Tuesday, 31 December 2013


I've had a funny tummy all day; plainly a reaction to rich food, and the little bit of stress I've been under lately.

Nonetheless, I've been with the lovely Cindy, my Broadway producer friend from New York, all day... In Thaxted and Cambridge.

We woke up to some lovely food courtesy of my Mum, and then battled through the tail end of a cold front to a curious little church in darkest Essex where there are bizarre 17th Century anti-witch symbols scratched into the walls above the doors and windows. Why are they there? How paranoid were people back then when it came to witch craft? Who knows? What I do know is that it's one of the most bizarrely atmospheric places in the whole of East Anglia, and, in driving wind and rain, felt like the perfect way to start our day.

It's Cindy's 30th Birthday. She's 30 on the 30th... And on a blue moon to boot, which I'm told is very significant. Cambridge felt like a natural choice for the day. Cindy likes England, spiritual things, pretty buildings, shopping and glamour and Cambridge has all of those things in absolute spades. The sun came out as soon as we arrived and we got a sensational subset which Cindy described as "apricot" (except she pronounced the word "app-re-cott." Americans are weird!)

We even managed a little bit of punting; an hour or so along The Backs as the sun went down. Cindy sat like a queen in her big frock coat as I snaked the boat around groups of rather silly lads who plainly didn't understand the difference between the pole, the oar and, in fact, the punt itself!

I think many were somewhat emasculated by my punting prowess, and obviously assumed I was taking my girlfriend out on the water to impress her. If only they'd known the truth, it would probably have emasculated them even more! At one stage I offered to rescue a dropped pole belonging to one group of lads. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, they point blank refused the offer.  Way too embarrassing with a pretty lady present!

It was freezing. I was forced to use a metal pole which slipped through my hand and conducted the iciness of the water, giving me a terrible aching sensation, and to make matters worse, the wind was high and the current on the Cam during winter months is incredibly strong, which made returning upstream to the punt hire place rather hard work.

We returned to Thaxted for a birthday feast in the sitting room in front of an open fire. My Mum had even managed to find a gluten and dairy free birthday cake, which went down particularly well.

On the car journey to the train at Bishop's Stortford, Cindy's jet lag (and three mulled wines) kicked in and as we pulled into the station she started talking absolute jibberish... Cue me assuming she was having a stroke and going into hyper-mode. Turns out she'd simply nodded off and started talking in her sleep. It was curiously instantaneous, however. One moment she was chatting away happily. The next she'd briefly signed out!

The trains home to London were in disarray as a result of vandalism somewhere near Tottenham Hale, and we ended up being forced to join the tube network at Seven Sisters, which no decent human being should ever have to endure.

We stayed up late to read and listen to sequences from Brass, which Cindy feels is a very impressive work. She was crying within two minutes of hearing the first song, which I take to be a good sign!

Less good, however, is this funny, runny tummy which I feel it's imperative not to have when I wake up tomorrow. I have a party to cater, God dammit!

Monday, 30 December 2013


I'm back in Thaxted at the end of a long old day, the first part of which seemed to go by in a flash. I can count on the fingers of one hand the things I usefully achieved before about 6pm. I spoke on the phone to a few people and did some work on Brass. I've spent a considerable amount of time on this project immersing myself in musical styles from the turn of the last century, in order to make the musical feel as legitimate as possible. I can't imagine why anyone writing a period piece wouldn't do this, and am surprised that Lloyd Weber's new musical about Profumo doesn't tap into the rich tapestry of musical styles which the early 1960s offers any composer on a plate.

The big rage in the First World War was ragtime, which people used to foxtrot to. Unfortunately ragtime to me is about as alien as R and B, so I spent two hours this afternoon writing a single eight bar sequence! You have to get these things right. There's no point in writing half-arsed pastiche, or, for that matter, a pastiche which doesn't also feel like a decent piece of music in its own right. I am also feeling the pressure to write excellent music as the script today passed the NYMT producer test, seemingly with flying colours. Hurrah. Could it be I've finally cracked it with this piece?

I left Highgate for Thaxted at about about 8.30pm and drove like the clappers up here to meet my friend Cindy from Stansted. Cindy has come from New York via Dallas and Rome, which seems almost impossibly glamorous!

Cindy is celiac (I nearly wrote celeriac!) which means she can't eat wheat or dairy - basically anything nice! I had mentioned this to my Mum, but was truly amazed to get back to Thaxted from the airport to find she'd whipped up an entire spread of wheat and dairy free food. Cindy was thrilled, of course.

Top marks also to my mother for showing me bits of the quilt she's been working on for my 40th birthday, which is genuinely one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen - lovingly filled with all sorts of quilted scenes from my life, mostly to do with the films I've made and the music I've written. I immediately burst into tears, of course. I can't wait to see what it looks like when it's all put together and am determined to forget what I've seen so that the surprise can be all the better in August when it's unveiled.

Anyway. I must go to sleep as I have a long day tomorrow, taking Cindy on a tour of the spiritual, pagan and ghostly world of Northern Essex and Cambridgeshire. Sometimes it's rather good to recharge those particular batteries, but you need to take a believer with you... And Cindy is most definitely a believer!

Sunday, 29 December 2013

On the silence of appreciation

This blog entry is really more of an appeal to readers who know creative people. In this instance, I use the word "creative" to mean those who write, paint, direct, compose, take photos, and make films; those who create art from nothing, rather than performers, whom I think of more as "re-creative."

Definition complete, I move on to the body of the appeal...

We've all done it haven't we? Been to see a friend acting or performing in a piece; maybe she's in a professional West End musical, maybe he plays in an amateur orchestra. Sometimes what we see is incredible, and we cheer and laugh and feel hopelessly proud. Other times we sit through a proper turkey, longing to go home, wishing the misery would end! What we ALWAYS do afterwards, however, is congratulate the performer. We recognise how hard they've worked and if the show was bad, and we don't want to lie, we use phrases like "If it wasn't for you, that show would have been meaningless..."

The cardinal sin would be to walk away without making a comment - doing this would undoubtedly lead to the abrupt end of a beautiful friendship. As a result, we often queue for hours in grotty bars and church halls waiting to grab our performer friends and fill their ears with buttery compliments. It's the etiquette. It's what performers subconsciously demand.

Sadly the same is often not true when it comes to creatives. I heard the story today of the step mother of one song writer who sat down (in a studio) to listen to her step son's work and actually went to the loo just after he'd started playing the first song from his new album to her.

I remember once playing a group of friends my A1 film for the first time. We all sat down in front of a giant screen to watch it. I was really excited, but just as it started two enormous dogs rushed into the room slobbering on everyone, barking insanely and causing such an extended commotion that the entire set-up of the film was lost. I had to stamp my little feet very hard to start the piece again!

Three times this year, an even more peculiar phenomenon has happened, where I've shown someone my work and they've actually said nothing about it afterwards! Nothing at all. Not a "well done" or a "wow, that was ambitious," just a silence, before the conversation moves on to something else, and it's impossible to then charge in with a "so what did you think of it?" Type question...

It seems that people these days genuinely grasp that it's possible to badly hurt the feelings of a performer. We understand that it takes guts and skills to stand on a stage and do stuff well. When it comes to purely creative people, however, we can be a great deal less understanding.

When you make a film or write a piece of music you invest almost every part of yourself in it; years of blood, sweat and tears will often have been poured into a piece, and often rather large sums of personal money will follow the creative outburst in order to bring it to fruition.  A key moment in any creative person's journey is the handing over of their work to the wider world for the first time. It is utterly terrifying. You hope someone will like it, or "get it" as we started to say in the late 20th Century, but you won't be at all surprised if they don't because you yourself lost all sense of objectivity as soon as you lifted pen to paper! An important part in the painful process of giving birth to a creative endeavour, is showing the work in its unfinished form to friends. Having a friend read an early draft, hear an unmastered mix, or see an ungraded edit of a film is like dipping your toe into the murky waters of Joe Public. Your heart beats in your mouth. You feel sick. You look at their faces with great anticipation to see how they respond to certain passages...

...But then, after all of that, sometimes people don't say anything at all, which of course makes you immediately assume they don't like it, in fact it must be so awful, they can't think of anything nice to say just to sweeten the pill. Not even, "gosh, that's a lot of work..." or "up to the usual Till standards"!

I'm sure I don't need to say what a crashingly awful effect silence of this nature can have on a creative person. He or she simply wants to hide away, to have the work suddenly disappear. The flaws he knows exist in the draft or the edit become wide chasms which will never be filled, and he deflates like an old football on a neighbour's garage roof.

