Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Bored of telly

I'm beginning to hate those TV programmes where "food historians" whatever they are, dress up in period clothing and make meals the way we used to cook. Usually they're also given really awful dialogue and are expected to embarrass the shit out of themselves delivering it. These days, these particular shows are presented by a glamorous female BAME presenter of non-specific ethnic origin who was plainly educated at a top public school and rather singlehandedly destroys any notion of a broadcaster offering opportunity where none existed before. I suppose it's one step up from my other least favourite style of documentary which is almost always presented by Caroline Quentin. She starts the programme with a piece to camera where she says: "I'm here in Cornwall. This place has been important to me ever since a childhood holiday when I came to Devon and wondered what Cornwall was." Most of her "input" in the film is limited to the odd interview and a really annoying jokey voice-over. There's also the bit where she's in a sweet-factory or a glass-blowing workshop and has to ask that care-worn old question, "can I have a go?" We, as an audience, lap it up and have a great laugh watching her fucking it up. She has a cursory go before handing it back, saying, "I think I better leave it to the experts." She laughs nervously. She knows what she's doing is embarrassing telly. The factory owner is silently cursing to himself, wondering what the hell he's going to do with the spoilt batch of cakes which Caroline has had a go at icing.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I long for a documentary which isn't "talent-led" or interactive, or full of fake jeopardy with Michael Portillo saying "I've got just two days to get from London to Rome by train..." If it's impossible to do it in two days, take three days, Michael! 
Sometimes I just want to see what is there in a documentary. I don't need to be told how to feel. I don't need empty minimalism on a piano to tell me I'm meant to be sad, or computerised pizzicato strings to tell me something isn't taking itself too seriously, or that dreadful Vaughan Williams pastiche on Audio Networks which is used every time anyone goes to the countryside. In short, I'm bored of telly.

Gay men giving blood

I woke up to the wonderful news today that the ban on gay men giving blood has been lifted. Hurrah! No wait... that's the highly-spun version of the facts. What's actually happened is that the previous rules, which said a gay man could only give blood after a full twelve months of sexual inactivity, have been relaxed, so now the gays are allowed to give blood if we haven't had sex with another man for three months. Three whole months. Reality check people! There are now more heterosexual HIV positive people in the UK than there are gay ones. What would happen if straight people were banned from giving blood within three months of having sex? We'd need to set up a farm for unmarried born again Christians and people over 90!

I genuinely don't know why this half-way measure is being applauded by anyone. How often must gay men endure these nods to equality without actually being offered equality? It happens every time. The age of consent randomly came down from 21 to 18 before we had parity. We had civil partnerships before we had marriage. The Americans had "don't ask, don't tell" before their gay troops were allowed to be out and proud. I find it deeply galling.

Nathan thinks it saves the obligatory public outcry, but really, how many members of the public would think it was good for a gay man to give blood... but only if he's been celibate for three months? Are there really going to be people who think twelve months was a bit steep, but three months feels about right? Blood infected with HIV is okay from a straight person but not from a poof? Is that the issue? I long for an ounce of consistency...

Monday, 24 July 2017


We went to the ├╝ber-charming village of Ashwell in Hertfordshire yesterday. It's a village which is very much part of my childhood landscape. We used to go there when we were living in Bedfordshire in the late 1970s. Back then, and for us kids, the place was all about the little knickknack shop, opposite the church, which was like something from Bagpuss. You could buy yo-yos there, little tiny tin boxes, plastic dinosaurs, Spanish fans and all the sorts of things that young children craved in that era. More than any of this, the little shop opened on a Sunday. Heaven knows how it managed to beat the trading laws, but it was jolly exciting!

Ashwell is a very beautiful village, filled with classic examples of almost every type of architecture from about 1200 to the present day. It's no wonder that my father used to take his history students there so that they could learn how to date houses and buildings.

It was my father's birthday celebration yesterday, but he refused to allow us to mention the word in case the staff in the local gastropub where we were eating appeared with a cake singing Happy Birthday tunelessly! We repeatedly wished him a "happy meal day" instead!

After eating we walked down to the famous springs. I think the village sits on nine springs, and there's a wonderful verdant hollow where you can paddle in the freezing, glorious crystal clear water. They've made little stepping stones, so the whole place is utterly picturesque, like a magical green grotto.

We went to look at the church, which, in the process of dating, my father said: "it's definitely 1350. You can tell by the clunch." After about ten minutes of solid laughter, we ascertained that clunch was a type of wall-covering - like plaster. At least, I think that's what it is. I was too busy trying to think up a joke which involved the word "minch."

