Sunday, 30 September 2018

The monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Award ceremonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 28 September 2018


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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 September 2018


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

First day of Brass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Kol Nidrei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 September 2018


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 September 2018


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Fenella Fielding

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

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

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

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

Rosh Hashanah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Kickstarters and noxious gasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Self fulfilling prophecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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