I think there's an understanding that performers, actors particularly, are creatures with rather low self-esteem, but very few people fully appreciate how complicated and emotional it is for the man or woman who actually gave birth to the art that the performer is interpreting. It's a curious disconnect which I have seen throughout my career. I once dared to play a song on the piano to a friend, who suddenly started randomly pressing keys at the top end of the piano whilst I played as though to say "gosh this is dull isn't it? Perhaps if I play something else, he'll get the message." What makes this behaviour even more bizarre is that it never seems to come from a nasty or brutal place, and I'm not sure that this weird silence necessarily comes out of someone not actually liking what they're hearing or seeing. I can only think it comes because people don't fully comprehend what it means to create something, and therefore can't think of the right questions to ask for fear of looking silly.

The only analogy that sticks here is the one I briefly referenced earlier about giving birth. Creatives have a seed of an idea which we nurture for months; feeding it, obsessing over it unhealthily, letting it grow, until finally, one day, we feel proud or brave enough to hand it over to the rest of the world.

If someone handed you their baby and asked what you thought of him, would you bounce it on your knee for a few minutes and then hand it back to the mother without uttering a single word? No! You'd say how beautiful it was, and if you couldn't think of anything nice to say about its appearance (we all know the majority of babies are mingers), then you'd ask the mother about the process of giving birth and how she found it, and perhaps even ask what her plans are for the baby in terms of its future. Just out of politeness, really!

So the next time a creative friend asks if you'd like to watch or listen to their work, remember a few things. 1) He or she has plucked up a considerable amount of courage to ask you to listen to or watch their work, and in the process has placed a great responsibility on your shoulders which you must try to take seriously. 2) If it's genuinely not a good time and if you can't focus properly on the piece, tell them, but don't forget to ask to see it again when a better time comes. The creative person will immediately feel ashamed to have bothered you and will probably not be brave enough to ask you to listen a second time. 3) Focus on the piece, and remember your face will be watched very carefully as you appreciate it! 4) Be careful with your critiquing; at this early stage, the creative certainly won't be ready to hear that what he's made or written is crap. Ascertain, before venturing an opinion, if it's too late for notes and if the creative asks for feedback, work out what level of comment is appropriate in terms of how much time he has to remedy problems. 5) If in doubt, remember the baby metaphor. Treat the work like you would a new born child (or a bride talking about her wedding day) and you won't go far wrong!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Traffic jams and hams

The journey back from Hayward's Heath, or Crawley or wherever we were staying last night was traumatic in the extreme. Traffic was solid - bumper-to-bumper - pretty much from Gatwick to Heathrow which made us all grouchy and miserable. The plan had been to spend today - my Mother's birthday - in London, and I'd thought how lovely it would be to show them the cafe I like to work in (closed) and as an alternative, Highgate Village (mostly closed!)

We ended up in Cafe Nero drinking orange juice which, the bottle reliably informed us, was the product of ten oranges "lovingly" squeezed into a bottle. How insane do these advertising executives think we are? I mean, how does one prove that their oranges are squeezed lovingly? That said, as my brother later pointed out, how do you prove that the oranges WEREN'T squeezed with love?

This evening we went to the theatre to see the Jeeves and Worcester play at the Duke of York's Theatre. Unfortunately, we were placed in a row, at the end of which,  two enormously fat women were sitting. My poor father was squeezed into his seat like the oranges in his juice at lunch time. There was all sorts of passive aggressive sighing from both women when any of us tried to get to and from our seats at the interval; "Mum you're going to have to stand up again ..." "Oh no." Meanwhile the two of them couldn't stop gulping down huge vats of strawberry ice cream.

The theatre was boiling hot and smelt bloody awful as we entered, which made is laugh like school children. The auditorium was also filled with Christmas jumpers. I've seldom seen so many comedy  knitted Christmas trees and reindeer! It prompted me to wonder whether patterned knitting is making an unnecessary come back!

I wish I could say the show itself had made me laugh. It felt extremely old-fashioned; men dressed as women, people doing funny voices, and hamming things up in the true style of coarse acting. It wasn't very me, I'll be honest, although, as my Mum rightly pointed out, "it's nice to get out!" There is something about going to the theatre which is special, even if the piece isn't great.

I've come home and am watching the ABBA documentary on BBC4, with Agnetha talking about The Winner Takes it All. What she said almost broke my heart. "sometimes when I feel low-morale, I play some of the ABBA songs, the ones we're most proud of, and think, "I did this at least." The legend that is Agnetha saying "I did that at least..." She did that, and so much more besides.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Christmas number ones

We're in a Premier Inn in Burgess Hill, having spent a glorious day with my extended family at my cousin Matt's house in a rather sleepy village called Ditchling in East Sussex. There were 27 of us, I think, at least one person representing every decade from their teens to their 70s. It's a pleasant period in my family's time-line. There aren't any ancient people farting in chairs, annoying little toddlers rushing about, or any young competitive mothers demanding that everyone admire their babies and cater for the whims of their routines. We can all chat like grown ups and have lots of fun together playing the same games without anyone having a tantrum. It struck me, as I looked around the room, that this is the last Christmas of my 30s. Funny to think I'm nearly 40. I was always the baby of the family. That role has now been taken by a lad called Ned, who is growing up fast. So fast, in fact, that his mother kept saying (jokingly I hasten to add) "remember he's young, vulnerable and incredibly needy! At least that's how my baby needs to stay!"

We had a familial quiz with everyone preparing a three-question round. Mine was about Christmas number ones. How many can you name? To aid people, I created a giant poster-sized document with little photographic clues, either to indicate the artist or the song itself. Artist most likely to have a Christmas number one? The Beatles (4), Cliff Richard (4), Spice Girls (3). Title of song most likely to get to number one at Christmas? Do They Know It's Christmas? (3) Mary's Boy Child (2). Song which most surprisingly didn't make it to number one? I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. Band who most surprisingly didn't jump on the search for a Christmas number one band wagon? ABBA. Classy, you see? They did a New Year song instead.

We had quiches for lunch and soup for supper and everyone got along famously. We toasted Nathan in absentia - he is astonishingly popular with my family - and I felt a twinge of sadness that we've not been able to be together this year. I miss him more than ever tonight.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Breathing together

...And a very Happy Christmas to everyone reading this blog! I'm actually watching The Sound of Music on YouTube. After all, what Christmas would be complete without a few of our favourite films? We've just got to the intermission - the bit where Dame Julie rushes back to the nunnery - and I'm now contemplating a dose of Downton Abbey, because I never liked the bit with the Nazis...

Julie and I are ensconced in front of the open fire whilst the others are next door watching Doctor Who. I've never really been into Doctor Who; not back then, or now...

Predictably, I've eaten too much. Way too much. As a result there are only certain chairs I feel comfortable sitting in! Cue the vomitorium!

Nevertheless, I've just heated a load of roast potatoes and am starting all over again. What's wrong with me!? I suppose good food deserves to be eaten, and Julie's food - which she's spent the best part of two days lovingly preparing - was particularly good.

Other than that, it's been a quiet Christmas. I was lucky enough to be given a Queen Mary Christmas parcel tin dating from 1914. Queen Mary, King George V's wife, was a recidivist fundraiser, who raised huge sums of money at the start of the First World War, which she used to provide every fighting soldier with a little souvenir brass box which was filled with cigarettes and chocolate. I've read much about these boxes, but genuinely never thought I'd own one. To make things even more appropriate, the tin is not only made of brass (tick), but it belonged to one of the Durham Pals, who followed the Leeds Pals over the top at Serre on July 1st, 1916.

I am hugely grateful to my brother for even thinking to buy it for me. It was a hugely touching gift which left me really quite speechless.

I was also rather thrilled to receive a badge which would have been worn by the Leeds Pals on their caps.

I've not left the house today, not once. I'm not sure this is particularly good for me, but, then again, does anyone ever do health conscious on Christmas Day?

I hope not too many people reading this will have been depressed, alone or lonely today.

My dear, dear friend sent me a text today in response to my sending her a rather maudlin message about not having any money, which I'm sure she won't mind my sharing. For some reason it really made a difference...

"Right now we are not homeless. Right now we are managing to pay bills. Tomorrow we will keep working towards our goals. Right now- just keep breathing. We'll keep breathing together."

Isn't that wonderful?

Gales, bells and smells

It's not often that I can say a gale has actually kept me awake in the night. I kept thinking someone was knocking on my bedroom door and at one point actually shouted, "come in," thinking it might be a frightened Julie!