The church is famous for its 14th Century graffiti near the alter. One piece of graffiti shows a rather fine etching of St Paul's Cathedral (the building which existed before the Great Fire of London burned it down.) The other notable piece is in Latin, and is about the horrors of the Black Death. Highly eerie and hugely atmospheric.

I learned a rather lovely fact from Sascha, who tells me that ABBA's Dancing Queen is one of our queen's favourite songs. She was apparently recently over-heard saying, when it came on, "I always dance to this tune, because I love dancing, and because I'm a queen!!" About a million gay men regularly say the same thing!

From Ashwell we drove cross country back to Thaxted. And when I say cross country, I mean single track roads, the like of which I didn't know existed in the U.K.! It was actually quite a terrifying experience. There were no passing points, and most of the cars we encountered were driving way too quickly. Sat nav can really screw you over!

We ate cheese for tea at Thaxted and sat in the garden with a friendly blackbird in what was left of the sunshine on an otherwise fairly inclement day. As I drove away from the village, I encountered the famous ghostly smoke again. Why do I never see this particular phenomenon when my mates are in the car?!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Cambridge punting

Nathan has been at a wedding all day today where he's been playing, of all things, a Jewish rabbi. We went into Golders Green yesterday to buy him a kippa. I'm sure he looks the part with his enormous beard!

I've been in a very rainy Cambridge all day with Helen and Michael today. We arranged the trip about a month ago when a glorious hot day seemed likely. To make matters worse, the weather forecast was entirely off. The suggestion was that there would be a lengthy period of dry weather in the middle of the afternoon, so we duly hired a punt and got ourselves a lovely picnic from Sainsbury's. We managed about half an hour's drifting down the river in relatively pleasant weather, before the skies opened and we were royally shafted by rain.

Actually, punting in the rain isn't the most miserable experience in the world. I had a raincoat, although it was more a rain conduit. Every time I lifted the pole into the air, river water went down the cuff and soaked into my shirt, and before long I realised that the coat itself was heavy with rain water, all of which had been sucked into my shirt.

The tourists on the river were in free fall. I've seldom seen a more inadequate set of punters. There were boats at all angles on the river. Some were creating almost impenetrable barricades. The difficulty with an amateur punter is that you can't predict what he or she might do. As you steer your punt away from the mayhem, he or she is as likely to start heading at high speed in the same direction, whilst some other lunatic ploughs into you from the left field!

At one stage I was attempting to get out of the way of a veritable caravan of mayhem, and found myself on the left hand side of the river. The normal rules of the water really don't apply when it comes to punting on the Cam. It's every man for himself as you negotiate the countless obstacles created by ineptitude. Anyway, I was forced to steer around one punt which was basically scraping against a wall on the bank of the river. The middle aged man punting was obviously out of control but plainly didn't want to lose face with his cargo of women. He shouted over to me, pointing angrily at the other bank, as I sailed by, "the right hand side of the river is over there..." I refrained from shouting back, "learn how to punt, and then we can discuss river etiquette!"

The rain got heavier and heavier. Because we were punting on a Trinity college punt, but had decided to go out into the countryside up stream to Grantchester, we were forced to haul our punt up a set of rollers to avoid a weir. It's actually a really difficult task when there's only three of you, and on the way back, in the sheeting rain, we were forced to wait whilst two other punts filled with witless people attempted to negotiate the rollers. It took some time. The task involves dragging the boat over the busy footpath which run alongside the river, which means passers are blocked from passing for a minute or two. Usually they join in and help to move the boat. When it came to our turn, a posh older woman on a bike was having none of it and actually prevented us from getting our punt on the rollers by sticking her bike wheel in the way. "Could you move your bike back a little?" I asked, politely. She huffed: "Well could you get on with it? It's raining, I'm getting wet, and you're holding me up." I called her a ghastly woman. To her face!

We got off the punts, soaking wet, and headed to a pub where I changed into a T-shirt I'd mercifully brought with me in case I fell in. Heaven knows why the pub people put up with us because we ordered one round of drinks and then proceeded to get our picnic out on the table and chow down on it in a somewhat brazen manner!

We went back to Helen's where I made a ghastly "posh cheese on toast" concoction based on a roux, which I managed to split horrifically, so the whole thing tasted like sand paper. We took a late train back, but when I got home, poor Nathan was still at his wedding. Still dressed as a rabbi!

