyness of late.

I was out all day yesterday and by the time I’d got home, the cold and damp had entirely got into my bones. It’s incredibly rare for me to actually feel the cold, but when the air is wet, all bets are off.

I had a lovely day, however, which was centred around the London Design Museum. I remember visiting this particular museum in its old premises in a fabulous white building on the South Bank. I went there with Fiona, I think, to look at an exhibition on Bauhaus.

The new building, which is on the south side of Holland Park, is, as you might expect, a design statement in itself, with giant weirdly-angled columns, a huge, austere atrium, balconies, and ceiling tiles creating optical illusions. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it’s the greatest museum in the world. Quite a number of the displays didn’t seem to be working, and, perhaps in an über reference to design itself, everything felt a bit “style-over-substance.” The exhibits were beautifully displayed, but highly minimalist and I didn’t find myself feeling a great deal of nostalgia for the things I was looking at, nor did I feel I was learning anything or looking at anything particularly stylish, if I’m honest. There are far better, much larger, highly similar displays at the Science Museum. And the cake is cheaper in the cafe there too!

There was an exhibition on Ferrari, but it cost £28 to see, which I thought was daylight robbery. I was there with Tanya and Raily, both of whom have families of five. I’m sure there were family discounts available, but it felt a bit steep. People tell me that musicals are expensive to see at that price, so I think a Ferrari exhibition would need to have a massive light and sound display and a handful of dancers to justify that sort of price. Fortunately, I have no interest in cars...

It was so lovely to see Tanya, Raily, Iain, Mez, Hils, Paul, Sam and their associated families. Their kids grow taller every day, it seems. They’re all such good friends. They stride off, like the Red Hand Gang, on mini-adventures: always enthusiastic, never bored. If I had kids, I’d want them to be like them. Sparky. Intelligent. Stylish. I look at them and think the future’s safe.

We had tea in the cafe in the middle of Holland Park, much of which is under scaffolding. I don’t really understand Holland Park. I find it a little claustrophobic. There’s nowhere to sit and eat a picnic, it’s just a series of paths through trees, with a few sculptures, a stately(ish) home, an opera tent, and an impressive Japanese water garden. Hampstead Heath it most certainly isn’t!

I had to dash away from the fun and games a little too early for my liking to get myself to a quiz which turned out to be a lot of fun. I randomly bumped into Michael at Holland Park Station so we travelled West on the tube together.

When I got back home, all the lights were on, the door was open, but no one was around. I recognised Abbie’s coat and bag on the sofa. There was a lamp in the middle of the room. I rang Nathan’s phone and it sounded in the bedroom. The whole place smacked of the Marie Celeste!

About half an hour later, Abbie and Nathan appeared carrying pizzas and laughing loudly. They’d spent the afternoon recording a knitting podcast and were treating themselves for all the hard work they’d done. I was fairly relieved that the aliens hadn’t abducted them. I can always be relied on to jump to the wrong conclusion!

I weighed myself today. I have lost a stone and a half since Christmas. I’m quite impressed with that!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Manor House

Manor House is a curious part of London. It’s a proper melting pot of different communities and, on the surface, many of its residents appear to be delightfully insane!

I sat on the corner of Green Lanes and Seven Sisters Road, with a cup of tea, watching the world go by. Behind me, a very noisy girl with fabulous braids was standing on a bench, filming herself singing. She suddenly started screaming and running around. When she finally calmed down she announced: “it was a bee. A giant black bee!”

A few moments later, an old Rastafarian chap, bent double with age, stopped in front of me. He suddenly straightened himself up (losing twenty years in the process) and burst into song. A more twinkly pair of eyes it would be hard to find!

This is, of course, the place in London where the Charedi Jewish community suddenly become incredibly noticeable. Women with pale faces, dark sheitels and curious berets and fascinators were scurrying around, shopping and pushing prams. Many were speaking Yiddish. Hebrew, to the very orthodox, is a language reserved for religious worship, so communication happens in other tongues. I actually find Yiddish a very pleasing language. It’s like a mystical and romantic version of German!

I had a meeting in Finsbury Park shul this afternoon in an attempt to find a few more people for my 100 Faces project. It was a deeply lovely meeting with a lady called Maytal and her father, Julian, who had one of those wonderful East End Jewish accents which you don’t get to hear nearly enough these days. Finsbury Park synagogue is insanely diverse. Jewish people from a bewildering number of countries and cultural backgrounds attend. I was looking at one of their brochures and asked Julian if he’d deliberately gone for the United Colours of Benetton vibe. “No!” He said, laughing, “these are just snaps that I took!”

I walked across a surprisingly sunny Finsbury Park on my to Wood Green. The place was full of clusters of flowers pinned to lamp posts and fences. Evidence of the death of a young person, most likely a stabbing. There has been a spike in gang-related violence in London in recent months. Obviously the Tories are supremely quick in trying to deny that this has anything to do with their obliterating the budgets for policing..

Ben Mabberley came to watch the Em films on Saturday night and said he was planning to avoid moving to the East of London after graduation for fear of getting stabbed. Of course, the likelihood of even being in the vicinity of this sort of thing is infinitesimal. And, the likelihood of being caught up in a terrorist attack is even lower. It’s air pollution in London which is going to kill you. And yet terrorism and knife crime are the two most regularly cited reasons for people avoiding the capital.

I arrived in Wood Green to find a group of undercover policemen in stab-proof vests standing at the entrance to a Costa Coffee, peering suspiciously at people trying to go in. It wasn’t exactly inviting. And it did make we wonder, contrary to my previous paragraph, whether there’s more of a problem in London than I initially thought.

I went instead to a cafe in the grotesque Shopping City, which has to be one of the most soul-destroying places in London. The cafe was filled to the brim with screaming children. I was run over by two pushchairs as I sat, nonchalantly, trying to work.

The day finished at the Mountview Foundation Student’s showcase, which was beautifully directed by Hannah Chissick and excellently MD’d by the lovely David Randall. These were the young people we were working with whilst The Beast From the East was rattling the windows of London. They’d put together a showcase based on the songs of William Finn, which worked really well. I felt like a proud Dad. They all raised their games and I got very emotional at the end.

Monday, 9 April 2018

But are we actually offended?

During my trip to Northampton earlier this week, I had a very interesting chat with Sam about the state of the world. Sam is one of the most learned people I know, so it’s always good to hear his views on issues which are burrowing themselves under my skin.

We were discussing the recent shift in society towards a dystopia where everyone seems intent on taking offence about, well, almost everything. It’s as though we’re in a strange competition with each other about who feels the most oppressed, or have become hyper-sensitive about the people around us who we’ve decided ARE oppressed. It’s a seismic shift, and the recent Labour Party anti-semitism row, where the perceived defence of one minority has led to people attacking another, demonstrates that there are wheels within wheels within the phenomenon.

It seems we’re now trying to work out a pecking order of oppression. Are Muslims at the top, or trans people? Who comes next? Women kind? Black people? I am all too aware of the fact that gay men have slid right down this particular list. The word “thriving” is all-too-often used to describe my community these days. I once read a Facebook post which attempted to argue that bisexual people are an oppressed minority and therefore deserve more funding than gay men who, in the arts, are doing, apparently, just fine. I personally have a rather conflicted and controversial view of bisexuality. I don’t actually recognise it as a minority group. When a bisexual person is living life as gay or lesbian, I am more than happy to view them as part of the rainbow umbrella. When they’re married with kids, however, and living and loving someone of the opposite sex, they are, in my view, no longer gay and certainly no longer a minority in this regard. Unless, of course, they enter into poly-amorous relationships. But that’s another story. 

