Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Shooting day five

I think it must be so difficult to be an international leader right now. There are so many nut-jobs around, that a semi-sensible Prime Minister is forced to suck up lunacy, simply to stop some sort of major crisis from kicking off. It’s all very well for the London Mayor and the leader of the Scottish National Party to front demonstrations against Trump, but to my mind, that’s one of the manifold benefits of being on the second tier of leadership: You can actually speak your mind instead of playing a game of diplomacy. Imagine having to talk to Trump or Putin like they’re sensible? Terrifying.

Yesterday’s filming started in the East End of London at 19 Princelet Street, which is a stunning Victorian synagogue situated within one of those grand Huguenot weavers’ cottages around Spitalfields. These days it’s rather run down and somewhat “shabby chic” like the theatre at Ally Pally where we got married. Chunks of plaster are falling off the walls, and the roof, which is entirely made of glass, has missing coloured panes where the rain surely comes in. They’re fundraising at the moment to secure the place and turn it into a museum of immigration and diversity. They certainly deserve the funding. This is a vitally important building. I was, however, a little underwhelmed by the way we were dealt with by the institution in the run up to the filming. I didn’t even know they were going to allow us to film there until Thursday last week. I guess I have become very used to people really getting behind 100 Faces and genuinely celebrating the vision of the piece, so it was a shock to find an institution which didn’t seem that bothered. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I ended up being made to feel that the only reason we were being allowed to film there was because we’d brought Steven Berkoff with us.

Nevertheless, the building yielded some rather lovely shots and had a stunning acoustic which we took advantage of to record three vocalists on the film: Ashley, Tim and Harry. Berkoff did his thing. Brilliantly. As did John Kleeman, whose charming wife, Julie, one of the Fleet Singers, came along to the shoot to offer moral support. It was so lovely to see her, although a little surprising out of context. It’s funny how we attach people so firmly to situations and locations that it becomes quite confusing when they’re in a different setting. Your brain starts putting two and two together and coming up with six! I knew her name. I knew I knew her but for a few seconds I’d decided she was a trustee at UK Jewish Film!

From the East End we travelled to Hampstead to film Dame Esther Rantzen. I was rather excited to be filming her. That’s Life played an important role in my childhood. We used to sit down as a family and watch the show on Sunday nights. It reminds me of having “homework tummy” - which is the sensation exclusive to a Sunday night when you realise you haven’t done enough prep for the working week! I realised as we filmed Esther, quite how many of the stories I’d remembered from the show. The badly stuffed cat. The piece they did on people who were able to roll their tongues in two places. The dog that jumped up to drink from a soda fountain. The dog that said “sausages”... People reading this who don’t know the show will think I’ve gone mad!

With Esther, you don’t really get to say what you want. Everything, from shot size, position and type of chair, even what she’s going to say, is pre-arranged and un-negotiable, which made me panic a little that I wasn’t going to be able to make her segment fit into the world of the film. But she’s a total pro and it was a delight to be in the presence of someone whose charity work alone would make most people feel entirely inadequate. She’s a legend.

Next up for filming was another Dame, Janet Suzman, who welcomed us into her beautiful house and gave us all a warm, fuzzy feeling inside! You can instantly tell what kind of a person someone is by the way they deal with film crews. Filming can be intrusive. It can be boring and repetitive. And some film crews will really test people’s limits. But ultimately, everyone is trying to make something good, and therefore, putting people at their ease is a really important thing. On both sides.

After Janet, we headed to the Finchley Road to film Bernard Kops, whom I have grown to adore in a very short period of time. I plan to work with him again after this. He’s 92 and still going strong. He has memories of Cable Street and the wartime Bethnal Green tube disaster, where hundreds were killed in a crush caused by a woman tripping on a flight of stairs, after an air raid siren created wide-scale panic.

Bernard was amazing on screen. Both Keith and Andrei immediately placed him at the top of their list of favourite faces. So much of the trick to getting older is maintaining ones own sense of being... and dignity. I appreciate that this doesn’t always happen through choice. But sometimes you get the impression that a person has simply given up. Kops keeps a steeliness, and a sense of style. He wanted to be filmed in his Greek Fisherman’s hat. “This is more “me” than my face” he said.

Next up was the biggie: Our 100 year old, Eva. Actually, though born in 1918, Eva is still 99 for a few months. She’s ferociously independent and still lives on her own. She’s kind, warm, witty and intelligent with a razor-sharp memory. She’d dressed up for the filming, and looked a million dollars.

There was something pretty special about passing the milestone of filming her. I suspect I’ve always thought if we could get our 100-year-old in the can, everything else would somehow slot into place. This is probably due to the amount of people who have seemed utterly incredulous at the idea that there might be a one hundred year-old Jewish person out there! In reality, of course, people are far more likely to know of the existence of a centenarian than they are of a 96 year old.

The day’s shooting ended, up in High Barnet, in the garden of a 17 year old A-level student. The house itself had been utterly gutted, and the garden was full of rubble and chairs piled high. The family were terribly apologetic, but it made for a very quirky shot. I actually like to arrive in a venue and work with what’s there visually, rather than trying to imagine what I want beforehand. If confronted with a building site, then the building site becomes the perfect location for our shot. It’s more truthful somehow.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Filming day four

It’s been a somewhat manic day today which started with us donning kippahs to film at Finsbury Park synagogue. I didn’t realise that this particular shul was the sight of a really hideous anti-Semitic attack just over ten years ago, which involved people breaking into the building, ripping books up, defecating everywhere and drawing Swastikas on the walls. It’s beyond ghastly, really.

Julian and his daughter Maytal are the proud custodians of the building and Julian was the first of our faces in front of the camera today. He has an old-school Jewish East End accent which I find incredibly charming, largely because you rarely get to hear it these days.

We had a hugely diverse selection of people coming through the doors during the morning, including a young Jewish girl who is half Indian and half Jamaican, someone who descends from the ancient Indian Jewish community of Cochin, and a pair of twins, who will represent, I think, 2009. The project is called 100 Faces - but there are actually 101 faces. I figured twins could be said to count as one. I hope this decision doesn’t confuse viewers too much. The twins are quite boisterous and Zionist, so, for many reasons, they could well end up being the most controversial aspect of the film!

We left the shul at just before 1pm, having filmed seven faces. I was very pleased with the shots we got. Finsbury Park shul has a fabulous atmosphere, but it’s not one of the show-offy synagogues, like New West End, or West London. Filming there meant we had to think a little more out of the box and carefully dress the shots by moving books and various religious objects about in the background.