There was an odd sort of flashing in the Eastern sky, which could have been lightning, that or some kind of broken lamp behind the houses opposite.

I spent a good twenty minutes trying to record the gale on my little device, but first the battery was dead (thank God my Mum is deeply organised when it comes to where replacements for these sorts of things are kept), but then I couldn't open my bedroom window, so was creeping around at the front door and then the bathroom window trying to record sounds, until I realised my headphones were not working, and then I kept running out of space on the sound card... I'm not sure it was entirely meant to be. Still, there might be something worth using at some point in my life...

I finally fell asleep, and woke up to the sounds of my parents laughing at me describing myself as a Sioux chef in yesterday's blog (now corrected to sous chef!) My computer auto-corrected the word, and I've always been comically rubbish at homophones!

I don't think I slept quite enough, however, as I've felt rubbish all day. I shouldn't complain. I've not had to do more than sit on a sofa and eat copious numbers of mince pies all day.

Brother Edward and Sacha arrived in the afternoon and we ate a lovely evening meal, cooked by Julie, which paved the way for a series of games involving pens and paper. One of them, which required us to draw book titles, was particularly amusing. Try drawing "Emma!"

Julie and I went to the first part of Midnight Mass. We processed around the church holding candles whilst singing Once in Royal, which was just lovely, but when the religious content got confusing, intense and curiously quiet, we made a run for it! We left with the sound of ringing bells in our ears, almost choking on frankincense fumes.

It strikes me that church services will only become relevant when people learn to use those beautiful spaces in a classy and theatrical manner. There's so much inherent scope for moving and engaging people which it seems is rather arrogantly ignored by church people.

Monday, 23 December 2013


A gale has been blowing across Thaxted all day today. The rain has been buffeted in strange directions, pummelling the windows and trees. My parents seem to think a power cut at some point is a very strong possibility; as is the chance that we’ll end up being stranded here by floods (as very nearly happened last year.) Despite this, it’s been a rather sociable day. Julie Clare has joined us for Christmas this year and arrived just after mid-day, having opted to make an early start to beat the storms and make a start on the Christmas cooking, which she has very kindly offered to do. I am to be her sous chef, and have done a lot of peeling, chopping and prepping. I am taking my duties very seriously.

We played Vaughan-Williams on the stereo; the Lark Ascending and various folk song suites, lit the open fire and ate soup.

This afternoon, a group of my parents’ friends came over, and we all went out for a meal at the Swan pub, which felt a little empty for the day before Christmas Eve. My parents live on a street called Newbiggen Street, which I think I’m right in saying is the longest continual medieval street in Europe. What’s lovely about it, on an early evening in winter, is that people leave their curtains open, which means as you walk along, you get to peer into scores of other lives. On Christmas Day it’s a particularly heart-warming experience. Some people are sitting down to their dinners, other are sleeping in front of the telly, playing parlour games or opening presents in front of roaring fires. Little snaps shots of Thaxted life, all beautifully lit, and toasty-looking, like a technicoloured Victorian kinetoscope machine.


I woke up deliberately early this morning. My purpose: to thoroughly clean the house before going home for Christmas. The irony suddenly struck me. I was cleaning a house so that it looked all nice whilst I was away!

I started in the kitchen and slowly worked my way through the house with terrible soggy feet as a result of washing the kitchen rather early in the scheme of things. By the time I was done, I had trench foot!

I had a seriously bizarre dream last night about my friend Ian. For some reason he and Jem were auditioning for an awful amateur choir which Nathan and I were already members of. We were sitting in a school hall, around a table, and the choirmaster was asking people in turn to sing a passage of music. When he got to Ian, he said, "well I know from Benjamin that you're an adept music reader, but can you improvise?" "Yes of course", said Ian, and proceeded to sing the music proudly, a smug look on his face which said, "check this out." The only improvising he did, however, consisted of singing "have a banana" at the end of every phrase! In the dream I was mortified. I woke up laughing my head off!

House tidying complete, the next stage of the epic day became about lumping two enormous suitcases filled with presents and a heavy computer bag from Highgate all the way to Thaxted, which involved a stupid number of interchanges and goodness only knows how many flights of stairs and escalators. It's only when you're holding heavy bags that you realise quite how badly designed tube stations are, particularly when it comes to changing tube lines. You go up 12 steps. You go down 8. You go up 6. You go down an escalator. Imagine being disabled with all that nonsense going on? Or blind? Trying to carry all that rubbish with a bad back was perilously close to being foolhardy, but I had no choice. It's amazing, when you're a bloke struggling with stuff, how no one offers to help! Quite the opposite in fact. I heard more than my fair share of tutting. Note to those reading this blog: it's not only pretty women and old people who could sometimes do with a hand!

I had a tiny moment of sadness upon leaving the house, when I realised there was no space in my bags for the presents that Nathan and his mother had given me. It would have been so lovely to open them on Christmas Day, surrounded by everyone, but instead, I sat watching another Christmas cookery programme on the telly and opened them alone. I called Nathan whilst opening his, and it was lovely to hear his voice, but it wasn't quite the same.

Still, I reached Bishop's Stortford soon enough. The train station is something of a building site. Heaven knows what they're doing, but the exit seemed to involve passing through a wooden board walkway and handing my ticket to a silly woman in hi viz who made a big deal about my needing to hand her the ticket "properly" rather than in two fingers wrapped around a suitcase strap!

I made it to Thaxted at about 4pm and my odyssey was rewarded with a plate of delicious soup.

This evening, we went to the town square in Thaxted to sing Christmas Carols. There were about eighty singers plus a little group of folk musicians who accompanied us. They brought mince pies and mulled wine around and afterwards we went to the pub to sing some more, although I wanted to throttle the accordionist who accompanied In the Bleak Midwinter without once playing that heart-breaking second minor chord. These folk musicians seem to favour the major chords!

I came home and decided to write, so say up til 1am doing just that. The Thaxted air seems to have inspired me. That plus watching songs on the telly from Sting's new musical, which is, quite frankly, astonishing. He's done it all properly; set out to write a musical with a respect for the art form. You can't ask for more than that, can you Ben Elton, Jennifer Saunders...

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Giant pom-pom

I did some last minute shopping in Muswell Hill today and it felt a little as though I'd walked into a soap opera. As Christmas approaches, so people become more panicky. I walked into the middle of seven or eight awful rows; "you always think you know best, don't you?" "If you buy that crap, it'll be on your head..." "What's the point in buying your brother anything? He's got everything he needs. He'll only re-gift it to your bloody Mother next year!" "We really don't make a good shopping team do we?"

...And then it struck me how ridiculous Christmas can be. The only equivalent I can think of is a wedding. People go to such an enormous fuss to make everything perfect and yet the truth is that it'll be just what it is, regardless of how big the turkey is or how expensive the presents are. People will eat too much, drink too much, someone's aunt will make a tit of herself and then, in the blink of an eye, it'll all be over and you'll be left with an enormous credit card bill!

I switched the telly on this afternoon to find three of the four main channels broadcasting cookery shows. I have never seen so many clips as I have this year about stuffing Christmas birds. I'm a vegetarian, I've never stuffed a turkey, but I reckon I'm a degree-level expert from watching so many shows. I know all the little tips to keep the breast from cooking faster than the legs, and that too much sage tastes soapy (although God knows why anyone would accuse sage of being soapy when there's coriander in the world!)

In any other circumstance, TV execs would say "oh I think we've gone a bit over-kill with the Christmas dinner hints", but no, their view is plainly that we are a nation of cooking imbeciles. What makes me laugh is that making a roast dinner is the ONE thing that most people think they can do WITHOUT the advice of experts! Everyone I've ever met reckons they hold the secret to the best roast potatoes on the planet!

I went into central London to see the NYMT's Christmas Carol service this evening, but got stuck in a horrible jam at Covent Garden tube in the process. That's a nasty place to be on the last Saturday before Christmas, when the bloke next to you smells of sulphur!

The concert itself was wonderful, and on a much bigger scale than I'd assumed. There was a full orchestra and a very varied selection of music from the traditional hymns, which Tina, my companion for the evening, and I sang with proper gusto, to a movement from a trumpet concerto adeptly played by a member of the orchestra - although it was with this piece that the strings came a little unstuck!

There was a lovely Rutter carol and something by Dougal Irvine, who wrote last year's new commission, which the 70-ish voice NYMT choir sang spectacularly well.