...Cue massive gulps of air from people desperate to take offence...

It is this Brave New World of ultra-sensitivity which saw me being accused of homophobia by a straight woman after I’d called Eurovision “the gay men’s World Cup.” It also led to Nathan recently being accused of transphobia for wearing a T-shirt which encouraged men to get involved in knitting with the tongue-in-cheek pun, “real men have balls.” Another friend of mine was accused of anti Semitism by non-Jewish academics for reasons I genuinely couldn’t even fathom. These accusations are firsts for us all. No one has ever accused me of homophobia before. It was a terribly hurtful accusation. But this new-found prohibition of language has made people feel that they can cooly bandy words like “prejudice” around in some sort of misguided display of solidarity.

We have even designed new, ghastly words to describe the things which have been deemed inexcusable. Female readers of this blog take note: accuse me of “mansplaining” and prepare yourself to be told you’re hysterical. The two words, in my view, are equally incendiary and conceptually tragic.

But in all of this, it’s the word “offended” which feels the most glib and over-used. It’s used so often these days that it’s beginning to lose all meaning to the extent that people have started dressing it up with adjectives like “mortally” just to give it some extra oomph.

Sam’s argument is that, before blithely using the word, we need to think very hard about what we actually mean by it. Are we frightened? Disgusted? Angry? Upset? Wounded? Or are we just throwing the word out into the universe to show that we’re a more educated, more sensitive higher being, who genuinely understands how it feels to be an oppressed minority? Or are we spending too much of our time looking for things to jump on accusingly? At the end of the day, everything but the most boring language can be twisted and spat back as a weapon. Is it even possible for a straight woman to know what homophobia feels like? It’s certainly bordering on rich to describe a gay man as a homophobe. And if a trans-man is so terribly upset by a gay man’s comedy T-shirt, I would argue that he’s probably had quite an easy life!

Look, I think there are ways of pointing things out. My friend Carol has been brilliant throughout my life at nudging me with great politeness, clarity and erudition when I write a blog post which sails close to the wind in terms of remarks which might hurt or anger racial minorities. She never feels the need to scream “I’m offended” and leave it there.

Similarly, I try to keep my own claims of homophobia down to an absolute minimum. I could dedicate my life to eking it out of people, or leaping when someone says something which, to some, might be interpreted homophobia, but I think back to my experiences in the 1980s and realise that there are far fewer occasions these days when the fight needs to be taken up. Context is, in my view, everything. If offence isn’t meant to be caused, I’m usually happy to let it slide. Occasionally a comedian will crack a gay joke which I feel hasn’t quite landed, but, in comedy, I genuinely feel that everyone and everything has to be fair game. And in life, I don’t want people to feel they have to tread on the little circle of egg shells I have placed around me. As a man who constantly and inadvertently puts my foot in it with people, this would reek of terrible double standards!

I guess at the end of the day I just wonder whether some of those who claim to be offended are actually not just mock offended. Offended because they feel they ought to be offended without actually feeling a strong emotion.

I have been spat at in the street for being gay. I didn’t feel offended. I felt terrified and I felt ashamed and I couldn’t tell anyone because I was too scared that people would think it was my fault. When I unstitch what the word offended actually means, it begins to pale into insignificance.

I urge us all to think about perspective.


Thursday, 5 April 2018

Nostalgia fest

I’ve been back in Northamptonshire all day today with Sam Becker and despite it raining pretty much solidly, we had the most wonderful time. 

The day started bright and early with a trip up the M1. We got to Northampton mid morning, parked up, and went for a stroll around the town centre. It’s certainly a place which is heavy on memories for us both. The chippies. The busking pitches. The vintage clothing stores. The fluorescent lighting in the shopping centre. The place where we used to get our photos developed...

We went into the Derngate Theatre and spent ages trying to work out where the old entrance was situated and why it got replaced by a wine bar with a cheese counter.

We went to the old Music School just before lunch where we met Peter, Beth and Rachel. It’s many, many years since Sam was last there, so we went for a tour around the building, literally opening every single classroom door and sharing the memories which rushed in like the smell of dusty rosin in a cello case. There wasn’t a single room which we’d not rehearsed in at some point. Sam’s wind quintet. Chamber orchestra. Big band. Clarinet lessons. Youth choir. Sinfonia. Wind Band. The practise room where I used to give ‘cello lessons. The upper hall where composer James MacMillan taught us about heterophony. We stood in the places where we’d sat in various orchestras. It really was a treat. It’s a happy, happy building which has the habit of making those who walk its corridors feel like the chosen ones.

Lunch happened at the lovely vintage place where a very grumpy man was very rude to the woman behind the counter and we all ate baked potatoes.

We went back to the music school after lunch and crowded around a computer screen to watch an unedited film of Nene, shot at Peterborough Cathedral. It was a joy to be able to show Sam the full length version. Snow had kept him away from seeing it in the flesh.

We got back in the car and drove through the sheeting rain to Higham Ferrers, where I grew up. We had a little stroll about the town, nestling under umbrellas. The church was locked. I always think it’s incredibly sad when churches are locked during daylight hours. It says a lot about the location. Or those who run the church.

We had a quick wander past my old house and then went on our way. I’m told the kids from the junior school which the house backed onto - who performed Nene at the Albert Hall - got very excited at the prospect of seeing the enormous walnut tree which we planted on my Dad’s 40th birthday. I’m also told the same kids were gathered together in an assembly to be played the last words I said in the film that the BBC made about my Nene journey. I mentioned how wonderful it was for me to meet and work with the pupils because they’d made me realise that I had roots. I was speaking the truth.

From Higham, we drove up the A6 to Kettering, where Sam was brought up. We stopped for a little while outside his old house and talked about our memories of Wicksteed Park which it was opposite.

The sun came out as we drove back down the A6. We followed the road through Higham and Rushden, up past my old rugby club and the crossroads where Waikiki night club had stood before it was burned down. It was at that particular club that youths from Rushden would regularly fight their Bedford counterparts. The idea of beating someone up purely because they come from a different town is pretty bizarre.

We passed through Bedford and joined the M1 somewhere near Luton before stopping at Toddington Services for more tea.

A gloriously nostalgic day.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Passoveroestra

It’s been a weekend of festive celebrations. On Saturday night, Nathan and I went to Felicity’s house for a Seder meal. It was the second day of Passover (of eight) and where most Jewish people will probably just mark the first, Felicity organises meals on most of the evenings! I don’t know how she manages to be so efficient, because she’s an observer of Shabbat rules, which preclude cooking and, pretty much everything which you might want to do whilst preparing for a dinner party!

The Passover meal is theatrical, bewildering, exciting, hysterically funny and incredibly warm and family-centred. Each family develops its own traditions based on the rituals dictated by religion, which include leading to the left whilst drinking, eating a massive amount of matzos, chowing down on very bitter herbs, opening the front door for Elijah and singing all manner of fascinating songs and prayers, which tell the story of Moses.

Frogs played a big theme in Felicity’s table decorations. There were glasses with frogs on. Pop-up frogs. Wind-up frogs. We were even given frog-covered kippahs to wear! I suppose we need to be grateful that she opted to celebrate this particular plague from the famous story. A table of locusts or a celebration of blood in the sea or boils would have made for a somewhat less appetising table!

I think my favourite memory of the night was watching our synagogue’s cantor repeatedly hitting the ninety-year old man sitting next to him with a soggy French onion (as tradition in Felicity’s house dictates!)

There was a great deal of religious debate, a heck of a lot of cat-calling, some beautiful singing in multi-part harmony and impeccable Hebrew reading, courtesy of Felicity’s father, Trevor.