The next face of the day belonged to the lovely Norman Bright, born in the mid 30s, who is a wonderful character with a great gift for comedy. He fed us Lucozade and tried a few jokes out on us as we set up the shot. He’s about to start running poetry and jazz nights in Stoke Newington and home publishes a monthly satirical newspaper which gets dropped through people’s doors, which I think is called “Born Before Biro.” I hope to have the same amount of energy when I’m in my eighties!

From Norman’s house in the Wild West of Clapton, we headed to the middle class, bohemian oasis of Stoke Newington, where we had lunch before filming two stonking sequences at Rachel’s house. Rachel is the education officer at UK Jewish film and lives in one of loveliest properties I’ve ever seen, with a glorious roof terrace over-looking London. Rachel will appear in the film frantically chopping cucumbers. The other sequence we shot at her house featured a young lass called Maya, whose father is one of the Cohen tribe and mother is a wonderful Malaysian lady, who converted from Catholicism. We’re certainly featuring Jewish people from a wide variety of backgrounds in our film.

Rachel recommended a bar on Church Street where they sell a wide variety of great beer, which appealed to Keith and Andrei on a hot afternoon. We found a lovely table in the yard outside but were a little disappointed to discover that the place only had one beer on draft. It was, nevertheless, a lovely place to sit whilst the world watched the World Cup final. As we left, we realised the beer place was actually next door!

We jumped back into the car and headed to Islington to meet Lubavitch Rabbi, Mendy Korer. We filmed him out on his balcony and he dusted off his line at top speed. He is obviously a man who is highly used to media work.

The last filming of the day took place back in Clapton with the deeply charming, quirky comedian, Penelope Solomon, who was our second singer of the day. Penelope likens being Jewish to sitting in a warm bath which needs to continually be topped up with lovey hot water. It’s an analogy which works rather beautifully.

The journey home took us back to Finsbury Park shul where Andrei had left a speaker. Fortunately Maytal was on hand to let us back in. She really has been an absolute brick throughout this process. When I was a child, someone called me a brick and I cried all day because I didn’t know it was a good thing. So Maytal, if you’re reading this, and don’t know what a brick is... Think Mensch and you won’t go far wrong!

38 Faces down. 62 to go...

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Truck Fump

Another day of filming starts today. We’re avoiding filming on Fridays and Saturdays because I wouldn’t want any of our faces to feel uncomfortable about being asked to film on Shabbat. As it stands, we have a full house, but for someone born in 1924. I have leads in this regard, but I’ll confess to being slightly concerned.

Of course, the issue is that, the further into the filming we get, the more pressure we end up under if people pull out, so the last day (next Sunday) could well end up like some sort of fight to the death!

I was grateful to have a day away from filming on Friday because it gave me a chance to go into the office and sort out a load of admin. We have five days of filming on the trot now, so there were a lot of people to email and a lot of venues to double-confirm. As it strands, everything is in order. It needs to be because things are bound to go wrong!

I met up with Fiona after work on Friday and we went to the anti-Trump demonstration. Fiona had marched, but I hadn’t made it in time, so went to the rally in Trafalgar Square instead. I didn’t stay long. I just wanted to stand up and be counted really. It was only a gesture, because the man himself was in Windsor so couldn’t hear the booing and jeering. That’s why I was so grateful to the people in Scotland who thwarted his game of golf yesterday with catcalls and out of tune bagpipes.

The rally was incredibly good-natured with some wonderfully inventive placards being waved. I was also pleased to see it hadn’t become a gathering for anyone with radical beef about any old issue. I saw a few Palestinian flags but people were mostly sticking to the brief of letting America know why we don’t want him in this country. A psychopath, so wholly lacking in compassion for the under dog is not welcome here. With any luck, his draconian policies on immigration will prevent him from reentering the States!

I’m sure Theresa May had a ball entertaining him. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for her, but to quote the old man sitting at the bus stop in Finsbury Park just now: “that prime minster of ours. She’s an arsehole.”

Friday, 13 July 2018

Day three of filming

Yesterday started in a Travelodge, somewhere near Wakefield. Despite being on the M1 and entirely lacking in breakfast facilities (other than the dreaded “breakfast box”) the place itself was a rather nice example of an English motel. My room was large. It had a lovely deep bath in it. We got in so late, however, that I didn’t get to take advantage of it. There’s nothing better after a shoot than being able to relax with a hot bath and a bit of TV.

From Wakefield, we travelled to Northern Leeds, where we had breakfast outside a little cafe before heading off to film our 23rd face, the youngstest in the film, a one-year-old lad called Harry. It’s rather surreal to think that he might show our film to his great grandchildren in 90 years time. Here’s a lad with his whole life ahead of him. What will he witness? Will humanity get its act together or will a cataclysmic event occur, brought about by our recidivist inability to learn?

From Leeds, we drove to Salford to a hugely Jewish district which, I was surprised to discover, was jam-packed with Charedi people. Hats. Ringlets. Peddle pushers. The works. Obviously, we’re all very used to seeing members of this particular community in Stamford Hill, Brooklyn and, of course, Israel, but there was something about the sight of them in a leafy Northern City suburb which rather surprised and delighted me.

It was here that we filmed a wonderful woman called Rochelle who was perhaps even more of a contradiction than the neighbourhood she lives in. Rochelle is a plain-talking, highly-witty Scouse woman, who also wears a sheitel and is ultra-orthodox enough not to shake a man’s hand on meeting him. What’s wonderful about her is that she’s really open and happy to discuss anything. You also get the impression that she wouldn’t make anyone feel unconformable if they held out a hand. I assume she’d either take it, or explain with a joke why she hadn’t. I took to her enormously. She’d asked her rabbi what she should say about being Jewish and simply been told, “just speak from your heart.”

We also filmed Rochelle’s two-year-old granddaughter, Amelia, who was suitably charming, if not a touch flibbertigibbet. Getting her to stay still was a little like trying to herd butterflies!

We drove across to the fancy suburbs of Western Manchester for the second half of the day, and faces twenty-five to thirty, which included an Austrian Kinder-Transportee/former dentist who has dedicated his retirement to reminding the Jewish community what an important role the Quakers played in saving Jewish lives during World War Two, and Joy Wolf, an indomitable charity campaigner who encourages young people to find their voices.

The day ended in Cheadle, with the deeply charming Debbie Hilton, a very close friend of Nathan’s from drama school. The plan had been to film her and both of her children, but her son had a melt down and that was the end of his involvement in the film. I’ve said all the way along on that I only want people involved who are keen to take part. I’m not interested in anyone feeling scared, angry or like they’re doing me a favour by taking part. Someone else will step in, and enjoy doing so.

