Saturday, 16 December 2017

Claude-Michel

I was invited to attend a workshop today with Claude-Michel Schönberg, writer of Les Miserables. Six writing teams had been asked to prepare material for his feedback and I think we were all terrified because he’s rather famous for his Gallic bluntness! I’m actually all for bluntness, particularly in this business, because it makes a compliment all the more special. His opening statement to us all rather summed up his views: “these days everything is fabulous. You put a show on and everyone tells you it’s fabulous. But not everything is fabulous.” His view is that we’re all professionals, so ought to be able to take criticism (and he’s right). He also believes that being a successful writer is almost entirely dependent on your ability to deal with failure. “Our job is to deal with failure after failure, but always with great enthusiasm.” For some reason I found that particular statement greatly moving.

There were a few slightly uncomfortable moments during the day when Claude-Michel was quite harsh with some of the writers. One girl in particular had written what I felt was a stonkingly beautiful melody, but was heavily criticised. The joy about Claude-Michel is that he comes entirely from the perspective that the music needs to serve the drama of a moment. There’s no point in writing a beautiful melody if it doesn’t land theatrically. Sometimes a beautiful melody actually destroys drama because it lulls an audience into a passive place.

His instincts are remarkable. Take, for example, my song, “Warwickshire.” He immediately, and very shrewdly, ascertained that the song came out of quite a dramatic scene and that its somewhat wistful beginning was at loggerheads with the drama of the dialogue immediately before. This was something which required clever acting in the Central production. Ruby Ablett was forced to take herself out of an angry place and will herself into a reverie fo suit the mood of the song. She did this impeccably well, but a performer should never need to use their craft simply to justify sloppy writing. Hannah the director struggled with the problem and I was hugely impressed with Claude-Michel for honing in on the issue so rapidly and succinctly. He also offered a fairly inspiring fix.

Laura Barnard and Nathan sang for me, and both did me utterly proud. Laura sang “Warwickshire” and the two of them did “You Will Be Loved” together. I had my head buried in the piano but there seemed to be a lot of warmth in the room. Everyone is always really moved to hear that the story of Em is based on truth and afterwards Claude Michel said “you have a good song and a very moving story because it’s true. The change of key is perfect, the melody is wonderful.”

I’d call that a job well done. A very lovely day.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Studio done

I’m in a haze of work at the moment. I literally haven’t stopped. I don’t even have the time I need to prep what I’m supposed to be doing the following day. It’s like someone’s chucked me out of a moving train and I haven’t stopped rolling down the siding for long enough to stand up.

Yesterday marked our last day mixing the Em album. By rights I should have been out last night painting the town, but I’m attending a workshop today where I’m playing the piano and because I’ve forgotten how to play, I had to prep, and prep hard. There still wasn’t enough time, so I shall officially be muddling through, which is really not my style because I’m a grafter, not a blagger. Some people thrive on being under-prepared. The key moment arrives and they instantly focus their brains and pull brilliance out of their arses. I just get nervous. One of the reasons that I’m a fanatical preparer is that I have to factor in a dose of crippling fear, which has the capacity to make my voice sound like a sheep when I’m singing and the piano keys ripple up and down when I look at them.

It was a bit of an anticlimax to finish in the recording studio. It didn’t feel triumphant or even a relief because we simply didn’t have enough time to truly deal with the more problematic tracks. There are certainly a number of songs which I’m not altogether happy with and two or three of the songs which we were tinkering with quite comprehensively yesterday will probably be need to be sent for mastering without any more work, which is a risk. I’m already way over budget and can’t afford to tinker any more. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you’ve done your best. My only real disappointment is that the first song on the album is the one it feels like we’ve struggled most with.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Cold Kitchen

I felt very sorry for myself as I sat in a cold kitchen at 7.30 this morning. It’s been some time since I had to get up before the sun, and the experience is always a little bewildering. The fact that it’s still dark at 7.30am is also surprisingly depressing. The good news is that, as of next week, the days begin to get longer again.

