Thursday, 31 July 2014

Basso Profundo

On the last few days of our holiday, Nathan and I began to get the very strong impression that we were simultaneously coming down with colds. First the sore throats. Then the aching. Today, we both woke up feeling distinctly baritonal, which was slightly worse for Nathan because he had to go to Hampshire to sing opera at someone's wedding. I became rather fascinated by my own singing voice, and lay in bed this morning for some minutes, experimenting with my new bottom G. That'll be the G three ledger lines lower than the bass clef: The G a fourth below the lowest string of a cello! If it sticks around I could make a career for myself as a basso profundo, although I'd possibly have to feign Russian roots.

It's always good to look on the bright side, and God knows that nothing else was functioning well today. I sat on the sofa, feeling slightly sorry for myself, watching the Commonwealth Games whilst making alterations to the cornet parts in Brass and sending out invitations to people whom I thought should know all about it.

It was only when a keen-eyed Jeremy Walker picked me up on one of my emails that I realised I was writing absolute nonsense! Fortunately none I'd sent elsewhere were as peculiar as the one he'd seen, but I did manage to send out a round robin to Sara Kestelman, the director of the show, telling her all about it, to which she responded "I think I've heard about this one..."

Still, watching the Commonwealth Games was great fun. It's brilliant to imagine they're the Olympics and that England is doing really well in sport for a change. I got quite moved today when one of the Scottish gymnasts won gold in front of a home crowd. The entire arena joined in with singing The Rose of Scotland, and it was all rather lovely until the gymnast opened his mouth and spoke with an English accent... He was the second "Scottish" athlete with an English accent I'd heard interviewed that day. I'm afraid to say that the Welsh cyclist they then interviewed also sounded suspiciously "Home Counties", which rather makes a mockery of national pride.

It was, however, rather fabulous to hear Jerusalem being played by a brass band when the English people won gold. Now that's what I call a TUNE!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Hardwick Hall

We're back in Highgate, having woken up in Hayfield, and spent much of the day at Hardwick Hall, just outside Chesterfield. All the Hs!

I've often driven up the M1 and seen the two halls of Hardwick sitting proudly and impressively on the top of a hill. I'd never known what they were until today.

Besse of Hardwick was one of the wealthiest women in Elizabethan England, a close personal friend of the Queen herself, and a woman who wanted to live in the finest building in the country. She renovated her ancestral home and then built an astonishing new house in the grounds of he old one, which featured whole walls of windows, which at the time were the most incredible display of wealth.

The old hall slowly fell into disrepair, and in the Victorian era, when these things became immensely popular, was maintained as a "romantic" ruin... No doubt, at some stage, a hermit was paid to live there, and the guests of the newer house got to sit and picnic within.

The building is set in beautiful grounds, although most of its views include the M1 silently snaking its way along the base of the valley a mile or so away.

The inside of the new house is covered from top to toe in tapestries and wall hangings. It's really quite impressive. Gaudy in the extreme, not at all my aesthetic cup of tea, but hugely worth a look, and with plenty of extras thrown around to entertain the kids.

We had tea and cake afterwards whilst Nathan taught little Lily to knit and the boys carved miniature dinosaur skeletons out of blocks of plaster of Paris. The weather was absolutely glorious and the scones, though a little dry, were tasty enough.

The drive back down the M1 was really very speedy. On a good day the Peak District is actually only about 2 hours North of London, which makes it hugely accessible, and something of a hidden gem in my view. We've had a brilliant mini-break there and I would recommend it to anyone.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Kinder surprise

We're sitting in our hotel room, drinking pots of tea and talking about the highlights of our trip to the Peak District. We all have aching feet. Some of us have smelly feet. We've been doing a lot of walking...

The day started in Glossop, a small town about four miles from where we're staying. Nathan wanted to visit his knitting friend, Michelle, who lives there, and to prevent her from being overwhelmed by happy campers, Sam, Matt and I had a little wander around the town, which is full of fairly pleasant shops.

We've noticed that the people in these parts aren't the friendliest folk on the planet. I guess I'm rather used to Yorkshire denizens and Geordies, who are always up for a laugh and are very open. The cliche, of course, is that people who live in the East of England are traditionally more welcoming than those on the West, and my personal experience would definitely bale this theory out.

I find Midlanders a little prickly and this part of Derbyshire is definitely where the Midlands meets the North West... Perhaps their grumpiness is all to do with their location!

There was a rather bizarre moment when Sam complimented a book shop owner on her lovely shop, and she looked at him like he'd just told her she resembled a frog!

The woman behind the counter in Oxfam was also a bit odd. I cracked a joke, which she didn't laugh at, which made me so uncomfortable, I felt the need to explain it. Half-way through my explanation, she looked at me and said, "yes, I know what you meant..." And that was that. Mortifying.

We met the rest of the campers at the campsite, gathered our rucksacks together, and a few bars of chocolate, and took ourselves up Kinder Scout... Or a hill near Kinder Scout. We weren't really sure! Kinder Scout, for those who don't know, is a hill which was made famous by the British Rambling Association, who established their "right to roam" by trespassing on the hill en masse.

The walk was stunningly beautiful, and really quite challenging. None of us are quite sure how little Lily, who is just seven years old, managed the seven-mile round trip without any assistance from her Dad, but manage she did, with a sunny smile permanently attached to her face.

We followed the path of a stream for most of the journey up to the top of the hill. It was very much like something from Beatrice Potter's, Mrs Tiggywinkle, and at one point I got all the kids looking for the cave that Tiggywinkle lives in. There were plenty of candidates; bubbling waterfalls and little pools of water where she might have done her washing. The joy about being around kids is that you can fill their heads with the things you found magical as a child. The joy about being a Godfather is that you can do all this whilst someone else focusses on whether the child has been fed and is wearing clean clothes...

All the way up the hill were bilberry bushes, which the kids seemed to particularly enjoy. My Dad often talks about picking bilberries in the Welsh mountains in the 1950s, and until today I had no concept of what this rare fruit might look like. Turns out it's a cross between a blueberry and a blackcurrent. Rather small. Rather insignificant-looking, and growing on a spiky, gorse-like bush.

We washed and drank from the mountain streams, but stopped upon finding the carcass of a sheep in one of the pools further up-stream, which made us all feel a little weird as we ate our sandwiches for lunch!

As we reached the summit of the hill, the mists descended. Actually, I think, more accurately, we ascended into a cloud. It was a deeply surreal experience. We could see nothing but white and grey mist, and there was a light drizzle. Periodically, we'd look back down the hill and see the faint outline of the reservoir we'd walked alongside at the very start of our journey, but otherwise, we were in a strange white world.

It wasn't frightening, although there was a sense of slight trepidation as we wondered where the paths would end, or if any of the kids would slip and disappear out of sight.

The descent was magical. At a certain point, the mist around us parted like a giant pair of curtains, revealing a giant square of vista like an enormous cinema screen. In the far distance, an area of hillside with a few houses in it, was glowing in watery, golden sunlight. It looked like a faraway magical world. The sort of thing that you only get in fairy tales. Lily stared in awe. "It's like one of the lands at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree," she said, and my mind suddenly filled with images of Moon Face, Silky, the Slippery Slip, and the mist unfortunately-named children, Joe, Bess, Dick and Fanny. The most recent printed versions of the book have renamed Dick and Fanny as Rick and Frannie, which I think is a shame. A name is a name, after all.

At this point, Meriel made us almost burst with laughter by revealing that she'd had a pet goldfish as a child which was named Fishy Fanny. Lily asked why we were laughing so much and was told the name was funny because of the alliteration. Children must find adult humour so peculiar.

We continued down the hill singing ABBA and feeling every bit like a modern-day Von Trapp family, and reached the campsite about four hours after leaving it, feeling proud, achey, tired, excited and like we'd had the most profound adventure.

On reaching civilisation, we ate chips, sitting with our feet in the little stream which runs through Hayfield. For Nathan and me, it became a little celebration on account of our wedding being short-listed for not one but two Grierson awards, which are like the Oscars of the documentary world. Uncle Archie's Wingspan company have been nominated for a further two awards, which makes them actually more successful than a number of broadcasters. Yay, I say, and thrice yay!

Slippery stones

Today started with a little walk around Hayfield in the morning sunshine. It's a rather lovely place; very oldy-worldy with a joyous stream gurgling through the middle.

We stopped off at the camp site to meet the others and found them finishing their breakfasts in a dew-covered field.

We travelled across the Peaks to a place called Speedwell Cavern, which is an old lead mine accessed by a series of underground canals, which visitors travel along on a rickety old tin boat. It was my idea to visit the place. I'd been there as a young child and found it hugely inspiring and hoped the kids in our group would be similarly excited.

It is a highly atmospheric place. Those above a certain height are forced to wear hard hats, and the tunnels you travel through are only just large enough for the boats and those sitting on them to pass through. I'm told that when I last visited (in 1984) the tour guides would have pushed the boats along with their feet on the tunnel ceilings - which I think I remember - but these days it's all motorised.

We went from Speedwell into the nearby village of Castleton for lunch in a pub. We sat in the garden in bright sunshine, reading about the troubles my parents had experienced in Thaxted the night before, when a massive hail and thunder storm destroyed one of the roads in the town and led to five people needing to be rescued by emergency services. We're told Newbiggen Street became a river, that basements flooded, and that untold damage was done by a milk float driving down the road at high speed which created something of a tidal wave! My mother sent a text saying there were blue flashing lights everywhere and that the whole place felt like a disaster zone. Quite astonishing.

From Castleton we drove into the deepest, darkest part of the national park, in search of the alluringly-named "Slippery Stones", an area just North of the Derwent reservoir, well-known to wild swimmers. There's a two mile walk from the car park, along the banks of a river which had deep orange water, no doubt the product of incredibly peaty earth.