Debbie sang beautifully and looked utterly luminous on screen. She confessed herself that her voice has got a little rusty of late, but you could tell what a quality instrument lies just beneath the surface. I hope she dusts it off and starts loving that side of her life again. It doesn’t matter where you sing. The important thing is that you SING. As loudly, as often and with as much joy as you can muster.

The journey home seemed to last forever. I didn’t try to rush. Andrei is a great companion and I decided to bore him silly by playing him the Brass and the Em albums, which he seemed to enjoy.
I came home to discover that one of my faces, an old gent called Eric, whom we were meant to be filming on Tuesday, has died. I only met him once. He was quiet, but charming and he had a lovely singing voice which I was excited about featuring in the film. We knew he was poorly, so we’d already started looking for a replacement, which makes me feel slightly less mercenary about replacing him. But it’s very sad. I guess if it does nothing else, making a film about the process of ageing is going to make you acutely aware of your own mortality, and your position almost half the way along the timeline...

Shooting day two

Two more days of filming back-to-back and I’ve woken up this morning feeling like I entered a black hole during the night. I forget how exhausting filming can be. Actually, the older I get, the more I forget (or suddenly learn) how exhausting everything can be! I am very grateful to the two days off we now have. There is, of course, a bewildering amount of admin for me to do, but I’m hoping that Keith and Andrei (camera and sound) will get to relax and sleep and look back on a very successful start to our odyssey.

I couldn’t have asked for a better team around me. Both are incredibly laid back yet highly enthusiastic about what we’re doing. They’re truly investing in the project. Banter, as we travel about, is great. We laugh a lot. Keith and I say terribly inappropriate things and Andrei hasn’t yet tried to escape from a moving car! The nature of the people we’re filming - Holocaust survivors, Kinder Transportees, those whose lives were saved by the Quakers during the Second World War - means that our discussions can also get quite deep. Andrei is Romanian and I have become quite fascinated with his stories about the 1989 Revolution. All of this has made me realise quite how shrill, yet hollow, some of the yelling on social media has been of late. Sometimes I think it’s important to recognise how lucky we are to be living in 2018, in the UK, before telling the world what terrible victims we all are. We might do well by taking a deep breath and working out what the word victim actually means.

Anyway, two days ago, filming started at 10am, at the Holocaust survivors’ centre, where we met four wonderful individuals who have seen, first hand, the reason why it’s vital that people like Trump and Putin are kept in check, and furthermore why the UK and the US’s backward step into self-protectionism is so worrying. Brexit has played its part in destabilising the world, be under no illusion about that. But at least, I suppose, we get to measure our apples in pounds and shillings. Philip, Ivor, Miriam and Manfred are all wonderful characters whose faces will light up the film. Miriam had a heart attack just over two weeks ago and yet she breezed in, looking fabulously glamorous, keen to get on with life. That’s the spirit of a survivor.

Faces 16 and 17 were filmed at one of Jewish Care’s centres up in Hendon. Jewish Care have been wonderful help for us during this project. Lisa Wimborne, who works for the organisation, is one of the first people I contact when one of my faces drops out. She has saved the day on more than one occasion.

We filmed the lovely Matthew, a guy with a deeply infectious smile, who is confined to a wheelchair, and a five-year-old lass called Daniella, who calls everyone dude! 

Lunch was in a kosher bakery, which meant I got to shovel shedloads of vegetarian baked goods into my pie hole - Barekas with cheese, barekas with mushroom, vegetarian sausage rolls... I was utterly spoilt for choice, but must learn how to spell bareka.

The next five faces were filmed in the staggering surroundings of West London shul, which has to be one of the finest synagogues in London. Rabbi David was wonderfully welcoming. He is understandably, deeply proud of the building, and the more I hear about what goes on inside, from LGBT weddings to World AIDS day services, the more I feel in awe.

Rabbi David sings in the film, as does a glorious cabaret performer called Melinda Hughes, who kindly filled in for a last-minute drop out and, in the process, made herself one of the leading lights of the film! At the same location we also filmed suave actor, Henry Goodman, Brass family member, Zak Easthop (who plays flugelhorn in the film) and Tahlia Kaye, an Indian convert to Liberal Judaism.

As we exited the shul, London was gearing itself up for the World Cup Semi-Final. We could hear groups of people singing “football’s coming home” and there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air.

The M1 was empty as we drove north. By the time we’d arrived in Northampton, the match had started and England were a goal up. We were in my home town to film our oldest face so far: 97 year-old Sidney Teckman. I want to be like Sidney at the age of 97. Open. Honest. Dignified. Witty. Sharp. Proudly wearing his RAF badge.

We were there to talk to him about the Battle of Cable Street, which, in my view, is the single most important event in British Jewish history. We did a little interview with him about his memories. Not really for anything other than preserving his testimony. People don’t really know about Cable Street. Young Jewish people don’t even know about what happened on that day in 1936. And they should. And we should be very grateful to those like Sidney and Bernard Kops, who stood up to be counted when they were given the chance. Bravo Sidney Teckman. We owe our liberty to you.

It was as we left Sidney’s house to start a journey to Leeds that Keith the cameraman revealed that bites on his legs which he’d got whilst filming the fires on Saddleworth Moor, had got infected. His leg had swollen up and he was beginning to worry. So the evening ended in A and E in Barnsley Hospital, surrounded by pissed-up football fans nursing injuries inflicted on themselves after our disappointing exit from the World Cup, which we caught at Leicester Services.

It was, Keith informed me, exactly eight years to the day that we’d wrapped filming on A Symphony for Yorkshire. Where does the time go, please?

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The first day of shooting

Yesterday was gruelling, uplifting, hectic, moving, hysterical and occasionally, even restful.

At 10am, a small film crew arrived at Maureen Lipman’s house to film the first of our 100 Faces. She was a delight. An absolute charmer. Graceful. Warm. She’d written a wonderful mini-poem for her 7-second slot in the film, and delivered it, perfectly, in one take. She asked to have a quick look at what we’d filmed and when we played it back in the monitor, she said, “well, I think that’s a lovely shot... of my begonia!” She was right! We altered the shot and did another take!

The rest of the day sailed past in a whirl. I can’t help but think we’ve entered an episode of Challenge Anneka where the stakes see incredibly high and, instead of the ludicrous fake jeopardy you get with modern-day documentaries, we’ve got the toe-twitching, face-gnawing real deal! Already this week I’ve lost 3 of my faces. One went into hospital. One poor lass lost her uncle. One bloke told me he couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t going to be “recouperating”  on the filming day, so wasn’t prepared to commit to it, having committed to it. (Seriously!) We offered him another filming date (today) and, last night, he sent an email to say that “for personal reasons” he can’t now do that.

