Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Barnum and sausages

Hilary came to stay with us last night and we took ourselves on a charming walk up to Ally Pally and back home, via Marks and Spencer where I discovered quite how awful their range of veggie sausages are. I know they like their own brands and things, but no one wants sausages which look like blocks of Edinburgh rock!

So we trolled off to Planet Organic organic instead, where I had a very strong allergic reaction to the shoppers inside. They were all posh women dragging children called Tarquin around, saying things like “shall we get you some trail mix, darling?” Everything in that shop is deeply overpriced, largely, one assumes so that those inside can Lord it over the rest of us: “look at me affording all the best quality, organic products for my children. I’ve banned sugar from my house, you know, and we have a goji berry shake for breakfast every morning.” It all made me feel incredibly angry. Privilege like this is the red rag to my particular bull. And I guess I feel more strongly about this particular issue as I was brought up on whole foods when eating them wasn’t a status symbol. In fact, everyone thought my Mum was crazy for feeding them to us. She didn’t take us to Daily Bread in Northampton to show off. She took us there because buying in bulk was cheap and because it sold really healthy food at very low prices.

In the end we bought veggie sausages at our local Sainsbury’s and had them, swimming in gravy, with mashed potato and peas in giant Yorkshire puddings.

After tea, we walked down the Holloway Road to the Odeon at Nag’s Head to see The Greatest Showman. It’s a wonderful film, which loosely tells the story of the famous 19th Century American circus entrepreneur, Barnum. It’s a strange choice for a musical film. The stage musical, Barnum was, after all, about the life of the very same man! I kept wanting Barnum’s wife to burst into a rendition of The Colours of my Life. (Do you remember when Torvill and Dean did Barnum on Ice?) They made the very brave decision to keep the music feeling highly contemporary, which, bizarrely, worked.

They opted to play Barnum himself as a relentlessly fabulous individual and papered over some of the less reputable aspects of his character. I’m not sure his Circus freaks were meant to have been treated hugely well and he had some pretty hard-core views. After going into politics, he actually became the legislative sponsor of the 1879 Connecticut anti-contraception law. That said, he was also an anti-slavery campaigner. The merging of fact and fiction led to a fairly confusing end card which said something along the lines of: “these characters are based on real people, but any similarity to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental.”

But it’s a fabulous film. It’s everything a musical film ought to be. Escapist. Great music. Energetic. Magical. It lacked a bit of an emotional core for me. I like to weep like a baby when I watch a film and would like to have cared more, and learned more about the assortment of oddballs he hired to work as performers. I think they missed a slight trick there. But ultimately that didn’t matter. I had a wonderful night.

The only trouble is that the cinema smelt of urine. Odeon cinemas always feel so uncared for, when compared to the somewhat fabulous Everyman Cinemas which are replacing them.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

False alarms

Ooh, this cold is a humdinger! Singing yesterday was a proper trial. I had absolutely no control over what my vocal cords were doing and felt like someone had packed a great big dollop of cotton wool behind my ears. The only enjoyable aspect was finding myself with the sudden addition of about a minor third at the bottom of my vocal range. I was popping out bottom Cs and Bs purely for the fun of it, like some sort of crazy Russian bass. The coughing, however, has not been fun at all, and neither has the constant hunger which often accompanies these sorts of head colds. I am trying to fight the urge to eat the stuff I’m craving, which is all high carb, high fat nonsense like chips. Surely my body ought to be forcing me to eat healthily and overdose on oranges? But instead, as I’m writing this, I’m craving a toasted sandwich from Sam’s lovely toasted sandwich maker.

I was horrified to hear about the ballistic missile false alarm texts which were sent out in Hawaii yesterday. It’s difficult to know how terrifying it must have been to receive a message which read, “ballistic missile threat. Inbound to Hawaii. Take immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” TV and radio broadcasts were even interrupted with the message. People went running for cover. Parents stuck their children in bath tubs. Students sent panicked messages to loved ones. It’s astonishing that something like this could have happened. It just shows how edgy we’re all feeling at the moment.

State governor, David Ige has apologised, saying it was mistake caused by an employee “pushing the wrong button.” To me it’s astonishing that a text with such wide-reaching and horrifying consequences could be sent out universally without a cascade of checks and balances. Surely there was a follow-up message which flashed up saying “are you sure you want to send this?” And what set of bizarre consequences leads to someone pushing the wrong button of this nature?

It apparently took eighteen minutes for the statement to be retracted, and then this only happened by email. It was another fifteen minutes before a follow-up text revealed it had been a false alarm.