The walk was so worthwhile. The river turns into a glorious plunge pool, where you can swim in clear water and have your entire body massaged by a mini-water fall. We stayed there for hours, repeatedly diving into the water, getting out and then thinking "just one more swim."

The walk back to the car was accompanied by a multi-coloured evening sky, which didn't know if it was stormy or made of treacle. In the end, it delivered a light show of spectacular proportions. The sun turned the mountains a bright shade of green which the reservoir reflected  against a black, blue, brown and slightly pinky sky. To cap things off, two enormous jet planes flew really low through the valley, making us gasp, duck and then laugh!

During our journey home, as we drove up and down over the hills and moors, the sky melted into a spectacular sunset of reds and golds and deep maroons. Morris men were dancing outside a pub in the village of Hope, hikers were returning to their camp sites all sun-kissed and achey, but everyone seemed jolly content. As they all should be on a wonderful English summer day!

Back in Sam and Matt's room, we had a mini picnic of bread and cheese before turning in for the night. I go to bed exhausted and very cheery.

Sunday, 27 July 2014


We are currently sitting in a tent in the centre of a camp site somewhere in the Peak District. It's all getting rather crafty. All the kids are drawing pictures by lamp light and Nathan and Sam are knitting.

Under normal circumstances we'd be outside, no doubt sitting around a camp fire. It's a lovely summer evening, but the midges are EVERYWHERE! I have never seen midges like this before. The air is thick with the things. Poor little Jago is covered in bites. Thankfully we've opted not to sleep with everyone else on this campsite. When it all gets too much, Sam, Matt, Nathan and I will drive away!

We've been in Derbyshire pretty much all day today, although the morning started in a Travelodge in Loughborough. I've never been to this particular town before, nor shall I again as it's a nasty dump of a place which made me briefly ashamed to be a Midlander!

We were on the road and out of there really very early and tried to have breakfast in Chesterfield, which was another mistake. Chesterfield is another town which should only ever be passed through. You can see its weirdly crooked church spire from the train, and that, I suspect, is all that's worth seeing! The only high point of that particular part of the day was discovering a shop which sold kitchen tiles called Crock-a-tile. You've gotta respect a pun like that!

We ended up in a little village just inside the Peak District where I had a glorious giant Yorkshire pudding with a vegetarian sausage inside.

We spent much of the day in Eyam, which has gone down in history as the village which effectively, (and selflessly) quarantined itself during the Great Plague of 1665/6. The disease ravaged the village, and killed more than three quarters of its residents. Deliveries for the village were left at two boundary markers. A stone, which still exists, had a series of holes bored into it, which were filled with vinegar to disinfect the money the villagers left to pay for the goods which were deposited there.

There are some astonishingly sad stories of bravery and tragedy. Apparently one of the first symptoms of plague was a change in the perception of smell. The local vicar's wife, after refusing to flee the village to safety, remarked one night how sweet the air smelt. Her husband knew instantly that she was coming down with the plague and within three days she was dead.

Many of the houses in the village are marked with plaques listing those who died in that particular dwelling. Lists of entire families. Hopelessly sad and yet the town is so beautiful.

We walked to the boundary stone and looked at the picture-perfect view down the valley towards the outside world, and wondered for some time how those poor people must have felt. Surely there would have been a temptation to run away from the village, because by staying they would almost certainly be signing their own death warrants. And yet none of them left...

We are staying in a guest house above a pub in the village of Hayfield, which, we discover, is where the BBC costume drama The Village is filmed. Many of the shops and cafés have decided to keep the oldy-worldy signs which were made to give the TV show early 20th Century authenticity, and the place is absolutely stunning, nestling in a valley surrounded by hills covered in dry stone walls which seem to glow in the sunlight, like pieces of a giant quilt.

The Peak District is truly one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited!

Still not 40!

Today, 23 of my closest friends celebrated my 40th birthday in Cambridge. Unfortunately, I am now aching from top to toe on account of having punted, at speed, to Grantchester and back. Punting is a deeply muscular activity, which exercises parts of the body which don't normally get much activity. The triceps, largely. And the arches of one's feet!

We arrived in Cambridge at noon, having been trapped in a ludicrous traffic jam on the North Circular, which took half an hour to escape. Of course, the cause of the jam was the seemingly arbitrary coning off of a lane of traffic. No one was working on the coned off area. It was just coned off!

People descended on Cambridge via all manner of means of transport, and slowly congregated, largely at the M and S on the market square where, tradition dictates, we always buy picnic food, and way too much of it.

We ate our picnic in a slightly inauspicious spot outside The Mill pub, by the side of the Cam.

At about 5pm a slightly eccentric breakaway group including my brother and Sascha, my godson, Will, Philippa, Mez and Helen set off to see if we could find a couple of college punts. As an alumni of King's College, Edward is entitled to use the private punts of that establishment, and Helen, who works at Trinity is similarly entitled to use theirs. It's always a lottery as to whether any punts will be available and we were lucky at Kings but unlucky at Trinity. It didn't matter in the slightest; in the process we were given private access-all-area tours of the two most beautiful Cambridge educational establishments.

We returned to the rest of the group, who had hired commercial punts, and drifted up the river in four separate crews. My crew included Abbie (who very delicately fell in whilst punting) Will, who captained our ship manfully, and two blokes called Ian!

Will kept jumping into the water and at one stage jumped in specifically to rescue a football which a group of kids had lost whilst playing at the side of the river.

We also witnessed a girl jumping into the water from very high up in a tree. So high, in fact, we felt sure the river wouldn't be deep enough to sustain the drop.

We reconvened in the meadows outside Grantchester, where Abbie, Mez, Raily, Ian and Will swam. Wild swimming is definitely the new not going out!

We punted back in a fiery sunset, through dancing damsel flies and wisps of barbecue smoke from the river banks. The same group of lads had kicked their football back into the river and asked us if we could save it. As I chucked it back to them, the silver ring which Nathan gave to me some ten years ago flew off my finger and disappeared into the murky depths of the river. I was horrified and rather upset.

I shouted across to Nathan to tell him what had happened. "Can you dive in to retrieve it?" he asked, "I'd never find it", I replied, "in which case you need to accept it's gone." He said. Very wise, my husband. And, I suppose, there can be no better place to lose a ring than in my favourite river, on a beautiful summer's evening, two weeks before my fortieth birthday. Perhaps in 3000 years' time they'll find it again and wonder who wore it and why.

Brother Edward and I returned the punt to Kings as the light finally left us. He was able to tell me all about Julie's act of heroism earlier on when he'd dropped the pole, and she'd jumped into the river to collect it. It was a little strange to be with Brother Edward in King's College. Memories of bygone birthdays flashed through my mind, merging with all sorts of recollections of occasions in the early 1990s when I visited him at college.

As we walked along the dark river to the car park at the end of the evening, Julie reminded me that it was exactly a year before - in the very same spot - that I had mentioned the possibility of Nathan and I getting married in a TV musical. She had felt the idea was a little odd and quizzed me mercilessly about it. This evening, she grabbed my arm, and said, "but it was wonderful."

As we drive further North, to a hotel in Loughborough, we're listening to my Requiem, which is making me feel particularly nostalgic. I do have such wonderful friends...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Wined and dined on an eye

Today started with a small, rather insignificant incident which upset me disproportionately! I was walking along Archway Road and noticed a rather troubled young man, who looked a little shifty. He heard a siren at the top of Southwood Lane, waited for the police car to get closer and then screamed "f**k you" at it at the top of his lungs, before, rather tragically hiding in a door way until it had gone past.

It wasn't this incident which upset me, but the response to it from a young mother who heard the man bellowing and instantly grabbed the hand of her son who was walking next to her - essentially to protect him. The response was instant. Subconscious. But her face registered such fear. And in that moment I knew that this woman would have done anything on earth to protect her son, and I found this deeply touching.

As though to compound my feelings, as I reached the tube, deep in thought, the little cafe was loudly playing "Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten" by Arvo Pärt, one of the most poignant and beautiful compositions ever written. My eyes duly filled with tears and the cafe owner looked at me rather concernedly. If only he knew what it was like to be in a world where surging emotions are triggered by the merest musical suspension!

This afternoon I met my oldest school friend, Tammy. I met her off the bus from Bristol (although she actually lives in Italy.) Her bus terminated at Marble Arch, which gave me ample opportunity to explore what must be the most horrible area of London. It's a deeply soulless place, filled with wealthy Arabs, silly tourists and ghastly tacky-yet-pricey souvenir shops masquerading as convenience stores. There's nowhere to sit, and it's noisy, congested, polluted and rather pleased with itself. I shan't be returning there any time soon!

Tammy and I walked from Marble Arch through Soho (where we had tea) and Seven Dials (where we ate chips) to Covent Garden (where we got stuck in an horrendous thunder  storm which made us both laugh so much we almost wet ourselves!)

It was so lovely to see her again. We've known each other for 29 years, but haven't spent any time together for at least three, so, in amongst the reminiscing, there was a whole heap of catching up to do. She has two children, neither of whom I've met...

From Covent Garden we walked to the South Bank with soggy shoes where we met my father who celebrates his seventieth birthday today. The birthday treat was a wine tasting "flight" on the London Eye for twenty of his nearest and dearest; a veritable rag-taggle bunch of warm-hearted people my parents have gathered during their combined life-time.

Seeing London from above is always incredible. Seeing it first against the backdrop of a glorious sunset, and then with its myriad lights twinkling and shimmering was almost too much to bear! The wine-tasting aspect was great fun as well, although God only knows why people drink wine. To me, I was sampling nothing but rather bitter tasting vinegar. Brother Edward and t'other Ted assured me that we were consuming the nectar of heaven, which I'm obviously happy to accept as a desperate philistine. (I went to school with a Phyllis Stein.)

The exciting drink experience for me, however, was a delicious hot chocolate afterwards in the little open air cafe underneath the Eye, where you can sit and admire the astonishing feat of engineering which created this epic London landmark. What a wonderful, wonderful day.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The perfect day

I've just had the most perfect day. It was one of those occasions where everything aligns. The weather. The company. The ratio of expectation to actuality...