What was joyous about yesterday is that everyone we expected to film either turned up, or was in when we turned up, and, despite being already half an hour behind schedule before lunch, we caught up and finished the day ahead of time with a happy crew who’d even managed to sit down in a cafe for lunch.

Our second face was the incomparable “frum” comedian, Ashley Blaker, who schlepped down to Highgate to film his sequence in front of my mantelpiece. His response to the question “what does being Jewish mean to you?” was suitably witty and brilliantly delivered.

Faces three and four were in Highgate and Muswell Hill respectively. One sat on the balcony of his house and answered his question in Yiddish. The other’s response was political and delivered in front of a massive book case. He faltered a few times, 28 times to be exact, but we got there in the end. He has a wonderful face.

Next up was 80s club host and great friend, Philip Sallon and his sister Ruth. We filmed Ruth in her studio. She’d just finished work on a statue which she felt entirely summed up what she was saying, so we filmed them together! 

Philip was, as expected, utterly insane. To warm up for his six second cameo, he sang a song and made about ninety quick-witted quips. He opted to be filmed half naked wearing only a loin cloth with a Star of David attached!

Probably the most striking clash of worlds came in the form of Philip meeting the wonderfully dignified Steven, a Holocaust survivor and our seventh face, who, I’m quite sure had never encountered anyone like Philip before. Philip told Steven what to wear and told him to change what he was planning to say which made Steven incredibly tense. It came from the right place and because we weren’t running behind, it stayed amusing. I think it was only when Steven realised he could tell Philip to shut up that he found him anything other than terrifying!

Ruth gave us tea and biscuits before we headed off to Alexandra Palace for faces eight, nine, ten and eleven: a quirky, brilliant-minded school boy, a stunningly beautiful actress called Gabriella, Brass family member, and wonderful singer, Jack Reitman and the chairman of UK Jewish film, whose response to the question was particularly moving.

And that was that. Laura from Ally Pally looked after us incredibly well. I genuinely feel that our getting married there has made us part of the story of the building some how. When I first moved to London, I lived in a horrifying bedsit which had an incredible view up the hill to the palace. Back then I decided it was the most beautiful building in London. It’s certainly played a large part in my life.

I came home and had a bath because I couldn’t actually do anything else!

Monday, 9 July 2018

That flag

The UK seems almost as hot as Israel at the moment. I went down to Worthing in shorts and a T-shirt yesterday and still felt hot. Sadly, I wasn’t there to jump about on the beach in a carefree and jolly manner. Instead, I went down to work on the music for 100 Faces with our music producer, Paul. The task was to identify the best takes from the session with the Camerata in readiness for filming.

There comes a point at which being the director, composer and producer of a film collides - and that point has just arrived. Usually, I’ve been able to work on the constituent elements separately, or I’ve had a producer who’s been working full time with me to take care of the avalanche of ludicrous questions you get asked in the run up to a shoot like this, or take responsibility for all of those really important things like booking hotels for cameramen and sorting insurance, which get temporarily tossed aside when you’re trying to record an Israeli orchestra or create a shot list.

It, of course, entirely goes without saying that the train down to Worthing was badly delayed. We stopped in Littlehampton for an age. Quite why the train went to Worthing via Littlehampton and not Brighton, I’ve no idea, but there was talk of planned engineering at Three Bridges - none of which was mentioned on my Trainline App, which told me I could expect to arrive in Worthing half an hour before I actually did.

I don’t know how Brighton people deal with the dreadful Southern Rail service. Our woefully poorly transport infrastructure makes the UK begin to resemble a developing country. On the way back yesterday, the train was so overcrowded that I ended up sitting on the floor between the loo and the concertinered rubbery bit where the train carriages join. By the time I’d emerged at Victoria my back had gone into spasms. I’m surprised we weren’t given the option of sitting on the roof of the train!

Thank God for them England football lads, eh? They’re gonna show the rest of the world that we mean business. They’re gonna put the great in Great Britain again. Or England. Whatever. Who gives a shit? It’s all the same isn’t it?

I walked past a house in Worthing utterly bedecked in England flags and immediately felt uncomfortable. I wonder if there are citizens in any other country in the world who feel their own flag symbolises something other than pride in their homeland? I’m okay with the Union Jack, which, for me, represents unity. When I’m on my travels around the world, and I see a Union Jack, I’ll often feel a twinge of belonging. The England flag, on the other hand, feels like nothing but a flapping advert for racism, prejudice, and separation. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in feeling this.

I genuinely envy the Welsh and the Scots, who, it seems, can wave their own flags with pride and great joy without feeling like there are sinister overtones in doing so.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

A trip to the Kibbutz

Our last day in Jerusalem started with a lovely vegetarian buffet breakfast. People are much safer serving vegetarian food in Israel, not just because of the manifold kosher and halal rules regarding meat being served with dairy, but also because anything made from a pig is fairly disastrous for Muslims and Jewish people alike. The mainstay of the UK fried breakfast is, of course, pig, so Israeli breakfasts have to go down a different route.

This morning’s offerings included a delicious potato and mushroom gratin and filo pastry parcels filled with something which tasted like feta. Heaven.

Our new friend, Asaf, the archaeologist we met last night, came to spend our last two hours with us, and very kindly offered to drive us to the airport, in the process saving us £100 in a private taxi, which is the ONLY method of transport available on a Saturday in Jerusalem! The ultra orthodox lobby is incredibly powerful in the city, and tends to rule the roost when it comes to making decisions with any sort of religious baring. If they decide that no one is to travel on Shabbat, then no one travels, whether they’re religious or not.

On route to the airport, Asaf took us into the mountains above Jerusalem to show us a number of Kibbutz and a wonderful vantage point with views across the whole of Israel. From the top of a somewhat peculiar, water-tower-esque, brutalist concrete viewing platform, you could very clearly see Israel’s border as it had been when the state was established in 1948. In order to protect the new country from Palestinian sniper attacks, the Israelis planted a wood of pine trees all the way along the edge of the land they’d been granted. These trees are now beautiful and fully mature, and they cut a very handsome swathe across the undulating yet often baron landscape.

Asaf is a deeply fascinating bloke. He could talk about history and ancient archeology until the cows come home. Wind him up, press play, and he’ll answer every question you have, in a deeply engaging manner. He is currently excavating King Herod’s Palace, near the Dead Sea, south east of Bethlehem. I learned more about the history of Israel in a few hours than I possibly have in the rest of my life.