All in all, a wonderful Christmassy evening, and Brass got a marvellous plug at the start from the founder of NYMT who urged everyone to go online and watch my Symphony for Yorkshire which he described as extraordinary.

People will soon start describing me as a Yorkshire-based composer!

We came home via Waterloo and stared for some time at an enormous three quarters-sized moon, which at one point seemed to be balanced on the top of the Shard of Glass like some kind of giant luminous pom-pom on the top of a witch's hat!

Text Santa

I went to the dentist first thing this morning. A new lady saw me; a little Chinese woman whose stomach rumbled in a hugely comical way throughout the check-up! My ear was right by her belly and when it first happened I genuinely wondered if it was the sound of a tube train passing underneath!

She gave me a "treatment plan", which, of course, involved a visit to the hygienist, who now charges almost £60 for services rendered, and laughably feels this is a service which I require three times a year. Obviously I can't afford £60 this close to Christmas and had to suggest I'd get in touch again when I could afford to come in. It's irritating, though: the role of a hygienist used to be part of the dentist's brief and not a separate entity. The NHS gets away with charging a fortune because it's seen as "cosmetic" when really it's preventative. In an era when people still aren't back on their financial feet, it seems outrageous that a hygienist can charge increasingly large sums of money. Her fees have doubled in five years!

From Tufnell Park, I bussed it up to Muswell Hill to meet Lli and her adorable mother for soup, tea, and fabulous chats about life, death, music and a million subjects in between.  Both women haven't had the greatest of years, but Silvia (Lli's mum) astonishes me with her optimism and lust for life. She is an extraordinary lady.

I came home this evening to watch "Text Santa" whilst sorting through Christmas gifts. The charity's official single this year is an abominable karaoke cover of "I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day..." sung by the talentless and fame-hungry "class" of the 2013 Big Reunion.

For those of you who were lucky enough to miss this hideous car crash telly, it's basically an attempt by a group of has-been manufactured bands from the 90s to reform for a second slice of the fame pie.

The single annoys me for two reasons 1) I released a charity single this year which will sell a fraction of the copies, but was the product of a great deal more expense, talent and and love and 2) these dreadful turds remind me that the 1990s pop world almost exclusively rejected talented musicians of my generation in favour of these photogenic tossers. A reminder of why the British pop music entirely ignored my generation and lost its way in the process, is never greatly appreciated!

I think I'm rather too cynical to watch these charity-a-thons. I find them astonishingly cliched and I also worry how much of what is raised will go to the management teams of these charities, many of whom are being paid ludicrously large salaries. Every time today's presenters mentioned how people could donate money, they said "so if you want to donate five pounds, simply text Text Santa... That's Santa spelt S.A.N.T.A..." Thank God they thought to spell out such a curiously complicated word. I've always found Santa as hard to spell as, well, "dyslexic!" Just when I thought television couldn't  be any more dummed down, Paddy Mcguinness appeared to do a special bite-sized episode of Take Me Out, the dating show for stupid slags, so at that point the telly went off.

I sat in the loft for two hours writing music as a gale battered the roof. Turns out the frustration I was feeling this evening was the mother of all songs wanting to burst out of me and that a crazy gale and rattling house was all I needed for the music to fly! Sadly I'm now buzzing as a result, and won't be able to sleep just yet, but blimey it was worth it!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

My thoughts go out

I finished the third draft of Brass this morning and, as a celebration, printed out a couple of copies for Sara and Jeremy at NYMT. I believe there's one more draft in it before we take it to workshop, but in the meantime, it's music, music, music...

I treated myself to poached eggs and mushrooms on toast at the local greasy spoon, and then ventured into town to do some (what I would laughably call) last-minute Christmas shopping (if I'd actually done some first-minute shopping!)

I took a rather long work-related telephone call in Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road, and realised, a little too late, that transferring all the weight of my shopping onto my right arm, whilst holding the phone with my left, was a disastrous decision. I have obviously pulled something, or put too much pressure on a ligament, because I am now in agony whenever I do anything with my right arm! Boo!

I had my hair cut in record time, came home and took myself off to the doctor to see if he could shed any light on this silly cold of mine which is coming and going like a lonely relative. He doesn't seem to think there's anything to worry about, which is good enough for me for the time being. I know I've been stressed, and furthermore know that stress manifests itself in me in a series of very peculiar symptoms. He's put me on medication for acid reflux, which sounds eccentric, but might not be too far off the mark.

I ran down to Crouch End to deliver the script to Sara, and then ran back up Shepherd's Hill, which nearly killed me. North Londoners will known that this particular road goes on forever at a fairly punishing one-in-ten gradient. Still, I feel extra specially fit as a result. Now that I'm about a stone lighter there's a great deal less of me to lug about when I jog! Target: to turn 40 as fit as I've ever been...

Just as I come to post this blog I hear the awful news that part of the roof of the Apollo theatre has collapsed, which is just terrible. It's obviously too early to work out what has happened, but my thoughts very much go out to those who have been effected.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013


Sara Kestelman called me today to say how much she'd enjoyed reading Brass, which was an immense weight off my mind. Sara's blessing for the project is just so important to me, not only because, as the show's director, she's got to be behind it 100%, but also because it's Sara Kestelman! What that immense tower of theatricality doesn't know about theatre is almost certainly not worth knowing! She said it was a rich, robust and mature work which had moved her very greatly. With every new adjective, my heart swelled a little larger!

I very much enjoyed the fact that she came at the piece primarily from an actor's perspective, trying to work her way through the emotional challenges she felt the young cast members would face when interpreting what I'd written. I have to say, it's really nice to be working alongside her.

I worked, essentially from 10 until
10 today, pouring over every line in the piece. When you get on a roll like this, the difficulty is knowing when to stop. I tried to watch a bit of telly but found myself constantly returning to the script, thinking "just one more scene..." I think I'm a day away from finishing the draft, and then the scariest stage of all comes when I send it to the big boss at NYMT to read for the first time. If he turns round and says he feels it's too grown up or complicated for the kids, then we really are in trouble! I may ask for a collective crossing of fingers on my behalf at this stage!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


I've been working hard all day on Brass, and have got as far as the interval in the third draft of the script. I'd say the script feels almost there now, and unless Sara comes up with a big set of notes, we could well be ready for the work-shopping process.

The music and lyrics are further off, however, and need to become the priority throughout January.

Can you believe it's almost Christmas? This is the time of year when we're suppose to utter cliches like "where on earth did the year go?" Cliche or no cliche, it's a question for which I'd rather like the answer!

Of course, at this time of year, one initially looks back assuming you've rather wasted the past twelve months, but when you start to piece things together, a rather rich tapestry of events and achievements emerges, and when one looks back on the same time last year, which for me was a period when I was working in Newcastle on 100 Faces, things seem like forever ago.

I don't have a lot more to say. I had a sack of new potatoes for lunch, which I thought would be fun baked in the oven with a tomato and olive sauce and melted cheese on the top. It was delicious, but it burned my mouth. I can't believe I'm committing all of this to my blog! It shows you how dull I've become. Stop reading now!

I wrote all day in the kitchen and was distracted by a rather ripe smell. There were a couple of carrots thinking of going off in the fruit bowl, which I duly threw in the bin, but the stench lingered. It was only when my fingers actually entered an apple that a realised where the smell was coming from. And then, of course, the whiff was all over my fingers and right inside my nose. Bluegh!

Right, that's plenty enough for a day with no consequence. I remember now that the most exciting thing I did today was open the advent calendar that Fiona sent me from Germany!

Sara Kestelman

My day started with a new osteopath in Borough. I'm not sure what happened to the last one. Perhaps it's like the police; you get taken off the case if you don't make improvements quickly enough! The new chap seems to know what he's doing. He's a tall, lean, desperately handsome Tai Kwando master, and he performed a very odd ritual which seemed to involve being prodded for some time in my lower stomach. Still, I consider brutality to be a good character trait for an osteopath, so I'm sure he'll be just fine. He said the strangest thing half way through the session when I announced that I was a 'cellist; "I've treated a number of 'cellists" he said, "they're always very intelligent..." I'm sure we are... But more intelligent than doctors? High court judges? Violinists?

From Borough, after doing an hour's work in a café, I made my way to Waterloo for lunch with Fiona, reminding myself continually that I really have to stop spending money. There's nothing in the coffers, and I'm not sure when I can next expect to be paid! Fiona was on good form. We went to Superdrug together after lunch to look at eye shadow, and I invented a game to see who could use the tester pots to create the best-looking bruise. I took ages doing mine, with all sorts of shades of yellows, browns and greens, but when we emerged onto the Strand it became more than apparent that Fiona's minimal smudge of black had won hands down.