At 10am this morning, American Cindy, Llio, Nathan and I assembled at Starbucks in Muswell Hill and drove west along the M4 to Avebury. Yes, yes, we were there less than a month ago, but neither Cindy nor Llio had ever been, and both are such highly spiritual creatures that it felt rude to deprive them of a potentially magical experience. Besides, I'd probably visit Avebury weekly if I could, as it's become something of a Mecca in recent years. I turn up at Avebury and instantly feel both alive and relaxed. And, as A-ha once sang, The Sun Always Shines on Avebury.

We went via Hungerford, which is always a treat, because it means we can point and laugh at the name of the owner of the major car show room in the town: Dick Lovett!

We stopped in Marlborough to buy picnic food and some fancy sunglasses for Nathan to ward off his migraines which are often generated by sun glare. Rather comically, the spell check on my computer would rather Nathan use sunglasses to ward off migrants! Thank God I double checked!

The girls made all the right noises as we pulled into Avebury itself. Frankly, it would be impossible not to be wildly impressed by a stone circle so large there's a village in the middle! I can't think of anything in any way comparable anywhere else in the world. So deeply and quintessentially English. Historic, beautifully pastoral, yet simultaneously shambolic and utterly eccentric.

We picnicked under our favourite lichen-covered standing stone. We always sit and eat under the same stone. It's turned into a proper tradition. The highlight of the picnic was almost certainly strawberries and cream. Again: terribly English...

This summer is beginning to feel like some of the summers from my childhood, and right on cue, the thunder bugs descended. I don't think I've seen thunder bugs for years, but, despite them going hand in hand with long, hot summers, they don't half start to irritate after a while. I must have murdered thousands of the little critters every time I scratched myself. The silly things don't fly away. They just seem to attach themselves to your skin and sit there until you try to brush them off, at which point they turn to dust!

We went to the wishing tree; a beautiful ancient oak, with the most astonishing above-ground network of roots which looks like a waterfall of arteries. People write messages on pieces of ribbon and tie them to the tree. Our great friend Ali, who had been with us in Avebury on Nathan's birthday, gave us a little piece of ribbon in a bag with a pen attached at our joint 40th on Sunday, with a little note which simply said "For Avebury." We cut the ribbon in half, and dedicated one half to life-long friends like Ali, and the other to the Leeds Pals.

Llio stood in a pool of dappled sunlight as she attached her own ribbon to the tree. The sun shone directly into her eyes, and turned them into little pools of ice blue water. I have seldom seen a person look so beautiful.

To tell you the truth, hanging out with both of the girls with their deep red hair glowing in the sun was no hardship. Avebury today was a riot of colour blocks. The deep blue sky, the bright yellow of the cornfields, the vivid green of all the trees. Add the red of Llindy's hair and we had our very own Kandinsky painting!

We went from Avebury to West Kennet Longbarrow, a prehistoric burial chamber, which is also the home of a family of house martins with brilliant comic timing. When anyone wanders into the burial chamber, which is dark and spooky, one of the birds flies out, like the bats on Scooby Doo. It always causes a scream and then much hilarity!

In the fields next to the long barrow was a crop circle. A different crop circle to the one we visited a month ago! As we arrived, we happened upon a neo-Pagan dangling a crystal in the middle. "It's not a genuine one," she declared, sounding more than a little fed up, "it's not perfect enough." Apparently the crystals were in agreement with her damning verdict.

From the long barrow, we drove into Oxfordshire, and up to the Uffington White Horse. When you visit that place as often as we do, it's easy to forget how stunningly beautiful the scenery is from the top of that ridge. You can see for miles up there, the whole of Oxfordshire mapped out in a patchwork quilt of green, yellow and brown fields.

We sat around the eye of that iconic landmark, played games with pen and paper, took hundreds of photographs, and finished the picnic we'd started seven hours before, as the sun slowly melted into a bright red ball and twinkling lights started appearing in the valley below us.

We listened to Llio's stunning album on the way home, stopping at a service station for tea, where Llio declared; "we have a phrase in Welsh for days like this: diwrnod i'r brenin... A day of Kings..."

As ever, I feel proud to let my Welsh people have the final word!

Diwrnod i'r brenin.

Thursday, 24 July 2014


About ten minutes ago I finally sent off the last orchestration from Brass. I then sent off my programme notes, the final draft of the script, a head shot and biog, so, give or take the odd bit of underscoring and a piece of play-out music, Brass is complete. It feels so strange to be done. All those hours of orchestration... Done! I can now enjoy the two weeks before rehearsals start. The weather is set to be lovely and warm. I can visit places, and celebrate my birthday, and lie-in and relax and book myself a massage...

To celebrate this extraordinary mile-stone, Nathan and I took ourselves down to the Rose theatre in Kingston to watch the first of the NYMT's three summer shows, The Ragged Child. It was a little unnerving to see a show from the same season as Brass being performed, knowing that Brass has only just been written!

The NYMT have been performing The Ragged Child for more than 20 years. It's a well-oiled machine and perfect fodder for the company because it's written for an epically large cast, all of whom get a little moment to shine. It's also chock full of roles for very young kids; the kids we couldn't even contemplate for Brass.

I had a vested interest in one of the members of the cast, the talented Jack Reitman, who is coming into our cast to replace another Jack who had to pull out. New Jack was playing a character called Jack in The Ragged Child, which in my book is too many Jacks! Still, there will never be as many Jacks on Brass as there are Bens. I still think it's astonishing to have a leading man, a composer, an MD, a chaperone and a stage manager all with the same name!

We opted to drive to Kingston in rush hour traffic, which in retrospect was something of a mistake. Fortunately the show went up late, so we didn't miss anything by arriving considerably late!

In the car park after the show, we saw an urban fox. He didn't seem at all worried that we were there, and stared at us for some time before casually trotting away. He was a scrawny beast, however, with no hair whatsoever on his tail! As a result he looked more like a jackal or something.

Urban foxes are curious creatures... So much more muted in colour than their rural cousins. I remember seeing foxes in my childhood which were deep red with incredibly shiny coats... The ones we see in London are so pale, they're almost yellow.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A night in Parliament

I had a list of things to do today as long as my arm, and woke up fairly early to set about ticking things off. I like to create lists. They somehow make the impossible seem manageable.

I had an osteopath appointment at 2pm which turned into a reunion of osteopaths who'd previously dealt with me at the London School of Osteopathy. Quite why they were all there in the room with me, I'm not sure, but it was certainly very nice to catch up with them again.

This evening we went to the Houses of Parliament to meet our local MP, Lynne Featherstone.

On the tube on the way there, a bloke sat next to us, practising illusions with a floating crystal ball. You know the sort of thing... With careful handling you can make a clear glass ball look as though it's floating around in mid air. Done well, it's really quite mesmerising - and this guy was doing it really well. He was in a sort of trance, listening to music on headphones, but his presence made me feel really happy for some reason. It was quite wonderful when a group of children got on the tube. I genuinely think they thought he was magic, and watched him with mouths and eyes wide open.

Lynne invited us to have dinner with her as a thank you for inviting her to our wedding. It was a wonderful opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Houses of Parliament which is packed with personal memories, not just from the time that I was the partner of the MP Stephen Twigg, but also from the days when I used to run educational tours within the building. That was back in 1997 when security was taken considerably less seriously. Just getting into the building these days involves walking down long steel ramps, and heading through all sorts of security barriers.

Lynne met us in Central Lobby and took us to the Pugin room for drinks. We sat in an enormous bay window over-looking the Thames, staring at the most exquisitely carved stonework.

As a wedding present we were presented with a copy of the actual Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which Lynne had been largely responsible for bringing through parliament. It is the most wonderful gift, which we shall treasure forever. Only a very limited number of books were printed and I'm told they're already selling on eBay for £500. Not that we'd ever sell it.

Lynne vanished for half an hour - summonsed to a meeting with Nick Clegg - and returned telling us he'd sent his regards to us both.

We had a beautiful dinner in a very fancy dining room where the triple-cooked hand-cut chips were like little nuggets of gold, and the raspberry sponge with coconut tasted better than any pudding I've had this year!

Lynne is a wonderful woman whom I feel terribly proud to have as our constituency MP. She's something of a rebel, a self-confessed insurgent within parliament who takes on big issues - and always seems to win. She is currently doing great work in the fight against female genital mutilation and amazing things for disability rights around the globe.

We ended the night on the famous terrace over-looking the ink-black Thames, the London Eye and Westminster Bridge glowing in the clear sky to our left and the huge sand stone panels of the Palace of Westminster flood lit behind us.

The bar man who served us at the Stranger's Bar, asked to shake our hands. He's seen the wedding on television and wanted us to know how moved he'd been by it. He then shook Lynne's hand and thanked her for her work.

"Isn't it strange and wonderful?" I said to Lynne, "that, in future years, when they write about the birth of gay marriage in the UK, all three of our names will be mentioned..."

Then I felt proud. Then I felt a bit moist-eyed. Then I felt incredibly grateful to Lynne for instigating and being the architect of the Same Sex Marriage bill. A truly wonderful evening.


I don't altogether understand why it felt so natural to be waking up at 6.30am this morning, having gone to bed just a few hours before. Perhaps I'd completed one of my sleep cycles. Who knows?

What became immediately apparent, however, as I boarded the 7.54am to Coventry, was that my computer had no battery left, and that the rust wagon I was sitting in had no power sockets. This was particularly bad news, as the only reason I'd opted not to drive to Coventry was so that I could orchestrate on the train!

I eventually stumbled into the empty First Class compartment, found a socket, plugged my lap top in and left it charging on a seat for a while to salvage an hour's work. That all seems rather a long time ago, now...