I felt very honoured to be there.

Today found us travelling up to Nathan’s sister’s new house in Shropshire. She’s been living there since just before Christmas, but we hadn’t had an opportunity to see it until today. I guess we were celebrating Easter, but it was really just a mega chocolate fest and an excuse to get together and eat a big roast dinner.

We were joined by all three of Sam’s children and their various partners, Sam’s granddaughter, Renée, and Nathan’s Mum Celia and her partner, Ron. It would be remiss of me not to include Sam’s little dog, Gini as one of the cast of characters. She made her presence very well felt!

The somewhat comic recurring feature of the day was our singing a bastardised version of a Judy Garland song about an Easter bonnet which Nathan’s Mum suddenly started singing. It seemed such a peculiar song that we instantly cottoned on to its concept and sang repeatedly, “I’ll be your Easter bonnet, I’ll be your Easter bonnet, I’ll be your Easter bonnet in the Easter parade.” It became an ear-worm which none of us could stop singing!

We went for a little stroll to the local play area with Renée and Gini. Sam’s new house is on an estate which is populated by a fair number of army families. A couple of girls were also playing in the park, unsupervised by an adult. They were plainly the children of soldiers because they had that army brat confidence and openness. As Sam pointed out, these kids are pulled from army base to army base and get incredibly used to making new friends.

Our day ended with the long journey back down the M1. I understand there’s going to be a huge amount of rain overnight, so I was rather pleased to be setting off whilst there was still some light in the sky.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

4th anniversary

It would appear to be my fourth wedding anniversary, and I’m in Manchester. More specifically, I’m in a Travelodge in Northwich in Cheshire. Life can be terribly glamorous!

I’m here, today and tomorrow, to edit my Em films. I flung the dates into my diary in January without really thinking about the fact that they would clash with my own wedding anniversary. It would be really lovely to be at home today with my husband, but we’ve said we’ll have a terribly fancy takeaway meal tomorrow when I’m back. And we’ve got the weekend...

There have been a couple of congratulatory messages posted on Facebook, which have been lovely to read. There’s a general “time flies” theme to most of them, but actually, it feels like a decade ago! So much has happened since, including Brass, Em, Nene, Beyond the Fence, three trips to America, releasing three albums...

This time, four years ago, Nathan, his sister Sam, and I were probably getting into a taxi and traveling up to Alexandra Palace. It was unseasonably warm, and all the blossoms and flowers were out. Alexandra Palace was flying the rainbow flag, which we found hugely moving. We took photographs of ourselves holding a big bouquet of flowers which had very kindly been sent to us by the performer Katie Melua. We’d also just opened a card from Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M. It was all terribly surreal.

I remember walking into the space and seeing how beautiful they’d made it look. Just for us. It was possibly at that point that we realised what was happening. I think, up until then, it had felt like we were rehearsing for some sort of theatre show. But arriving in the space suddenly made us realise we were actually getting married.

And the rest is history...

What I do feel very angry about is that they’ve chosen this date to exit the EU next year. March 29th was a day of great hope and unity: the day that gay men finally had the chance to get married. How dare that grotesque cow May turn it into a day of separation and anger?

It’s all go at the moment. It’s amazing what a nice, relaxing trip to the countryside will do to you. I’ve basically done nothing but rush about missing meetings since arriving back here. It’s like I suddenly can’t manage my diary any more. You take your foot off the merry-go-round for a single second and you are sent hurtling off into the abyss.


I think I have rather too much to do. I have to start planning 100 Faces, and there’s an abnormal amount of work to do on that. Unfortunately, it’s proving a little tricky to get the story out to the Jewish press who are, necessarily, somewhat focussed on reporting antisemitism within the Labour Party at the moment. It’s not a new story, and I’m surprised leaders within the Jewish community have put up with it for so long. It’s always been my major concern with Jeremy Corbyn. The last general election was dreadful. I had to choose between a homophobe leader of the Lib Dems, and an antisemite leader of Labour.

Anyway, the other thing I’m trying to do is release the Em album. There’s press releases to write and send out. Being forced to release two projects simultaneously is always complicated. Half the time, you want to send information to the same people, but can’t because people can rarely get their heads around someone promoting two projects simultaneously unless they’re actors who happen to have two films being released at the same time, which, for some reason, people seem to understand.

So, I’ve had a shower, and my free cup of Travelodge tea, and two Weetabix which I ate from a mug because I couldn’t find a bowl for sale in the local Co-op. This Travelodge doesn’t have a restaurant, so I bought my own food with me to avoid a dreaded “breakfast box.” On second thoughts, it’s not really the best place to be on a wedding anniversary!

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

West Sussex

I’m back in London after a somewhat magical trip out to West Sussex. It was Michael’s birthday yesterday and one of the people from Shul very kindly offered him the use of their spectacular county abode. It’s one of those houses that you only really see on films. The most beautiful grounds lined with daffodils and primroses, a little lake, an entire barn dedicated to table tennis, snooker and table football, and a glorious indoor pool. We were staying in the gatehouse, a timber-framed barn conversion on the edge of the grounds. It was a wondrous place, with implausibly high ceilings. The owner, Toni, is a hugely generous soul who plainly knows she has a beautiful second home and wants to share it with people she knows will benefit from it. I felt immensely privileged to be there.

It really was just a day of relaxing. We played pool and then swam all morning. There was a wonderful jacuzzi which pummelled away the stresses of London. We sat on a roof terrace and ate a lunch of bread, soup and cheese whilst the Spring sunshine warmed our faces. We were profoundly lucky with the weather. Had Michael’s birthday been today, we would have been huddled indoors listening to the roar of rain hurtling down on the roof. But yesterday was the first official day of Spring, and, for some reason, the weather seemed to agree.

A last-minute fit of pique saw us taking ourselves off to Devil’s Dyke in the afternoon. The house is essentially in the middle of nowhere, but, because the address was West Sussex, until I looked at a map, it hadn’t occurred to me that we’d be just a half hour drive from Brighton.

Devil’s Dyke is a very impressive spot. It’s a deeply atmospheric ravine which slices through the Southern Downs. It was one of those Victorian destinations which, at one stage, featured a vertiginous and rickety-looking cable car which dangled perilously above the valley. With the Victorian inclination to faint at the drop of a hat, I’m pretty sure it would have been a somewhat hopeless proposition for most of the people who dared to get on board.

We walked along the rim of the ravine, making ourselves absolutely parched in the process. We passed a little farm at one stage which had a cafe in it on every day other than Mondays. It was a cruel blow. A cream tea would have made the day perfect.

The light was spectacular. At this time of year, the grass takes on metallic hues which the treacle-coloured sunlight turned into something from a 1970s photograph! It was all very delightful.

In the early evening we popped into Brighton. Blink, and you’d have missed us. It was a quick stroll down the Laines and a hot cross bun in a little cafe where the early evening light streaked through a wooden window. We were back in West Sussex by eight for another swim and a lovely meal in a pub which smelt of wood smoke.

For me, this is what getting out of London is all about. As we re-entered the pollution and mayhem this morning, I realised I’d started to cough rather badly. Proof, if proof were needed, that we’re all screwed in this city!


Sunday, 25 March 2018

Counting steps

I’m presently on my way back from singing in the synagogue choir. I decided to walk down the stairs at Holland Park tube. It gets the blood flowing. There’s always a sign at the top and the bottom of the staircases in tube stations which says how many steps there are. As one of those people who almost obsessively counts things, I’m often horrified about how off the mark the step counts actually are. That said, Holland Park correctly advertises 123 steps, so I’m not sure why I’m recounting this story!