I am reminded (in a much smaller way) of a recent train journey which took me through London Bridge Station. As we passed through, an eerie, echoing tannoy announcement was blaring out to all and sundry which said, “would Inspector Sands please report to the ticket office.” It was accompanied by a somewhat discordant electronic alarm. These days, we all know that Mr Sands indicates that there’s some sort of fire in the building, so it’s not a message that any of us likes hearing. My favourite part of the shenanigans, however, was the fact that after every announcement which instructed Inspector Sands to head to the ticket office, another tannoy announcement echoed trough the station saying, “this is a false alarm.” People in the station were looking considerably non-plussed!

Perhaps I’m being a bit simplistic here, but isn’t it time to deactivate the Inspector Sands message?

Saturday, 13 January 2018


I tell you something: waking up on a cold, winter Saturday morning at 7am, before it’s light outside, is not the most thrilling thing, especially when you have a raging cold.

As predicted, exactly a week and a half into my new health and fitness regime, I’ve come down with a cold. I wonder why it happens? It always happens... Singing at synagogue today is going to be a trial. Thank heavens I’m singing bass.

Donald Trump is all over the news. I keep wondering whether we’re all going to wake up and realise he was some sort of Hallowe’en joke that we all fell for.The latest double whammy, where he seems to have described about half the world as “shit hole countries” and then decided not to come to the UK later this year because he doesn’t like the American Embassy he was due to open, is absolutely bizarre. Not that I hugely blame him for not wanting to come to the UK. People would have thrown eggs. I would have thrown eggs. I’m totally with Sadiq Kahn when he says that Trump’s finally got the message that he’s not wanted in London, that he’s at complete loggerheads with the multy-culty spirit of Londoners. That other tit, the ludicrous engineer of Brexit, Boris Johnson, has, of course, leapt to Trump’s defence, by describing Kahn as a “pompous popinjay,” which basically tells us all I know about who’s more in touch with the British people. But then again, I sort of feel that we’re going to wake up and discover that Johnson and Brexit was all a joke.

But can we wake up from this nightmare soon please?

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Never again!

Please remind me never to do what I’ve done today again! I have not left the house. Instead I have sat, semi naked, on the sofa all day finishing parts for Nene. I haven’t eaten lunch, I’ve just hidden away from the world on this ludicrous mission. It’s a mission, I’m pleased to say, that I achieved. But I’m wondering at what cost to my sanity!

Our car has broken down. There is something very wrong with the back wheel. It has been making funny sounds for months and suddenly, two days ago, it entirely froze whilst we were trying to reverse. The tyre skidded across the gym car park like something from The Wacky Races. Our garage is permanently engaged, so we can’t have it fixed!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Forbidden fruit

I’ve been to the gym six days in the past seven and have eaten healthy food, low in fat, low in sugar and high in fibre, since New Year’s Day. My body is certainly thanking me. My skin feels really smooth and already I can feel that I am far less bloated. Hurrah.

I think the key to dieting is making nothing entirely off bounds. I am trying not to eat chocolate until Easter, for example, but if someone offers me a small amount or has gone to the trouble or baking a lovely chocolate cake, I’m not going to turn my nose up. Entirely forbidden fruit always tastes so much sweeter. Just as long as I can always tell myself, hand on heart, that I’m eating less and exercising more, I should be alright.

I’ve certainly had to hit the ground running this year with heaps and heaps of formatting to do on the new version of my Nene composition, which is being performed at Peterborough Cathedral and the Northampton Derngate in March. I’m currently trying to create a piano reduction for rehearsal purposes. It’s a real chore. A piano reduction is never actually ever performed, so there’s next to no point in writing an astounding and wondrous piece of music. It just needs to be enough for the choirs to find their notes and get a sense of the orchestral accompaniment. That said, pride usually kicks in and I work around the clock creating something which feels pianistic and appropriate.

There’s little else to say. I think we all turn into boring bastards in January, and with the weather like it is, I reckon I’m fairly happy staying indoors.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Hell, fire and toasted sandwiches!

Nathan and I went to Julie Clare’s house last night and played Cards Against Humanity till quite late. Sam, who lives with Julie, but only appeared right at the end of the evening, has recently purchased a vintage 1960s toasted sandwich maker which took me very fondly back to my childhood. At one point everyone had one of them, usually at the back of a cupboard caked entirely in sticky grease next to the soda stream and a potato ricer. We were obsessed with ours for at least a week. We tried most combinations of food inside. Cheese and baked beans. Mars bars. Actually that’s probably the long and the short of our imagination...