At the party last night, the conversation swung round to the subject of psychopathic and sociopathic behaviour. I'm now predicting that this will become the new catch-all buzzword to describe behavioural patterns which don't quite fit in to most people's concept of normality. These days everyone is either OCD or ADHD or somewhere on the autistic spectrum... I reckon I'm all three... But now we can add sociopath to our potential list.

Anyway, Cindy's been reading a book about psychopaths which comes with a convenient check list so we can all self-diagnose, or, perhaps more specifically, accuse those who behave badly of being psychopaths!

Cindy read the check list out to a large group of us. It was full of a lot of the things you might expect to find on a list of this nature. Lack of empathy, a tendency to lie, superficiality, an unnaturally inflated sense of worth, a lack of realism when contemplating future plans, promiscuity, narcissism, childhood behavioural difficulties... All the traits you'd expect from someone in the entertainment industry.

Of course, when it came to people fessing up at the end, most of decided that only 2 or maybe 3 of the 20 points on the list applied to them... Until it got to my side of the table (where the gay men were sitting) and the numbers went up to 7, 8, 9. I felt this was a great deal more honest, really. And it suddenly struck me how it would have been far more interesting to make my friends answer the questions under the quiz heading "are you a creative genius...?" Obviously people will tend to answer negatively when they know a positive answer would raise eyebrows and it strikes me that, violent tendencies apart, there's actually very little which separates an obsessive genius from a psychopath, and where none of us want to be psychopaths, we all want to be geniuses!

But of course we none of us need to panic. Even if we score 100% on the psych-ometer, the only worrying thing would be if the information didn't bother us. The key to being a psychopath is genuinely not caring that you are one!

The purpose of my trip to Coventry was to talk on the local BBC radio station with Alex, the young lad playing Wilfred in Brass, and I think we both had a wonderful time.

The radio interview was all about the Coventry accent. The character of Wilfred (named after my Great Grandfather) is a lone Midlander in a sea of Yorkshire men. He's meant to be a Coventrian, but Alex himself is from Solihull and speaks with a light Birmingham accent. So, we went on the radio to ask people with Coventry accents to call in, so that we could try to establish what separates Cov residents from their Brummie neighbours.

It was great fun. A bloke called in who sounded just like my Great Uncle Charlie. He said he was pretty sure he didn't have an accent, but that he was Coventry born and bred so if there WERE such a thing as a Coventry accent, he ought to have it!
He did!

Eventually we hit upon the three aspects which make the accent unique; 1) A far forward general placement of words in the mask of the face. The traditional Coventry accent tends to be a little nasal, where as Brummies are throatier.  2) There's a very flat "u" sound which turns the word "Mum" into "Merm" 3) The "i" sound (as is "slide") is particularly eccentric. It isn't quite as quirky as the Brummie version, but there's a more than a wiff of "sloide" about it! We also established that younger Cov kids talk with a flatter, more monotone accent.

It was a fun interview. The presenter kept everything peppy and light. We also established that the younger person accent is different again.

After the interview, Alex and I went to the indoor market; home of my film "Coventry Market," where we met some of the people who'd been in said film. Dave the locksmith was there, examining a pair of his customer's yellow stilettos and Lindsay, who runs the carpet stall was keen to tell us how the experience of being in my film was so positive, he immediately signed up for dance lessons. It was so much fun to see the the place again, and Linsday, with his very strong Cov accent read a few lines from Brass for Alex to record and copy.

We had tea in the cafe and looked around the stalls, making sure the children's roundabout in the centre of the market was still operational. At the moment it's rather eccentrically surrounded by astro turf and deck chairs. I'm not quite sure what that was about.

We went from the market - on a local tip-off - to a second hand bookshop on Gosford Road on the outskirts of the city centre. Alex was really keen to buy something personal and special from the city which his character could hold and treasure throughout the performances. Because he is deliberately only communicating to the rest of the cast via actual letter (in the spirt of the First World War) I shan't tell you what he bought (as it will spoil the surprise if he wants to tell other cast member first) but suffice to say it felt absolutely perfect.

This evening we went to see the new production of Miss Saigon, which is a wondrous and deeply sensual experience. Nathan was particularly excited to see it because he'd done a year in the show during its first West End run when he was in his early 20s, so long ago now yeah children who weren't even born back then are now able to drive! It is an exquisite show; an absolute riot of colour and sound, and deeply emotional in places. The West End has missed it, and I suspect it will run and run this time round.

Monday, 21 July 2014


Today Nathan, Philip and I celebrated our 40th birthday in a rather lovely pub in West London. In the 1970s and 80s, Earl's Court, the part of town we were in, was a shabby and somewhat gay district. Before the area was gentrified in the early naughties, there were as many as seven gay pubs and a whole host of associated queer cafés, book shops and galleries in the streets around the tube. The gays have now moved on - largely to Vauxhall - but the pub we were in today was renowned as a very sleazy leather bar, actually the place where serial killer Dennis Nielson met his victims before encouraging them to come home to Muswell Hill with him.

...All that seediness has left the place and the pub is gloriously genteel these days, and a very special place to sit on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It was an inspired choice.

Philip and Daryl had made the place look just wonderful, with enormous helium balloons of rainbow colours and a giant floating pair of metallic balloons which revealed our age.

(I hasten to add that I am still 39, and clinging on to my 30s for dear life!)

It was such a relaxed event, with the most astonishing mix of friends from different stages of our lives, ranging from half of the Rebel Chorus, most of the cast and creative team of RAFTA's Much Ado and some of the Brass team, to New York Cindy and uncle Archie from Wingspan. Some of the guests were friends Nathan genuinely hadn't spent time with for years, and we were thrilled to a see people like Robbie Shelley, editor Louise and a full compliment of parents and in-laws. It was almost like our wedding all over again!

Celia provided three cakes, a coffee cake, a lemon cake and chocolate cake; one for each of the birthday boys, with candles for us to blow out.

I was endlessly fascinated by the different groups of my friends who were happily hanging out together, all hand-picked over the years...

We came home via a beautiful kebab shop in King's Cross, and the evening ended in Abbie and Ian's front room, talking about New York whilst eating halloumi which tasted like absolute nectar.

Aren't we lucky...

Sunday, 20 July 2014

What storm?

We're in a car heading to Highgate from Catford. I'm very tired and am suffering from neuralgia across my face: a sure sign that I'm exhausted. That said, but for waking up a couple of times in the night as a result of heavy rain outside, I slept like a baby, and, for the first time in weeks, woke up naturally. Glorious.

I finished the last but one of my orchestrations at Julie's house this evening. It comes to something when a day with friends turns into a day working whilst your friends chat around you! Still, just one more orchestration to complete and then I've finally done the prep on Brass!

It was craft and cake today, and, despite the most miserable of weather forecasts, we were able to sit quite happily in the garden. The forecast was so bad that a percentage of planes leaving Heathrow were actually cancelled. I'm not altogether sure why the Met office can't seem to predict weather these days, but it strikes me that if planes are being diverted or cancelled in response to weather forecasts, then they jolly well out to be a bit more accurate!

As it happened, the sun shone brightly in Highgate all day, and the sky was a deep shade of blue. On our way to Julie's, we stopped off in Muswell Hill, and the place felt like Italy with semi-clad people in flip-flops wondering about, all asking the same question; "when's this storm coming?" We were told to expect the worst between 4 and 6pm, but that seemed to be when the sun was at its hottest!

My mother texted to ask whether I was okay, having mistakenly thought I was in Coventry today. Coventry was apparently the place where all the storms ended up!

Friday, 18 July 2014

Hysteria electricita

There was a very unusual rather sickening light in the sky this evening. It looked like caramel. A storm was bubbling up, and the sun was battling with yellowy brown thunder clouds. There was a faint rainbow hovering over Brighton in the midst of a particularly angry patch of sky and as I approached London, the air was literally glowing with a blood-red post-apocalyptic sunset.

I thought it was hot in Worthing, but arriving in London and getting on the tube was hideous. I might as well have smeared myself in chip fat and thrown a bucket of used bath water onto my T-shirt.

It took me a long time to get to sleep last night, largely due to the mother of all electric storms, which crashed through Worthing in the early hours. It wasn't so much the thunder, which was almost permanently echoing and rumbling around the hills behind the town, but the lightning, which was like nothing I've ever seen in this country.  It was like some kind of strobe lighting display, coming from every conceivable direction, with flashes of fire every five seconds which lit the world up as bright as day.

I can only compare it to a lightning storm I witnessed in the South of France some twelve years ago, which destroyed the garden wall of the house I was staying in. I still remember the smell of static in the air, as lightning hit the ground less than three meters from where I was standing. And the abject fear I felt as the hairs on my arms all stood on end!

We finished up at PK's at somewhere approaching 8pm. I felt very proud of us both for completing everything, although it had, at times, been like pulling teeth. Two thirds of the way through the session we got slightly hysterical. One of the singers had obviously had the most dreadful time performing this particular movement and for a period of about thirty bars almost everything that we were listening to was out of tune, out of time, or, frankly, improvised!

I am wondering whether I'm more tired tonight than I have been in my entire life. The glands are still up and I feel like I've been repeatedly punched in the back. When I get home, Nathan has promised me a take away. I am ludicrously excited, although, even on the platform at Highgate tube station I can smell heavy rain, so it's possible we won't be able to leave the house!

Frida Bah!

I'm currently walking along the sea front in Worthing. There is, what can only be described as a trade wind blowing. The merest hint of freshness in the air is all that prevents this place from feeling like a Spanish resort. Well, that and the architecture. And the pebble beach. And the slightly chavvy people staggering home from the travelling funfair which closed hours ago. One of them is singing songs from the shows rather loudly. He has a passable musical theatre voice, but is shouting to show off. Odds are that he's a local performing arts student.

The moon is deep orange. Almost red. It's enormous but incredibly low in the sky. I don't think I've ever seen it looking like this. I think I'm only seeing it because I'm by the sea and there's nothing tall between me and the horizon. There's a dark cloud passing in front of it at the moment. It looks like a finger of black smoke passing over a glowing ember.