I think I’m right in saying that Covent Garden tube is the deepest of all the stations on the London Underground, and therefore is the one with the largest number of steps: one hundred and ninety three, if Wikipedia is to be believed. I discovered this to my cost, as a teenager, on my first trip to London without parents. I came here for the day with school friends, Tammy and Natalie. We’d have trained it down from Bedford. I can’t remember anything about the day other than that it was my idea to exit the station via the stairs. I still have a photograph of the girls looking incredibly grumpy - about half way up! They were furious with me.

I think we went shopping in Oxford Street. I have a vague memory of going to Top Shop by Oxford Circus and being astounded by how big it was. I’d never seen a shop so large. I was such a hick from the sticks!

Singing in shul went by without major incident. There were two singers there who I didn’t really know, one of whom was a bit of a stickler when it came to the pronunciation of Hebrew. He picked me up on something I was singing, and I felt slightly embarrassed.

We were performing some repertoire from the “Blue Book”, which is the Orthodox Jewish equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The book was collated and published in the 19th century but, unlike its Christian equivalent, it’s never been updated. This is an issue for several reasons, the first of which is to do with the page layout. In order to conserve space, those paper-conscious Victorians made the decision to cram the words in all over the place, none of which are below the bass line, which makes sight-reading near impossible. The other issue is that the pronunciation of certain Hebrew words has morphed over time. Many o’s (but not all) have become a’s and t’s occasionally migrate to s’s. So the task of the chorister becomes that much more difficult.

Passover starts on Friday, so we were also singing repertoire associated with this festival, one of which had been arranged by a former cantor at the synagogue who was a little, shall we say, slap-dash with his writing. The arrangements he turfed out were always very poorly executed: badly-voiced and confusingly laid out on the page. I once picked him up on the fact that he hadn’t written any words below the bass line, despite the bass part singing entirely different rhythms to the rest of the ensemble. “What would you like me to sing here?” I asked. “Sing what you want” he answered snappily, “I don’t care.” I can’t remember what I said in response, but it was plainly incendiary as it rapidly escalated into an argument where he petulantly felt the need to point out that he wasn’t being paid to do the arrangements which, of course, was like a red rag to a bull for me. A self-respecting composer should do their best regardless of whether they’re being paid. If choristers are handed a hot mess of a score, then they will be unwilling, and, in fact, unable to perform to a high standard. And so it came to pass today with his dreadful arrangement, which descended into chaos because the music gave us no clues about what it wanted to sound like!

Thursday, 22 March 2018

100 Faces

I appear to be staggering across London with a massive backpack and a suitcase, upon which is stacked two incredibly heavy cardboard boxes. Ah! The life of a Quiz Master! The boxes contain pens and reams-upon-reams of paper. I have perilously attached them to the suitcase with gaffer tape. They are wobbling. Any moment now they’re going to topple off the top and there will be a pencident involving six hundred biros spinning across the tube station floor. Someone will trip. I will be sued. I can sense it all coming.

I had my second injection to inoculate me against the HPV virus today. Most women are given the injection whilst they’re still at school, but it’s something they don’t tend to inoculate men against, except, I’m told, in Australia. There are reasons for this to do with cervical cancer, but there’s compelling evidence to suggest that the HPV virus isn’t a lot of fun in a man either. In fact, I believe it’s responsible for my cousin’s cancer. So, anyway, the gay community, with our propensity to visit sexual health clinics for regular MOTs, make perfect guinea pigs for things the government are thinking about rolling out, and, because I don’t want warts and can’t spell “human papilloma”, I said “yeah!”

The injection hurts a bit! It goes into the muscle at the very top of your arm. That said, I loved my doctor. She was quirky and a lot of fun to chat to.

Last night, I went to a very lovely evening sponsored by UK Jewish Film. It was here that I learned that I have been awarded the prestigious Pears Short Film Fund. Readers who have known me for some time will remember that I made a film for the BBC in the North East called 100 Faces. The premise of the film is very simple. There are 100 Faces belonging to 100 people who are born in every year for the last 100 years. I made the film in 2012, which is within the lifetime of this blog, so feel free to read back over my accounts.

Anyway, I have long felt that 100 Faces didn’t make enough of a splash. It’s a beautiful film, but it was only screened by the BBC in a very small area of the county. In more recent years, as many readers of this blog will be aware, I’ve been dipping my toe into the murky waters of my Jewish ancestry and have very much enjoyed meeting the community I’ve discovered. It occurred to me, about a year ago, that a brand new version of 100 Faces, featuring some of the wonderful, diverse, mystical, fascinating, funny and vibrant Jewish people I know to exist, could be a deeply moving and hugely inspiring film.

British Jewish people, it strikes me, are never really allowed to shout about themselves in the way that American Jews really do. When did we last see a Jewish family on Eastenders for example? Was it Dr Legg? He died years ago!

Scratch the surface and most people’s idea of a Jewish person is either someone with a hat and ringlets, a sort of Maureen Lipman figure who makes chicken soup and can’t let go of her children, or a dark, underground network who control the media. That’s when we’re not using any debate about Jewish people to condemn the perceived human rights abuses happening in Israel.

When do we ever stop to think about the difference between Reform and Liberal Jews? Or the difference between Orthodox and Haredi? Or Ashkenazi and Sephardi? When do we celebrate the fact that same-sex couples can get married in at least fifty percent of British synagogues. That’s gay men marrying in a British place of worship. This is a forward-thinking community.

And it seems that the wonderful jury for the Pears Fund agreed. I am making the film. My quest to find 100 Jewish people of 100 Ages begins tomorrow. Please wish me luck.

And if you’re Jewish, and reading this, whether you’re religious or entirely atheist, please do get in touch.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Er ner mer sner

Highgate is still under a bit of snow. It was a fairly surreal moment when I drove back from Peterborough yesterday to find piles of virgin snow on the steps up to my front door. 

I was back home at 8.30am, which was also bizarre. I’d got up at 6 to drive to an interview in Winchester which was frustratingly cancelled because of the bad weather. I’d only actually managed about three hours’ sleep after the adrenaline rush of the Peterborough Cathedral experience, and had the interview been cancelled the night before, I’d have been able to have a lie-in and breakfast with my family.

In the end, I went for lunch with Michael in Brook Green, a rather charming, and very quiet largely Victorian residential area which runs between Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith. We had pizza and salad, which has to be one of my most favourite food combinations. So, actually, the day was salvaged and became very pleasant.

I was back in Highgate in the early evening, just in time for another tip-down of snow. Driving along the North Circular with snow rolling in circles around me was a somewhat epic, film-like experience. The snow in Highgate was glinting magically in car headlights and street lights. All weather manages to look rather romantic in Highgate. Particularly mist, which makes the village look like something from a Sherlock Holmes novel. Not that I’ve read a Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve actually only read ten novels in my life. Most of them by George Orwell.

Today was all about admin. Admin and more admin. I had long a list which I slowly worked my way through. I didn’t feel I’d made much of a dent on it, but I did do all the paper work related to officially releasing the Em album on all the online sites, which was a weight off my mind.

Nathan arrived back from the Edinburgh yarn festival last night with absolutely no voice. He can only whisper. He’s gone and got himself a dose of laryngitis, which is ironic because he looses his voice every time he goes to that particular festival. The last time was because he shouted so much during the ceilidh! I felt incredibly sorry for him as it’s his favourite yarnie hangout and not having a voice definitely compromised his ability to enjoy himself.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Peterborough’s Neeeeeen

Yesterday found me braving the snow and heading up to Peterborough for the final performance of Nene. It was a magical and very special day.