Home to Highgate, and to draft three of Brass, which I've decided should be a good twenty pages shorter than draft two. At the end of the day, I frantically tied up a few loose ends in order to print off a semi-meaningful combination of two drafts to give to the project's director, the lovely Sara Kestleman (Olivier award-winning actress no less) whom I went to see in Crouch End tonight.

We're almost neighbours. She lives at the bottom of Shepherd's Hill, so I walked down, knocking on her neighbour's door by mistake in the process. We had a stir-fry, and talked obsessively about the piece. I first worked with Sara the best part of ten years ago when she sang the role of Golda on the demo recording of my musical Blast (thereby making her work on Brass all the more confusing!) Getting Sara to do the recording was my first experience of the benefits of chutzpah. It was Julie Clare who said, when I described the role of Golda as a baritonal Polish lunatic, "you need Sara Kestelman and you need her badly..." And so I plucked up all my courage, telephoned her agent, and nearly fell over when she agreed to do the recording. I am reminded of the North Eastern expression, "shy bairns get nowt..." An expression which became an almost mantra when recording the requiem. How else do you get three of your childhood heroines to record your work?

Monday, 16 December 2013


I've just trudged my way through miserable rain to one of the fancy houses up near Waterlow Park where I hand-delivered a copy of the requiem to one of the two people who bought it as a result of our leafleting. I remain upbeat. I needed to sell five to cover the costs, but our work has meant that at least two people who wouldn't otherwise have heard the work are being introduced to it, and this is a good thing indeed.

I also had a very lovely Christmas card from the lady I was rude to when handing out the fliers. She said she was looking forward to hearing the CD and graciously forgave me for my outburst.

This evening I continued my way through the gales to the Hangar in North Greenwich, where my friends Moira and Alex were running and performing in an astonishing Circus cabaret. It was really quite remarkable. Brilliant pumping music accompanied really well-conceived, dark, sexual acts, which were full of jeopardy, eastern promise and a smattering of nudity. Throw in a beautiful yellow snake, a number of astonishingly fit women, a shed-load of fire and an electronic harp, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a wonderful evening. There was a kind of rawness to the performances, which made everything just that little bit more terrifying. I was expecting some of the aerial performers to quite literally drop out of the sky at certain points. Dazzling.

The Hangar is a schlep for any North Londoner, and my journey there involved a walk, two tubes, an epic walk and a bus, and on my way home, a taxi, a walk and a night bus. Every bit worth the effort, however. Bravo Moira and Alex!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Oh yes I did!

You know when you get home from a long trip, sit down in front of the telly and fall asleep without blogging? That!

Apologies to any regular readers who tuned in this morning to be met by radio silence...

Yesterday was a rather bitty day. I was still in Wakefield, but opted to do a day's work on Brass, which was (pleasantly) interrupted by the schedule of Nathan's pantomime. A gruelling three shows in one day!

Quite a lot of people had come up to see him, including Jem and Ian and a lady called Michelle, who is one of Nathan's test knitters but this was the first time they'd actually met. It was like an episode of Surprise Surprise when they bring the 40-year-long pen pals together. Nathan was so excited to meet her. She'd brought her family to the panto, all of whom were incredibly lovely.

Jem and Ian thoroughly enjoyed themselves. In fact, the role of Ghastly Gordon initially went to Ian, who had to pull out to do another show. I can't remember whether I've jotted down the weird set of coincidences which led to Nathan getting the part, but it started in a Pizza Express in the very far North of London, with Ian mentioning they were re-auditioning for his former role in two days time and me saying "perhaps Nathan ought to see if he could get himself seen..." And the rest is history.

We went out for dinner after the show with some of the cast and I had to keep buttoning up my desire to make Ian stand up at the table so I could shout "here's what you could have won!"

I think it's been the perfect win-win situation, however. Ian gets to be in a West End show and Wakefield gets an astonishing pantomime villain.

Ian and Jem took me home to London and we talked about how wonderful Nathan is in the role. It's the funniest I've ever seen him on stage. His side kick, the lovely Sue Chef (they're both cooks, you see, I suppose Nathan is meant to be a warped Gordon Ramsey) plays off him perfectly. They're a formidable, scene-steeling double act. I couldn't be more proud.

Friday, 13 December 2013


It was raining again when we woke up in Wakefield this morning. The balcony outside Nathan's lodgings was under an inch of water and everyone looked a little miserable as they made their way to work.

I've been at a drama school in Garforth this afternoon which is hopefully where we're going to a workshop of Brass in March. It's a lovely place, seemingly filled with kids with boundless energy. Walking through the corridors reminded me of being at Mountview 20 or so years ago. It's good to see that little changes in these sorts of places. I recognised almost every kid I passed!

Getting there in the afternoon was something of a trial. Our car has been parked in the theatre car park for the last few days, long enough for it to get royally blocked in. I had a phone call from the principal of the drama school asking if I could go and see her as soon as possible and as I reached the car, I almost wept. Cue the most ridiculous rigmarole in the interval of the panto with the principal girl in full costume and mackiage driving her car around the car park in a rain shower, and me nearly crashing our car into a wall, and feeling like an annoying tit telling everyone I had to get to a drama school in Garforth. Dreadful!

I came back to Wakefield in the late afternoon, hoping to see Nathan's Mum and partner, but no one's phone was on, and I had no idea where they'd gone to eat. I sat instead, feeling a little sorry for myself, in an empty Subway store, watching the hoy-polloy of Wakefield emerging for a Friday night out on the town. I felt like the focus of some kind of Hopper painting. The multi-coloured street lights of Wakefield, reflected in the puddles, lent a rather mystical aspect to the view.

My friend who was due to join me to watch the panto this evening cancelled with three minutes to spare, which meant I was unable to stick something on twitter which said "any adults who can get to Wakefield tonight, please help me not to feel like a dreadful paedophile in an audience entirely consisting of school groups!" I felt like such a Charlie sitting there beforehand! I tried to avoid eye contact with any of the kids who were undoubtedly looking at me and wondering why a 40 year-old man would go to a panto... on his own!

I made friends with Nathan's side kick's partner in the interval, however, so we sat together in the second half. Strength in numbers and all that, and handy for when the Dame gave us a shout out, and brought everyone's attention in the audience to the "two blokes sitting in a room full of kids... C.R.B.-ehave yourselves!"

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Rainy Wakefield

Greetings from a rainy Wakefield. This place is genuinely rather depressing, filled with boarded-over shops, abandoned building projects and empty pubs and clubs. If anyone's looking for a city which sums up the hell of recession and the fact that we're a long way away from recovery, I'd suggest a little jaunt up here.

I was in a far more bustling Leeds this morning. I took the train there, first thing, for a meeting with Rozina and Katrina at the BBC about Brass, which they're going to be covering in depth as part of their commemoration of the First World War. It's all very exciting. I just need to write a decent musical now!

Rather surreally, as I was sitting on the sofas outside the radio studios, deep in conversation with a journalist called Tim, Nathan traipsed past to do an interview about his pantomime. He'd announced last night that he was due to do a radio interview "somewhere in Leeds" at noon, and it was only when he got in the car this morning that he was told the interview was actually with the BBC! A proper coincidence.

I spent the afternoon in Wakefield struggling to make my dreadful computer work; just connecting it to the internet in Nathan's flat became some sort of extreme endurance test (which I failed miserably) and I got so frustrated that it became almost impossible to do any work. I just shook with rage whilst contemplating throwing the blessed thing out of the widow. This is, without any exception, the most horrific computer I've ever owned. The very worst purchase, which actually hinders my life in a multitude of ways. I think the problem is a combination of things; the brand (Acer) and Windows 8 being the two main culprits, alongside my inability to troubleshoot technical problems. I just want to run away.

We went for a drink with the cast, crew and band after Nathan's second show. It's slightly weird that I haven't yet seen the pantomime - that all happens tomorrow night - so in the meantime I have nothing to say to anyone!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Hyde Park

There was quite an extraordinary mist in North London when I woke up. I could see it in the night, swirling and rolling like smoke outside the window, but this morning the sun was making a concerted effort to burn through, which had the effect of turning everything into a monochrome or sepia silhouette, which was really very beautiful. It was all rather Victorian - particularly in Highgate. I felt as though Jack the Ripper might have been on the prowl...