I've been with Paul Kendall all day, taking a much-needed mini-sabbatical from Brass to do two days' work on The Pepys Motet. We're working our way through Movement Five of the work with the same forensic detail we've employed with the other movements. I've written here before that we're using a process which would make most classical musicians turn in their graves, but what we're doing is actually brilliant from a composer's perspective. It means every last note that I've written not only sounds, but sounds in perfect tune and time. Some would argue that it's the imperfections that actually give music a groove, a vibe or emotional intensity. Who knows? I certainly don't think we're lacking in these aspects and we're very deliberately not taking the quirkiness our of lead vocals. Certainly what we're not doing is cheating. This is an intensely creative process which involves us both pouring over the score in a level of detail I've not encountered before.

It's bloody hot though! At one point in the afternoon, as sun poured through the skylight in PK's loft, I wondered if the two of us were going to melt, and as I walked to the Travelodge where I'm staying tonight, I was aware that my walk was becoming increasingly John Wayne-esque as my weary thighs  started to chafe! Too much information?

We had a slightly surreal moment in the studio today when, for no apparent reason, I decided to show PK the rather crazy TV moment when ABBA sing a set of bizarre improvised pop songs with Olivia Newton John. For some reason the three women are also playing percussion instruments with varying degrees of success. Frida has a tambourine. Newton-John is actually playing a snare drum with a brush. It's hopelessly surreal, but it goes to prove how sad it was that ABBA and Newton-John didn't team up in the recording studio. Imagine the wall of sound that those three women would have created?

Anyway, apart from all of that being utterly fascinating, the particularly surreal moment came when PK got bored and returned to the Pepys Motet, hitting the space bar to play the sequence we were about to work on to hear Little Michelle in isolation singing a string of notes to the word "ba". Simultaneously, the ABBA girls, at the very same pitch, burst into song with the opening of Barbara Anne... "Ba ba ba ba Barbara Ann!" There were bas coming from all angles!

Art imitating art! I've never felt so close to Frida!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Like an old dish cloth

I went into town today for a meeting with a potential agent, and found myself afterwards at a Pret a Manger somewhere between Leicester Square and Covent Garden. I thought it might be a good place to sit and work quietly for a bit, but I have never encountered such a dreadful acoustic. It was actually less noisy outside on the street. All I could hear was the sound of tinny music echoing about the place and the roar of people shouting at one another. The background noise was so unsettlingly loud, in fact, that I couldn't hear the music I was listening to on my headphones. Mega stressful!

I have had a pretty stressful day all told. The two numbers I've left myself to write on Brass are hugely complicated and were in a far less advanced state than I'd hoped. So, aside from the couple of hours I spent in town, I did nothing but sit at the kitchen table writing...

And unfortunately I have nothing to show for my efforts because I was unable to finish in time to send either one of the two songs off.

One of the pieces is the very last song in the show. You would not believe how difficult it is to actually end a musical you've been gestating for over a year. I know how it ends dramatically, lyrically and tonally. I just can't seem to find the right musical accompaniment. It doesn't help that I'm absolutely knackered. There is not one jot of creativity left in my body at the moment... I'm an empty husk with hundreds of glands up on my neck.

I wonder if it might be possible to sleep for a week?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


Today started with a Brass production meeting in Pimlico. It was so inspiring to be with the whole team, all of whom have their own specialities which will be used to breathe life into my show. We were shown the model box of the set - very exciting - and various costume and lighting designs. The room was, as ever on Brass, full of people called Ben. Little Ben, the MD, was creating vocal scores to my right, Sara, the director, was talking us through various practicalities and I suddenly thought "gosh, this is really happening..." I can't urge people enough to check the work we're creating...

It runs from August 20th to August 23rd at the Leeds City Varieties theatre with additional matinee performances on the Friday and Saturday. The last night has very nearly sold out, so booking a ticket is imperative.

Just as I typed that last sentence I made the hugely rookie error of getting on the wrong blinking tube train at Stockwell Station. I realised just as the train doors closed and made me late for my osteopath apointmenr. It turns out it's almost impossible to change from the Victoria line to the Northern line at Stockwell Station if one is changing from southbound to northbound trains. I blinkin' hate the south of London. It's so badly conceived.

I sat next to the most irritating bloke on the tube. He plonked himself down next to me and I could immediately smell the alcohol seeping out of his pores. He fell asleep for a while but then I could feel him staring over my shoulder at the manuscript on my computer screen. I think the game was obviously for me to see him looking and immediately engage him in conversation. But I was busy. I didn't want to make small talk to a stranger.

And so the peering became increasingly obvious. First he invaded my body space and then he stuck his head right inside my lap top and tapped his finger on the screen; "what does that mean?" he asked. It was impossible to ignore him. "It's music" I said. He then gasped like I was an imbecile. "Well I know that, don't I! But what does that line mean?" He put his grubby fingers on the screen again and pointed at a tie. I wanted to yell "listen, mate, if you don't know what a tie is, then we could be here for a long time whilst I explain to you the basic principles of music!" I mumbled an answer about it making a note longer, but was fairly horrified that he had not understood that I wasn't up for a chat, and that I simply wanted to get on with my work. Some people just don't know how to read body language do they?

The rest of the day, and most of the night has been spent working on a song called Scared from Brass. It's nearly 3am and I've only just delivered it. This is no life. I can't wait to finish!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014


I rescued a beautiful Tortoiseshell butterfly this morning. He was perched against the giant windows in our sitting room. They are actually windows we very rarely open, so heaven knows how he got there. Butterflies seem such fragile, delicate things, particularly up front, so it could have been incredibly difficult to get the little fella out into the open air. As it happened, he happily fluttered onto my palm, went incredibly still and patiently waited as I transported him to an open window. In fact, even as I shook my hand to show him that it was time to go, he stayed with me, quite unperturbed, for as long as it took Nathan to get his phone and take a photo.

I write about this occurrence as it's the most exciting thing which has happened all day. Apart from a brief visit to the gym, I've done very little but orchestrate. Nineteen songs down. Three to go. I'm very nearly there - although the last three pieces are songs, or rather musical episodes, I'm not exactly relishing the idea of working on.

I caught up on the news for the first time in ages. There's more hopelessness in the Middle East, more often than not reported with a huge middle-class-chip bias towards the Palestinian people. I watched an entire news package about an eight-year old lad whose relatives had been killed by an Israeli raid. "They're all animals" he proclaimed, vowing to have his revenge... And so it goes on.

What with this, and sitting through a World Cup final yesterday where the announcers were plainly keen for Germany to loose, I begin to wonder why on earth we even try to claim that the media are unbiased in this country.

The rest of the news was all about the emancipation of women. I see this as a good thing. The church of England synod at my old university of York has finally voted to allow female priests, and it seems that thingie Cameron has ditched a whole load of ancient white men from his cabinet and replaced them with some wildly unpleasant-looking women with desperately smug faces.

I was rather hoping that the Church of England would continue to refuse to acknowledge the 21st Century, and therefore make itself so extraordinarily out-of-touch that we could all get on with working hard and being kind to each other without the threat of religion because we realise that what we have in the here-and-now is our one shot at existence.

I wonder if more people in the world are atheists than any other religion?That would be an interesting statistic to see... We spend much time trying to work out if the Buddhists or the Christians or the Muslims have all the answers, based on the numbers of people who practise these particular religions, but maybe there are more practising atheists? Whatever the case, surely it's the atheists in the world who should be calling the shots. Earth is, after all, an atheist's heaven, and if you believe in an actual heaven, what goes on on earth is of little consequence.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The visitors

11.15 on a Sunday is not a hugely humane time to finish work for a day, particularly as, instead of sitting down to relax I'm now rushing about trying to make the house look a tiny bit presentable for Nathan who returns from Leicestershire for good tonight. I'm afraid I've allowed the place to become a proper tip over the last few weeks, and plainly this won't make him feel particularly welcome.

Alex and Moira appeared in the night last night after their final show at Jackson's Lane. They arrived at about 2.30am. Moira was brilliantly drunk and asked if there was any food in the house. Mortifyingly I couldn't find anything useful. Nevertheless, there was just about enough stuff to feed her some sandwiches and the remnants of a vegetable stew I'd had for lunch, and she ate the lot with great alacrity as an enormous rain storm battered against the windows.

Alex had to get up at some ungodly hour to take the set down in the theatre, but it was lovely to have Moira floating about the house this morning. In fact we went for brunch together at the greasy spoon, which was particularly pleasant as we opted to sit out on the street. This area is very much part of Moira's childhood. She lived in Muswell Hill and was schooled in Highgate, so the Archway Road was a part of town she saw every day. It's apparently changed very little in all those years.

After brunch I knuckled down to work and didn't stop for anything other than a sandwich in the early evening. For the first time today I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, largely aided my realising that  I'd done one more orchestration than I'd initially thought. The plan is to almost kill myself for the next three days so that the back of the task is firmly broken by the mid week. On and on it goes...

Drag queens and footballers

It's been incredibly muggy today; the sort of day which you spend with beads of sweat permanently dancing on on your forehead. It's the sort of day when old ladies sit on terraces, flapping their crimplene skirts and wondering when the storm's going to come! It's also one of those days when giant flying ants appear and start randomly crawling all over anything that doesn't move. I find them particularly unpleasant to look at, with their giant abdomens and tiny heads. The pavements are covered in little purple streaks where people have trodden on them and they've exploded like miniature black currents.

Aside from this, the majority of today was very much like every other day this week. I'm still orchestrating Brass. 14 songs so far with seven to go, which I suspect means I'm 2/3rds of the way through. Each morning I wake up and die a little inside at the prospect of opening up the computer and selecting another file. It's okay once I've dived in and made a start, but those moments after I've had my Weetabix and checked my emails are deeply unpleasant.