Even more depressing was the fact that the hot water tank hadn’t yet heated up, so I couldn’t even get warm. I can well understand why, in Pepys’ time, working days got longer and shorter depending on the time of year. Imagine being a servant back in those days, and having to wake up on a dark winter morning to get the fire on for your master?

I tried to run a bath on two separate occasions, neither successful, so was forced to walk to Julian’s studio feeling cold and a bit achey. It’s amazing how not being able to have a bath in the morning can affect your body!

As I walked along Parkland Walk, I was thinking how amazing it is that a little girl can be born with a heart on the outside of her body and manage to survive the experience. I wasn’t having a theoretical debate with myself. This is something which has genuinely happened in Leicester. I’m not altogether sure what to make of the fact that they’ve called the baby “Vanellope” or that the cardiologist who dealt with the child after her birth was called Frances Bu’lock (careful how you pronounce that name, folks) but it is extraordinary to think that a baby can fight the odds like that.Vanellope could grow up to be an entirely healthy little girl, although I tend to think that these miracle babies often grow up with a plethora of other health issues The astounding thing is that babies born with this abnormality in the future will be thought to have hope. The parents of Vanellope say they knew she was a fighter from the moment she was born, so perhaps naming their child after the feisty, unstoppable character from the Wreck It Ralph films is appropriate after all. Although, Vanellope...?!!!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Romford

I’m going to Romford. ‘Nuff said, really!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Gridlock

We went to Thaxted yesterday to celebrate Sascha’s birthday with Brother Edward, Nathan’s sister, Sam and her little dog, Gini, who went down particularly well with the parents. I’ve long since felt it might be good for them to have a dog, and yesterday made me almost convinced of this fact. My dad in particular looked like a twenty year-old playing with her!

We had one of my Mum’s “cold collations” which went down very well whilst watching Strictly. For the record, I am still supporting Debbie McGee, who I think is just fabulous.

I took hand made chocolates from Tuscany with me and the European-style advent candles that Tammy had introduced me to in Florence.

It got colder and colder as the evening drew on. We were sitting in front of a fabulous open fire, so didn’t feel it until we left the house when our car’s thermometer informed us that it was actually minus 3 degrees, which rose to about minus 1 by the time we’d reached Highgate.

I woke up this morning to discover snow everywhere. Everywhere. I have seldom seen so much snow in London. Of course my initial reaction was one of great excitement. I love it when it snows...

...And snow is always very exciting when you don’t have anywhere to be. You can go for a walk in the woods and sit looking out of the window at cars skidding out of control on the road underneath, feeling snug and smug!

Sadly, I had a quizzing job to do today in Winchmore Hill, a suburb in outer London. It didn’t occur to me that Haringey Council would have neglected to grit the roads. I left the house in something of a blizzard and instantly realised that there was more of an issue than I’d originally thought.

The car was covered top to toe in three inches of snow to the extent that I couldn’t see any metal, just a big white blob. As I tried to find the door handle, a little girl on the other side of the road asked her grandfather what I was doing. “He’s trying to find his car,” said the Grandad!

I managed to clear the windscreen, and made the nutty decision to open the windows to clear the snow from them, which instantly backfired as heaps of the stuff piled onto the back seat.

Within a minute of leaving home, I’d ground to a halt in the middle of Muswell Hill road, surrounded by cars in varying degrees of trouble. Wheel-spinning, sliding, skidding. A row of busses had been abandoned. People were out of their vehicles, scratching their heads, telling other drivers not to bother going any further. One came up to me and told me I’d never make it up to Muswell Hill.

I instantly panicked and called Nathan, who came down, took to the wheel and suggested we snake our way via backroads to Finchley and down to the North Circular, which was utterly gridlocked. I was astounded to discover that they hadn’t even bothered to grit that road.