The journey up to Wakefield was accompanied by varying degrees of fog. I stopped off at my favourite trucker's cafe on the A1. Stibbington is just north of Peterborough, somewhere near the Nene Valley Railway. I had a vegetarian breakfast surrounded by Scottish lorry drivers and traveling salesmen in dodgy suits.

I did some composing whilst there and the music software caused quite a stir. "Is that the 1812 Overture?" Some bloke asked, "I wish!" I said, lying. "Well you might get there one day," he countered. I felt a little insulted.

Bizarrely, for a lover of all things Yorkshire, this is my first visit to Wakefield. I can't say I've particularly fallen in love with the place. It's full of out-of-town malls and tacky-looking clubs and I can't imagine it's a barrel of laughs on a Saturday night. I passed a group of grotesque Irish women who, at 5pm were already pissed and squawking like obscene farm animals.

Nathan and I drove to Leeds this evening to a recording studio in a house in the Hyde Park area of the city, which, co-incidentally, is where many of the characters I'm writing about in Brass are supposedly from.

Hyde Park is the student-cum-bohemian district in Leeds. It's got a reputation for being quite edgy. In fact it remains the only place I've filmed in where we were provided with a body guard! I adore the area, however, and would happily live there. It's where great rambling Victorian mansions rub shoulders with back-to-back terraces, where old ladies still hang their washing out across the street. The area features prominently in A Symphony For Yorkshire.

Anyway, this evening I was with Hazel Plummer, who produced the soundtrack for the aforementioned film, and the lovely Em Brulee, milliner and burlesque hostess, who was one of the stand-out performers in it.

We're recording a piano vocal arrangement of Sing A Song of Yorkshire, the anthem from the fourth movement of the symphony, which we're going to sell as a digital download.

We did take after take, the decision having been made to record both the piano and the vocal in the same room, which means there's no scope for tuning or moving anything about in the process of mixing. We effectively recorded as live... Every time either of us made a mistake, we'd have to start all over again. It's a hugely pressurised and exhausting experience, but ultimately rewarding. I'm excited to hear how it sounds.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Baroness Token

I've snaked my way around many areas of London today, starting in Shoreditch, where I met dear Philippa for part two of the dramaturgy on Brass. It seems she rather likes the script, and apart from suggesting the near annihilation of one of the central characters, and expressing a desire for the piece to be considerably shorter, her suggestions were mostly cosmetic. She is, of course, right about the role needing to be smaller. In a piece like Brass, it's almost impossible to give every character a beautifully defined story path, particularly when they're not the protagonist of the story. Things just get over-complicated. And as Sir Arnold Wesker once said, "sometimes you have to kill your darlings."

The dramaturgy session lasted a couple of hours in a lovely little cafe behind Rich Mix. We then went for lunch at Kick, a cafe opposite St Leonard's Church, immortalised in the famous nursery rhyme as the "Bells of Shoreditch." I had pea and mint soup, confirming, as though confirmation were needed, that peas are my favourite vegetable. I have them at least once a day.

I went back to Philippa's to see my Goddaughter, Silver, who is, as ever, insane and fabulous in equal measure.  Very much like her mother!

From Shoreditch I travelled to Angel to do some Christmas shopping and then took the bus into Soho, where I sat in Starbucks for three hours working on one of the songs from Brass. It's in 5/4, which is an ugly-looking time signature when seen on a page. If you want a single note to fill a bar, your only option is to express it as a combination of two shorter notes. It's ugly, I say. And often swung in a way that it's almost impossible to reflect in dots alone.

I met Ellie at Broadcasting House and we went together to the City of London to see Baroness Warsi delivering a key-note speech on equality which had been arranged by the Kaleidoscope Trust. Unfortunately the building she was speaking in (which was in the unpronounceable Aldermanbury Square) was almost impossible to find: some kind of smart phone conspiracy prevented us from finding it until a man in a hi-viz jacket, who couldn't say Aldermanbury either, pointed us in the right direction.

Baroness Token was as straight-talking as she was evasive. I couldn't help but like her, but she was riddled with the contractions you might expect from a Muslim, Yorkshire-born, female Tory who genuinely doesn't seem to understand the difference between a secular law and a law with religious connotations. Despite going on record to say she'd had a u-turn on her feelings about gay marriage (citing that old "my faith has sent me on a painful journey" argument) she went on to abstain in the Lords vote on the matter. In my view, it's all too convenient to cite religious views as justifiable grounds for borderline homophobia. When I suggest there are aspects of religion which make me uncomfortable, I'm branded an Islamaphobe. I wonder, however, if she would abstain if someone, arguing that Great Britain is essentially a Christian/ atheist nation, tried to pass a law which refused to acknowledge the legality of  Mosque-based marriages on the grounds that they make Christians and atheists feel uncomfortable?

Monday, 9 December 2013


I had osteopathy this morning and my osteopath's tutor was invited into the session to give me the once over. Before he arrived, he was described as the "Yoda" of the British School of Osteopathy, which I assumed was some kind of reference to Star Wars. I've never seen a Star Wars film (the first one came out in 1978, the same year as Grease, Saturday Night Fever and ABBA the Movie, so guess what I was watching?!) It is, however, astonishing how much it's possible to pick up from the wider media. There's a little green fella on adverts for a mobile phone network who talks English with German word order, who could well be this Yoda chap. Despite his looking like Fungus the Bogeyman and talking like a little deaf person, I think the character is meant to be incredibly wise, which would make calling someone "Yoda" a compliment rather than an insult. I think...

Anyway, Yoda tutor came in and basically made my back sound like one of those wooden things they used to wave at 1950s football matches. Were they called ratchets? The process made me giggle like a school boy and now I feel decidedly fragile, which I'm taking as a positive thing.

I met Michelle of the Turkie for our customary mushroom and Stilton bun and catch up, and went home via King's Cross, where I met Abbie and drank my fifth pot of tea of the day, which made me wee like a cow!

I seem to be struggling to find the motivation and time to do any work on Brass at the moment and I'm going up to see Nathan in Yorkshire on Wednesday for the rest of the week, so if I'm to meet my targets by the end of the month, I'll have to pull something astonishing out of the bag. I suspect everyone is winding down for Christmas at the moment, but I'll need to swim against this particular tide!

But when will I do my Christmas shopping? It's a deep quandary! I'm really not ready for Christmas this year and it seems to be coming rather speedily.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Semi naked

I'm at Brother Edward's and Sascha's house in Canary Wharf, which is rather beautifully decked out for Christmas with a lovely tree and a fabulous red cloth on the table. The scene confirms my decision not to decorate our own house this year. It's something I like doing with Nathan, and something I can't really see the point in doing alone. Yeah yeah, bah humbug and all that. They'll keep for next year.

Anyway, today we're watching Eurovision Song Contest entries from the past. We've just seen the Song for Europe from 1980. This was the UK Eurovision selection competition we had in the days when the contest wasn't a closed shop; ironically the days when we actually used to do really well. It was a rather epic affair with twelve songs and juries from all the BBC regional centres all of whom phoned in their votes.

The 1980 contest became rather infamous on account of the fact that two songs tied for first place, and no one had any idea what to do as a result. A young Terry Wogan improvised his way through a couple of links, and in the end, they went all the way around the regional centres again to ask the juries for a quick show of hands, as the score board in the background flashed and flickered randomly.


I slept for twelve hours last night and feel almost human as a result, although I don't seem to have seen much daylight. I am, officially, nocturnal. By the time I'd watched the X Factor, it was time to get in the car and drive at a snail's pace through East London traffic to Edward and Sascha for the results, which were accompanied by wraps: a Sunday night tradition in that part of town!

It never ceases to amaze me how awful London traffic can be and that it will regularly take an hour to drive just eight or so miles, even on a Sunday afternoon.

As I pulled up outside Edward's house, a man, wearing nothing but a pair of under pants ran past the car and down the middle of the street, shouting at the bloke running after him, "I need to feel I have your support." There is, I concluded, limited support one should be prepared to offer someone running down the street in the middle of winter wearing nothing but a pair of under crackers! I wonder what on earth that particular scene was all about. Only in the East End. I was probably in some kind of hidden camera show. Trouble in London is that you see so much lunacy, you end up taking it all with a healthy pinch of salt!

Dressing up

I only slept for three hours last night. The late-night journey to Gatwick woke me up rather comprehensively, the cold returned with a vengeance and I was sleeping on Meriel's sofa bed right next to a window which was a little chilly.