It was also rather good to talk to him about politics. He’s a self-confessed left wing socialist, who struggles with the fact that most of the greatest archeological digs are in the West Bank. That said, his work in the West Bank means he spends a great deal of his time with Palestinians and Bedouin folk, and says that ordinary people on both sides are very open to conversation and compromise. It’s the leaders who are so much more black and white. He is conflicted about the presence of the wall, however, pointing out that, although it’s deeply incendiary, it has saved countless lives. His childhood was spent hearing countless chilling accounts of bus bombs and suicide attacks. No one in Israel is untouched by terrorism. And yet, since the wall went up, these attacks have largely stopped.

The flight back was with EasyJet, who’d entirely run out of vegetarian food. They were offering people - ON A FLIGHT FROM ISRAEL - either bacon or ham sandwiches! It’s this logic-defying (and culturally-insensitive) behaviour which tells you you’re flying budget! When I complained, the cabin lass told me that a veggie running out of vegetarian food was no different from a meat eater being told they’d run out of meat. “No” I said, incensed, “if a meat eater runs out of meat, he or she can still chow down on the veggie food.” The point about veggie food is that it’s an option for everyone (except, sometimes, vegans.)

As an outsider, I witness a lot of people fetishising meat. People seem to feel they have to offer consumers the choice of every sort of meat available and, to me, this feels rather distasteful. Meat comes at a high price and, in my view, it’s morally outrageous to waste it, or to charge too little for it.

As a non-drinker, I also see how the world has a tendency to fetishise alcohol. People start behaving so strangely and belligerently when they have the excuse of alcohol. It’s a little strange to me that some people can’t seem to have fun unless there’s a glass of something in their hand. They guilt trip others into drinking “just one more” and there seems to be a sort of machismo attached to being able to handle your drink. Many drinkers feel deeply self-conscious when there’s a non-drinker in their midst and try to claim that the evening isn’t going to be as fun because someone’s not drinking. Obviously, I’m not knocking anyone who likes a glass of wine of an evening, or a whiskey after dinner. But the older I get, the more weird and boring I think people get when they’ve had too much to drink. In vino veritas.

I was surrounded by children on the flight. The child behind me shat itself two hours in, and the stench of eggy shit wafted around my head. The mother had forgotten to bring nappies with her, which was absolutely bizarre. Even more bizarre was her refusal to accept the cabin crew’a offer to ask the other families on the flight if they had a spare one.

The little girl next to me decided to film the window of the plane (with me in the shot) for the whole taxiing and take off. As a fairly bad flier, I found the behaviour deeply unacceptable. I don’t need to feel self-conscious AND traumatised! I was even more horrified that the mother didn’t step in and tell her to stop.

We flew into Luton airport, which is an embarrassment, frankly. I feel ashamed when I think of anyone visiting this country and seeing that as their first impression. There’s a big sign which says welcome in many languages. The Hebrew is backwards. The whole airport is under tarpaulin for never-ending building work. They charge you to take the shuttle to the airport. The airport escalators are broken. The train station looks down-at-heel...

I could go on... but whinging would ruin my wonderful holiday.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Dead Sea

I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to come down to a buffet breakfast in a hotel and discover that everything is vegetarian. Well, alright, there was a bit of fish in one corner, but apart from that, everything was edible.

The plan today was to visit the Dead Sea, and we decided to go there by public transport, which turned out to be a rather silly idea. We ended up in a cab heading to the bus station with a somewhat unscrupulous driver, who did everything in his devious little power to make sure we missed our bus so that he could charge us 600 shekels to take us there direct. He used supreme stalling tactics: took us the longest route to the bus station, dropped us by a cash point which didn’t exist, and then, finally, when he’d got his way, he did everything he could to get more money out of us. It was really rather unpleasant, but at least I got to swim in the Dead Sea. I was last there in 1998, so it was a 20-year ambition to return.

The journey took us out of Jerusalem via the West Bank, which is always a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Our driver pointed out several of the Jewish settlements to us, and offered to take us to Jericho or Bethlehem (for extra money.) Of course, what people forget, in their rush to condemn Jewish people for wanting to live in the desert, is that it’s within the contested West Bank where many of the ancient and hugely important Biblical sites are... both Christian and Jewish.

The signposts along the motorway are a veritable lexicon of Biblical sites, including the spot where Lazarus was raised from the dead and the place where something happened with a Good Samaritan. I should imagine that fella Jesus has something to do with whatever that particular story is all about.

The Judean Desert is a bleak place. Pinkish, yellow and cream-coloured rocks have been sculpted into waves by the wind over thousands of years. The sky which hovers over the top of the rocks is a powder blue. Electricity pylons stretch far into the distance. The occasional settlement clings to a hilltop, mostly stark concrete buildings with small windows to stave off the deadly sun.

This is the land of the Bedouin, which our taxi driver took great delight in telling us were also being threatened by the Israeli government. The Bedouin don’t live in tents, which the romantic in me somehow expected. They live in semi-permanent corrugated tin shacks, surrounded by emaciated donkeys and horses. A woman with a flowing headscarf was using a hose to clean something.

The nearer the sea you get, the more below sea level you end up. The taxi driver told us that it’s the lowest point on earth. For some reason I thought that was Death Valley, but that might be the hottest place! What’s certainly the case is that you go from Jerusalem, which is high in the mountains, and drop many many feet down to the Dead Sea, which is 400 meters below sea level. Rather jolly plaques made from porcelain tiles tell you when you get to 100 below. 200 below. 300 below...

There are also a number of date farms close to the sea which are a striking sight in the middle of the desert. Date palms are rather tall, impressive trees. This time of the year they also have little bags hanging from their branches, I assume to catch the dates when they become ripe and fall.

Curious stalls line the sides of the road. Many sell pots and garden equipment. There’s a fashion in those parts for ceramic toadstools. Who’d have thought? There were also many camels by the side of the road. They don’t move very much and I thought the first ones I saw were made of fibre glass. I jokingly said this to Michael, but our keen-eared taxi driver was straight on it: “you want ride on camel? I organise ride on camel. Not expensive...” I hate it when I’m viewed as a breathing pot of money. Frankly, I’d feel very lucky if I could command 600 shekels a day. That’s about £120!

As we neared our beach on the Dead Sea, we passed through a ruined Jordanian army camp. The light concrete buildings are now just shells, but have become the most amazing canvasses for graffiti.

The beach we ended up at was the one our driver assured us was the best. Actually, it turned out simply to be the closest to Jerusalem. I didn’t mind. It was nice enough and probably a lot nicer than the one I went to in 1998, which I seem to recall being very muddy.

There’s a complex of buildings at the top of the cliff, all designed to get as much money out of tourists as possible. Shops selling minerals and mud harvested from the sea. Little stalls selling slushies at £5 a pop. Wildly expensive lockers for your valuables. Netta, this year’s Eurovision winner, was playing on a loop.

