Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Holocaust Survivors’ Group

I spent the day yesterday with scores of utterly delightful people. First up was a trip down to Clapham to visit Nightingale House, a home for elderly Jewish people, where I met a very warm and affable Scottish chap called Alistair. I was there to tell him all about 100 Faces in the hope that he’d give me a hand in my seemingly endless search for people. I’m relieved to say that he was very taken by the idea and has offered to support the project. I jokingly told him about the 1925 problem: namely that, seemingly every wonderful elderly person I meet, turns out to be born in 1925! I have found almost no-one born in any of the years running up to 1925, and very few in the next two or three years, but 1925? Chockablock!

Later on, Alistair was telling me all about a particularly lovely lady who lives at Nightingale House, who loves to sing and is a wonderful character. A few minutes later, we could hear a chirpy voice singing Wouldn’t It Be Lovely from down the corridor and said lady appeared as if by magic, almost as though fate were demanding that she appear in the film! Alistair called her over and asked the year that she was born. “1925” she said, proudly. My heart sank!

From Clapham, I headed to North West London to visit the holocaust survivors support group who were having a class called Yiddish and Kiddish, followed by a little tea party to celebrate the coming royal wedding. There’s no group as patriotic and quintessentially English as the Jewish community. All the old ladies arrived in hats, looking fabulously summery and smart.

Yiddish and Kiddish gives some of the survivors (all of whom are over 80), an important opportunity to listen to, and speak the language of their childhood. About twenty people were crowded round a giant table, listening to a middle-aged gentleman telling a tall story in this beautiful, expressive, yet almost dead language. I can’t begin to explain how moving I found the experience. Sitting in a room filled with people who survived the Holocaust is awe-inspiring enough, but listening to them interacting in a language which was basically murdered along with six million Jewish people was thought-provoking and devastatingly beautiful. They sat, like school children, listening intently, and with great excitement, to the story their teacher was telling and, with their enthusiasm, and beaming smiles, the age simply fell from their faces. Occasionally one of them would chip in to crack a joke, unsure as to whether they’d perhaps be told off for interrupting. Of course, it’s Yiddish which reminds them of the parents they never saw again after becoming separated in some of the most brutal scenes which have ever been described to me. But Yiddish takes them back to the happier, carefree, pre-war days. I think the only way that I can find to explain the importance of the language is by quoting one old gent who said “Yiddish kept me alive... As we pulled into Auschwitz in our cattle train, I could see men in prison uniforms digging weeds by the side of the tracks. They shouted as the train passed ‘if they offer you food. Eat it. Don’t try to save it. And they said ‘and if you’re younger than 16, whatever you do, lie about your age.’”

He went on to tell me that he was just 12 at the time, but because he inherently trusted anyone who spoke Yiddish, when it came to everyone being lined up and asked their age, he lied and said he was sixteen. Had he told the truth, he would immediately have been gassed.

I walked all the way home, deep in thought, trying to comprehend the beauty of what I’d seen against the horror of the stories I’d been told. And, almost as though to mirror my internal quandary, the sky, which had been a glorious cornflower blue, turned pitch black, and it suddenly started hailing.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Oswestry

I went up to Oswestry on Monday to run a quiz. Actually, I wasn’t quite in Oswestry: I was in one of those conference-venues-cum-wedding-factories between Oswestry and Wrecsam. You know the ones? They’re always new, but built to look a bit oldie-worldie. They’re often associated with golf, but everyone knows they’re actually there so that couples getting married can be fleeced out of thousands of pounds because they’ve got the capacity to put pretty ties on the back of all of the chairs...

I was actually born in Oswestry and my Nana came from Rhosllanerchrugog, just outside Wrecsam, but my experience of the area on Monday was restricted to what I could see through my car windows whilst driving along a series of A roads and bypasses. I therefore didn’t get a great gulp of the soft Welsh air which first filled my lungs.