We chugged along, bumper to bumper, and turned off just before Palmer’s Green, which was when things started getting really hairy. Cars were spinning out of control all over the place and stopping suddenly in the middle of the road. And then, half way up a hill somewhere near Southgate, it was our car’s turn to break down. We got stuck on a patch of ice with the wheels spinning. I got out and tried to push, but there was no moving the car.

People are very good. Within five minutes we were surrounded by passers by, all trying to help. At one point, three people were using umbrellas from our boot to try to chip away at the ice under the car wheels, whilst someone else was trying to put black bin liners under the wheels in an attempt to give us some traction. But it was hopeless...

In the end, I had to phone the person who’d booked me to run the quiz, to ask if she or someone she knew had a 4 by 4 that could pick us up. Fortunately her husband did, and, ten minutes later, he came to our rescue and took us to Winchmore Hill.

The quiz and party went well. Nathan was able to step in as my assistant, which I was most grateful about, but we spent quite a lot of it panicking about how we were going to get home. All the tubes, buses and overground trains were down. One of the guests arrived at the party and said the Uber she’d taken there had crashed!

As it happened, the whether warmed up a little bit through the early evening, and, by the time we were done, a very grumpy Uber driver was able to take us back to our car. The journey home was a little hairy, but nothing like as terrifying as the journey over

We got back at about 7pm, much relieved to finally be home, telling ourselves to always remind ourselves in future not to try to drive anywhere in a snow storm like that!!

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Old friends

St Pancras train station really is the one you want to arrive at if you’re coming to London for the first time. It’s a Pandora’s Box of delights. When I arrived there yesterday from Sheffield, there was a great big spinning propellor hanging from the ceiling and a thirty-foot high Christmas tree covered in beautiful flowers which people were staring up at with great joy in their faces.

I went to sleep last night with the knowledge that Coventry had been awarded the next city of culture status, which I’m obviously rather pleased about. Harry Hill has tweeted (tongue-in-cheek) to say that the decision was obviously something to do with his fond micky-taking of Coventry Market: The Musical!

Joking aside, what’s clear to me is that the city has very bad PR. I was with a group of people last night who rolled their eyes to heaven at the thought of it becoming the city of culture. One of them, a travel writer, said “how am I going to be able to find 800 words to write about that dump?” And actually, a city which is misunderstood like that is a perfect choice for the award. Cities with fabulous tourism and cultural institutions don’t need the honour. The multicultural nature of Coventry coupled with its young population and the relative affordability of its housing means it’s a city with a great deal of cultural potential.

Nathan’s sister, Sam, is staying with us at the moment, but as soon as she arrived yesterday afternoon, I was pretty much out of the door to head into central London to meet a very old school friend, Angela, who, barring a quick hello at the Albert Hall on the premiere of my Nene composition, I haven’t seen for twenty five years. And as if this wasn’t enough, to make me feel really old, she revealed that her daughter was playing viola in the youth orchestra and that she has a son who is 21!

Speaking of the Albert Hall gig, I had the most charming card through the post today which came from the kids at Higham Ferrers junior school. There was a lovely picture of them all in their Nene T-shirts, sitting outside the Albert Hall and, inside, they’d all written messages calling me a legend and thanking me for writing a song they could sing at the Albert Hall. It was really very touching. Bizarrely, their teacher, whom I got chatting to during one of the rehearsals, comes from Northampton and went to Roade School, which is where Fiona went. A little bit of “oh do you know such and such” revealed that she was best friends with the older sister of a very close friend of mine from music school, and a few seconds later we realised we’d attended the Northampton balloon festival together when I was 17. To add to the rolling ball of coincidence, she said she thought she still had a photograph she’d taken that day, which she sent to me in the card. And there I was; mop of floppy curly hair, 90s style jacket with weirdly sloping shoulders, pyjamas instead of trousers, clutching a vintage 1960s camera. I look a lot older than 17. My friend looks like my son. I realised with horror that Angela, whom I met yesterday evening, would have expected me to still be the lad in that photo.