The journey up was far less complicated than I’d imagined. There was a good covering of snow on the car when I started my journey. It’s that rather strange icy snow which has been falling lately: the sort of powdery snow which gets everywhere, yet doesn’t seem to make anything particularly wet. It simply brushes off surfaces. I used an Enya CD to scrape it off all the windows and then went on my merry way, listening to Em on the car stereo. It sounded good. I felt excited.

By the time I’d reached Peterborough there was no sign of this second Beast from the East. In fact it was sunny. Freezing cold, but sunny. 

The parents had booked us all into a hotel in the centre of the city, and we had a light lunch in the bar before heading out for a stroll. Peterborough, it turns out, is a rather lovely place. My only real experience of it in the past was waiting for trains at the rather uninspiring station and going there for shopping-cum-skating fun as a teenager. For some reason it was my form at school’s preferred away day, and we never ventured further than the soulless shopping complex.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that the city has a medieval square, quite a lot of which is intact. And the cathedral is something else! It’s quite low-level and French-looking. There’s no massive spire or tower, but it’s profoundly beautiful. The ceilings are exquisite, carved from stone and wood. I don’t really know why it’s not better known. I don’t think there are many people in this country who would think to list Peterborough Cathedral alongside York, Canterbury and Lincoln. I’m not even sure that most people know that Peterborough even HAS a cathedral. 

It’s actually the burial site of Catherine of Aragon. My Mum had popped in the previous day and stumbled upon a woman at her tomb, weeping and wailing. It’s astounding how figures from the past can generate such hysteria.

The cathedral also once housed the body of Mary Queen of Scots, which felt rather appropriate as one of the sequences in Nene is a setting of a poem that Mary wrote in Fotheringhey, shortly before her execution.

I met some of the young people who were going to be singing. The music school has been hugely careful about sharing out which school does which concert, and this performance favoured schools from the north of the county, Rutland and Cambridgeshire, but I was a little sad not to have my posse from Higham Ferrers junior school there. They sent me a card after the Albert Hall production with a picture of them all. It sits proudly on my mantle piece.

Nemo, the bath-tub water sculpture, which has become something of a talisman for the piece, wasn’t actually being featured in this performance, but had come to the cathedral to keep us company. It was lovely to see him again.

Brother Edward and Sascha arrived and we had a little walk around the city. Edward bought himself a “healthy” smoothie with grains and soya milk and all sorts of horrors inside. It tasted like the mushy relic of a Weetabix bowl and sawdust, and it had the aftertaste of raisins. Literally ghastly. It also caused an unpleasant row in our hotel bar when we were asked to lose the drink or leave. Charming for residents, we thought...

The concert itself has imbedded itself in my mind as a series of little snap shot.

There was a queue when we arrived which snaked out of the cathedral all the way into the market square. I didn’t feel grand enough to skip it, so, because it was cold, I walked up and down to see who was there. Little Michelle and Ben, Debbie, Tash, two of the Angelas I went to school with... it was a joy to see them all. 

Seating was unreserved, so there was a bun fight going on. I was more than a little relieved that four seats at the front had been set aside for me. Enough for my guests Debbie, her husband Chris, and my Mum. Sitting on the front row is always a bit of a double-edged sword. You feel rather on display!

The first half included a contemporary dance piece performed by a group from Peterborough, which I found noble and impressive, yet a little bewildering. I wasn’t sure what expression to wear on my face. 

The County Youth Choir, on the other hand, were extraordinary. Debbie, Brother Edward and I were all founding members of the group in 1990, and all three of us oscillated between being hugely moved and highly proud. They performed Sleep by Eric Whittaker with almost breathtaking precision. Sitting in the front row, was a surround-sound experience. It was like we were wearing the choir as a warm cloak!

There was a disconcerting, giant bronze Jesus on a cross hanging above our heads. The cross was red, which meant the holes in Jesus’ eyes were glowing like some sort of devil. I kept looking up and wondering if anyone else had noticed this particular fact, or whether the sculptor had meant it to be like that!

I was a little disappointed to see so few lads in the performances. None of the dancers were boys, girls far outweighed boys in the massed choir, and even the percussion ensemble had more girls than boys. This, in an era where much is being made of the need to have more women in music.

There was a tremendous moment at the start of the concert when Peter Smalley, who was presenting, told the children in the mass choir that they could wave at their families in the audience. I turned around to look down the nave of the cathedral at the audience - all seven hundred of them - to witness a sea of waving hands. I don’t know why I found the sight so moving. Perhaps because it meant that I’d brought families together through my music and given them memories to cherish.

I was interviewed before the performance of Nene. I don’t actually remember what I said. I had wanted to suggest that Peterborough be re-annexed by Northamptonshire. It was, after all, part of the county until 1974. I’m not sure that would have gone down any better than my insistence that Nene be pronounced Nen, the Northampton way, rather than Neen, the Peterborough way!

The performance itself was really wonderful. I think the orchestra played it better than ever before, and, of course, that booming cathedral acoustic was generous. Some sequences really landed. Mary Queen of Scots’ poem reverberated around the space like something sent from heaven. The sequence about the ghostly hunt was also suitably chilling. It actually describes a haunting in the cathedral itself and I told the choir before that if they sang it really loudly, we might encourage the ghosts to come back! 

It’s a curious space which doesn’t exactly lend itself to performance. The choir and orchestra were a good thirty meters away from the front row of the audience, and we could only just see the conductor and a few bows moving about. There were screens in the space which showed us close-ups of the action, but, it wasn’t quite the visceral experience of Derngate or the Albert Hall. It was more wistful. Distant. Which sort of worked. I hope the audience towards the back of the space were able to hear enough of what was going on.

After the piece finished, I was engulfed by lovely people wanting to shake my hand and have their programmes signed. People were incredibly kind about the piece. Most used words like inspiring, filmic, epic...

It was probably the performers themselves coming up to me afterwards which was most gratifying. Many wanted to tell me the chord progressions they’d loved most. One lad said there was a passage which always made him smile no matter what sort of mood he was in. And many thanked me for including the sequence with a lad singing about his love for another lad. I think the section genuinely spoke to many of them and, for that alone, I felt hugely proud. One had a six coloured rainbow on the back of his phone which he told me his parents didn’t approve of. I felt sad.

The evening ended back at the hotel with Tash, Debbie, Chris, Anthony and the family. A wonderful night.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The minging generation

I saw a poster today for a cleaning product (at least I assume that’s what it was for) which simply said “microwave ming?” I assume the poster was asking passers by if we felt that our microwave ovens were smelly, dirty, or, as we might have said when I was at university, “minging.” I haven’t heard the word shortened to “ming” for many years. “That thing mings!” we’d say, or “that is ming!” If you were feeling particularly fancy, you might have said, “that’s ming-de-mong-de-wacky-de-honky.” Don’t ask me why! 

Anyway, it suddenly struck me that I’d never seen the word “ming” written down in any other context than Chinese dynasties and fancy vases. Seeing it on the billboard really took me back. But do the kids still refer to things as ming? Or is this an example of an advertising person trying to hit on a wave of nostalgia from the much-maligned and utterly inconsequential Generation X, who have had their babies now and are now obsessing about the mess their soon-to-be-teenaged-children are leaving everywhere?

I’m ashamed to admit that my generation hasn’t really offered a great deal to the world. Our talented people were silenced by moguls like Simon Cowell and replaced with pretty people who briefly captured the zeitgeist, generated money for the generation above and then disappeared from sight. Our politicians created Brexit and then pretended nothing was wrong. We can’t afford houses of our own. We don’t have proper pensions. All we’ve really got to offer the world is a mass market for cleaning produce! Perfect.