I should have looked around for another blanket or something, but I was already under about three layers. I kept remembering my Grandmother, one Christmas Eve just before she was engulfed by senility, when she appeared in my bedroom on an hourly basis appearing throughout the entire night. The cycle went something like this. Grannie would walk into my room and turn on the light, saying "are you warm enough?" I'd say "I'm fine thank you, Grannie." She would vanish and return again with a blanket from the airing cupboard, which she would throw at me... And so it continued throughout the night. The pile of things on top of me grew and grew, and as Grannie's airing cupboard slowly ran out of blankets, so the ever stranger things started appearing... Valances, towels, net curtains... By the morning I must have looked like a table at a jumble sale!

We had breakfast at Hilary and Rupert's  before heading off to Michelham Priory, where we did all sorts of wonderful things like dressing up in Medieval clothing, shooting arrows at a cardboard deer, and bouncing up and down on a four-person seesaw. There was a pepper and squash soup for lunch, an Iron Age village to explore and a wonderful craft room for the kids, where Jeanie made a Christingle and Will made a Tudor coin out of clay.


We went back to Hilary and Rupert's for a lovely roast meal (I provided the vegetarian gravy for the half of us there who didn't eat meat) and the evening descended into a fabulous nostalgia-fest. We've known each other for 21 years; more than half of our lives. I think that means something very special and if anything, our friendships have grown over the years. We've supported each other through good and bad times and genuinely feel like a rather surreal, but functioning extended family.

I drove home to London through the night. It was thankfully a far speedier journey than my trip down, with an average speed of 57 miles per hour!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Inverse land speed record

We're at Hilary and Rupert's house in Lewes. Its Hilary's 40th birthday weekend, and we've had a lovely vegetarian stew, a whole plate of cheeses and too many chocolates.

The journey down here was insane. I left Highgate at 4pm, after frantically tidying the house, and immediately got stuck in rush hour traffic. I thought I was going to beat the London mass exodus, but had forgotten that the phenomenon takes place in the mid afternoon on Fridays.

By the time I'd reached the Blackwall  Tunnel I was ready to dig my eyes out with a rusty spoon. My foot kept going into spasm on account of its hitting the clutch and the brakes so regularly, and my back was aching like crazy. There's nothing more claustrophobic than the experience of getting stuck in painstakingly slow moving traffic.

It took four and a bit hours to get down here, a fact made all the more unpalatable by the fact that Iain and Raily, who left Aylesbury two hours later than me, arrived just ten minutes later! Our car's computer reliably informed me that I'd driven at an average speed of 18 miles per hour, which must be some sort of inverse land speed record!

We drove from Lewes to Gatwick at 11.30pm; a mercy dash to rescue Tanya from the airport, whose plane down from Glasgow had been delayed by snow. Despite the delay being nothing to do with any of us, we were forced to pay £3 for the privilege of picking her up. The same thing happens at Stansted Airport these days. I think that's bordering on the definition of daylight robbery!

Still, it was lovely to see Tanya, who we must now address as Doctor Cheadle on account of her recently completing a PHD at Glasgow University. How blinking clever are my friends?

Friday, 6 December 2013

Random acts

I walked into Muswell Hill this morning kicking up piles of Autumn leaves. They're absolutely everywhere at the moment. It seems rather late in the year for that sort of palaver. I made a film for Children in Need in early November a few years ago, and the leaves were similarly thick on the ground, but that was the start of November. What strange weather we're having this year.

Speaking of which, the East Coast of the UK seems to be bracing itself for a rather biblical storm surge, which worries me a little. I have a feeling we're going to wake up tomorrow morning in complete disarray. The news people won't know whether to talk about the death of Nelson Mandella or the terrible floods. It will be one of those dates. I hope I'm proved wrong but I worry about the Essex coastline.

We haven't had any particularly strange weather in North London today. It was a bit blustery earlier, but the trees outside by the tube are almost worrying still.

If the wind picks up, we're on for a rather hysterical scene. The council people have not yet come along with their brooms and enormous vacuum cleaners and there are so many leaves lying in huge heaps on the ground that we'll end up with a sort of brown and orange blizzard.

A sad old bloke came into Costa Cafe today. He went up to one of the baristas and asked if he could have some sugar. I spent ages trying to work out what his story must have been. He could barely walk, poor thing, and was wearing a very silly hat. I couldn't work out why he wanted sugar. Maybe he just needed an energy boost and couldn't afford a drink. The barista gave him some small bags of sugar and he shuffled out again into the rain.

Five seconds later, the barista rushed out onto the street after him and a little later, the man had returned with the barista and was being given a coffee on the house, which he drank keenly.

I was so impressed by the barista. He absolutely didn't need to reach out to the old bloke, but obviously saw a person in need and wanted to do his bit. Some people in his position would even have refused the man a few little bags of sugar. Most would have been glad to see the back of him, "for the sake of the other customers..."

I will remember that random act of kindness for while. It makes me realise that there's always something else one can do to brighten someone else's day.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Shite technology

I decided to wake up when I woke up this morning in an attempt to sleep off any last residue of cold. It was maybe a mistake, as, when I opened my eyes and looked at the bed side clock, it was nearly mid day! I felt like a student again.

Still, it seems to have done the trick. I feel a lot better, in fact, when I went out for a jog in the afternoon there was a real spring in my tail. It might have had something to do with the weather. It was crisp and there was a sort of musty, smoky smell in the air, which I found hugely inspiring. I danced a little as I ran.

Other than this I’ve done very little today apart from working on the piano vocals scores for Brass. My aim is to have six songs done in this way by the end of the month, plus another draft of the script. Auditions for the show are happening through January and this feels like a good position to be in before they start. There’s so much to do when it comes to writing a musical! It’s quite bewildering, in fact. I guess all I can do is take one step at a time and not move on until I think what’s been written is of the absolute highest standard.

I am so frustrated by the state of technology in my life. Here’s the current deal. 1) My mobile phone no longer has reception in the house. Whether this is due to the phone or the service provider, I’ve no idea, but it’s quite astonishingly frustrating. 2) My new computer sometimes doesn’t send emails. I think at least it tends to tell me when it’s decided not to send one, so I don’t have to send the same message several times just in case, but, earlier this evening I had an email refused so many times I was forced to give up. 3) My new computer only sometimes connects to the internet, and when it does, it often immediately throws me off with an error message. 4) When I’m using my music software, some rubbish new shortcut with Windows 8, which I inadvertently trigger when I’m trying to place a crotchet on the page, throws me off the manuscript I’m working on, and brings up an internet tab. This happens, I’d say, once every five minutes.

I appreciate these things are all rather ghastly First World problems, but can you imagine the combination of all of this, and what that must do to my nerves!

Anyway, I’ve bored myself. I have nothing of any interest to write. I think it’s simply time for bed!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Well, after today, I can cheerfully say that the era of me going into the Snappy Snaps in Crouch End is officially over! Keen readers of this blog will remember that they printed a year's worth of photographs too dark on Saturday, and when I turned up to collect the replacements today, they were, as Sod's law would dictate, way too light! It looked like I’d spilt milk all over the pictures.

I really didn't want to create a fuss and said I dearly wished they'd simply split the difference between the two extremes, before asking if I could take away some of the darker versions of the more dramatic shots. After all, who wants a sunset which looks like it’s coated in ice. The man behind the counter begrudgingly said I could take "some" of the original batch, "as long as I didn't take too many" as I'd given him the impression that none of them were good enough.

None of them were good enough. But some of the originals were better than the recent hatchet job, and frankly, it's the least they could do after knackering up a whole second set!

It was all slightly embarrassing. The man behind the counter was nice enough, and went out of his way to help. I just think, from time to time, you simply have to acknowledge defeat. We don't share the same photographic eye. What he considers to be well-lit, I consider to be murky. That, or he's just used to dealing with photos which are such poor quality, he's become a little complacent. They work in a funny old light in there as well, horrid neon strips, which has to impair their visual judgement. 

Today's been all about a) trying to get over this blessed cold once and for all and b) working on piano arrangements for Brass. It's a horrid task, which feels upside down. The work will eventually be scored for a rather large ensemble of musicians, and a huge amount of the process of composing for me is built around orchestration. It's when the music can take off and soar, and huge tonal developments take place as a result...

At the same time, the pressing need is for me to create a piano-vocal score which can be used for rehearsals and workshops. So which ought to come first? Problem is, things will change out of recognition when I get orchestrating, but the idea of creating a piano reduction from an orchestral score is almost too painful. I don't think this problem happens very often in most musical theatre productions, because things are usually done by committee. A composer hands a melody and chords over to an orchestrator who basically deals with the rest. I'm just not sure anyone can call themselves a composer if they don't do their own orchestrations!