The beach itself was charming, and relatively empty (it being mid day in the height of summer.) I’m told you can fry eggs on the rocks there. I certainly burned the soles of my feet whilst walking across the sand. 

I’m painting all of this to be like some kind of Dantesque vision of hell, but genuinely, the moment you enter that water, something magical happens. You literally cannot do anything but float. It’s not one of those situations where you have to skull a bit to keep afloat. The water tips you onto your back, and takes your feet out from under you. It is impossible to swim. It’s very hard to roll onto your front. You literally lie on your back and float into oblivion. It would be an amazing way to meditate. Lie flat and your ears go under water to the extent that all you can hear is the odd glug of water and the sound of your heartbeat. It is one of those things which everyone needs to experience.

Word of advice, however; don’t get it in your eyes because it’ll sting like hell! And, if you have any little cuts and abrasions on your feet or legs, the highly salty water will sure as anything make you aware of them! Periodically you’d see someone being led by a friend over to the shower, eyes clamped shut in pain, “ooh, another casualty” someone would say.

The water feels like oil. Like brine. I guess it is a form of brine. The fun thing to do is to cover yourself from head to toe in mud. It’s meant to be very good for you. And my forehead has felt like a baby’s bottom all day as a result!

But we couldn’t stay long at the beach. It was too hot. We also had a taxi driver who told us it didn’t matter how long we stayed, but secretly we knew however long we stayed would be too long, and therefore potentially cost us more. We were right. We stayed on the beach for an hour and a quarter. He accused us of staying for two hours and wanted more money. He didn’t get it. By the time he dropped us back in Jerusalem we’d developed a deep hatred of the man.

We were stopped at a check-point on the way back into Israel, and that felt a little weird. We also saw the infamous wall, which, in the flesh, is possibly even more foreboding. The problem, of course, is that, though terribly divisive, it’s also kept Israeli’s a lot safer from terrorist attacks.

After lunch, I sat and watched hammy actors rehearsing in the park behind King David’s hotel. I wasn’t sure why they were rehearsing there. It smacked of some sort of American summer school. They were performing Shakespeare with physical theatre techniques. One man was pretending to be a lizard. Every time I moved benches, they followed. Every time I looked at them, I blushed.

We went back into the Old City in the afternoon. Fridays in Jerusalem are very quiet. Despite it not officially being sabbath until dusk, most places shut at lunch time - if indeed they’ve opened at all. The place is so frum that we may even struggle to get back to the airport tomorrow for our flight.

The Old City, as usual, was hugely chaotic. Lads collecting plastic bottles for recycling wander through the streets. Many of the stores have little singing birds in cages hanging from the ceilings. I’m told the birds in these cages sing because they’re so distressed.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was hanged and buried and all that stuff. It’s not a story I find personally affecting, but Abbie asked me to say hello to Jesus for her, and also there’s something fairly intoxicating about the religious fervour you get in that place. Regardless of whether you believe the old women are rubbing perfumes into the stone which covered Jesus’ tomb, what IS true is that they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years on the same piece of marble. And that, in itself, is remarkable.

We exited the old town at Damascus Gate, which is very firmly in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The call to prayer was happening and different pitched voices were echoing across the city. It was all rather eerie.

We found ourselves back in the Old City at dusk because we wanted to see the Shabbat service at the Western Wall. As we walked towards the Jewish quarter we found ourselves in a huge crocodile of people dressed in their finest, all heading to the same place. The atmosphere was utterly electric. There were many thousands there, most of whom were singing excitedly and jumping up and down in huge circles like only Jewish people seem to do.

We didn’t stay for long. There’s something about large numbers of people congregating in small places which makes me deeply uncomfortable. It only takes one person to get into a panic before everyone starts rushing about like headless chickens and there’s some sort of catastrophe.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in a park and watched an amazing fountain. It was one of those fountains which keeps changing its settings so that children can run in and out of jets of water of different heights. It’s the best one of its sort I’ve ever seen and the kids were having an amazing time - despite it being dark. Children don’t go to bed when it’s dark here. You get them up at all times, playing in floodlit parks. It’s rather charming.

This evening we went to Jerusalem’s only gay bar, Videopub, where we met a charming archaeologist who told us all about the Dead Sea Scrolls, although, actually, he was obsessed with Boudicca which I rather liked.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Jerusalem the Gold

We had breakfast in a little cafe in Terence Aviv this morning. We had chocolate croissants and the sweetest, tangiest, most freshly squeezed orange that I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. 

We hopped on the bus to Jerusalem at about 10am. It’s always a bit of a motley crew who end up on the bus from Terence Aviv to Jerusalem: a mixture of old blokes in homburgs, funny middle-aged Americans in awful baseball caps and young Israelis in army uniforms. There were a lot of ultra orthodox women travelling as well. You can spot them a mile off from their silhouettes. They wear flat-heeled shoes and sack-like dresses which they prettify with little Laura Ashley-style lacy collars, and fascinators or bows pinned into their sheitals. The end result looks somewhat childish.

We reached Jerusalem and checked into the YMCA where we’re staying. When you think about YMCAs, you think about puritanical dormitories and singing red Indians, but, in Jerusalem, it’s a glorious Art Deco hotel with a huge tower which guests are allowed to climb for stunning sunset views across the city.
We walked into the old city in the searing afternoon heat. The humidity of Tel Aviv has now been replaced by a dry, dry heat; the sort of heat which can be quite shocking because it makes you wonder if you’re being baked alive.

The old city was its usual chaotic self with scores of Arabs in the Christian quarter hustling their wares. If I had a sense of smell, I’d be able to talk about the heady blend of spices, rotting meats and incense, but because I don’t, I’ll have to talk about the riot of visuals I encountered. Silk scarves and tallitot hang from the ceilings and crucifixes are tossed shambolically onto wooden tables with Magen Davids and menorahs. Catch the eye of a shop keeper and you’re instantly offered some sort of deal.

The Jewish quarter is filled with beggars who will remind you, quite aggressively, of your duty to give to charity. A bald-headed woman wearing a head scarf was busking on an accordion. She was singing along in a voice which sounded like she’d swallowed sandpaper. The noise of her singing was suddenly upstaged by the microtonal wails of the Muslim call to prayer echoing from the Arab quarter.

The entire old city is a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. We went shopping for a tallit. We obviously have to wear them whilst singing at shul and I’ve got quite bored of our synagogue-issued prayer shawls, which are a complete lottery. There’s one which sometimes gets put out for us to wear which the choir call the “dead man’s shroud” on account of it looking a little like a middle-aged woman’s stole from a night out in the 1960s dipped in death and then resurrected. The tallitot in the old city are all hand-woven and incredibly expensive, however. I absolutely fell in love with one which costed about £300! So we hastily took ourselves away from the tourist areas and headed to where the frums live and work.