God bothering

A woman approached me at Borough tube yesterday. As she walked towards me I was thinking what a lovely scarf she was wearing and wondering if it was hand-knitted. The nearer she got, the more I realised she was a proselytising Christian. She had that glazed-look which I’ve come to associate with people who stand on street corners promoting the word of Christ. And sure enough, she handed me a small, square piece of paper and told me that Jesus loved me. “Oh, no” I said, as politely as possible, “please don’t hand me one of them.” The paper felt dirty in my hand. I tried to hand it back, but she wouldn’t take it, so I threw it on the floor. There followed a fairly unpleasant scene which involved her informing me that I was a sinner, which made me see red: “I don’t think it’s your place to call a stranger a sinner. You shouldn’t be doing this. The fairy tales you believe in are entirely your own choice, but it’s not for you to tell me how to live my life. I’m a gay man...” “that explains it” she said. So I shouted at her and she started shouting back in a strange high-pitched voice. I didn’t like it at all.

I genuinely think any attempt to convert someone to religion should be viewed as grooming. Worship whichever deity you feel like worshiping but it is wholly inappropriate to approach a stranger in a public place. Time and time again it’s vulnerable people who are attracted to religion, pulled in by unscrupulous people who then turn lives upside down by making moral judgements about lifestyles. I have no idea why anyone would consider the practices of certain religious people any more appropriate than abusers. Yes, to me, these street preachers are simply irritating and tragic, but to someone with mental health issues, depression, or those who are grieving or in trouble, they can be deeply dangerous and I personally believe we need laws to stop them.

Yes, the majority of Christians across the world are good, kind, loving people, but religion is also twisted and used as an excuse for persecution and highly dubious behaviour on many levels from war-mongering to subtle mind games. I am convinced, for example, that Tony Blair’s religious conviction played a part in the questionable decisions he made to take action in the Middle East. I also believe it’s highly dangerous that Theresa May prays to God for answers to our country’s troubles.

When I was a teenager coming to terms with my sexuality, a very close friend of mind told me, just after I’d had a car accident and turned to her for emotional support, that she was “really pleased I didn’t die” because she “wouldn’t have been able to deal with the fact that I’d gone to hell.” Now if that statement was in line with the teachings of Christ, I’ll find a bible and eat it! Using hell as a threat is nothing but abuse.

By chance, I came home and watched a programme about Roman Britain from the air. An expert was talking about Roman religious worship and the fascinating number of deities and rituals associated with that ancient people. At the end of the segment, the presenter, Christine Bleakley, felt the need to say, “I’m not keen on Roman religion. It sounds a bit like black magic to me.” And I thought, “sod you! I’m watching this programme to learn about the Romans. I don’t need your modern day religious judgements.” Can you imagine if the continuity announcer after Songs of Praise said “I don’t like these God botherers. That church feels like a cult?”

Why is it that we feel we can openly condemn paganism, ufology or Wicca whilst turning a blind eye to the horrors associated with organised religion? Because God is Love? Pull the other one!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Mary Magdalene

Last night saw me attending a screening of Philippa’s stupendous Mary Magdalene film. I had hitherto thought that I’d be the quintessential anti-audient when it came to a film about Jesus, but it I found the experience utterly transporting. The story, as you might guess from its title, is told entirely from the perspective of Magdalene, a figure whose fundamental importance has been suppressed by Catholicism for the best part of two thousand years. It’s only relatively recently that revisionism has taken place. I actually had no idea that, within the last two years, the Vatican had actually upgraded her status to that of an apostle/ disciple, which strikes me as pretty big news. I don’t know a great deal about Christianity, but it’s always fascinated me that an entire religion can be based on the concept of resurrection without whole-heartedly celebrating the person who Jesus first appeared to in his zombie state. Surely, this fact alone makes Mary Magdalene of crucial importance to the faith?

The other thing which I’ve never been able to reconcile is the role that Judas plays within the religion. Judas, it strikes me, did only what he was destined to do. Without Judas, there would have been no crucifixion and because Jesus needed to die in order to be resurrected, anyone, from Herod to Pilate, who played a part in the great order of things, should, by rights, be up there in heaven with the main man. For this reason, I was hugely impressed by the portrayal of Judas within Philippa’s film. They gave him a back story which offered a reason for his fanaticism and ultimate betrayal, and he was really sensitively played by a North African actor with a luminous, kind face, which was a million miles away from the brooding nonsense we tend to associate with portrayals of that man.

The film was exquisitely shot with a massive emphasis on faces and eyes. It also felt surprisingly wintry, with rolling mists sliding down hillsides, and dark, brutal winds rustling hair and scarves.
Philippa’s writing is moving and self-assured, and I sat in the audience, a really proud man.

I took Abbie with me, as I felt, of all of my friends, she was likely to get the most out of it. I’m therefore very pleased to report that she loved it as well.

There was a Q and A afterwards with Philippa in one of the hot seats. The audience, many of whom were religious scholars, were very warm, although I got a bit angry when one of them started banging on about her issues with a white actress playing “a woman of colour.” Mary Magdalene was Jewish and Middle Eastern, which, as far as I’m concerned, means she could have been anywhere from very pale skinned to North African in appearance. It is as legitimate to have her played by a white woman as it is to have her played by a black woman. If the actress chosen had looked like Agnetha from ABBA, I might have taken issue with the casting, but I was really happy with the way that the actress looked. Actually, a much more interesting debate might have been about the visual authenticity of Jewish and Palestinian actors being cast in central roles, against the barriers that opposing personal faiths might have generated in this regard.

There’s little else to say about yesterday, as I spent the entire day packaging up CDs to send off to people who had preordered copies of Em. I walked into the post office with ninety padded envelopes and I could see the woman behind the counter mentally preparing herself for a long haul! Largely as a result of Nathan’s knitting fans getting behind the project, I was hugely excited to be sending packages to USA, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany, Spain, Iceland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. What a small world we live in!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Superb

We went to Raily and Iain’s house today to pay homage to their new baby, Lola, who seems to be a rather happy little tyke. She’s got a fine head of hair on her, which always makes for an interesting looking child. The majority of babies look like slugs at her age.

We took ourselves to a little collection of farm buildings on the outskirts of Aylesbury which have been turned over to a series of artists’ studios. Most were closed, sadly, including a big yarn and fibre craft centre, but we had a good look around a shop which sold paintings and all kinds of lovely things made from glass and metal. In these instances, I always find myself looking for cufflinks. There were a pair, but they were made from miniature books - and paper cufflinks have about as much practical use as cakes made of concrete.

We came home and ate lovely food. There were home-made veggie burgers for lunch, with a delicious pomegranate and tomato salad, and garlic potatoes for tea with halloumi. Word seems to have escaped within my friends that I am addicted to halloumi. People even send me pictures of battered halloumi. It’s like porn for me!

It was, as always, a delight to spend time with Raily and Iain and their brood. Jeannie has grown up massively recently. I think having a baby sister will do that to someone. She’s become very conscientious and spent ages in the car coming up with ingenious ways of stopping Lola from crying.

We came home and Nathan called his mother for Mother’s Day. I appeared in the room and sat next to him and overheard a brilliant interchange: “I’m going to Yoevil tomorrow” said Nathan (who genuinely is off to Yoevil tomorrow for a photoshoot.) I heard his mother’s response, however, “you’re going to yodel, tomorrow?”