I don’t think many, if any of the people doing the quiz came from Oswestry. They were all conference delegates, so when I announced that I was born there, there was a bit of a tumbleweed moment. I got a far bigger cheer for mentioning Essex!

My assistant for the quiz was Nathan’s sister, Sam. There was all sorts of to-ing and fro-ing beforehand, and at one point, I was due to go up with Abbie, but then I got a call asking if I knew anyone who might be able to assist in the actual area, and, of course, I immediately thought of Sam, who’s lived on the borders for twenty years. What better way to hang out with your sister-in-law? 

I picked her up at her house near Market Drayton on my way through, and got to say a quick hello to Nathan’s Mum, Celia at the same time, so it was double whammies all round!

The quiz went brilliantly and Sam turned out to be a highly-skilled marker of papers. I wasn’t at all surprised. She is an accountant!

We had to take a diversion on the way home, which meant a rather lovely opportunity to snake our way through a series of little Welsh villages. The skies are very dark at night in that part of the world, which means well-lit houses and petrol stations seem to almost float in the gloom. I always love the sight of a starkly-lit petrol station at night. They always look so effortlessly retro. I suppose they haven’t really changed their basic shape since the 1950s, which gives them a somewhat romantic quality, which is, I’m sure, further aided by their being little oases of life in wildernesses and a welcome sight for the weary traveler.

We got a chance to drive past Sam’s old house in Penley, which has been massively tinkered with since she moved out about six years ago. It must be very odd to return to a house you knew so well to find it looking entirely different. The same thing happened to Sam Becker when I took him back to his old house in Kettering.

I stayed the night in a hotel in Coventry, which broke the back of the long journey home. I like staying in hotels. If I can have a bath, a nice cup of tea and an evening watching telly in bed, I’m a very happy camper. Sadly, it was well past 1am when I arrived, so I didn’t get to have fun. I tried to watch telly, propped up against the wall behind the bed, but I reckon the floor was made of ice, because the bed kept sliding away from the wall, causing me to repeatedly fall off the back, vanishing into a yawning chasm of dust and pillows.

Yesterday morning, I popped to my Grannie’s grave in Stoneleigh. I always try to leave a stone to say I’ve been, but, frustratingly, people keep removing them! There was still one there from my last visit, and now that there are two, I’m hoping people will start to view them as somehow significant. I called my Mum so I had someone to talk to to as I walked around the village. It was important for me to be able to say, “I’m walking towards the kissing gate, past the little wooden walkways they built along the footpath for when the river flooded...” and have someone know what I was talking about. I probably should have taken a trek up to the bluebell woods on the top of the hill, but it started to rain and I was keen to get home.

I always come away thinking what a remarkably beautiful place Stoneleigh is. It’s not just that it has emotional significance for me: I’m pretty sure it’s objectively one of the prettiest villages in the country.

The journey home felt somewhat arduous. I stopped at Toddington because I thought I was in danger of falling asleep.

The day ended back in London, in Mayfair, which is a place I very rarely find myself visiting. It all a bit shiny round those parts for my liking. I find myself longing to see a bit of rubbish rustling down the street, or a pithy, politicised piece of graffiti, otherwise things start to look like a film set. Everyone in Mayfair looks well-fed and beautifully turned out and the chemists have adverts for lip fillers in their windows.

I was running another quiz in a pub where the staff astounded me with their rudeness! I introduced myself to the French man behind the bar who so staggeringly surly, I thought I was in Paris! He begrudgingly showed me to an upstairs room where a second member of staff deigned to fetch me the portable speaker system, whilst mumbling “I’m actually on a break!” Talk about creating a bad first impression of a space! She actually turned out to be rather lovely, and had probably just had a really bad day, filled with rude costumers, but I guess it’s important for us all to avoid carrying the energy from unpleasant encounters into new encounters. I’m sure I’m guiltier than most of doing just that, but I’ve recently tried to meet new people with the belief that anyone has the power to change a mood. A well-timed act of kindness can enrich, or even save a life.

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.