We went to a district called Mea Shearim, which is full of winding little roads, crammed with wonderful bakeries, kosher grocery stores, clothing shops and bric-a-brac places. It is another world, filled with wonderful faces, and ultra orthodox Jewish people from all kinds of different sects, all of whom wear slightly different uniforms. Some wear black peddle pushers and waistcoats, others wear furry hats which are a cross between a homburg and a boater, some dress in stripy, grey over coats. The young lads wear their suit jackets over their shoulders like the Pink Ladies in Grease!

The walls of the area are lined with austere-looking black and white posters: a mix of death notices, public shamings and reminders of ones duty to live a modest and God-fearing life.

The guys that sold us our tallitot were rakish, witty and very naughty despite being dressed in Charedi garb. The first Tallit I spotted was fringed with a six-coloured rainbow. The concept of the pride flag was obviously lost on them and they described it merely as “multi-coloured.” It felt too much of a statement - even for me - so I opted instead for one fringed in blues and purples.

This evening we went to Emek Refaim, a somewhat trendy part of town where slightly more bohemian Jerusalemites come to eat and promenade. We sat outside a pizza restaurant, people watching. The most curious sight was almost certainly the lad wearing full football kit with a tallit underneath his football shirt and a kippah on his head. The pizza was delicious but I have never been served such a large one! It’s rare for me to walk away from any food, but that one had me beat!

We’ve walked about ten miles today. My feet feel like stumps.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The session

The day started with breakfast, Israeli style, in a little American-themed cafe on Dizengoff. Israeli breakfast usually involves a side of salad, which just feels wrong!

Today was the big day. The reason why we’re in Israel.

We took a taxi up to the University of Tel Aviv where we recorded the music for 100 Faces with the Israel Camerata. Michael conducted in the concert hall. I hid in the control room with a chap called Rafi who was engineering the session.

We had a lot to record and 100 Faces is not an easy composition. I realised as soon as I’d finished writing it that it was going to sit very squarely in the English string orchestra tradition. There are more than a few shades of Vaughan Williams and Elgar within, but, for a film which is very much about British Jewish people, that feels entirely appropriate.

The orchestra, however, don’t really have English Musical Renaissance as one of their points of reference. Most of them are Russian Jews, many of whom came to Israel in the 1990s after the collapse of communism. I kept wondering what they were thinking: whether they were enjoying the music, relating it somehow to their own musical influences, or just telephoning in their performances in a slightly perplexed manner!

What immediately became apparent was that the orchestra weren’t at all used to playing to a click track (namely the little ticking noise they hear through headphones as they play to keep them strictly in time.) They’re a proper concert chamber orchestra, so their currency is live performance where they cling to the vapour trail of the conductor’s baton. Click tracks for them are confusing and restrictive - and they made their feelings in this regard very clear!

Perhaps as a result, the session felt a little fraught on occasion and what we’ve recorded isn’t by any means perfect because no one could have achieved perfection in just three hours. They are, however, a brilliant orchestra full of quite sublime players, so much of what we recorded was wonderful.

After the session I tried to pay the orchestra and immediately entered a hell zone, entirely created by Barclays Bank, who kept me on the phone for 2 hours (at £1.80 a minute), putting me on hold, making me talk to the fraud team, sending me in ever-decreasing circles. It was a dreadful experience and it utterly ruined any joy I’d had during the session or any desire we had to celebrate. In the end Michael had to pay the orchestra (taking out an over draft in the process). I don’t think I’ve felt so stressed this year. 

After a bit of food, I cheered up, and a lovely swim in the Mediterranean brought the stress levels down again. The beaches in Tel Aviv are quite legendary and it’s possible to wade a long way out before your head vanishes under the water. Rather large fish happily swim about between your legs.

We went for dinner tonight with Michael’s friend, Kobi, and walked for about an hour along the seafront, past the sad shell of a building where, in 2001, twenty-one teenagers queueing for a nightclub, were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Michael was actually further down the beach in a cafe at the time and describes the bomb as sounding - and feeling - like a sonic boom.

We ate in Tel Aviv’s “first” neighbourhood, the charming and very quiet district of Neve Tzedeq. The cafe was in a little covered street which is accessed only by a door in a wall. It’s like entering Narnia through the wardrobe. It reminded me of Shoreditch in the days before it became over-trendy. We were surrounded by the cool kids of Tel Aviv. There were more white people with dreadlocks per square metre than in Camden Market in the 90s!

A DJ played music as we ate roasted cauliflower and green beans cooked in garlic and lemon juice. I was thrilled when he pulled out a copy of Frida’s Something Going On album, and played one of the tracks.

After tea, we delved even deeper into Neve Tzedeq, which grew more charming with every step. The most lovely corner surrounds Suzanne’s Dance Theatre, which is held up as the institution singularly responsible for gentrifying the area. The wonderful courtyard outside is covered by a canopy of tutus!

It was a charming end to a rather special day.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Terrance Aviv

Getting up at 4am this morning was a trial. Luton Airport love their shit o’clock flights, which is unfortunate because trains don’t go through the night to the airport, so, in order to get a 7am flight, you have to go by car. Thank God for Nathan who offered to drive, but ended up staying up the whole night because he got stranded on a train returning from Brighton last night and only got home at 2am. Sometimes it’s better to have no sleep than to fall into a deep sleep and get woken up with a terrible start.

We got stuck in a terrible traffic jam entering the airport. That’s what happens when driving is the only way to reach a place.

I met Michael at the airport, but, as we arrived at the gate, a grumpy woman rushed over with green tags, which I instantly knew meant that our carefully packed hand luggage was going into the hold. Boring.

The flight was okay. I wasn’t as nervous taking off as I normally am and we managed to get all the way to Israel without any turbulence. The landing was a bit like a roller coaster, however. The lads sitting behind me decided that the pilot was drunk. That didn’t help!

It’s hot in Tel Aviv, but nothing like as hot and humid as it was when I was here last year. The white tarmac in the airport was utterly blinding in the sun.

I’ve not been hugely well of late. I’m working myself into the ground and have trashed my immune system with too many late nights and early starts. I’m hoping the slower pace out here will be good for me, and once we’ve recorded the orchestra tomorrow, I can relax a little. I’d also love my sense of smell to return!

We took a bus from the airport to the centre of town. I made two observations as we trundled along. Firstly, that Israeli graffiti is more likely to be written in English than in Hebrew. And secondly, that the Israeli’s love to show people pulling really hammy faces on their hoardings!