It wasn’t that weird a retort: Nathan is a keen and rathe fine yodeller, but it made me howl with laughter, almost as much as my learning today that my godson has someone in his form called “Shitaj” whom everyone has to called Neil. I haven’t laughed so much since a good friend told me he had a friend at school called Fuquanisha. Her name was actually banned. Everyone had to called her Nisha! Beats my old mate Sue Perbe into a cocked hat!

Friday, 9 March 2018

Lazy snorers

We had the workshop showing of our new musical at Mountview this afternoon. We spent the day doing last-minute rehearsals, which included a full run of the piece this morning. We’ve achieved so much in two weeks. We walked into rehearsals with almost no material prepared and, this afternoon, presented 45 minutes of material, which the students had learned by heart. Everyone bought lots of imaginative bits of costume from home, and they all looked utterly tremendous.

There’s some real talent in that room, including, I’m proud to say, three Midlanders (one from Leicester and two from Northamptonshire). Emily in the cast actually comes from Irthlingborough which was just over the Nene from Higham Ferrers. She went to Huxlow School, where I was taught A-level Geography. Her accent is so familiar to me. There’s a moment in the piece when she calls Mr Gum a “lazy snorer” and the way she said it took me right back to my childhood. She doesn’t even think she has an accent!

The audience consisted of the students on the foundation course at Mountview who had been working on an altogether different piece of musical theatre, written, in part, by this year’s British Eurovision hopeful (which I still haven’t heard.) Their piece was very dark and emotional and was the absolute antithesis to the profound silliness and subversiveness of ours.

It feels a little bit odd that it’s now all over. I shall miss my little walks to Mountview every morning, and the feeling of camaraderie in the rehearsal room. It is, I realise, when I’m in a space like that, inspiring young people, that I’m at my happiest.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Nene

I watched a tiny bit of breakfast news this morning and was horrified to see that Theresa May has got into bed with Saudi Arabia as part of her post-Brexit-let’s-make-Britain-great-again strategy. This strategy will, of course, see her doing similar deals with countless other countries in the world with ghastly human rights records.

I woke up yesterday with giant black smudges under my eyes. This morning, after only four hours’ sleep, I’ve progressed from fight victim to panda.

I was rather pleased to have turned the telly on, however, as I got to see Zoë Ball talking about her cycle ride from Blackpool to Brighton for Comic Relief. I’ve always liked Zoë Ball: she’s such a consummate professional, and seems to specialise in remembering people’s names. She also talked about the fact that she’s specifically fundraising for vulnerable men, and, in a world where men are increasingly demonised by women, I find that profoundly moving. Men are vulnerable too... Even on International Women’s day...

It’s been an insane week. Utterly manic. I’ve had rehearsals at Mountview from

10-5 every day, and major events every single evening, which have been followed by long evenings of writing into the very wee smalls. I am craving a lie in...

In the mid afternoon, Danny-Boy Carter and Nathan picked me up from Mountview and drove me up to Northampton. We were heading to the Derngate theatre to hear the premiere of my Nene composition. We popped into the rehearsal briefly to say hello to Beth and Peter, before heading to ASK pizza for a bit of food.

We were met at the theatre in the evening by Michael, Fiona and her Mum, Barbara. I was amazed by how many people in the audience seemed to recognise me as they came in. This was undoubtedly as a result of the film they recently screened about the piece on the BBC.

The performance was tremendous. They’d shifted half the seats in the auditorium back so that seven hundred or so performers could fit on the stage. It was an extraordinary sight.

I was interviewed by the presenter beforehand. I have no idea what I said, although I’m pretty sure I came across as endearingly clumsy. I also got a bit political about the need for music in schools. #GiveTheManAPlatform

I was hugely happy with the new sequences I’d written for the piece. The section evoking a ghostly hunt rampaging through Peterborough Abney, was particularly exciting and there were stunning solos by Zoë Eaves, who was singing the last poem written by Mary Queen of Scots on the banks of the river, and Freja Leveritt, who reprised her role singing the sad story of Molly. They were stationed in spot lights high in the roof of the building. But it was Michael Needle’s solo as a gay First World War soldier singing a folk lyric from Woodford which broke my heart. It broke my heart for many reasons, firstly because he took what he was singing very seriously, performing the music with great dignity and love, when he could have made it horribly tongue-in-cheek to show us all that he wasn’t necessarily feeling the emotions he was singing about. It was also very emotional to think that, when I was young Michael’s age, Clause 28 would actually have meant that it was illegal for a young male performer to sing a love song to another man within an educational framework.

I walked away feeling proud and immensely grateful to NMPAT for commissioning the piece, and for continuing with the extraordinary work they do in inspiring young musicians in an era where music has dropped to the bottom of everyone else’s agenda.

I drank two gin and tonics this evening. #alcoholic

Monday, 5 March 2018

Time for a cuppa

Having worked non-stop all weekend - writing, quizzing, writing - I have woken up this morning utterly shattered without the strength to face another ludicrously busy week. I also seem to have a cold. Fiona, who’s staying with us at the moment, appears to be similarly afflicted. My mood was not helped by a small child’s decision to ram raid the suitcase I drag to work with his silly little scooter. His ineffectual, “my-child’s-the-centre-of-everyone’s-universe” mother didn’t see fit to apologise to me, opting instead to attempt to reason with the child as I limped away. Honestly: bring your child up however you please, but when they injure a complete stranger, you have got to go in hard - with your apology if nothing else!

So, by the end of this week I will have 

- Watched to the premiere of the longer version of my Nene composition at the Derngate Theatre in Northampton
- Recorded a new song as part of a pitching process for a new musical
- Workshopped material at Mountview from a new children’s musical
- Sung in shul
- Run another quiz
- Pitched for a big film project
- Written three new songs
- Passed out

Time for a cup of tea!

Friday, 2 March 2018

Beaming

Today found us battling through the snow to get to Stratford East Theatre Royal. It was the second day of BEAM: a festival of new British musical theatre which happens every two years. I had been invited to do a “pitch” which means I was given a ten minute slot on the main stage to sell myself as a writer. Instead of sticking to songs from Em, I was encouraged by the organisers to sell my back catalogue of work, so I wrote a medley of songs from Brass, Beyond the Fence and Em, which Llio, Laura, Abbie, Jack, Chris, Michael and Alex performed with gusto and great joy. I was so proud of them. I didn’t get a chance to see many of the other pitches - we spent the day rehearsing and being ferried around by stage managers - but I would say we were definitely one of the most professional teams. Clare Chandler bounded up to me afterwards and said “now THAT’S how to do a pitch.” Yet again, I felt proud. And so grateful to my musical family, who, it seems, are always there for me.

I delivered a little bit of a political speech beforehand. It was more of a rallying cry, actually, but I also made the point that people have got to stop looking for the next Hamilton. Hamilton has happened. We should focus on discovering and promoting the next great show. “Support us whilst we write from our British hearts” I said, “and we will reward you with gold. Let’s go out there and change the world with musical theatre!” Sometimes I wish I had more of a platform to instigate change. I passionately believe that there are writers in that space - Chris Ash, Dougal Irvine, Craig Adams, Eamonn O’Dwyer and many more - who, with the right level of funding could invade Broadway. But we’re all too busy teaching, scraping a living and worrying about being old. 

So that’s another ticked box. Another thing achieved in my three-week period of utter mayhem.

My back aches, I am so tired that my eyes are bloodshot, but I go to bed a very happy and grateful man.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Beast from the East

I’m somewhat amazed by how disorienting heavy snow can be. When everything is white, you suddenly realise what a huge emphasis you place on the natural colour of things. On two occasions today I found myself on woodland paths in places I know like the back of my hand, only to discover I was in an entirely different place to the spot I was expecting to be in!