Sam’s sandwich maker was made by Boots. I had no idea that Boots had made electrical equipment like that. It certainly made delicious toasties. Back then, of course, things were built to last - even the things they sold in Boots. This one was made in stainless steel, so it’s probably no surprise that it was still in working order. I made a sandwich with cheddar, pesto and halloumi, and one with cheese and chutney. They felt decadent and exciting. I reckon I could open up a cafe selling them. If I referred to the sandwiches as “retro” and said they were filled with “Somerset aged cheddar” and “deluxe, wild basil pesto”, I’d be able to triple the cost and sell them to yummy mummies in Hackney for four times the amount. Making money in the world of food is all about the adjectives you use.

We talked about the fact that there’s a school now charging its pupils to do GCSE music because funding for education from the disgraceful government is now reaching a crisis point. We talked about the fact that most people are now predicting a massive brain drain in this country post Brexit, and the fact that the bankers (who we seem so desperate to keep here) have already oiled their escape routes and added down to their nests in Ireland, France and Germany. There’s predicted to be a major flowering of the arts, in places like Berlin, caused by a huge exodus of British creatives with tragically no other option but to leave these shores. For the first time I wondered whether it might be quite an exciting adventure to go myself, leaving the hell of Brexit and endless Tory cuts behind. If Colman’s mustard can move to Germany, then maybe so can I!

I went to the village of West Wycombe on Saturday afternoon with Michael to visit the really spooky Hell Fire Caves: a series of long, underground tunnels which were dug in the mid 18th Century as a sort of subterranean pleasure garden. They were used as a meeting place for the shady “Hell Fire Club”, a group of society figures who met for bawdy parties which involved all sorts of curious pagan rituals and, probably, quite a lot of sex. Women were allowed to attend, although they wore masks and were only invited if they had a “cheery disposition.” Which probably meant loose morals. Women of the night dressed as nuns were also a feature of these gatherings.

There are all sorts of underground chambers down there, where revellers would gather, including a dining room with an impressive domed roof, maybe 30 feet high.

My favourite part was the inner temple, a much smaller chamber at the very deepest point in the complex, which is, apparently, directly underneath a church on the hillside 100 feet above. To gain access to the temple, you had to cross over the “River Styx”, a man made pool which looks like an eerie underground river. The attention to detail is astounding. The bloke who commissioned the building of the caves in the 1700s even asked the people who dug it out to create stalactites to hang over the water. 

The complex is said to be haunted by two ghosts, one called Suki. The “Most Haunted” team (Yvette Fielding’s lot) spent a night down there and were apparently greeted by orbs of light and the sound of children laughing. They also said that it was the darkest place they’d ever visited... whatever that means!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Derry Girls

I tuned in to the much-trailed Channel 4 comedy drama, Derry Girls, last night. It is, I suspect, the finest first episode of a comedy show I have seen since Catastrophe.

The show is set in a girl’s convent school in Derry, in the 1990s, at the height of the troubles. I suspect I’m always going to be a fairly difficult audience member to win over when it comes to anything set in that particular part of the world because of my fundamental issues with Northern Ireland and its backward policies on abortion and gay marriage, but I was utterly entranced.

The joy about this piece is that the troubles rumble along in the background as more of a nuisance than the huge trauma that most of us in Britain probably imagine they must have been. I’m sure we all tend to forget that young Northern Irish people simply had to get on with living through that era. They went to school, had crushes on older boys and dealt with bullying, hard-core, humourless nuns as best they could.

It’s beautifully, and atmospherically shot, and the writing, by Lisa McGee, feels fresh and incredibly witty. There are some absolutely killer one-liners, many of which come from the school’s acerbic head teacher. There’s a wonderful little repeated device which occasionally happens where we’re led to believe we’re hearing the voiceover of the central character but it turns out to be her cousin who has got hold of her diary and is reading sections out to anyone who will listen!

The four main girls are naughty, but deeply likeable characters, exquisitely acted. They defend each other in a world where adults are, largely, imbecilic, over-religious dinosaurs. The show’s lead, Saoirse Jackson, is an absolute diamond with deeply funny bones who genuinely lights up the screen.

Dropped in amongst the Irish girls, like a pig in a slaughter house, is a young English boy called James, who appears to be the product of his mother going over to London for an abortion but changing her mind and bringing him up instead. She has now returned to Derry with her son, but there are such fears for the safety of an English boy at the local school for lads that he’s been sent to the girls’ school where no one can understand what he’s saying, and there’s nowhere for him to go to the loo!

This is a fresh, funny, fabulous show, which I urge you all to watch.