Philippa rescued me today by insisting that I went to her house to watch the World Cup play-offs, or whatever they call the bit when they work out who's come third. I arrived at about 8.30 with an hour of work still to do, which I did in front of the match.

I'll confess to being a little surprised that the World Cup was still going on, but I enjoyed the match as one with no knowledge of football enjoys a spectacle. I liked looking at the people with painted faces in the crowd, and the little men in hi-viz jackets whose job it is to simply stare at the crowd - one assumes to make sure they don't start rioting. Philippa is hugely knowledgeable about football, however. She was talking about dives and off-sides and genuinely seemed to have an interest in the quality of football being played.

My favourite thing was watching the little men being stretchered off the pitch. From above they looked like they were being carted off in tiny blue coffins. One of the Dutch players was called Dailey Blind. He got stretchered off rather rapidly. Of course he did. He's blind. Do you suppose he has a sister called Venetian?

My god daughter, Deia, poor thing, has chicken pox, and she made an appearance at one stage with her little sad face covered from top to bottom in Calamine lotion. I would have thought in the 36 years since I had chicken pox that the cures might have moved on, but it seems Calamine is still the only way forward.

Dylan and Philippa took it in turns to tuck her back into bed, but every so often she'd appear again, feeling all hot and itchy. Today is not a good day to have chicken pox!

Dylan was on good form and kept me well entertained with delicious sandwiches, and thought-provoking  conversation. Today I learned how many countries are entirely in the South equator (41) and about "confirmation bias," which is probably too elaborate a concept for 1.30am!

We also had a long chat about the joy of drag queen names. For the uninitiated, a good drag queen name needs to be a pun on a girl's name, preferably with a sexual innuendo somewhere in the mix or a reference to camp culture. Chrystal Balls, for example, or Ginny Tonic. The fun game is trying to come up with your own. I, for example, would want to be known as Flo Parr, and Nathan favours either Delta Blow, or, if he was black, Rachel Hatred. I was impressed by how speedily Dylan arrived at Anya Littledogtoo! See how fun drag queen names can be?!

Philippa lives around the corner from Old Street, which has to be one of the least pleasant parts of London. I've written more than once about how awful it is during the day with its fashionistas and über cool be-skinny-jeaned-start-up-internet-company types. But on a Saturday night, when the bearded hipsters have vacated the area and cleared off to the equally try-hard mini-district known as Broadway Market in Hackney, Old Street becomes the terrain of slags with cellulite and Ben Sherman-shirted men, who stare aggressively whilst drinking beer with one hand in their pocket. It's a desperately primal scene. Essentially these men, many of whom have shaven heads, are looking for an excuse for a fight. I suspect they think it attracts the women folk. They are like peacocks attempting to strut  their stuff in front of a ghastly row of drunken, curiously plain peahens. Part of me wonders if straight men feel the need to behave like this because a woman in one's life is inherently emasculating.
As I walked home tonight, the first drops of rain arrived. Like tiny crystals they were, filling the air with a beautiful rainy smell, which you rarely find in the city. I believe the smell of summer rain is amongst the most glorious scents in the world. It's right up there with creosote and truffle oil!

Friday, 11 July 2014


I am currently walking up Highgate West Hill. The sky is a curious shade of electric blue, the air is heavy with the scent of rain and flowers, and the sound of my footsteps is being accompanied by the magical, if not somewhat unnerving cry of a screech owl.

I've just had one of those experiences which serves to remind us how interesting life is and how much good will there is in the world

The experience took place at St Anne's church, opposite the Heath at the edge of Dartmouth Park, and before anyone starts wondering if I'm about to relate some ghastly story about converting to Christianity, I was actually in the company of the poet John Hegley, who was running a workshop with local people to harvest some verse for me to set to music as part of my next project.

I have been commissioned by the adorable Fleet Singers (who commissioned and performed my oratorio, Songs About The Weather) to write a new work based on the poetry of Sir John Betjeman. Betjeman lived on Highgate West Hill (I have just walked past the blue plaque commemorating this particular fact) and was actually christened in the church where we were working.

The piece of music I'll be writing is a setting of Betjeman poems alongside poetry inspired by his words and the locations in North London which, in turn, inspired him.

"Red cliffs arise. And up them service lifts
Soar with the groceries to silver heights.
Lissenden Mansions. And my memory sifts
Lilies from lily-like electric lights
And Irish stew smells from the smell of prams
And roar of seas from roar of London trams."

I am struggling to understand how a man of the astonishing calibre of John Hegley could have been found and brought in to lead the workshop, but brought in he was, and "absolutely fabulous" are the only words I van think of to sum up the experience.

I was astonished by some of the work which was produced in those few hours. Hegley, in a deeply modest, yet charismatic way, managed to inspire us all, and offer a host of fail-safe frameworks within which we could allow our emotions and imaginations to flow.

It struck me, as poem after poem emerged which drew reference to the Heath, how important that little piece of land is, not just to me, but to all who live around it. To North Londoners it really is hallowed ground; an astonishingly unique location which brings unbridled and unrivalled joy to all who go there.

Some of the writing was deeply moving, incredibly honest, profoundly observant, whilst other pieces were incredibly witty. I could imagine setting a good four or five of the poems I read to music. Erudition collided with the refreshingly down-to-earth. Some there confessed to being incredibly nervous. Just reading a single thought out loud was a huge challenge to some, but I would be surprised to learn if anyone there hadn't walked away feeling just that bit more inspired. I was proud to be involved.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Kings Cross post office

I met Fiona at King's Cross this afternoon for an all-too-brief cup of tea before returning to work again. I decided to take myself to the gym on the way home which had the unfortunate effect of placing me in the midst of King's Cross mayhem bang in the middle of rush hour. It's always at these times that the buses seem to come less regularly, despite there being six times more people wanting to get on board. The 390 bus was absolutely full to the rafters and the no fuss Nigerian female driver kept barking instructions at the passengers; "move down inside the bus, please!" "Mind the doors please!" I wanted to explain to her that using the word "please" doesn't always mean you're being polite! It's a bit like those signs you get outside pubs and in gyms that say "polite notice". I'll be the judge of whether I find the notice polite! Anyway, at one point, the driver put the bus breaks on so hard that all the standing passengers were sent flying. There were a few gasps and some stifled screams, "it's not my fault" screamed the driver, rather passionately.

I was rather enjoying the curious, rather stentorian quality of her voice, so as she ranted and raved about how this was the second time it had happened today and that the bus was faulty, I started to record her on my iPhone. She was obviously feeling rather guilty, because she immediately turned around and asked me what I was doing... A little more attention on driving the bus, my love, and a little less attention to whether your passengers are filming you in the act of nearly crashing! If the bus isn't safe to drive, you shouldn't be driving it. Now shush.

On our way to a gloriously empty cafe somewhere on the Caledonian Road, Fiona and I popped into the post office. And what a curious place the King's Cross post office is. It's like something from the Indian subcontinent, filled with independent stands, with no counter staff, selling make-up, made-in-china miniature red London buses, phone cards and unexpected food stuffs like whole shelves of pot noodles. At the back of the shop, a grotty little sign declares that, somewhere in the dark recesses, there's a "Internet Cafe." It was all rather filmic in there. As we arrived there seemed to be some altercation going on with a stoner and a number of staff members. The stoner kept threatening to "call the Feds." I'm not altogether sure what country he thought he was in, but the marihuana had obviously just kicked in...

It was fabulous to see Fiona and we had a good catch-up. She was waiting for the tour bus which was going to take her on the next leg of the Placebo world tour. We looked through her tour itinerary, which is apparently universally known as the "book of lies" because things change so quickly in that world, but it all sounds so profoundly glamorous!


It's been one of those days where I've worked so hard I burned every piece of food I tried to cook! I've had burnt quiche, burnt potatoes and burnt broccoli... The house smells like November 5th... And slightly like old drains. I must have a word with my land lord about that...

Today I've been orchestrating a monster track called Letters which features solos from every member of the cast all of which ebb and flow like waves crashing onto a wintry beach. I'm all about the metaphors tonight aren't I? I think I must be trying to pad this blog out in the absence of anything interesting having happened to me today. I got up at 8.30am and worked solidly till 11.30pm.

My only sojourn from the kitchen table was a visit to the gym where I ran six kilometres in thirty minutes before walking up the more direct Highgate West Hill on the way back home. I'm definitely a great deal fitter than I was about a month ago.

The weather gave me a little spring in my step. It's been absolutely beautiful today. Lovely warm sunshine and a pleasing breeze, which made the trees outside the kitchen window susurrate like they were whispering secrets to one another. It made a rather pleasing accompaniment to the writing I was doing; a sort of un-pitched ostinato.

I genuinely can't think of anything else to write about today. We've got a new cast member for Brass, a young, hugely talented chap called Jack (who's replacing another person called Jack who had to leave Brass to do another show.) Jack-mark-two actually auditioned for us the first time round but we were forced to give him up to another NYMT show who needed him in their team even more. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we've found a way of sharing him with The Ragged Child production and so he's officially now part of the Brass team. A host of my existing cast members have already welcomed him to the fold, which I think is great. I do like my cast. They're a hugely friendly bunch of young people... And all slightly eccentric, which I find very pleasing.

Right, my eyes are stinging, which surely means it's bed time. Sleep well everyone. (Although I'm told most people read this blog over breakfast...) So, um, happy Cornflaking!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Tour de whatever

So there I was getting all excited about having reached the half-way point in the delivery of orchestrations for Brass, when I realised there are  actually twenty-one songs in the show rather than the twenty I'd initially thought! At that moment my heart broke so perfectly that no one heard the tinkle. Shortly afterwards I realised I'd forgotten to number the last set of parts I'd done and had to reopen and re-save 25 documents! I'd like to say I won't make that mistake again, but I did the exact thing yesterday too!! Hoo!