Friday, 21 July 2017

Bond plays

I went last night to see a youth theatre production of an Edward Bond play yesterday night. It was a fairly eccentric choice of material for a youth theatre which caters predominantly to working class kids. I've never been a massive fan of Bond. The piece was written in the early 70s and was billed as a comedy, but the language was way too indulgent and whimsical to actually be funny. There's something about British theatre from that era which I find very difficult to stomach. It's rarely narrative driven, the characters are often unlikeable and there's always a sense that the language overrides the need for plot or anything that I actually look for in theatre. It's like nothing ever happens. There are none of the outbursts of passion and anger that young people do so well. If I were running a youth theatre in London, I would almost definitely stick to a diet of plays by modern London writers like Che Walker: dramas with roles and language which play to the strength of the kids. There were some really talented kids though, and they were really, really brave to tackle a piece so complicated and nuanced.

There was a fairly amusing scene beforehand. We were talking to the director of the piece outside the theatre when one of the actresses came out of a side door in full costume and make up. "What are you doing out here?" The director asked. "I just need to pop to the shops," said the girl. "You shouldn't be out here in costume. Go back inside." "I need some nuts. I haven't eaten anything since yesterday." "Well that's very silly of you! Go down to the bar and see if they've got some crisps." The girl, at that point, decided to play her trump card, blithely, or maybe triumphantly announcing, "I have bulimia." It's one of those announcements which the kids make these days which they know can't be ignored. It felt incredibly cynical and quite calculating. She didn't like being challenged by authority, so she dropped the b bomb. I've heard dyslexia being used in a similar way. And depression. And because, as a society, we pander to these things, they get away with if. There's a sense of entitlement amongst the young which is really quite grotesque. I think it's because they're paying for everything. If you have to pay £9k for tuition, you want to know exactly how you're going to get the qualification you've paid for with minimum effort.

Thursday, 20 July 2017


We went to see Yank at the Charing Cross Theatre with Abbie yesterday. I was keen to see it, not just because it's a new musical - albeit from the States - but because it tells a gay love story set against the backdrop of war, which of course is the territory of Brass. In the case of Yank, as the title might suggest, it's Americans fighting in the Second World War, on the relatively unfamiliar Pacific front.

I enjoyed the piece enormously. There were some blistering central performances and the piece is really very moving towards the end. I had a few of caveats. I felt the music, though largely appropriate, was perhaps a little one-level, and also that a fair number of the songs did nothing to drive the narrative forward. I also felt the writing was perhaps a little casual when it came to exploring a gay relationship at that time. I often feel that. There's a massive balance which needs to be struck between what a 21st Century audience WANTS to see and what feels authentic for the time you're setting a piece in. Casual gay snogging just feels wrong. Scores of characters whom the audience are meant to like being endlessly tolerant and open-minded also feels wrong. I just didn't feel the stakes were quite high enough until right at the end. It also felt like the audience was being told rather constantly that the two central characters were in love, but actually we never witnessed two men in love. As a result of all of this I felt emotionally distant from the piece, which, because I'm the show's target audience, felt a slight shame.

But I am making it sound like it wasn't a hugely enjoyable, diverting and well-staged piece, which is was. It's well worth a watch. So get yourselves down to Charing Cross theatre to see it!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Flashing lights

There was a Mediterranean-style mega-storm in North London this evening. We arrived at Highgate tube from Central London and walked out into the mother of all rainstorms. For the next hour, lightning filled the sky around us, flashing every three seconds like a crazy 1990s rave.

A level of comedy was added to the proceedings when the lightning somehow managed to effect the speed camera just up the road from us, which decided to flash every car which drove down the road, regardless of the speed they were travelling at. At one stage lights were going off every were you looked!

We'd been in Central London to see the screening of the first episode of a rather moving BBC drama, beautifully written by Patrick Gale and called The Man in the Orange Shirt. The first episode is set in the late 1940s, which is a period that very few writers actually write about. Our knowledge of the decade is usually limited to stories about the war. I've often wondered what the period immediately after the war was all about. Pre "new look". Pre Festival of Britain. Pre rock 'n roll. I guess it was simply a time when people wandered about in the ruins of the war, trying to work out what on earth had just happened! The forgotten years.

The rest of the day has been spent trying to recover from Israel. I did some basic admin, formatted a pitch and pottered about a bit. We had lunch in the cafe - beans on toast - but the beans were obviously cooked in a pan which had had washing up liquid in it, because they tasted all perfumey and rank. Tomorrow the hard work begins again.