As it happened, when I arrived in the restaurant, I was greeted by another school friend, Adrian. We were firm friends, probably best friends, for a period in the late 80s and it was astounding to see him after all those years. My first comment was that seeing him was like seeing a ghost. I instantly backed up this somewhat odd remark by asking if he’d always spoken with such a strong Northamptonshire accent. I bet he wondered why he bothered to turn up!

We caught up on twenty five years the way that you’re forced to in these circumstances. Headlines only. Work. Kids. Relationship status. He works in health and safety for the London fire brigade. He told me harrowing stories about Grenfell.

Angela was on good form as well. The three of us pulled every name we could out of our memory banks and shared whatever knowledge we had. Some of the people were dead, including, I was sorry to hear, a lovely lass we used to know called Ruth Turner who played the clarinet. One of my former rugby team mates had flipped out and murdered his girlfriend. Some were divorced. Many were moving back to Rushden after roaming the world a little. We shared hazy memories. We talked about the shooting at my school. We ate lovely Mediterranean food. I realised that that I’d only kept in touch with two people from my school and that both of them were called Tammy.

A lovely, nostalgic evening.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Sheffield

I woke up yesterday morning and was instantly greeted by the most hideous, dirty, sickly light. I hate to be one of those Italiaphiles who goes on about the glorious light in Tuscany, but I found it utterly inspiring and reinvigorating. I literally leapt out of bed to start working on the Nene piece. It was just so miserable to pull back the curtains and have all that new energy slapped back in my face by the sound of heavy London traffic and that grim, deathly light.

I worked through the morning, finally getting the sense that I’ve broken the back on the new version of Nene, before jumping on a train to Sheffield to assist on a quiz at Hallam University where there were actually three teams from the BBC, including people I knew, which was very lovely.

The journey up was a fantastic opportunity to write, and a chance to stare out of the window at highly familiar Midlands scenery. The trip from St Pancras to Sheffield takes you through Wellingborough and Kettering, and, for some time, snakes along the banks of the Nene. There’s many a childhood stomping ground in those there parts! 

A young man from Leicester with verbal diarrhoea was boring the pants off the poor girl sitting next to him. The talking literally didn’t stop from the moment he boarded the train to the moment he got off, by which point I’d managed to subconsciously filter out all sounds in the pitch at which he was speaking!

He was replaced by a man in his thirties who was wearing a suit and having very important-sounding business conversations on the telephone. At one stage he hastily opened his traveling bag to pull out an iPad and I was somewhat amazed, and quite impressed to see that the bag was full of fairly kinky leather gear!

I checked into the Premier Inn, which, in Sheffield, doesn’t have rooms with baths, a fact which made me somewhat anxious. One of my great joys when it comes to staying away from home is having a nice long bath after a busy day before watching telly in bed with a nice cup of tea. If the room doesn’t have a kettle, a telly or a bath, I become intensely emotional!

I was also asked to state my nationality as I arrived and sign a document to say I was telling the truth. It’s apparently not the most unusual thing to be asked when checking into a British hotel, but it was a first time for me and I found the question hugely intrusive, especially when the woman behind the counter told me that the hotel “works closely with the immigration department.” I’m just not sure I’m interested in any hotel working with anyone to build up a profile about their guests, particularly guests, like me, who already have Premier Inn accounts which are responsible for sending God knows how much junk. Not cool. I appreciate that we live in troubling times, but I don’t think asking everyone their nationality is going to stop terrorism, or immigration problems. Those with something to hide will simply lie.

And whilst I’m standing on my soap box, I’m not sure I understand my train guard’s almost obsessive announcements telling us to “be aware of any suspicious activity” before encouraging us to “remember the three s’s: see it, say it, sorted.” A phrase which doesn’t even make sense.

It was freezing cold in Sheffield and it snowed during the night. I was somewhat relieved to wake up to bright sunshine however, which has made me feel a little better about being back in Blighty! The snow on the peaks around Chesterfield was delightful.