This evening, whilst formatting scores, I had Storage Hunters on in the background. I tend to watch Dave because it is utterly mindless - almost profoundly so - and very rarely distracts me from my tasks. It's only trouble is that it's rooted so firmly in the past that you can end up feeling a little like you're living in a bubble. There are no news broadcasts and the repeats they show are sometimes many years old. Last week I saw a topical comedy show where they discussed the London Olympic bid! That said, politics and current affairs are so often the same old s**t, that I very often forget that I'm not watching something filmed this week. Replace one disgraced Tory peer with another, a Jimmy Saville with a Rolf Harris, one tennis or World Cup failure with another...

That said, I did enjoy watching the footage of the Yorkshire leg of the Tour de France two days ago whilst at the gym, and I spoke to my mother yesterday who lives very close to the Cambridge-to-London route. She said you could have played dominoes on the street outside because so many roads had been closed. As she spoke to me she was watching cyclists on the telly passing through the neighbouring village of Finchingfield (often referred to as the prettiest village in England.) I was simultaneously crossing over Hungerford Bridge, where The Embankment below was filled with people waiting for the race to arrive there. It seemed rather strange. I would have thought it takes rather a long time to cycle from Cambridge to London!

I forgot to eat this evening and am now having a bowl of tomato soup. I'll just call up the acid reflux people and make sure they're ready to visit me in my sleep... Night night.

The Prince and the Pauper

I was up with the lark this morning, eating stale sugar puffs in a shaft of early morning sunlight.

My task for the day was to travel down to Raynes Park to meet the two Jeremys and travel, by car, to a place called Bagshott House in deepest Surrey.

We arrived early, and pulled into a Premier Inn car park to see if we could find a quick drink. Bizarrely, just as we opened the car doors, the most peculiar, empty noise literally filled the sky. The only way I can describe it was as an air raid siren... Not in the distance, but right the way around us, and terrifyingly loud.

We stared at each other, making nervous jokes about World War Three, and after a couple of minutes, the sirens wound down and stopped.

We entered the Premier Inn. The woman behind the desk looked refreshingly unconcerned. "What on earth was that noise?" I asked. For a moment I thought she was going to ask what noise we were talking about, but then she smiled and said "oh the air raid siren! That's Broadmoor Prison! Every Monday at 10am they test their alarms and we're right by one of the sirens. Frankly, we'd worry if we didn't hear it! Any moment now they'll signal the all clear..." And sure enough, just as she finished the speaking, a bizarre nee-naw sound screeched through the air. It was without doubt the eeriest sound I've ever heard and triggered all sorts of childhood insecurities which only the son of a CND women could ever have!

A quick sip of tea and it was time to enter Bagshott House which, Republicans around the world will probably not realise is the home of HRH Prince Edward, youngest son of the Queen of England.

The three of us were meeting said Prince to discuss a potential project and we were welcomed in a most convivial manner by the man himself and a delightful selection of his administration staff.

The house is beautiful, and decorated inside with hundreds of ornate Indian dark wood panels which seemed entirely out of keeping with the Victorian red brick exterior.

The Prince served us coffee and biscuits in the drawing room and we nattered away for an hour or so. I was deeply impressed by how down-to-earth he seemed... And then utterly distracted by the astonishing views over glorious fields outside.

My favourite moment was when eleven o'clock happened and myriad clocks started simultaneously chiming from around the house, some with the most ornate tinkles, and, somewhere, far away, even a cuckoo clock. Two minutes later a lone clock arrived late to the party! It's funny the sounds you notice...

We returned to London, and I met Nathan at Stock Pot on Old Compton Street for a cheap lunch.  We spent the afternoon in Starbucks. Nathan knitted as I orchestrated. What a peculiar pair we are!

Tonight, in a rare evening off, we went to see our friend Luke's marvellous production of Carousel at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. Luke is such an ingenious and creative director who uses space incredibly well. Much as I hope he'll be directing in the West End within a year, I also have to acknowledge his particular brilliance when it comes to fringe theatre. He knows how to create a wonderful atmosphere - and that's half the battle.

Carousel itself is a peculiar beast of a musical, ending as it does in an extended and rather surreal dream sequence which interrupts the narrative flow like a train crashing into buffers at the end of a platform. I didn't know the piece at all, and was utterly perplexed.

But none of this undermines Luke's work in any way, shape or form. That young man is going places. Dead cert. I was proud to know him.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Overture Over and Out

Hello all, Nathan here, Ben's husband.

I'm writing this very short placeholder blog post, as Ben has been up since the crack of dawn, orchestrating and formatting the prologue for Brass.  It's a twelve-minute epic of a number, and although it's going to be an amazing opener for what is shaping up to be an extraordinary show, it comes with about a gazillion key changes, time changes, and different sections in varying musical styles, so it's certainly taking its time.

I got home from Leicestershire, where I've just finished the penultimate week of my run of South Pacific (or Non-Specific, as a good friend of mine calls it...) at about a quarter to twelve, and found Ben in the kitchen pulling out clumps of hair.

A couple of computer crashes later, with a handful of tiredness errors thrown in for good measure, a minor catastrophe and teary moment to boot, it looks like he's finally nearly there with it, but it became clear that if either of us ever wanted to get to bed tonight, it would be a good idea for me to do a guest spot tonight.

Tomorrow is a new day for Ben, and brings new events with it: he has a top secret render-vous with a prominent member of the Royal Family, but I'm not at liberty to say who, or what it's about.  How terribly exciting!

Sadly, with Brass taking up so much of Ben's time, and with me being away in a forest for the past two months, we haven't had the time to plan our honeymoon yet, but we will get round to that very soon.  At the moment it looks like we'll be going away to the States for the first two weeks of September, and finally getting the chance to put our generous Trailfinder fund, that many of our wedding guests contributed to, to good use.  I can't wait!

Anyway, it's LONG past bedtime for this guest blogger, and I'm signing off.  Ben will be back tomorrow, hopefully in a saner state of mind!

Love to all, Nx

Sunday, 6 July 2014


The little chink of loveliness in an otherwise highly dull day was a lunchtime jaunt into Muswell Hill to meet Llio and Little Michelle for lunch. We sat in our favourite cafe whilst the weather did pretty much everything outside. There was bright sunshine (so bright, in fact, that the owners of the cafe had to close the blinds) then wind and rain and everything in between.

Michelle and I walked home through Highgate Woods. It is my aim to convert everyone to the joys of North London living, and, frankly, five minutes in that beautiful place is enough to make any south Londoner question the meaning of life! The trees in the wood are slowly darkening. They start as a yellowy shade of lime green in spring and slowly darken until it's time for them to go yellow again. The cycles of nature - particularly regarding colour - never cease to amaze me.

On the way to the woods we saw a street full of trees which has just been pollarded to within an inch of their lives. All the twigs and leaves had been removed, and all that was left was a set of little stumps. I'd be furious if I were a resident of that street. The point of living in a tree-lined street at this time of year is to benefit from the wonderful shade the trees create. Everyone knows the temperature of a tree-covered street is 2-3 degrees cooler than one without. So why cut off all the leaves in Mid summer? Just when they're most needed. That'll be Haringey council getting a better deal on off-peak pollarding, I suspect... There's nothing more heartbreaking than looking at a pollarded tree. Imagine how sad those trees must feel. Just as they start to enjoy being grand and dignified - supporting life and everything - they get sheered like silly sheep! And what happens to the squirrels' dreys and birds' nests when the trees get shaved?

It's 12.30 and I'm waiting for my friends Moira and Alex to arrive. They're staying the night here tonight after their wonderful circus which is still happening at Jackson's Lane theatre. I have decided to keep working until they arrive!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

No fire!

Today I put a pair of shorts on for the first time this summer. I'm not really a shorts kind of man. In fact, I realised with horror when I saw a photograph of me standing in the Avebury crop circle, that I was doing so in a linen suit! I was like someone's uncle in a Merchant Ivory film!

Any way, I put my mobile phone in the pocket of the shorts for safe keeping whilst I was at the gym, and it was only when I removed it that I realised the pockets were full of sand from The Dominican Republic. Cue a rush of happy, sun-drenched memories of surfing the gentle waves, swimming in blue pools and watching glorious sun sets. It's hard to believe we were ever there, really. I think our wedding rather eclipsed everything that happened any time around it, and it's only now that I'm probably coming back down to earth enough to give myself time to reflect on the year so far, which has undoubtedly been the most interesting of my life. If this is what being 40 is like, then bring it on!

I actually watched the vows from our wedding on 4OD this morning. I felt a bit tragic doing so on my own, but I'd woken up feeling a little listless and lonely with the music buzzing around in my head, so put them on. Because I spooled through to the 3rd part, I had to sit through an accumulation of six minutes of adverts, which was slightly annoying, but gave me time for a bath.

Watching the opulence of the wedding in our grotty kitchen was utterly surreal. I felt like I was seeing a play: one I'm not even sure I remember acting in! I don't remember feeling as fat as I looked, however, and am most relieved to have subsequently lost some of the weight which made me look like melted butter. Just call me the Oprah Winfrey of gay marriage!

After the gym I went into Kentish Town to buy some buttons, (yes, I say, buttons, I say, from a little haberdashers to mend my suit with...) In the princess I passed the building which I'd watched go up in flames the day before. To my surprise the Kebab shop was open and looking as grottily pristine as it always has. I can only think, therefore, that the fire was on the flat roof above the shop somehow. Perhaps someone had thrown a mattress there and tried to set fire to it rather than put it out on the street. The whole thing has very much made me doubt my sanity! Surely I've not developed a condition where I see fires I should have asked in the shop, but that seemed a little ghoulish...

Friday, 4 July 2014


It's been another fiendishly hot day today and I spent the morning sitting at the kitchen table, working like a dog, whilst staring enviously out of the window. "That little tent of blue which prisoners call sky..." Whilst working I boiled a load of dodgy looking vegetables to make a soup. I put too many stock cubes in it, so it ended up decidedly salty, but delicious none the less.