I’m burbling because I’m feeling a little lonely. Apart from the man in the shop, I’ve really spoken to no one today. I’ve spoken rather regularly to myself, which doesn’t count, namely because it can’t be very good for me, and I refuse to acknowledge that I do it. Nathan, up in Wakefield, is on voice rest, so we’ve waved at each other on Facetime, but not said anything.

It strikes me how absolutely horrific it must be for the many people in this world who go for weeks without speaking to anyone; the people who fall in love with radio presenters and get their only company from the television, or watching the world passing by from behind net curtains. I suppose it must have been like that for my Grannie by the end, waiting every day for her carer to arrive. I have no idea what propels people in these circumstances. The thought that today might be the day when they struggle out to the shops and find someone en route to talk to? It might be the day when the neighbour pops in for a nice cup of tea? Or the day when they’re finally reunited with a loved one who died five years before? Perhaps that’s why people begin to look forward to death. So many people simply evaporate through loneliness...
Gosh, I don’t know that there’s any reversal procedure for this blog. I apologise if anyone’s day has taken a nose dive as a result of reading this! If you’re feeling lonely yourself, go and find someone to talk to. Join a book club or a knitting circle, or write a letter to someone. And better still, if you’re passing an elderly person on the street, smile and say hello, because it might be the only human contact they’ll have today.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Decent human beings

I find myself feeling rather proud of Tom Daley for coming out today. I think the phrase he used which I found rather touching was when he said of his partner, “he makes me feel safe.” We all need to feel protected sometimes, and a relationship ought to provide a person with a sense of safety, particularly those, like Daley, who lost a parent in their teenage years. I’m excited to see if this announcement will have a positive effect on other gay sports people. It’s time we brought that particular industry kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

Today started early in Borough with another visit to my osteopath. I like my osteopath. He’s very quirky. His name is Ollie, and, like everyone who sees you at the British School of Osteopathy, he’s a student, in his case, a mature student, who used to be a printer. He claims to be dyspraxic, which makes for quite a laugh when he’s trying to explain what positions he wants me to adopt! I barely know my left from my right and find it impossible to put my body into a pre-described position. He also tells me that he looks forward to seeing which odd socks I’m wearing when I come in.

From Borough, I went to Somerset House to meet Michelle of the Turkie for lunch. We go to a rather fancy little cafe, which is a bit pricey, but it serves delicious food. Each week I eat a little bap filled with mushrooms and blue cheese and drink a freshly squeezed orange juice. We natter for an hour and then go our separate ways.

I came back to Highgate, went jogging, and continued to work on Brass, making my way through a glossary of Edwardian slang to see if anything felt right to use in the script. I’ve also started scoring one of the songs for piano and voice. It sounds lovely on the actual piano, but bloody awful on my computer, which is a little worrying.

I’ve just watched a TV film about the terrible Glasgow helicopter crash. The piece finished with interviews from two men, the first of whom, a priest, said, “the thing about Glasgow people is that they respond to everything from their hearts.” What a wonderful thing to say about the people of a city. The other interviewee then added, “until my dying day, I will remember watching people rushing through the streets towards the accident scene to see if they could help.” These sorts of awful things often serve to remind us that, when push comes to shove, the majority of people in this world are decent sorts.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Posh pianos

I did another day of leafleting in Highgate today, this time in the enormous Victorian mansions which stretch from the village down to Hampstead Heath. I have seldom seen houses with such enormous gardens. We're talking properties with three quarters of an acre of land, which by London standards is almost obscene. Obviously one tries ones hardest to look in awe rather than envy, but I have seen grand pianos in front rooms which would make a grown composer weep! Of course you can't help but wonder how competent the musicians are who play those stunning instruments, or whether there's any sense of how lucky they are when they do!

It reminds me a little of how I felt as a child when I heard Jacqueline du Pre had given 'cello lessons to Prince Charles. Even then I wondered whether the Prince would ever realise quite what an honour was being bestowed on him. Perhaps the honour was all Jacqueline's. Maybe she dined out on horror stories about what a terrible noise he was making!

Another clear memory I have from childhood days is my mother sitting down with me and saying she didn't think it would ever be possible for me to have my own 'cello. We just weren't wealthy enough. I resigned myself to being content to play the instrument which we'd borrowed from the county council (the kind of instrument which recent cuts have meant that kids are no longer offered.)

Anyway, that night on the telly they showed a 'cello being smashed up in a comedy sketch. I was horrified. If I couldn't have a 'cello, how could there possibly be enough 'cellos in the world for one to be smashed up? I think I wanted to write to the BBC to let them know how appalled I was by the sight, but things got in the way. Besides, a year or so later, my Nana died and left me enough money in her will to buy my own, and I've never really looked back.

The misery of leafleting became a somewhat easier pill to swallow when I happened upon a Yummy Mummy, getting out of a car on her drive just off Spaniard's Land. As I reached the letter box of her house, I saw with horror that it had the familiar "no junk mail" sign plastered onto it. I turned around and said to the woman, "I'm terribly sorry, I see you have a sign..." She thanked me for not putting the leaflet through her door and then called me back saying "is it a local thing?" I showed her the postcard as she said, "that's not junk mail! We put that sign up to stop the pizza fliers!" She took the postcard from me and I felt a glimmer of sunshine which lasted till the end of her street.

That said, I've not had a single sale yet as a result of all this entrepreneurial activity, but I did drop an apology and a Requiem CD through the woman's door whom I'd rowed with yesterday. I hope she'll at least enjoy listening to it.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Wood smoke

Today started rather badly. I went all low blood sugar and then drove into Crouch End to pick up £90-worth of photographs from Snappy Snaps, which had been disastrously and universally badly printed. All the excuses came out; what works visually for one customer doesn't for another, exposure is subjective, the large borders you've asked us to add to these pictures make the images look much darker, what you see on our screens doesn't match what you see in the pictures... I told them I'd been taking photographs for thirty years, which was long enough to recognise bullshit, and eventually they begrudgingly agreed to do the pictures again after I'd tugged at their heart strings and pointed out that I simply wanted to be able to see the faces of the people I love, staring out of the photographs I'd taken.

It put in a fowl mood and made me late for the next part of my day, the far more pleasurable task of meeting up with Little Michelle, who'd agreed to come with me on a mission to deliver a few more post cards. We spent two hours trolling around Highgate Village, daring each other to go up the garden paths of the grandest looking houses; properties belonging to people like George Michael and Victoria Wood, who are too famous to have letter boxes...

Michelle very much brightened things up, but the sinking feeling returned when one woman rushed out of a house we'd just fliered and said, "no, no, no... there used to be a  sign on my door saying that I didn't want any junk mail." "Well there's no longer a sign, so, as I'm not psychic, I'd say your house was fair game." I don't remember what was then said. All I know is that a red mist descended. The woman made me feel ashamed, like a beggar. I remember telling her I thought she was rude. I remember her saying that she didn't want junk mail in the future and me saying, "there won't be a future.  Do you think I do this for a living?" I departed telling her that I hoped she enjoyed the leaflet, and spent the next half an hour fuming.

In retrospect, of course, I realise the argument was all about my insecurities. I turned her into an ogre and got shirty because it made me feel less worthless. It suited me to imagine her as a rich Highgate snob, when actually, she was trying to deal with me as politely as she could. What upsets me is that my outburst plainly shocked her and possibly made her feel a little frightened. So I shall put a copy of the Requiem through her door tomorrow with a note of apology. It's the least I can do. And frankly, if no one's buying them, I might as well give them away! I'd sooner the piece was heard.

From Highgate I picked Tina up in East London and we drove up to the wood smoke-scented village of Thaxted, where we drank tea and ate cake and convincingly won a quiz in the village hall. It was a brilliant night, and I have a bottle of champagne and one of red wine to show for our victory. I'm sure the champagne will be consumed by a passing alcoholic and I can use the red wine for gravy. I've decided I quite like the taste of alcohol after the alcohol's been burned off and a stock cube has been added.

We came out of the quiz to an astonishing light display in the heavens. The night sky was pitch black and the stars were supremely bright.

As we drove home, just as I was telling Tina about phantom misty light displays on the roads around Thaxted, a hare rushed out into the road in front of us. I was going slowly enough to avoid it, and catch the creature in full beam as it stared hopelessly at the car. That's the second hare I've seen in as many months. I wonder what that means...

It was so lovely to spend the evening with Tina and my family...