We went down to the beach this evening as the sun set. It’s obviously much closer to the horizon down here, so it’s sudden lights out at 8pm. We’re two hours ahead of the UK, so it was strange to think that, back home, people were still basking in sunshine.

There was a huge billboard on the side of the British Embassy with an advert for the UK on it. I was surprised, and somewhat charmed, to see that Britain is being billed over here as the best place in the world for gay couples to tie the knot. Two gay men were pictured holding hands under Big Ben, with the slogan “love is Great.” Yes it is. #LoveIsEveryone

Tel Aviv is, of course, the gayest city in the Middle East - and one of the most gay-friendly in the world. There’s one reason why Israel always does well at Eurovision - and that’s Tel Aviv (which I’ve decided is short for Terrance Aviv.) Anyway, because gay marriage still isn’t legal here, I guess there are lots of gay men in this city who want to tie the knot, so the poster is probably rather spot on.

As we reached the beach, another giant billboard read “twenty years of Pride.”

The gay beach here is next to the ultra-orthodox beach, which is entirely fenced off (for modesty.) They alternate the beach for use by men and women. Today it was the turn of the women. A big sign outside informs people which gender is allowed in on which day and reminds those going in to behave in a proper manner. 

The beach at night assaults one’s senses with a riot of music. Jazz sax drifts down from the fancy hotel on the cliff top. Weird Arabic pop pumps away in one of the bars. In another, Mr Blue Sky suddenly dances its way into the sonic melee.

Segways and motorised scooters are the fashion du jour in Tel Aviv. I saw one man zooming down the middle of Dizengoff Street with a bouncing dog in tow...

We had ice cream before heading back to the hotel. I ate a raspberry and cherry sorbet served with a rich, creamy dark chocolate. It was absolutely delicious. We heard roars and cheers coming from a nearby bar where they were playing the England/Columbia match. I thought we’d lost. I now think we might have won. 

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Avebury and fraud

It’s been a weekend of mixed emotions! Right now, I’m meant to be in Israel, for a three day break before recording the orchestra for 100 Faces. I would appear to still be in Highgate! It’s a long story involving passports which I probably oughtn’t bore you with because it will only make me stressed, but, in a nutshell, the plan is to go out on Tuesday morning instead, and stay out for an extra two days... it’s not ideal, but sometimes needs must. It meant I got a lie-in this morning, so the positives aren’t too far from the surface.

In the process of trying to change my hotel in Jerusalem, I discovered that I had been defrauded to the tune of £3.5k from my bank account, in, what the woman from Barclays fraud department describes as the “worst one of these I’ve ever experienced.” Hotels.com were next to no help. In fact, in the hour and five minutes that they kept me on hold, whilst trying to work out how to refund a defunct card, the cost of the replacement room they were offering went up by £50. The woman from the company took great delight in telling me that “hotel room prices go up and down.” In fact, she then said, “I’d suggest booking now before it goes up again.” She quoted a new rate to me. I asked if the rate included breakfast, and in the time it took her to check, the room price rose again. When I pointed this fact out, she laughed joyously!

I should point out that the fraud on my account started the day I booked with hotels.com, and that eight of the large sums of money taken from my account went to hotels.com. So if the fraudulent activity has anything to do with my booking with them, I shall be double furious. Of course, initial attempts at complaining have been greeted with a hillock of indifference.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was delightful. It was Nathan’s birthday, and, at 9.30am, Abbie, Little Michelle and the two of us jumped in a car and headed for Avebury. A year is not complete without a) a trip to Cambridge to punt, b) hollowing out a pumpkin on Hallowe’en and c) a pilgrimage to the UK’s largest standing stone circle, which is so large that an entire village lies within.

I love that place. It feels so important. Every time I visit the place, I feel enriched and spiritually revitalised. There is true energy within those stones. Furthermore, the weather is always extraordinary when we visit, even when the weather men (and Brother Edward) predict that it’s going to rain! It’s never rained.

We were joined in the pub in the middle of the stones by Nathan’s sister, Sam and Ginny, Paul, the lovely Kate and her hilarious son, Lukas.
We had a glorious day wandering around the stones, eating far too much food, falling asleep on patches of grass and laughing like nutty bong-bongs.

Highlight of the day was almost definitely visiting the wishing tree, tucked away on the edge of the site. It’s not a single tree, it’s a set of four, with interlocking canopies, whose roots are entwined and ripple along the surface of a chalk bank like veins over a sinuous forearm. People attach scores of ribbons to the trees, with messages written all over them. Others carefully push coins and little notes with their wishes written on them into nooks and crannies in the bark.

I read one or two, and found them hugely moving. “I wish for a book of kindness and peace” and in a child’s handwriting, “I wish that everyone dies at an old age and has a very nice life.” And then in the same little crevice, “I wish that my three beautiful girls have a long and happy life.”

We drove from the mystical rolling hills and winding lanes of Wiltshire into Oxfordshire, where the fields stretch for mile after mile, like a giant patchwork quilt.

The evening sunshine made the grasses and crops look like copper and gold. Clouds of dust billowed into the horizon where scores of tractors were harvesting fields.

We were visiting the Uffington White Horse, which is another one of those places which the year doesn’t feel complete without a visit to. For those who’ve never visited, the Uffington White Horse is an utterly primitive and prehistoric carving on a chalk hillside. It’s like a gigantic cave painting; a series of flowing lines, which might be a horse and might be a dragon. A giant eye watches over the Oxfordshire plain. At the foot of the horse is the man-made hillock where St George is said to have slain the dragon.

They’ve fenced off the horse itself to protect it from erosion. A temporary measure, they say, but I have a horrible feeling that the days of sitting in Paganesque circles around the eye are gone for good.

It’s a windswept spot. A skylark was hovering in the air above us. I think he was looking for a gentlemen friend because he was relentlessly singing. We must have been there for at least an hour, and his whistling never once stopped. That’s the ultra-obsessive behaviour of one of nature’s men for you!

We walked a mile or so back to the car as the sun started to set, and listened to the London Requiem at full blast on the way home. One of the quotes I found on a gravestone which I set to music in that particular piece goes “for what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun.” As we listened to that sequence, we were driving down the side of the White Horse hill, and the sun seemed to be melting into red wax. We all noticed and pointed at the same time. It was a special moment because all three of the people I was driving had sung on the album.

The moon rose whilst we were getting slightly lost somewhere near the confusing spot where the M1 and the M25 pretend to meet but don’t quite. By then I was exhausted and ratty and Michelle and Abbie had to pretend I wasn’t being a twat! The moon would have cheered any one up, however. As would the memories of our day. “One of the best birthdays ever” said Nathan. And I agreed.