Having decided that the intensity of work was making my eyes go all funny, I gulped down the soup (whilst working) and then legged it to the gym, whereupon I stumbled across the mother of all fires. It had started in the kebab shop next to the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town, and was turning into a rather shocking inferno by the time the fire brigade arrived.

For about a minute it looked very worrying indeed. The windows were open in all of the flats above the shop and thick black smoke and long licks of fire were pouring in. I half expected to see a little frightened face at one of the windows, and that would have upset me enormously. Fortunately, as I reached the tube, I looked back and the noxious black smoke had turned into a white cloud of steam. The firemen had won.. And in fact, they dealt with the fire so swiftly and effectively you'd think it had been some kind of exercise. It's times like this you realise how indebted we are to those brave, brave men.

I went into town to have my hair cut and was surprised/ horrified to find that Foyles bookshop has moved. It would appear to still be on Charing Cross Road, and I can only assume the move is a product of success rather than a slow disintegration based on the fact that no one reads physical books any more.

I had my hair cut on Old Compton Street. The woman insisted on washing my hair first because I'd dumped a load of wax on it at the gym. I'd forgotten how uncomfortable it is to have one's hair washed in a salon. You always end up with a big block of plastic pushing against your neck exactly where it's not wanted. She kept trying to talk to me, asking if the temperature of the water was okay, but all I could hear was the sound of her rubbing shampoo into my head, the splashing of water and the high-octane techno music they tend to play in cheap barber shops so that everyone feels like they've been to a party.

I worked in Soho, in Starbucks, for the rest of the afternoon and stumbled back to Highgate at around 8pm to miss the horrors of the rush hour. I was in something of a daze, however, and ended up at Chalk Farm, having taken the wrong sodding branch of the Northern Line. This meant doing the "Camden Hop", which involves crossing platforms at that particular station against a heavy flow of clueless tourists who have spent the day drifting around the markets and are in no hurry to return home. Unless you're carrying some kind of heavy suitcase, the only way to deal with it is by sharpening the elbows, taking a deep breath and literally ramming your way through the mayhem.

I continue to feel decidedly peculiar with the strangest of symptoms surging through my body. Glands up everywhere. Strange pains. Dreadful lethargy. But I battle onward...

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Life begins

I woke myself up in the night by thrashing around on the bed. I'd managed to throw myself on top of Nathan as though I were attempting to save him from a grenade. This being stressed business is no good at all. My glands are up, my heart is racing. A visit to the gym improved matters a little by giving me a focus for the bolts of adrenaline surging through my body. I think the problem is largely down to my having started a new process on Brass, which, very much like the last one, seems to stretch out in front of me towards the horizon in the form of a monotonous road which I can only walk at a certain pace.

Still, with every day I tick off another song once and for all. Three down, seventeen to go...

At present I'm dividing my day into three shifts. I work from 10-1 at the kitchen table before eating and going to the gym, I then work from 3-6 in Cafe Rustique, walk home, have tea and then work from 7-9.30 with the telly on in the background. I reserve for the evening shift the sorts of tasks I can do with my eyes shut, namely the formatting of parts, which basically involves making everything look pretty.

I find myself looking forward to the most surreal things during the day. Another ten bars of detailed work and I'll allow myself a quick look at emails or a cup of tea or a little stretch. The walk up Dartmouth Park Hill and through Waterlow Park is the absolute highlight of the day. I take the opportunity to write this blog or catch up with phone calls. My mind, for a glorious 35 minutes, is taken away from the minuscule world of orchestration and into the sunshine and green trees of North London.

There's really nothing else to write. Nathan came home last night, which was an unexpected surprise, but it was jolly nice to have breakfast and lunch with him this morning. I take every opportunity to remind him that he's now a year older than me. I used to have the same with my brother in reverse. For the month of August I was only a year younger than him, and then his birthday would come around again, and suddenly he was my big brother once more.

When do we stop wanting to be older? Is it at the age of 21 or 30?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The world is upside down

So, Rolf Harris has become the latest in an ever-growing list of important role models from my childhood to be found guilty of child molestation, and, whilst he awaits sentencing, the media is focusing on what Harris is worth and how much of that should be given to his victims in compensation... Cue an absolute rush to the colours of other women claiming their lives have been wrecked by this "evil" man. It strikes me that it's becoming terribly easy to suddenly remember how messed up we were by figures from our childhood, usually the moment a sum of potential money is placed on a table.

I don't know the details of the Harris case. Whatever happened is terribly sad, and if he did have a penchant for younger girls, then I'm glad the culture in this country has changed so that that sort of behaviour is no longer swept under the carpet by institutions.

That said, I worry we're heading somewhere really dark, which will ultimately lead to children making claims against their parents and teachers for everything from being made to do too much homework to being fed too much sugar. It seems we're all looking for someone to blame for our complicated lives, and in my view, not being able to take responsibility for your own actions is one of the greatest crimes known to man...

The upshot of the whole sorry business is that Mr Harris' once glittering career is now dead. What makes me particularly sad is that he is a real talent, who certainly made my childhood a brighter, better place. Despite this, his paintings will plainly now halve in value. His grand children will be ridiculed in the playground. His wife and daughter will be spat at in the street for defending him. Ultimately we got what we wanted; a Jimmy Savile who isn't dead... And finally we can stand on our holier than thou soap boxes and make him suffer accordingly despite his crimes being a mere fraction of those of Savile.

Nadia Swahala on Loose Women today even accused Harris of "conning the nation into thinking he was entertaining us but actually using his position for his own foul means." That's right, Nadia. He presented Animal Hospital so that he could abuse his daughter's childhood friend.

I strongly believe that if Harris had murdered an adult in cold blood that his paintings would have actually appreciated in value and yet, because of the nature of his crimes, people I actually know are in the process of tearing down Rolf Harris limited edition prints from their walls. When I think about the crimes committed by artists and creative people in the past, I shudder, but do we refused to listen to pop music produced by Phil Spector or Joe Meek?

Unlike Meek, or Spectre, or indeed Ben Johnson, or painter Richard Dadd, Harris didn't kill anyone. Furthermore, his family obviously think that he's a fairly decent sort because; despite his crimes, they're standing by him. The bottom line is that he remains a wonderful painter, who brought art, wobble boards, curiously shaved goatee beards and sick animals to a whole generation of kids. And that, I'm afraid, is how I personally will choose to remember him. Anything else, and my childhood is turned on its head, and I shall be forced to sue the BBC for lying to me...

What makes me particularly mad is that we seem to only queue up to condemn and be appalled when it suits us. How many British Muslims, for example, are currently lobbying Hamas not to murder any more Jewish teenagers? And even on the issue of paedophilia, when someone is found innocent, we shrug our shoulders and say that there's no smoke without fire. The case against my friend Roy Harper was thrown out of court, but did the media report his innocence? How many of the people who tweeted bile on the day he was arrested, tweeted their apologies? I don't often find myself quoting the bible, but wasn't it Jesus himself who is meant to have said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone?" So unless you live your lives like Mother Theresa (and even she was meant to have been a tricky fish) perhaps it's time to exert a bit of compassion and instead of condemning, looking around your own worlds to see if there's someone in potential trouble who you can help.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014


Today, the wonderful setting of Avebury in Wiltshire served to remind us that magic still exists in the world if you open your mind to it.

It's Nathan's 40th birthday today. At the start of last week we decided it would be lovely to use the occasion to make our annual pilgrimage to Avebury, one of our favourite places in the world: home of a prehistoric stone circle so large there's a village in the middle of it!

Obviously there's a limit to how many people are able to join a mission of this description on a Monday in term time, but fortunately Abbie, Ali, my sister-in-law, Sam, her partner Julius and Nathan's nephew Lewis and his partner Grace stepped into the breach.

It's hard to say what it is which makes Avebury so special, beyond the obvious fact that it's the largest set of standing stones known to man and happens to be in an area of the UK which is surely ranked as one of the most mystical places in the world. There's something about the light there. The chalky soil reflects the sun perhaps. The trees have their own special colour.

The day started with a trip to Avebury Manor, a building which featured on a BBC series which I think was called To The Manor Reborn. The basic premise was that Penelope Keith and Paul Martin would assist a group of experts in restoring a ramshackle country house, the twist being that each room would be decorated to reflect a different era in the building's past, from Tudor times all the way up to the outbreak of World War Two.

Nathan has a friend who works at the manor who smuggled the eight of us in to have a snoop around. We had a ball wandering from room to room attempting to guess the era it had been decorated in whilst chatting up the tour guides.

There was a very peculiar atmosphere in one of the corridors which Ali and I both picked up on in spades. It was a sort of pressure. Like we'd suddenly gone underwater. That's the only way I can describe it. When we mentioned it to the tour guide, she laughed and told us it was the very corridor where the ghost of a monk was said to roam.

We left the manor and did the obligatory walk around the enormous stone circle, past the tree with remarkable roots where generations of spiritual people have hung ribbons and left messages to the universe.

We settled on an area on the earthworks overlooking one of the lesser-visited sets of stones and had a picnic surrounded by wild flowers and butterflies, inventing a game in the process which involved sliding down the steep hillside on a giant plastic sheet. Immense fun.

Sam and her crew left, and the rest of us went on to the West Kennet Long-barrow; a 5000-year old burial chamber which sits in the middle of an enormous corn field in the shadow of Silbery Hill, which itself is an impressive man-made mound which dominates the countryside in that part of the world.

More excitingly, as we exited the dark cave-like barrow, we realised the corn circle we were standing beside had not one but two crop circles inside! I hadn't seen a real crop circle since I was eighteen, and one appeared in a field just outside Rushden, which a group of us sat in on the evening of my 18th birthday.

It was, therefore, quite magical for me to repeat that experience, 22 years on, as the sun melted like honey on Nathan's special day.

A glorious, glorious occasion.