Londoners presently await the now-fabled, end-of-week blizzard which the weather people have been hyping for days. I’d like to suggest that it’s going to be a damp squib - these adverse events are usually the creation of bored media types - but I have important stuff to do tomorrow, which I don’t want to be wrecked by anything (either actual or perceived) so am burying my head in the sand and pretending everything is just fine.

It was fine at Mountview today. All the students made it in and no one was sent home. I have no idea when we started to get so lily-livered in the UK. If we name it, we’re allowed to panic about it. “The Beast from the East?” I ask you. I had to go to the bank in my lunch break, but it was closed, largely, one assumes, because bored workers couldn’t be bothered to come in. Schools everywhere have been closed down. I remember those heavy winters in the 1980s when we battled into school whatever the weather. My mum pulled us there in a sledge on one occasion and my dad reminded me today that he’d once been part of a chain gang of teachers and support staff who actually dug our school out of a huge drift! Where’s the wartime spirit?

I’ll tell you where it is... Lincolnshire! My mate Lucy has just sent me a picture of a car literally buried in snow.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Purim

It’s the Jewish festival of Purim today, which is, essentially, the equivalent of Hallowe’en, in that there’s an “anything goes”, somewhat rebellious vibe in the air, which sees people arriving at shul in fancy dress. Our rabbi was dressed as a penguin, for example...

During the service, which was held by a sister synagogue in Great Portland Street, the story of Esther is intoned in Hebrew. The fun part is that every time the name of Haman is mentioned (he’s the dude in the story who tried to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Persia,) the congregation are set the task of drowning his name out with hooters, rattles, boos and yells. It’s all highly theatrical and a great deal of fun.

After the service, we went downstairs into the hall, and performed a parody of Kiss Me Kate, replacing the original words with funny puns about being Jewish. “Brush up your Torah” etc.

Having made it abundantly clear that I was there to make up numbers only, I received the script to discover I’d been given two large solos, one in Brush Up Your Torah, which (in its original version) is the song I hate more than any other in the world! The tune is ghatsly, the lyrics can only be described as “rapey” and it goes on forever! Actually, the more I studied the music for the whole musical, the more I realised what a huge pile of dross it is!

That said, Marc and Felicity had written wonderfully clever alternative lyrics which were great fun to sing, despite the acoustics in the hall being ludicrous. The audience was highly appreciate and actually included an old university friend of mine, Gawain, whose girlfriend, it turns out, is affiliated to the New West End synagogue where I sing. Small world.

The evening ended with some lovely food and the rabbi yodelling, which I’m not sure anyone could have predicted. 

I was surprised the crowd was as large as it was as London was hit by a blizzard today. It’s such a rare occurrence. I walked into Mountview this morning in glorious sunlight, two inches of snow under my feet. And then, at about lunchtime, it started tipping it down. The streets around Warren Street were pure white, this evening, which is a sight you almost never see these days in central London. I found it all rather exciting if I’m honest but hope it doesn’t affect people coming to BEAM tomorrow and Friday.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Esoteric

I watched a tiny bit of breakfast television this morning. They seemed to be at the Sage in Gateshead with the “next generation of inventors.” Loads of local children were holding up placards with pictures of their handiwork. I was a little confused that none of them seemed to have local accents. Plainly, the next generation of inventors are all from public schools...

I have to say: I find the tragic artifice of television utterly laughable. The idea that, at 7 in the morning, a whole circus troupe might be warming up and jumping about in the background of the shot whilst the presenter does a piece to camera is just a nonsense. The desperation people show to be on telly never ceases to amaze me. An all-woman choir had turned up to the Sage this morning simply to sing Rock Around the Clock. The sum total of their involvement seemed to be to provide three seconds of music whilst the presenter said “back to the studio.” It’s just all so fake, and the less you watch telly, the more you realise how rubbish it is when you do. We take so much nonsense for granted. 

For the next two weeks I’m working at Mountview, which is actually the drama school where I did my training. It’s a real treat to be back in the old building especially as it’s moving to Peckham at the end of this year. For me it’s very sad that the place is not remaining in Haringey. The borough was apparently simply not that fussed about keeping one of London’s premier education institutions. Mountview was always North London’s drama school, and it’s very much the reason why I settled in this part of the city.

Still, I am making the most of walking to work. It’s a 40-minute journey and I pass through all manner of woods and parks on route. It has been freezing cold, however. It snowed throughout my journey yesterday. This morning, the ground was rock solid with a hoar frost which glinted magically in the sunshine. Parakeets were sitting on the trees in Highgate Wood. Those fellas never used to live near us but seem to be everywhere now. Their green coats were literally glowing in the sun against the grey winter trees. It was almost as though they’d lined themselves up in a pocket of sunlight for a photo. Tarts. The rise of parakeets in north London is an extraordinary phenomenon. I remember the first time I saw one on Hampstead Heath. A group of strangers stood, looking up at a tree, gasping and saying “but what on Earth is it doing here?” A few years later, the heath was full of little green flashes. It was only three years ago that I heard that all-too familiar squawk and saw a flock of them flying over my house, and now the local woods are full of them.

I’m at Mountview School working with the foundation year and a writer called Sam Potter on a musical adaptation of a children’s book. We’re really just having a bit of fun for two weeks to get a feel for whether the somewhat esoteric material lends itself to a musical treatment. We’re doing lots of improvisation and I’m throwing out a few songs here and there. The students are brilliant: really experimental and up for it. There’s a good atmosphere in the rehearsal room.

I have to stop writing. It’s too cold not to have my hands in my pockets.


Monday, 26 February 2018

Present continuous

I’m afraid I was rather rude to an evangelical Christian yesterday, as I rushed from a rehearsal in Notting Hill to another rehearsal back in Highgate. He was handing out fliers at the tube whilst saying “Christ the Lord has risen” or something ghastly like that, so I looked him in the eye and said “shut up.” Yes, of course, I could have been considerably ruder, but I was fairly shocked at myself for the anger he made me feel. With all the desperate problems we have in the world at the moment, I think it’s time we started trying to work out how we can unite, rather than wasting time handing our fliers at tube stations which tell us how we should behave. It’s incendiary. I have no objections to anyone with religious faith - my friend Abbie has taught me that not all Christians are anti gay - but I strongly feel that religion needs to be a personal thing: it should not be inflicted on anyone and people must not be either frightened or cajoled into getting involved.

I have very much enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics on telly and shall miss them now they’re over. I’m quite a sucker for an Olympic Games and will happily sit and watch almost any sport - with the exception of team games, which I hate. For some time, I’ve tried to work out what it is about team games which irritate me. I find them utterly boring. Football, rugby, cricket, hockey. Dull. Dull. Dull. Dull.

Football is, without question, the most loathsome game of them all. My least favourite part is the after-match analysis and interviews. Quite why everyone feel the need to talk in the present continuous, I’ve no idea. The match is over. We can help all viewers to acknowledge this fact by talking in the past tense, which is, after all, what it was invented for. I feel the same about the very same trait in historians: “so Henry the Eighth is fighting with all his might to suppress his feelings for Boleyn.” In what world is this still actually happening?!! It’s an affectation and I simply don’t understand the reason for it. Just as I don’t understand why midwives talk about “baby” without using “your” or “the.”

So who have I offended today? Christians, footballers, historians and midwives? Not a bad roll call.






Saturday, 24 February 2018

And just like busses...

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tolerance is not a one way street

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

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

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

Or could they?

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

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


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

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